Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Review: Historic Photos of Clevland

Books of historic photographs have become popular in recent years, taking advantage of digital production techniques that have made it possible for individuals and small publishers to issue books of images on different cities and specialized topics. Arcadia Press has worked their own formula of slim paperback collection of pictures selected and captioned by local authors and now has hundreds of titles in its Images of America series, including dozens on greater Cleveland topics. Local resident George Cormack has brought forth three volumes in his excellent Memories of a Lifetime series, as well as one on Municipal Stadium and a number of calendars over the years, all based primarily on our Cleveland Press Collection holdings at Cleveland State. And from San Diego, Thunder Bay Press has been issuing a line of books comparing historic images of different cities with current views of the same area. Here John J. Grabowski and Diane Ewart Grabowski produced their attractive book in this series, Cleveland Then and Now (2002).

Another press, Turner Publishing Company of Nashville Tennessee, has sent me a copy of their 2007 addition to a line of urban photography books they’ve been issuing nationally, in exchange for a review here in my Cleveland History Blog. Titled Historic Photos of Cleveland, it was compiled and captioned by Ronald L. Burdick and Margaret L. Baughman, from the substantial collections they oversee at the Cleveland Public Library’s main branch downtown, plus a few from the Library of Congress.

Historic Photos of Cleveland is a handsome hard-cover work of 190 black and white photos over 204 pages with a dust jacket. It is organized into four main chapters, each representing a different period in the city’s history. Each chapter has a page of introductory text, followed by a collection of images from that era with a couple of sentences of captioning. In lieu of an index, the book finishes with a listing of all the photos by title, source and page number.

The chapters cover “Village to City (1850-1869),” “Cleveland’s ‘Golden Era’ (1870-1929),” “Economic Growth, the Great Depression, and World War II (1930-1949),” and “The City Deals with Adversity (1950-1979).” I like the divisions of Cleveland’s history they use for the table of contents as they seem logical, although the “Golden Era” chapter was several times the length of the others and might have been further divided.

The authors didn’t explain why this chapter was so long, but then they didn’t explain the reasons for a number of things about their work, especially including what their selection criteria was overall and why they only used photo from their own holdings, augmented by the Library of Congress, which limitations weren’t hinted at in the introduction. They also failed to identify the photographers, where known, which disappointed me. There were also a number of apparent issues with some of the photos – details taken from panoramas, or shots that were touched up, or images that were originally one of a stereoview pair – that I expected to be pointed out, but weren’t. Perhaps they were restrained by the publisher from going into some of these details, but it was a detraction to note them and not have them explained.

Those academic quibbles aside, there’s a lot to like in this book. It started right out with a timely shot of the Ameritrust Bank’s tower by Marcel Breuer, which continues to be in the news as the County fumbles with owning it. Their shots often show how polluted the city was in its heyday, something we tend to forget as we pine for our industrial greatness, and they portrayed the forgotten but significant edge city that once existed at East 105th and Euclid Avenue. There is a nice shot of Cleveland’s famous photographer, Margaret Bourke-White. A couple of fires got interesting treatment, including a Canadian forest fire that darkened Cleveland that I’d never heard about and an unfamiliar view of one of the Cuyahoga’s many fires.

I have seen many thousands of photographs of Cleveland in my 16 years’ association with the Cleveland Press Collection, but was nevertheless surprised and impressed by what I found here. Historic Photos of Cleveland is a valuable addition to the collections of Cleveland photography and I recommend it highly as perhaps the best of the genre.

It is available through local bookstores and

For other reviews, see the Cool History of Cleveland Blog, and Sandy's Cleveland Blog,

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