Sara Blair on How the Other Half Looks

BlairNew York City’s Lower East Side, long viewed as the space of what Jacob Riis notoriously called the “other half,” was also a crucible for experimentation in photography, film, literature, and visual technologies. Sara Blair takes an unprecedented look at the practices of observation that emerged from this critical site of encounter, showing how they have informed literary and everyday narratives of America, its citizens, and its possible futures. How the Other Half Looks reveals how the Lower East Side has inspired new ways of looking—and looking back—that have shaped literary and popular expression as well as American modernity.

How have representations of the Lower East Side changed since the mid-nineteenth century?

In surprising and powerful ways, they haven’t. A set of complex associations—with vice, poverty, raw energy, the threat of the alien and the unassimilated—have continued to swirl around New York’s historical ghetto through its many lives and afterlives, well into our own moment. Over time, these associations have drawn image-makers and writers there to experiment with new visual technologies, new perspectives, and new media. In a real way, the Lower East Side and its received image have helped shape modern practices of seeing and imaging—not just the other way around.

What do recent representations of the Lower East Side tell us about our cultural moment?

They remind us how much cultural work we do to continue imagining the project of America, what it means to be or become an American and to have a collective future. In the 2016 Harry Potter franchise film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, for example, the unfolding of Magic as a contest between nativism and progressive aspirations (one that’s all too familiar to us IRL) depends on the Lower East Side as a space defined both by its threat to a “pure” citizenry and its promise of a more robust and dynamic nation. In a very different mode, the award-winning 2014 documentary Chasing Ice draws on images of the Lower East Side both to make real the unprecedented effects of climate change—and to hold out hope for its reversal. However unexpectedly, images of the Lower East Side continue to be a resource for apprehending the way we live now, bringing America’s histories and possible futures into view.

How did you approach the research for this book?  What surprised you?

I began this project by trying to answer a broader question: how did the Lower East Side become both a key subject of representation and a powerful force in shaping practices of representation? The problem of seeing that space—of making sense of its staggering density, heterogeneity, and energies—challenged image-makers, writers, journalists, guardians of public order, and everyday citizens alike to test new visual technologies, whose cultural uses came to reflect on-the-ground encounters with the world of the tenements and the streets. As I worked my way through a host of archives—of everyday photographs, print media, literary projects and more—what surprised me most was the range of practices that turn out to have been shaped by encounter with the Lower East Side, from the emergence of photography as an art form and the rise of the U.S. film industry to efforts to revive print culture in digital contexts. On all these and more, the Lower East Side has left its own indelible mark.

Are there instances of images that represent the Lower East Side shaping the site itself?

By all means. Early photographs of New York’s ghetto and tenements, made by Jacob Riis in the 1880s, not only codified uses of the camera as an agency of social seeing. They drove projects of slum clearance and social reform that shaped the built environment of New York’s downtown as well as hugely influential ideas about the city, its modernity, and its citizens. By the mid-1930s, in the grip of the Depression, photographers who had themselves been children of the ghetto were experimenting with new ways to represent its complex histories, using them as a vantage point to look critically at the American success narrative. Their work helped photography reinvent itself as a postwar art form—alongside the attention of urban planners who would undertake to redesign the tenement landscape in service of twentieth-century urbanism as a master plan. From lurid accounts of Bowery poverty and as-if “documentary” images of nuclear strike on the U.S., the iconography of the Lower East Side has remained vitally available, and it has continued to enter into the material life and lived experience of that generative place.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope they’ll think differently about the Lower East Side, as a place of entry not just for historical newcomers to the United States but for understanding how we’ve come to view and imagine this rich, ongoing, incomplete experiment we call America. As my mother said (to my delight) when she browsed the book, this isn’t just about Jews. It’s about the way history lives and continues to shape our lives in images, and how we might learn to look back more acutely at that history, at a time when we urgently need to learn from it.

Sara Blair is the Patricia S. Yaeger Collegiate Professor of English and a faculty associate in the Department of American Culture and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. Her books include Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century and Trauma and Documentary Photography of the FSA.

Maland and the Tramp: Celebrating 100 Years of Chaplin

Chuck MalandPrinceton University Press author and Charlie Chaplin aficionado (mustache included) Chuck Maland, along with hundreds of other black-and-white buffs, will flock to Bologna, Italy in late June to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s iconic “Tramp” character.

Participants include British director Mike Leigh, Chaplin biographer David Robinson, David Totheroh (grandson of Chaplin’s long-time cameraman), Chaplin’s son Michael, and many Chaplin enthusiasts and scholars. It is, then, a perfect moment to revisit Maland’s book, Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image; in it, Maland recounts the rise and fall of Chaplin’s public reputation in America, including his rapid ascent to fame in the 1910s and 1920s, as well the rocky time Chaplin endured in the Red Scare of the early 1950s, which led to his decision to leave the U.S. and settle in Switzerland for the rest of his life.

Based in part on Maland’s research into 1700 pages of FBI files and other government documents, the book clarifies how and why Chaplin left the country in 1952, but it also traces Chaplin’s amazing popularity from 1915 to World War Two, as well as the ways that Chaplin’s star image lived on even after the filmmaker’s death in 1977 through the re-release of his films in home video formats and the use of the Tramp character’s image in ads for the early IBM PC’s.

The centenary celebrations, sponsored by the Cineteca di Bologna and the Association Chaplin, will begin on the evening of Wednesday, June 25th, with an agenda set to include film screenings, performances, and an art show, in addition to presentations. Paper topics for the latter will range from Chaplin’s imitators and his critical reception in the industry, to the Tramp’s global influence on art and philosophy.

See what it’s all about, with this trailer from the official Chaplin website:

“Aftermath”, a Polish Film Based on Jan T. Gross’ “Neighbors” Is Released

aftermath_us_poster_1_lgAftermath, a Polish film based on the historical book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland by Jan T. Gross, was recently released in limited showing in the United States, including New York City and Los Angeles (with Boston, Chicago and more to come shortly).

The official website for the film can be found here on Menemsha Films’ website, which includes a short synopsis, a trailer, photos from the film, and reviews. It also has links to locations and showtimes for the film in the United States.

The film was reviewed by The New York Times, which can be found here.


k7018One summer day in 1941, half of the Polish town of Jedwabne murdered the other half, 1,600 men, women, and children, all but seven of the town’s Jews. Neighbors tells their story.

This is a shocking, brutal story that has never before been told. It is the most important study of Polish-Jewish relations to be published in decades and should become a classic of Holocaust literature.

Jan Gross pieces together eyewitness accounts and other evidence into an engulfing reconstruction of the horrific July day remembered well by locals but forgotten by history. His investigation reads like a detective story, and its unfolding yields wider truths about Jewish-Polish relations, the Holocaust, and human responses to occupation and totalitarianism. It is a story of surprises: The newly occupying German army did not compel the massacre, and Jedwabne’s Jews and Christians had previously enjoyed cordial relations. After the war, the nearby family who saved Jedwabne’s surviving Jews was derided and driven from the area. The single Jew offered mercy by the town declined it.

Most arresting is the sinking realization that Jedwabne’s Jews were clubbed, drowned, gutted, and burned not by faceless Nazis, but by people whose features and names they knew well: their former schoolmates and those who sold them food, bought their milk, and chatted with them in the street. As much as such a question can ever be answered, Neighbors tells us why.