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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Visions of America: Photographing Democracy

Paul Sohm had a vision and he was determined to capture that vision in pictures he could share with the rest of us. Sohm wanted to photograph democracy. But how does one take pictures of a concept of government? Sohm worked at the problem for thirty years and his new book, Visions of America: Photographing Democracy, is filled with the breathtaking results of his efforts.

Visions of America is divided into 13 chapters, one for each of the 13 original colonies. Each chapter focuses on a theme critical to Shom’s vision of America, including photographic essays on American icons, Native Americans, Black Americans, small town America, the open road, and American presidents. Taken together, the 13 chapters, and the photos used to illustrate them, unite to create a clear picture of what makes the American experience unique. Paul Sohm has, indeed, photographed democracy.

Each of the book’s chapters is filled with memorable photographs, but I suspect that each reader will be particularly drawn to one or two chapters because of the personal memories they stir. For me, there were two: Chapter Seven, “Song of the Open Road” and Chapter Ten, “E Pluribus Unum,” the chapter on sport (especially the baseball and marathon photos). Others, I am certain, will find their own favorite chapters.

Visions of America is more than a coffee-table book of photos. Each chapter is built around an essay of Sohm’s in which he visits the theme being illustrated by his photographs. In addition, Sohm often shares anecdotes about the pictures themselves and the effort and planning that went into creating them. Sohm’s essays, powerful as they are, are short and to the point. They are so perfectly paired with a set of photos to illustrate the message of each chapter that one comes to realize that neither the essays nor the photos would have nearly the same impact if offered alone.

I have spent nearly a month with Visions of America and I keep coming back to Chapter Seven and the sentence that always ends with me studying Sohm’s pictures of the American open road,”Few things are more American than getting in your car and driving cross-country.” Simple as that sentence is, it never fails to make me wish I were behind the wheel again and wandering rather aimlessly from one small town to the next. That kind of driving is my idea of the perfect vacation and it probably always will be that way. The sentence brings back countless memories of family vacations spent on the road with my parents and brother. I learned as a child that I enjoyed the road trip more than I did the destination, and Sohm’s photos remind me of why I still feel that way.

Visions of America is a masterpiece. It is an inspirational reminder of what this country once was and what it can be again if we remember who we are. I plan to leave the book out for friends and family to browse through; it is good medicine for these tough economic times. (Click on the photos to see larger versions of them.)

Rated at: 5.0

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