The Historian’s Eye: Photography, History, and the American Present

Cover of the book titled "The Historian’s Eye."

Matthew Frye Jacobson, the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Studies and professor of African American studies and of history

(The University of North Carolina Press)

Between 2009 and 2013, as the nation contemplated the historic election of Barack Obama and endured the effects of the Great Recession, Matthew Frye Jacobson set out with a camera to explore and document what was discernible to the “historian’s eye” during this period. Having collected several thousand images, Jacobson began to reflect on their raw, informal immediacy alongside the recognition that they comprised an archive of a moment with historical significance. This book presents more than 100 images alongside Jacobson’s recollections of their moments of creation and his understanding of how they link past, present, and future.

The images reveal diverse expressions of civic engagement that are emblematic of the aspirations, expectations, promises, and failures of this period in American history. Myriad closed businesses and abandoned storefronts stand as public monuments to widespread distress; omnipresent, expectant Obama iconography articulates a wish for new national narratives; flamboyant street theater and wry signage indicated a common impulse to talk back to power.

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