Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Local Book Review - Historic Photos of Ann Arbor!

A Review of Historic Photos of Ann Arbor

Last week, I received a book to review from Turner Publishing Co. I'm a big fan of photographs of known places from the past, and know that in many instances, what we see out there is just scratching the surface. Any town that has an educated populace, a university, and close proximity to a larger urban area, ought to have plenty of vintage photographs documenting its activities, people, disasters, parades, architecture, merchants, and civic organizations. Often, we get to see a few dozen images at best, and the rest, we have to assume, are stashed away, filed, or forgotten somewhere. Since photography has existed for about 170 years, there have to be many thousands of images of large cities. As the technology of the medium improved and the number of photographers grew, one would imagine that in some cases, we could have an almost complete photographic record of some villages and towns from their inception to the present day. Obviously, the more one goes westward, the more likely that scenario is going to be.

With my thoughts above in mind, I now review Historic Photos of Ann Arbor with text and captions by Alice Goff and Megan Cooney by Turner Publishing Company. Both authors are from the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. The Bentley is an amazing repository, and as the source of the photographs and information contained in this book, it's actually surprising to me that the book wasn't published by the University of Michigan Press. It's also somewhat of a surprise that some prominent Ann Arbor historians were not involved in this book. However, sometimes a fresh look needs to be taken by others, and in this instance, I think the authors did a splendid job assembling a variety of images of Ann Arbor from the 1860s to the 1960s. One hundred years is a lot of time to cover, and thankfully, the majority of the photographs pre-date the 1950s. Even though the University of Michigan is at the center of the growth of Ann Arbor, I appreciate that most of the photographs are peripheral to the University, and show more of the interface between town and gown. I should also point out that I had not seen any of the photos that appear in this book elsewhere (or at least I don't recall seeing). That is probably due to the outstanding archives at the Bentley Library -- and an appreciated bonus is that each image in Historic Photos of Ann Arbor is cataloged in the Bentley Library with the data available at the end of the book. I imagine the authors must have had some hard choices figuring out which photos to include in the book. No photographers are credited in the book, but I have to assume that such information is available from the Bentley Historical Library. I know that in many such archives, photographers are often anonymous, unless the photographs came from the estate of a photographer. During the late 1800s and early 1900s there were a number of portrait studios in the area, so I wonder who took the photographs. That's probably of very minor interest to most readers, as the photos are the real story.

Anyone with an interest in the history of Ann Arbor will like this book, and the breadth of the photographs really shows the history of the town. Many readers will appreciate the architecture that's long gone (and some still standing), as well as seeing how much has changed over the years. Today, we talk about buying "local," but as you will see in the photographs, local manufacturing and agriculture was a given state of affairs before 1940. Some may see the photos of long-extinct streetcars, and wonder, as we rethink our urban lifestyle, when such modes of transportation will be feasible once again. I think that the authors did a reasonable balance with the captions -- enough information to put the images into context without going into too much interpretation.

Back to my original train of thought -- this book fulfills much of the criteria of a photographic history, and no single book can contain everything, nor satisfy every varied interest. I do believe that if you enjoy seeing your town "back in the day," then you'll enjoy looking through the pages of Historic Photos of Ann Arbor. Since the photographs are large, there is a lot of detail to look at, and you may find some recognizable surprises throughout. The hardcover book is well-laid out, and at 205 pages, most of which are filled with photographs, is a deal at the price of $39.95. This book is available at most area bookstores.

Publishers Information: Historic Photos of Ann Arbor. Text and captions by Alice Goff and Megan Cooney, 2007. Turner Publishing Co., Nashville, TN. 205 pp., hardcover. ISBN-13:978-1-59652-389-0. www.turnerpublishing.com (615)255-2665.

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