Looking Backward: A Photographic Portrait of the World at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century
(W.W. Norton and Co., 2017)
When Pantheon published Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip in 1973 (and in sordid paperback, as well as hardcover), critics offered their amused attention and the kind of gatekeeperish admonitions that rock writers dole out to the debut albums of upstart groups. Ethnohistory called it a “morbidly gripping dirge” and “a poor piece of science,” while the locals at the Wisconsin Magazine of History took unkindly to Lesy’s “fooling around” with historical materials. Susan Sontag brushed it off as a “rousing, fashionably pessimistic polemic, and totally whimsical as history.”
Lesy was twenty-eight and a long hair out of Rutgers. His Death Trip toured the town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, as depicted in the photographs taken by the firm of Charles Van Shaick at the turn of the 20th century. Lesy assembled the uncanniest of the lot—child funerals, mental hospital portraiture, etc.—and added notices from the local paper detailing a few of the many expressions of violence and mania that were as quotidian to small-town life as county fairs and quilting bees. The result was a sardonic, chilling experiment in interpretation, a true undertaking timed perfectly for the Watergate era and a revision of American mythography.
Sontag got to the core, perhaps enduring disappointment of the book: that as history, which is supposed to edify and educate, Death Trip was too smudged by the fingerprints of its curator/itinerist, too saturated with countercultural cynicism and mischief to have the political coherence of, say, a John Berger-Jean Mohr collaboration, or whatever it is we expect from photo-polemics. Lesy kept working. By the time Sontag collected her appraisal in On Photography, in 1977, he had already released an absorbing sophomore effort about Louisville in the Twenties and would do two more in the next five years. Wisconsin Death Trip became a cult object, and now, forty-four years later, Greil Marcus observes on the dust jacket of Lesy’s new book, Looking Backward: A Photographic Portrait of the World at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, that Lesy “has long been known as our foremost photographic historian.” That should be true, whatever it means for Lesy; Greil Marcus has long been known as our foremost rock historian, but what would you guess the average age of his readers to be? Maybe Lesy can expect his humanities medals once high school teachers start assigning Wisconsin Death Trip as often as they screen Ken Burns’s Civil War.
The photos in Looking Backward all began as the property of the Keystone View Company, which manufactured them on small cards to be seen through “the first mass-produced virtual reality device”: the stereoscope, a pair of goggles with mirrors in them that merged two side-by-side, near-identical images into a single 3D view. The effect was exhilarating. American stereograph companies sold “hundreds of millions of views to armchair tourists throughout the world” for the equivalent of a few bucks a pop. The views seemed to encompass the whole of the world’s variety made comprehensible. There were “Interesting peasant types” in Russia; “Hindu beggars” in India; “Descendants of the Incas”; “Wailing Jews at their wall”; our boys on imperial adventures in Cuba and the Philippines. By the 1920s, the “big money” was in schools, Lesy explains, with profound consequences: “Generations of American schoolchildren—millions of them—learned about race, class, and gender from the 3D images, captions, and commentary provided by Keystone.”
These must be, in other words, and though Lesy doesn’t say so, among the most widely seen images in human history before the syndication of front-page editorial photography and the Internet. Looking Backward is the first of Lesy’s thirteen books to really feature subjects from outside of the United States, but these are American views nonetheless: views of the world as Americans were making it (“Dead insurgents in a rice field near Imus, Philippine Islands”) and views of America as many Americans wanted to see it (grinning “Darkies on a donkey, North Carolina”). “Perhaps they live in a house without a stove,” reads the caption for a family of “Dixie” sharecroppers, “yet they look as if they had enough to eat.”
Part of what makes the 250 images Lesy has chosen to represent the years
1900 – 10 so engrossing is how unassimilated that period remains in our national consciousness. Unmoored from the handy visual reference points of the Civil War and the first decades of the “short 20th century” that began with World War I, how many of us have the vocabulary at hand to apprehend the Russian gunboats sinking off the coast of Manchuria, or the teeming Jewish markets of Warsaw? Even us callow millennials don’t have to reach far for Eddie Adams’s photo of a bullet entering Nguyen Van Lem’s temple on a Saigon street, much less Ali Shallal al-Qaisi standing hooded and Christ-like on an upturned box at Abu Ghraib—but what about the Boxer rebel roped to a wooden cross for torture, or the gloating executioner with a Boxer’s head on the end of his stick? While the history may have gone untaught at school, the spectacle of degradation is familiar. In fact, it was mother’s milk for those of us born at the other end of the 20th century, and available now on the stereoscopes we carry in our pockets as smartphones. Lesy knows these things don’t need to be over-explained. He has always invested a radical confidence in the associative, imaginative, and emotional capacities of his readers to make sense out of the ultimately unguidable and random (Sontag would have said aleatory) quality of photo books. For an image like “A Dervish cut through the body with saber and spear, Bombay, India,” we would sooner expect a trigger warning than the liberal didactics of Ken Burns.
The most affecting portrait of an American in the book—predictably, I’m afraid—may be of seventy-five-year-old Geronimo at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. He’s holding what could be a toy bow and arrow with a bearing that betrays nothing of the sideshow attraction and prisoner of war he was by that point, five years before his quiet death, this man whose reputation had been similar to that of Osama bin Laden. His portrait is a summary of where we stood at the beginning of the last century. The West was won, definitively, and the rest of the world was next. The snag was that about eight other industrialized nations had the same idea. Unmechanized toil was soon to give way to mechanized toil wherever it hadn’t; what happened to Geronimo had or was about to happen to people all around the world dragged into modernity and bloody collision. This was before the Homestead, Pennsylvania, steelworkers we see queueing on payday had much cause for hope, if they were the hoping kind (only a decade prior, Pinkertons had stormed the banks of the Monongahela like it was Omaha Beach), before the October Revolution gave those whom Lesy labels “the rich, the wellborn, and the able” reason to fear that their status would not always be so.
In the last of his breezy essays, Lesy leaves us to ponder the endurance of early 20th-century predicaments in our own tawdry epoch. Most of them are still with us, of course, disguised as progress. The great criticism of Wisconsin Death Trip was that it taught nothing, but Looking Backward is an urgent lesson in how photography was used to teach the world what it needed to know to pull off the 20th century and its automated, globalized infamies. That means it’s also a book about how those lessons might be unlearned through photography. If we are now repeating the world of 1900 – 10, we might look closely at the first version of it, with the benefit of education, to give ourselves a chance in hell of prosecuting the next hundred years with more humanity than our ancestors. The bar is very low.