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Laura Wexler : The Spirit of the Age
Laura Wexler This is a country that has just won a war with Spain, that has just conquered the Philippines, that's on the cusp of an international role that believes in itself again for the first time since Civil War. The North and the South are reuniting. Whether or not they should have reunited on the terms they did, they are doing that. There has been a fear that America was losing its vitality. And Johnston and her cohort are finding the vitality in America. So it's the vision of America which can move into the next century sure of itself, confident, believing that its dreams, if not true at the moment, will come true. And that's very much the spirit of the age for those for whom the age was good.

She doesn't explore the people not doing well. She did go to rural Virginia and take photographs of poor black people and she did, in fact, in a shocking incident, get chased out of town because she was with a black man who was chaperoning her in this rural Virginia town. She was very angry. She tried to take legal action against this overt act of racism and sexism. But in the main, Johnston stays away from those scenes. So that's not what we learn from Johnston.

I think Johnston as an artist photographs more than she knows. She sees through her camera more than she sees, and that's one of the reasons why when we study the photographs we can get entre into this period of time, 'cause there's more in them than she herself could have articulated in that she's a brilliant photographer.

You'd never get a hint of it from her. She sees a domestic scene on Dewey's battleship, where another person might have seen the battleship, and this is very important in her success as a photographer and in understanding what her vision is, and it doesn't mean that we can't learn a great deal about the time through that vision.

These are not cynical photographs. There's nothing cynical about Johnston's photographs ever. Even the play with gender, that's a good-hearted play.

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