by Thomas Stubblefield. Indiana University Press, December 2014. 248 p. ill. ISBN 9780253015563 (pbk), $26.00.
Reviewed May 2015
Andy Rutkowski, Interdisciplinary GIS Library Fellow, University of Southern California, email@example.com
9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster is a timely work on a subject that defies time. For most Americans, the attacks on the World Trade Center left an indelible mark that is still forming and finding meaning in individual and collective consciousness. Thomas Stubblefield has written a concise, engaging, and thought-provoking work that asks the reader to reassess their knowledge and relationship to that moment and the resulting milieu of post 9/11 life in America.
The premise of the book is deceptively simple: how does absence figure into structures of identity, especially in an event that may have been the most documented in history, yet according to Stubblefield, "failed to yield a single noteworthy image of carnage." From this starting point he goes on to examine 9/11 through concrete examples within photography, cinema, monuments, memorials, and graphic novels while guided by a theoretical framework anchored in recent studies of spectacle and trauma.
Each chapter features carefully selected examples that help to develop and frame the arguments and premises of the book. The selection of thirty-nine black and white photographs and images adds tremendously to the perspective of the book yet could have been given more attention, especially with respect to image size and placement. Moreover, a separate index documenting art-related examples would have been a welcome addition. Nevertheless, the photographs and images throughout the book are compelling and well chosen. The first two chapters in particular provide a powerful set of images that thrust the reader back into the moment of 9/11. Hotly contested photographs like those of Thomas Hoepker's A group of Young People Watch the Events of 9/11 from a Brooklyn Rooftop and Tim Soter's Self-Portrait, are interspersed with violently graphic images such as Richard Drew's Falling Man. These photographs allow Stubblefield to articulate how the figure of the falling body is interwoven with the inevitable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Stubblefield's arguments help to ground the conclusion of the work, which describes a 9/11 visual culture that is defined by an absence, by a disaster that "refuses to enter history" and yet continues to impact life in the United States and beyond. This paradoxical visual culture of disaster is one that artists and viewers are left to grapple with and take aim at with new artistic works and methods of understanding.
This book is recommended for a diverse range of academic libraries and collections, including research areas such as public policy, international relations, American studies, trauma studies, and public history. It is especially relevant for any library that supports research in media or visual studies and art history.