Who We Were


Since the first snapshots were taken in 1888, Americans have used simple, inexpensive cameras to record their life stories. In the process, they have left behind millions of pictures that document the story of America. Now, for the first time, these personal photographs have been gathered together to tell the nation's history.

By Michael Williams, Richard Cahan and Nicholas Osborn

Hardcover: 240 pages; 100lb paper with spot varnished duotone and 4-color images

ISBN-10: 097854501X

ISBN-13: 978-0978545017

Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 9.6 x 1 inches

Shipping Weight: 3 pounds



Ever since 1888 and the advent of George Eastman’s first Kodak, Americans have been avidly taking pictures to record their lives, creating an enormous, rarely tapped archive. Williams, Richard Cahan, and Nicholas Osborn spent 10 years looking at more than a million snapshots, ultimately choosing 350, each with a “unique ability to help tell the American story.” After tracking down the who, what, where, and when of each striking, amusing, or haunting image, the authors organized these everyday astonishments thematically and made every page spread a study in unexpected parallels and contrasts. Beginning with a lovely series taken from “a surrey with the fringe on top” and moving forward into the atomic age, they present scenes of now vanishing wilderness and rural life, people at work and play, and calamities ranging from an eviction to a flood, tornado, dust storm, Ku Klux Klan parade, and war. Assembled with an eye for vitality, irony, and revelation, this splendid American photo album vividly chronicles our progress and tragedies, ingenuity and spirit.—Donna Seaman, Booklist

National Public Radio

This photography collection takes us back to the advent of the snapshot in the 1880s and moves on through nearly a century of casual photography. Here's a wonderful combination of technology and nostalgia, of intense connection to the moment and extension through the years. You won't recognize any of the individuals in the snapshots, but you will know them — lovers and shopkeepers, city and country folk, the meek and the proud — all in candid display. Give people this book, and you give them the gift of seeing back through time — and into themselves. —Alan Cheuse, All Things Considered, NPR

Publishers Weekly

This compilation of amateur snapshots reveals that photography in the U.S. has been a craze from its inception. George Eastman's creation of flexible film and the original Kodak box camera in 1888 gave birth to the ubiquitous snapshot. Since then, a steady progression of invention-from the one dollar Brownie in 1900, to 35mm film in the 1920s and color print film following WWII. The authors stop well short of the digital revolution (which they admit has introduced a different way of seeing), drawing to a close in 1972 with a perfect final image: the family snapshot that Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke, Jr. took on the moon. This tour of snapshot history lacks the scholarly perspectives of recent books such as 2007's The Art of the American Snapshot, taking a more populist approach and comparing snapshots to folk songs as repositories of everyday life. Commentaries on more than 350 images range from informative to obtrusive, but the images provide an irresistible blend of historical material and voyeuristic pleasures.
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Who We Were is the most intimate kind of history—the past with all the laughs and chills and hesitations left in, and all the unresolved contradictions as well. It's a lovely collection of amateur photographs, some of them truly inadvertent in their glory, some potential candidates for high-art stature if they were matted and framed. Overall it's as close to a true self-portrait of the American people as you're likely to find between covers.—Luc Sante, author of Evidence

With the medium of photography, anyone can make a masterpiece. The cell-phone snapshooter is just as likely of capturing the next iconic image as the celebrated photojournalist. The higher challenge, the art - if you will, is assembling a collection of great images. With Who We Were: A Snapshot History of America, Richard Cahan and Nicolas Osborn have done just that. From hundred of brilliant fragments, they've pieced together a breathtaking view of the puzzle of America.—Alec Soth, author of Sleeping by the Mississippi

A perfect sum-uppance of the twists and turns our country has taken to lead us up to what appears to be an almost certain dead end, or at least some serious roadwork. Despite my being an "artist," I've remained dubious of the claim that a picture is worth a thousand words, but the few hundred in this book pretty much cover everything we Americans have undergone in the past century with crisp clarity and everyday ambiguity.—Chris Ware, author of Jimmy Corrigan : The Smartest Kid on Earth

The book is stunning! The photographs so unexpected. The collection revelatory. It's like a major archeological find, a portal into American life over the last century.—Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing up in the Other America


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