Joseph Sohm: Visions of America

by Rachel Baker on July 30, 2009

voa1-035Coffee Table books.  What’s the point?  Spark conversation? Inspire the imagination of far off places one would like to travel? or just to alleviate boredom at family functions?  I never actually understood their purpose.  Sure, I’d leaf through them in someone’s living room and truth be told, I enjoyed thinking about what it be like to travel to the places pictured in the book – to see the architecture, smell the flowers growing wild, wake up and look out at an ocean bluer than any blue I’ve ever seen. I never actually ‘read’ a whole coffee table book, never looked at every single picture and read every block of text – I’d actually be interested in knowing if there’s anyone out there that has.

I think my view of coffee table books has changed though.  I recently received a copy of Visions of America: Photographing Democracy by Joseph Sohm.  The premise is based on a single question: “How do you photograph Democracy?” I’m reading the whole thing.  Really reading it…and pondering the pictures in regards to the chapter headings and the text associated.  I haven’t finished it, but felt like I had to tell you about it.  I’m halfway through this book and enjoying every minute I spend with it. 

Much like my experience with coffee table books in the past, Visions of America inspired me. Not to take a trip to every one of the fifty states.  Instead, I was inspired to look around me, to view the faces of my fellow Americans, and to see Democracy in my own back yard.  I was inspired to contemplate what people’s ancestors may have gone through to provide a life that my neighbors had the opportunity to live.

Visions of America is a compilation of over 1300 images and 21 essays about our great country.  We are a young nation, and we have had a whole lot of growing pains over our national lifespan.  This book takes us on a journey through those growing pains and all our great successes.  The birth of this book took thirty years.  Think about that for a moment.  Thirty years of pictures showcasing the idea of Democracy.

The essays are just as interesting as the photographs.  As a former-American History teacher, Sohm wanted to understand what he was shooting – and how the past has impacted the future.  You can see this in his essays.  They are candid essays of his journey. He tells us about his trek across country, and the fellow travelers he ran across on the roads through out America. He explores the American Green Movement as well as the challenges we face in our inner cities.  He has gone to Africa to understand where our African American brethren came from, and he visits with Native American tribes to understand their role in our nation’s history. All with modern pictures with historical background infused within the chapters.

If you are looking for some of the most beautiful places in America, you will find it in this book.  The landscapes pictured are stunning – plains and canyons, vast open land and mountains, and rivers and streams photographed in every season in all possible lighting. , Beyond that though, Sohm’s photos celebrate the beauty of the American people.  The child playing in a basin of water, the elderly man hanging up the American flag outside his house, and even an arial view of traffic jams on some of our major highways. There are road signs and “Welcome to” state signs; there are baseball diamonds and football stadiums; there are tall buildings and neon lights. All things of beauty waiting to be seen by our jaded eyes.  And all visions of what the idea of Democracy in our nation means.

While reading this book, I can’t help but wonder why it is that no one has ever documented the aspects of America as he has. Its a daunting task to be sure (and expensive); but wouldn’t it be lovely if we took time every day to just look out the window and pay attention to the things that make our nation great? The lighting doesn’t have to be perfect to feel a great tug on your heartstrings and to recognize the beauty around us.  Sohm has very easily reminded me of this.

Don’t take my word for it though.  Visions of America recently won the Gold Medal (IPPY) for the 13th annual Independent Book Publishers Award for best coffee tabletop book.  Its important to note as well, the book is one aspect of a multi-media package.  The Philly Pops, under Peter Nero, premiered an original score of Photo Symphony Concert for America, written, photographed and produced by Sohms under the same name.  And for the launch of this book, there will be music videos over the next twelve months on YouTube.  Go check them out and see for yourself how inspiring this coffee table book really is.  Don’t forget to visit the web page for the book.

If I was filthy rich, I would give every household in America a copy of Visions of America: Photographing Democracy. If enough people read this book and ingest the visions presented, maybe…just maybe, we’ll remember the ideas our founding fathers envisioned for us, and we’ll remember what’s important. There’s not a whole lot of interpretation in this book to be had on what that vision was. The only interpretation I made was Democracy is about “We the People”.  In some ways, I think we’ve forgotten that.  Maybe Visions of America: Photographing Democracy is the reminder we need.

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