The average modern citizen in the West is awash in images.
This was brought home to me when I was teaching in a small village in Nepal. I was told not to use photographs or even drawings in class because Nepali villagers, who haven't seen many or even any photographs, might not know how to visually decode them. (FTR: I did use visual aids, and my students did learn to decode them.)
The average modern American is very different. We are so inundated by images that we can walk by an exquisite Ansel Adams print or a map of horror like Picasso's "Guernica" and not see or feel anything.
My American students have to be taught, not how to to decode photographs, but how to get in touch with their own response to photographs -- to learn that images of violence or sexual exploitation do have an impact, an impact they've been taught to ignore.
When a photography book, from its front cover to its last page, grabs me and doesn't let me go, when I can feel a photography book reach into my visual cortex and move around the furniture, I know that that photography book is something special.
"Bound for Glory" did just that.
E. H. Gombrich, in his book "Art and Illusion," talks about "schemata," or visual formulas that limit how artists can represent the world, and, thus, how consumers of art can view the world, in any given era.
As I gazed at "Bound for Glory's" images, I could feel my "schemata" being set in motion as if they had been wallflowers at a dance, and this book got those "schemata" up and dancing around, assuming positions they'd never assumed before.
The 175 photos span an era from the late 1930's to the early 1940's. I did not live through that era, but my parents did, and I have spent many an hour gazing at their black and white photos of that era.
Too, I am a classic movie fan, so I've spent hours watching and rewatching films like "It Happened One Night" and "The Grapes of Wrath" that depict the same world this book depicts: that of small town American life.
When I first opened this book of COLOR photographs from the 1930s and 1940s, I thought, "This is WRONG."
Now, I know that that reaction is factually incorrect. I know that people in the thirties and forties had pink, beige, and brown skin, blue or brown eyes, red dresses. But because I've been so trained by the family photos and classic films of that era to expect black and white, the color of these photographs completely messed with my head.
The people looked too real. My contact with them felt too intimate.
That effect has not, as yet, worn off. I've gone through the book several times and the rich, lovely, saturated colors still shock me. The chipped red nails of the homesteader wife. Her clashing yellow flowered apron and blue flowered dress. Her blond hair. Wow.
Color is not the only reason to appreciate this book. The photographs are well-lit and well composed. They are amazingly clear. You see strands of hair, shoe straps, bruises, facial expressions, clearly. Really, it's as if you bought a ticket on a time machine and walked into a church service, or a country fair, from decades ago.
You see that very poor Americans from that era had not yet become obese. A crowd of wonderfully dressed African American women gather outside a church; each is as slim and strong looking as an athlete. In a gaggle of white homesteader kids, not one is overweight.
You see that very poor Americans from that era put much effort into grooming. A white homesteader man wears a white shirt that is quite filthy, but he has tucked it into his pants; he wears a hat at a jaunty angle. An African American boy in overalls also wears a hat; his shirt is buttoned up properly. Someone put a great deal of care into his appearance, even though the clothes he wears are evidently old.
You see the creeping "uglification" of America in billboards and industrial sites.
You see resignation and quiet disgust on the face of one girlie-show dancer, and goofy eagerness on the face of another. You see how we permed our hair sixty years ago.
I love this book. I can't recommend it highly enough.