A young African-American couple hug in a garden on Independence Day in the District of Columbia; Yakima fishermen mend their nets by the Columbia River; and in Columbia, Alabama, an 8-year-old white girl receives her “God’s Little Princess Bible” from her family. These are a few of the faces from America By Another Name, my photographic exploration of American freedom and cultural diversity. The name Columbia, America’s erstwhile poetic nickname, and a name once synonymous with liberty, frames this ambitious project.
The 80 to 90 color photographic plates peer into our cultural silos and, without judgement, gather our diversity into one body of work. America By Another Name also includes words and images recounting some of Columbia’s history as both synonym for the nation and symbol of national liberty. This inclusion opens the work’s market to lovers of American cultural history. Further still, this history emphatically contextualizes the work’s photographic subjects, and its viewers, as inheritors of this American liberty which Columbia once symbolized.
My travels and studies show me that American liberty is far from evenly distributed. By virtue of my upbringing in a Connecticut art colony, my Vassar art history education, and internet-deliverable magazine work, I’ve created this book and exhibition from my considerable store of freedom. May America By Another Name model freedom to others, and inspire affection for our diverse fellow Americans.
As I craft America By Another Name into its final form, I welcome an editor’s input so this story of American liberty and cultural diversity may reach its greatest potential.
America By Another Name, the new photography book and exhibition of environmental portraits by Francis Smith, meets our need to acknowledge our cultural diversity and individuality while still perceiving ourselves as Americans living together as a nation. Within this work, as in the United States, nudists coexist with the Daughters of the American Revolution, and a freckle-faced white kid in a coonskin cap relates to a Native American youth in war paint. These photos show one nation of people who observe various creeds, occupy disparate social classes, and claim ancestors from every continent.
The work’s title raises a question: Is there another name for America? By limiting the geographic scope of his 80 to 90 photographic plates to places called Columbia (from Maine to Hawaii, from Alaska to Florida), Francis Smith highlights a nearly forgotten piece of American cultural history: Starting in the 1760s, America had a poetic nickname, Columbia. “Hail, Columbia” was widely considered our national anthem until officially replaced in 1931, and Lady Columbia reigned as our particular version of the ancient Greek goddess of liberty.
Columbia, American liberty, makes an evocative frame for the wide-range of Americans integrated into this singular vision: From Latino drag racers to drag queens; from Sons of Confederate Veterans to a multiracial group on a stage before the National Archives; from a young exotic dancer clutching her Elvis Presley satchel to a Celilo Indian woman holding her son and her dog. The photo titles simply denote the time, date, and particular Columbia place where the photographer encountered his subject. The viewer is left with their own curiosity about, and reaction to, the persons and places pictured.
In his 1,000-word introductory essay, the author asks us to consider our own relationship with the liberty that Columbia once embodied. Appendices inform the reader of Columbia’s rise and fall as a pride-filled name that spread as the Union grew, as well as Lady Columbia’s classically inspired birth, and eventual sidelining by the advent of modernism. The afterword, written by African-American cultural historian A’Lelia Bundles, uses Columbia as a lens for exploring the historical relationship between her own family and that of Smith, a white male. Amid the photos, short written pieces address the challenges of national identity and coming to terms with ancestral guilt.
By exploring the uses of liberty, our history, and our treatment of one another, America By Another Name dives right into topics pressing on America’s psyche, and welcomes an audience from beyond the photography market. More importantly, this particular historical and cultural context presents the vividly pictured individuals (and the viewer, too) as heirs to the liberty and American identity for which Columbia once stood. The author welcomes a curator's and editor’s input in making America By Another Name as inclusive as possible, and will continue taking pictures as needed. Additionally, he hopes securing a publisher and exhibitor will open doors to more wary subjects, e.g., the homes of the wealthy; county prisons; perhaps even the barracks of the USS Columbia, a nuclear submarine stationed in Pearl Harbor.
With its ambitious scope and with the book's democratically affordable size of 9.5 x 8.5 inches, America By Another Name is modeled after two physically small but culturally significant books: American Photographs by Walker Evans (Museum of Modern Art, 1938), and Robert Frank’s iconic The Americans (Robert Delpire, 1958). Both are still in print, and both still register significant sales. Since 1958, few authors have marshaled the resources, tenacity, and empathy to meet the challenge of portraying our fellow citizens in a way that’s similarly broad, deep, and egalitarian. With 2018 marking the anniversaries of these two earlier books that so enhanced America’s self-understanding, many followers of American culture and photography will be inspired and moved to see America By Another Name meet the challenge of its predecessors.