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Paperback | $22.95 Trade | £15.95 | ISBN: 9780262693332 | 232 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 50 b&w illus.| February 2006

The Pivot of the World

Photography and Its Nation


The old dream of social belonging and political sovereignty—the dream of nation—was fraught with anxiety and contradiction for many artists and intellectuals in the 1950s. On the one hand, memories of the Second World War remained vivid and the chauvinism that had enabled it threatened to return with the growing tensions of the Cold War. On the other hand, the need to bind together into a new global identity—into a world nation or "family of man"—seemed ever more pressing as a bulwark against the rapidly expanding threat of a nuclear World War III.

The Pivot of the World looks at an exceptional effort to work out that geopolitical tension by cultural means as developed in three hugely ambitious photographic projects: The Family of Man exhibition that opened in 1955 and traveled the world for the next decade; Robert Frank's influential book The Americans, photographed in 1955-1956 and first published in 1958; and Bernd and Hilla Becher's typological record of industrial architecture, begun in 1957 and continuing today. Each of these projects worked to release the dream of nation—of belonging and sovereignty—from its old civic trappings through the medium of photography's serial form, in the experience of one photograph followed by another and another and another, so that all seem at once intimately connected and at the same time autonomous and distinct. Innovations in the serial composition of photographic form could open new possibilities for social form while the modern desire for political belonging could be made cosmopolitan, could be globalized—but in the most human of ways. This epic sense of purpose lasted only for a moment—it had already passed by the beginning of the 1960s—but it bears particular interest for any historical understanding of the contest over globalization that continues to hold such great consequence for us now.

About the Author

Blake Stimson is Professor of Art History at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of The Pivot of the World: Photography and Its Nation (2004), and coeditor (with Alexander Alberro) of Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology (2000), both published by the MIT Press.


"Erudite and admirably evenhanded, this gracefully written book is indispensable reading for anyone seeking to understand late modernism and its collectivist aspirations. Its philosophical acuity and nuanced interpretations raise the bar for critical theory in the twenty-first century and confirm that Stimson is among the most insightful scholars of photography working today."
Edward Dimendberg, Associate Professor of Visual Studies and Film and Media Studies, University of California, Irvine, and author of Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity

"Pivot of the World provides a powerful, magisterial reinterpretation of photography's place in the postwar 1950s. With elegance and economy, and marshaling a wide and sophisticated range of theories, Blake Stimson recovers a fleeting, fragile, and, until now, forgotten moment when photographs had the capacity to imagine for their viewers a different way of belonging in a world on the verge of nuclear holocaust. His is an ambitious, eye-opening, and relevant book."
Anthony W. Lee, Mount Holyoke College, author of Painting on the Left and Diane Arbus: Family Albums

"Stimson's book is a compelling and original genealogy of and theoretical argument for a new political subjectivity in our age of globalization. It is precisely the kind of interdisciplinary, theoretically sophisticated contribution that will help to expand our understanding of serial photography and its relation to contemporary political life."
Mark Hansen, Professor of English, The University of Chicago, author of New Philosophy for New Media

"Blake Stimson never masks his commitment to a political understanding of photographic representation, but in focusing on its reception, he brings a phenomenological sensitivity as well as psychoanalytic theory to bear on the articulation of its aesthetic power."
Keith Moxey, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Art History, Columbia University