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From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-rev...@lists.h-net.org>
Date: Sun, Feb 9, 2020 at 8:26 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Podcast]: Morton on Blair and Entin and Nudelman,
'Remaking Reality: U.S. Documentary Culture after 1945'
To: <h-rev...@lists.h-net.org>
Cc: H-Net Staff <revh...@mail.h-net.org>

Sara Blair, Joseph B. Entin, Franny Nudelman, eds.  Remaking Reality:
U.S. Documentary Culture after 1945.  Chapel Hil  University of North
Carolina Press, 2018.  Illustrations. 251 pp.  $32.95 (paper), ISBN
978-1-4696-3869-0; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-3868-3.

Reviewed by David Morton (University of Central Florida)
Published on H-Podcast (February, 2020)
Commissioned by Robert Cassanello

When setting out to explain any given social, political, or
technological developments, historians, chroniclers, and journalists
have a fundamental reliance on how certain selected years are imbued
with a certain rhetorical power. In the history of the twentieth
century, specific years are used as placeholders to define the
starting and ending points for a given topic and help to set a
definitive chronology in the minds of readers. In an effort to both
periodize and define documentary culture in the United States during
the twentieth century, the need to bifurcate events into a "before"
and "after" rests on the historical rupture caused by the Second
World War. Through the collection of essays offered in Remaking
Reality: U.S. Documentary Culture after 1945, editors Sara Blair,
Joseph B. Entin, and Franny Nudelman set out to define key
developments in American documentary practice in the postwar period,
as well as to show how specific moments of crisis in the twentieth
and early twenty-first centuries create "a dialectical relationship
between documentarians, their subjects, and the conditions they
observe" (p. 3). The editors' choice of the year "1945 signifies the
end of a war that made real the unthinkable of total war, systematic
genocide, and planetary annihilation," while also marking a dramatic
moment of departure from previous documentary forms in the medium's
effort to chronicle the upheavals of the next half century (p. 6).

This book addresses how seminal post-1945 movements and moments, such
as the atomic bomb, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War,
environmentalism, and the financial collapse of 2008, have been
documented and how these events reshaped activist culture in the
United States. This arc is further accentuated by the transformation
in recording technology from the advent of the magnetic tape recorder
in 1945 and Instamatic and Polaroid cameras, to affordable
camcorders, digital recording technologies, cell phone cameras, and
the viral disseminating powers of video sharing platforms.
Additionally, the volume sets out to expand beyond the confines of a
study of documentary film. The inclusion of writing, drawing, and
recorded sound in this volume helps the authors "to probe and
question the identification of documentary with the promise of
immediacy, and exactitude, and to consider its largely unexamined
role in producing a record of memory, reflection, and speculation
that is by definition imprecise" (p. 7). This ambitious "big tent"
approach to both defining and periodizing documentary culture in
postwar America offers a profound assessment of the various forms of
media that have shaped our national conversation on pressing moral,
social, political, and environmental topics.

Although this volume is not divided up into specific subsections, the
selection of essays does offer three essential throughlines of US
documentary culture that can be connected to each essay:
participatory documentary, documentary histories, and documentary
imagining. Grace Elizabeth Hale explains in her study of the civil
rights-era documentary record album _Freedom in the Air: A
Documentary on Albany, Georgia, 1961-1962_,_ _that participation in
documentary culture essentially exists "on a continuum from singing
along at a live performance to sitting in at a lunch counter or on a
bus"; the spaces incorporated in this definition are from a wide
variety of the public sphere, showing how such movements demonstrated
"commitment and produced community solidarity" with activist
movements (pp. 102-3). By focusing on the role audio documentary
makers play in shaping the participatory aspects of American
documentary culture, Hale expresses that recordings like _Freedom in
the Air _represent a marked shift "from the perspective of
participants" toward "what it sounded like to be inside the world
activists made for themselves" (p. 109).

In terms of defining documentary histories, Jonathan Kahana and Noah
Tsika's "_Let There Be Light_ and the Military Talking Picture"
explores the role of reenactment of trauma in "creating a critical
history of documentary's inner spaces of speech and consciousness"
(pp. 15-16). _Remaking Reality_ begins by examining John Huston's
long-shelved documentary film _Let There Be Light _(1946). The
editors' choice to start their study on documentary culture in
postwar America with this particular film helps to set the tone for
the myriad of questions and debates that the subsequent essays
address. In terms of the film's role as an example of documentary
history, Huston's interviews with soldiers grappling with what was at
the time termed as "battle fatigue," juxtaposed with scenes of
traumatic reenactment, "showcase a manifestly original trope: the
symptom of a historic speech disorder" (p. 25). In her essay "_I Saw
It!:_ The Photographic Witness of _Barefoot Gen_," Laura Wexler
explores documentary history from the perspective of a comics style
that emerged in 1960s Japan known among critics as "atom bomb manga."
This focus helps to showcase a counter-narrative that adds depth but
also challenges established narratives on atomic bomb history
provided by documentary photography alone. As Wexler explains, the
transmedial revision offered in the manga of Keiji Nakazawa "showed
how counter-currents and buried precedents can be made available for
a post-World War II documentary history." She notes that to date "the
written history of post-1945 documentary photography, is by and large
an archive of victors," which "awaits further development in this
vein" (p. 57).

A third throughline, documentary imagining, is explored in Daniel
Worden's "Speculative Ecology: Rachel Carson's Environmentalist
Documentaries." In his assessment, Rachel Carson's essential
environmental science book _Silent Spring _(1962)--which is credited
for leading to the creation of the Environmental Protection
Agency--"as a pressing work of activist documentary has just as much
to do with the work's speculative imaginings as it does with its more
traditional journalistic content" (p. 83). Worden defines this
approach as "speculative documentary," which relies on speculative
imaginings about doomed futures of impending environmental disasters.
Starting with Carson's work, which Worden argues offers a synthesis
of New Deal era documentary stylings, such speculative imaginings
have transcended to forms of auditory and visual media and have
"helped to make available a mode of documentary writing and
filmmaking" that has come to be associated with "climate change,
environmental harm, and the necessity of environmental activism" (p.

The strongest aspect of _Remaking Reality_ comes from moments where
the connective tissue between respective essays is made clearly
apparent. Several authors are in direct conversation with one another
and help to build on preestablished definitions and explanations of
documentary culture. This is more prevalent in the earlier chapters
than later within the work. For example, Nudelman's "Death in Life:
Documenting Survival after Hiroshima" directly follows Kahana and
Tsika's assessment of Huston's _Let There Be Light_. Nudelman's essay
explores the influence of experiments in military psychiatry on two
landmark books about Hiroshima survivors--John Hersey's _Hiroshima_
(1946) and Robert Lay Lifton's _Death in Life_ (1968)--but also
serves as a useful bridge to Wexler's "_I Saw It!_" Nudelman goes as
far as to invoke Kahana and Tsika's use of "interview as 'a
historical practice: a practice with a history, as well as a practice
of history,'" but also builds on this approach by arguing "for its
impact on the career of documentary prose as well as documentary
film" (p. 37). This approach then connects to Wexler's analysis of
counter-narratives presented in Nakazawa's atomic mangas in the
1960s. However, after these first three essays, this connective
thread is essentially left behind. Had _Remaking Reality_ been
structured into the three types of documentary culture or clearly
divided into specific sections--either historical or
methodological--this shift in organization can be understood.

One overarching criticism that can be offered to this volume is in
some ways weighed down by the editors' ambition to provide readers
with a comprehensive history of postwar documentary culture, a
definitive guideline of best practices in documentary method, and an
introduction to alternative forms of documentary. An unintended
consequence of the effort to cover such a robust range of material is
that the volume's overall sense of purpose occasionally seems to come
in and out of focus. The editors do acknowledge that "to highlight
the degree to which our cases reach backward, as well as forward and
sideways," they must offer "through-lines, or crosscutting interests,
that have shaped and emerged from the essays" (p. 9). However, to
uninitiated readers with passing knowledge of major figures and
moments in the emergence of American documentary culture, this
"crosscutting" organization may seem confusing. In the afterword,
Matthew Frye Jacobson succinctly summarizes the underlying philosophy
of the selection of essays. _Remaking Reality _preaches that
"documentary practice itself is not only a kind of pedagogy but also
fully an epistemology--a _way_ of knowing, a method of engaged
knowing, an engagement _with_ knowing" (p. 212, emphasis added).
Jacobson's explanation is at once the most encouraging and most
tantalizing part of _Remaking Reality_. I found the inclusion of
additional and nontraditional approaches to documentary refreshing;
they are encouraging openings for potential new areas of study in the
subject. At the same time, the uncertainty as to how these different
forms engage with the role of documentary in contributing to new
knowledge ultimately leaves a multitude of unanswered questions.
However, in this sense, this is also the most profound achievement of
each of the essays put forth in _Remaking Reality_. Ultimately this
work leaves both uninitiated readers and documentary experts with a
plethora of new ideas and questions in regard to how documentary
making has changed over time, how new and inherited methods of
documentary have influenced the activist culture of today, and how
tradition and new technologies will change the nature of documentary
culture in the United States as the twenty-first century progresses.
Blair, Entin, and Nudelman successfully demonstrate the innumerable
ways documentary serves as "an indispensable mode of engaging--and
transforming--a world in need of repair" (pp. 12-13).

Citation: David Morton. Review of Blair, Sara; Entin, Joseph B.;
Nudelman, Franny, eds., _Remaking Reality: U.S. Documentary Culture
after 1945_. H-Podcast, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54670

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

Best regards,

Andrew Stewart
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