A mosaic of meaning: Photo historian Michael Lesy’s newest book offers snapshots of the 1970s

  • It looks like a new addition to someone’s family, but there doesn’t appear to much joy at hand. From “Snapshots” by Michael Lesy. Image courtesy Michael Lesy/Blast Books

  • The untitled images from Lesy’s new book are from California in 1971 and the Cleveland area, circa 1977. Courtesy Michael Lesy/Blast Books

  • The striking colors of 1970s home decor. Image courtesy Michael Lesy/Blast Books

  • Michael Lesy, former professor of literary journalism at Hampshire College, has used historical photographs to shine a light on past eras of U.S. and world history. 

  • Michael Lesy’s new book is based on cast-off photos he and a couple of friends recovered in the 1970s. Image courtesy Michael Lesy/Blast Books

  • “Snapshots” reveals images of America both familiar and alien, along with plenty of plaid. Anyone who’s seen “No Country for Old Men” might see a likeness between the man in the foreground and the character played by Javier Bardem in the movie.  Courtesy Michael Lesy/Blast Books

  • “What’re you lookin’ at?” An image from California in the early 1970s, from Michael Lesy’s new photography collection, “Snapshots.” Courtesy Michael Lesy/Blast Books

  • Saturday Night Fever: An image from Michael Lesy’s “Snapshots” that’s rooted in its era, from the flared trousers and platform shoes of the man at left to the freestanding TV on the right. Courtesy Michael Lesy/Blast Books

Staff Writer
Published: 9/23/2021 1:33:56 PM

Michael Lesy has built a rich career as a chronicler of period photography, a historian who’s used photos, journalism, and his own personal, searching essays to shine a distinct light on late 19th- and early 20th-century America.

The now-retired professor of literary journalism at Hampshire College first came to wider attention with his 1973 book, “Wisconsin Death Trip,” a chronicle of a small town, Black River Falls, in rural Wisconsin in the late 1800s. The book was built around historical photos of that area, small news clips from a local newspaper on regional murders, suicides, cases of insanity and death from disease, and a bit of explanatory text.

It wasn’t quite clear what “Wisconsin Death Trip” was. It wasn’t history, at least not in a conventional sense, and it wasn’t just a book of historical photographs; the people in the photos Lesy chose, after spending countless hours perusing historical archives in Wisconsin, were not identified.

But it did provide a kind of sensory look at a small slice of history, one that used mood and atmosphere as much as anything to tell a story of an era of hardship (the Panic of 1893, one of the country’s most serious economic crises, devastated millions of Americans in that decade).

Now Lessy, who lives in Amherst and taught at Hampshire from 1990 to 2020, has published a new book of photographs that’s something of a departure for him, as well as a guide of sorts to how his work as a photographic scholar began.

“Snapshots 1971-77,” by Blast Books of New York, is a collection of images from America in the decade that witnessed the calamitous end of the Vietnam War, the rise of conservatism, and the “American malaise” that President Jimmy Carter spoke about. If you want to take a snarkier view, it was also a time of bad haircuts and sometimes garish home decor, with cheap wood paneling, and carpets, bedspreads and wallpaper sporting pastel colors and florid designs.

But the snapshots Lesy offers in his new book are literally that — photos that unknown people took with modest cameras, all of them documenting the day-to-day events and special moments of their lives. Kids dress up for Halloween, just-married couples cut their wedding cake, mourners gather outside a funeral home, people hold Christmas presents: It’s a panorama of ordinary and sometimes awkward (and occasionally blurry) moments.

As such, says Lesy, the half-century-old photos offer a window into what he calls “intimate, domestic, close-up information that I never could have known otherwise.”

In a recent phone interview, Lesy, who’s 75, explained that he obtained many of the photos during the summer of 1971. He was living in San Francisco, on a break from a master’s program in American social history at the University of Wisconsin, and a friend of his had a job as a courier for a photo processing plant in the city. The two friends were able to retrieve thousands of snapshots from trash bins behind the photo plant, where duplicates and triplicates of the photos had been thrown out.

“These images are wonderful,” he said. “They’re honest, almost primal — not posed — where you can see a range of emotions across people’s faces. They’re like frozen dreams.”

“Snapshots” also includes photos that had been thrown away by drugstores in Cleveland, Ohio in the later 1970s; some of them were rescued by another friend of Lesy who “knew I would want them,” he said.

Learning to look

In an introductory essay, Lesy writes that he first learned to immerse himself in a close study of photographs by spending hours looking at these snapshots, an almost “image-induced drug experience” that created what he calls a state of “dilated calm.” He would use that experience in looking at tens of thousands of historical photos for his books such as “Wisconsin Death Trip,” “Dreamland” (1997), and “Looking Backward” (2017); the latter two featured images from the early 20th century.

Many of those historical images were taken by professional photographers who worked for a handful of American companies that dominated the photo market at the time, Lesy notes. The pictures were carefully framed portraits of people and urban, rural and industrial landscapes, with the locations usually noted, and they were widely sold to the public.

The snapshots in the new book, though, invite more speculation from viewers: Who are these people, where did they live, what were they doing? What were their hopes and dreams? Did they think the country was “on the right track,” as polling organizations love to ask?

Lesy writes that “Snap judgments followed by second thoughts are built into the structure of this book.” Indeed, your first impulse might be to laugh at some of the goofier images in “Snapshots,” such as one in which three women with bouffant hairdos grimace at the photographer, with one awkwardly holding what appears to be a child bundled in a white cloth; she looks extremely uncomfortable with her charge.

In another, a number of men with slicked-back hair and dark suits, standing outside a funeral home, stare menacingly at the camera, like characters from a Martin Scorsese film. A sequence of several other snapshots reveals a handful of men drinking in a seedy apartment with a guy whose right leg is in a full cast. In the last photo, one of the men sits at a table, eyes half-closed, his right elbow on the tabletop, his hand propped against his cheek; he’s clearly had more than a few.

There are more innocent images as well, like one of a young girl skipping rope on a doorstep, or an elderly couple sitting together on a couch as the woman opens several presents. Some pictures are definitely period pieces, such as one of a man with frizzy hair, flared red trousers and platform shoes; he’s dancing on what looks like a parquet floor, next to a bulky, freestanding TV.

And then there are moments of ineffable sadness. One photo shows a young couple weakly smiling as they cut their wedding cake, as if they’d been instructed to “smile for the camera” and struggled to get to that point. In the next picture, again by their cake, they look downcast and resigned, as though the marriage is a sham and they’ve been caught at an unguarded moment.

As he did with his previous photography books, Lesy puts the images in “Snapshots” in historical perspective, noting that in 1971 it appeared that “the world was coming apart at the seams.” Army Lt. William Calley was convicted in the massacre by his men of 500 civilians in Vietnam; dozens of people died in a riot at Attica State Prison in New York state; movies drenched in violence, from “Straw Dogs” to “Dirty Harry,” debuted that year; and the release of The Pentagon Papers by the New York Times revealed successive U.S. administrations had repeatedly lied to the public about the Vietnam War.

“We’d been making a series of really homicidal errors,” Lesy said. “How did we get there?”

Or, as he writes in his essay, “In 1971 I felt — and still feel — like a stranger in a strange land. I was — and I am — appalled and amazed by this country.”

He says he developed some of these photos into color slides at some point and occasionally showed them to audiences during presentations, but he’s waited until now to publish selected images, given that most of the people in the photos are likely deceased or elderly.

Today those images are a time capsule, Lesy notes, showing us things that are both familiar and unfamiliar. And, as he writes, if they’re seen as “social, historical, and psychological documents — and if they are seen in large batches — snapshots can reveal the collective consciousness of very large groups of people.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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