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Seeing American: Visual education and the making of modern observers, 1900–1935

, University of California, Irvine, United States

University of California, Irvine . Awarded


This dissertation examines the modernization of vision in the early decades of the twentieth century, as it was carried out by the visual education movement. As part of the broad set of theories and practices gathered under the rubric “progressive education,” visual educators set out to introduce visual materials, especially stereographs, lantern slides, and motion pictures, into schools. Their more significant goal was to train perception and cognition in order to Americanize and modernize students. This dissertation argues that the imaginative links required for the abstract concept “nation” to function as a real social force emerge not only through shared print culture, history, values, sense of purpose, principles, conscious identity, history, or government, but also, in the twentieth century, through shared modes of seeing. Visual education, little studied since the 1950s, offers insight into how ways of seeing were being constructed directly, through specific techniques.

Photographic materials, modern in themselves, came to schools with another fundamentally modern artifact: the system. Students were to practice immersing themselves in photographic space. They were taught how to read images contextually by scrutinizing them for clues, much as a detective would, and encouraged to find ways to ignore conflicting or extraneous evidence and navigate disjunctions between image and text. With guidance from the system, they were to link the clues they had found to meanings, largely through techniques of metonymy, synechdoche, and typology. These practices, coupled with specific visual materials, constructed a distinct mode of visuality.

By examining the films, photographs, and techniques employed by the visual education movement, this dissertation shows that the modes of visuality the movement made plausible in the 1920s helped establish the conditions of intelligibility for the extensive documentary production of the 1930s. This study is fundamentally interdisciplinary, drawing from cultural and film studies, cultural history, critical theory, and visual culture. By offering new insight into how ways of seeing were being constructed among actual observers, through specific techniques and image-text relationships, it extends the work of Jonathan Crary, scholars of early cinema, and others who theorize spectatorship, subjectivity, and modernity.


Wiatr, E.A. Seeing American: Visual education and the making of modern observers, 1900–1935. Ph.D. thesis, University of California, Irvine. Retrieved July 27, 2021 from .

This record was imported from ProQuest on October 23, 2013. [Original Record]

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