Thursday, May 01, 2008

McImages of America.

Among the sundry publications that regularly come into Ciszek Hall's mailbox is CommonWealth, a magazine on "politics, ideas and civic life in Massachusetts" (in the words of the masthead) put on a Boston think-tank called the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassINC). Published quarterly, CommonWealth (not to be confused with Commonweal, which we also receive) comes to Ciszek Hall for the simple reason that a former MassINC staffer who used to live here apparently has not updated his erstwhile employers on his current mailing address. Given my own experience with Bay State politics, I usually take a cursory glance at the issues of CommonWealth that come my way before tossing them on top of the pile of mail that we periodically forward to Old Ciszekians.

I mention CommonWealth on account of an interesting article in the current issue of the magazine on Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series. If you don't know what I'm talking about, I'll let CommonWealth's James V. Horrigan explain it to you:
Walk into a bookstore almost anywhere in America and you'll find a shelf full of thin paperback books with distinctive sepia-toned covers. Light on text, heavy on photos, numbingly similar in format and content, they're volumes in Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series of local history books.

Since 1994, Arcadia has put out more than 5,000 books for local, sometimes tiny, niche markets. Images of America was Arcadia's first and remains its most successful series. The series began by covering cities and towns; then it branched out to parks and neighborhoods, and now includes colleges, businesses, individual buildings, and vanished sports teams.
Horrigan goes on to explain that Massachusetts is better represented in the Images of America series than any other state, with about 350 titles (and counting) devoted to places in the Commonwealth. Volumes in the series are typically written by locals, relying on materials culled from local archives and private collections. There is, for example, an Images of America book on my hometown, produced by Judith Hartley MacKinnon of the Rochester Historical Society.

I'm happy that Rochester (a "tiny, niche market" if there ever was one) is included in the Images of America series, and I'm proud to have a copy of the book on my shelf. That said, I find Horrigan's characterization of the "fast-food" aspect of the series to be pretty accurate:
Whether it's the Boston Braves or Boston Harbor Islands, Allston-Brighton or Cuttyhunk, when Arcadia's research determines there's a market for a topic, an Images of America book is sure to follow. The drawback is the 128-page template they foist on authors, which makes the books so formulaic they might be described as McImages of America.

The photographs themselves are sometimes so prosaic they could be inserted into other books in the series with the very real possibility that nobody would notice. If you've seen one photo of a Kiwanis or Lions Club banquet, you've seen them all. The same goes for staged shots of Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, and high school marching bands.

. . .

Needham [Mass.] native Jen Jovin, the author of a new book on Wellesley, says there is a reason for the books' one-size-fits-all similarity. "To a degree I think we all have a common experience, a shared history," she says. "I think the books would be missing something if we didn't include those so-called generic qualities."

Fair enough, except when generic spills into cliché, like the 1901 photo of Wellesley shopkeeper William McLeod. He wears an apron and stands behind a counter next to a young assistant, with jars of preserves in front of them and shelves of canned goods behind them. It's nice, but I swear the same shot is in my Images of America book on Dedham. And Westwood. And Cambridge. And Nahant.

Wellesley even has what may be the ultimate Images of America cliché: a long-gone tavern reportedly once visited by George Washington. My guess is there are dozens of Arcadia volumes, from Virginia to New England, with a similar photo and boast to go with it.
I wouldn't be surprised if Horrigan is right about the George Washington bit. He's nearly correct about the "shopkeeper" photo: leafing through my copy of Images of America: Rochester, I did find some shopkeeper scenes on pages 70 and 71 - scenes from the 1950s and without the young assistant, but shopkeeper scenes nonetheless.

My guess is that one could identify a fair number of specific genres of small-town photography by comparing volumes in the Images of America series. What fascinates me about the series (and, I suppose, about Horrigan's article) is the fact that the popularity of the books seems to stem in part from their ability to help people preserve a sense of distinctive local identity, yet the structure of the books themselves gives rise to a kind of homogenization. Reflecting on this paradox offers me a welcome distraction from writing final papers and preparing for exams, and hopefully it gives you something to think about too. AMDG.

1 Comments:

At 5/14/2008 10:31 AM, Blogger Santiago Chiva de Agustín said...

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