Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 26, 2022
Makeda Best Elevate the Masses: Alexander Gardner, Photography, and Democracy in Nineteenth-Century America University Park: Penn State University Press, 2020. 200 pp.; 84 b/w ills. Cloth $64.95 (9780271086095)

The scholarship on nineteenth-century photography has long been preoccupied with nationality, origin stories, and technical innovations. Makeda Best charts a different path. In her important new book, we are introduced to Alexander Gardner not as Civil War or western-survey documentarian, not as the favorite portraitist of President Abraham Lincoln or the force behind Mathew Brady’s studio, and not as entrepreneur or experimenter or defender of intellectual property. He may be all of these things, but he is first a Scottish liberal deeply involved in the global reform movements of the mid-nineteenth century, a vocal advocate of workers’ rights, and a newspaper owner whose understanding of media strategies, mass communication, and political organization indelibly shaped his later photographic practice. If most accounts of Gardner begin with gruesome battlefield images of Antietam or the wan face of Lincoln, it is telling that the first illustration in Best’s book is a crowd scene: a Chartist meeting on Kennington Common in 1848, a sea of bodies captured by William Edward Kilburn, flags blurred like small ecstatic puffs above the central speakers’ podium, hundreds gathered to listen and to agitate for greater social and economic equity, an urban panorama of industrial London constituting the rigid horizon line beyond. In Best’s history, Gardner is both one among many shouting to be heard and a visionary who came to the profession that would make him famous long after establishing his political convictions and who thus created photographs with an intent to “elevate the masses.”

Best characterizes her own intent as a “shift” to “widen the focus” (2), but this reorientation is far more profound than such a modest claim admits. Political dissent becomes the ground from which the photographic image is born. Gardner’s pictures of the American Civil War are reimagined as a means to speak to socialist ideals and capitalist realities across continents and geopolitical boundaries. What Best offers could also be framed as a form of media history. Gardner the “American” photographer—the photojournalist embedded with the Army of the Potomac—cannot be understood without considering Gardner the Scottish editor and newspaper owner—the crusading journalist—for whom revolution begins as a form of expressive communication. Through text and image, Gardner is thus not primarily documenting or responding to historical events but actively imagining a receptive audience and the possibility of a new social world. The key event here is his cofounding of a cooperative community in Iowa in 1849, established even before he immigrates to the United States. His move across the Atlantic, and the transition from print to photography, is mediated through a utopian experiment. Gardner lives his ideological convictions. While we do not learn much about this period, presumably due to scant historical material, it is worth noting that this midwestern land is not “unsettled,” even if that is the perception that attracts Gardner and his fellow communitarians; an “availability of land” is the myth upon which empire is built and Indigenous dispossession is enacted (6). Even the most radical of democratic experiments participates in structures of settler colonialism. Although the book does not extend to encompass Gardner’s later western-survey photography or his portraits of Native American diplomats—taken in Washington, DC, during treaty negotiations—it would have been particularly interesting to have had Best’s insights into subjects that more explicitly pertain to US imperial conquest and that perhaps differently tested Gardner’s Victorian socialism.

The chapters each examine different forms of Gardner’s photographic production during and immediately following the Civil War in light of his reformist beliefs. The first focuses on his two 1865 photobooks—the well-studied Photographic Sketch Book of the War and its lesser-known predecessor, Rays of Sunlight from South America—and exemplifies the transnational range that Elevate the Masses employs. If Rays of Sunlight illustrates a Peruvian country that Gardner believes has failed to politically evolve, the images of the Union army in Sketch Book offer a model for democratic change in a post-slavery United States. The second chapter turns its attention to chattel slavery and Gardner’s representation of the institution as a corrupting influence on the nation’s social and economic fabric. Through a compelling reading of William Pywell’s Slave Pen, Alexandria, Virginia (1862), published in Sketch Book, Best makes the case that Gardner is deeply invested in condemning the immorality of the institution itself and in framing it as incompatible with a democratic society. This is, in other words, a structural position, and one communicated photographically through architecture. Gardner is not arguing for Black enfranchisement or for the individual humanity of African Americans, as Best is careful to point out. The third chapter encompasses the photographer’s heroic depiction of Northern (white) labor; the alienation and automatization of industrialism is the real enemy here. Enslaved labor and the white working class are strictly segregated in his photographic projects. Gardner’s radical political philosophy still rests on racial inequality, as it did for most of his fellow reformers and abolitionists of the period: “The question of how to represent African Americans as full citizens, and the dynamics between ethnic identity and class politics, remained open in documentary photography into the twentieth century” (150). In the US government—and through its literal infrastructure in Washington, the subject of the fourth chapter—Gardner sees a new progressive society that defends the rights of all (white male) citizens. By depicting the Capitol’s classical architecture, labor is elevated and the triumph of democratic values made clear. All those bodies in the crowd scene with which the book began are absent, but the possibilities of a moral government that respects the worker is, Best argues, communicated through the built environment, with nary a smokestack in sight.

At times I found the book to be thick with historical facts—especially about Chartism and Owenism—without connections to images or a finer-grained argumentative development; Best’s voice can become occluded by recourse to a slightly dry political context. At other times more context, and even speculation, would have been welcome. I would have loved to read more about Peru, the guano trade, Southern agriculture following the Civil War, and the geopolitics of US empire and postcolonial Latin America in the section on Rays of Sunlight from South America, a project that may have been commissioned by the US State Department. I also would have welcomed some further theoretical reflections, such as hearing Best think alongside other scholars like Ariella Azoulay and Leigh Raiford on questions of ethics, citizenship, and activism. The book is at its strongest when ideas of political economy are expressed through Gardner’s own life and work, whether photographic or textual. This is when radical critique comes alive. In these moments, through Best’s deliberate and revelatory analysis, Gardner’s belief in transformative social change, and in photography’s power to envision this, is brought forth.

Jennifer Raab
Department of the History of Art, Yale University