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The “Great White Way”: Photography and America’s White Imaginary

October 24, 2023 at 3:00 pm - 4:30 pm

In the twenty-first century, large-scale media spectacles are ubiquitous in cities around the world. These polychromatic spectacles offer a diversity of colors and scintillating delights, though they fail to acknowledge––by their very design––how they also perpetuate historically entrenched legacies of chromophobia. This talk responds to this odd contradiction by leaping backwards in time, to analyze the tensions and power struggles in the history of illuminated light in the American city in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries. The polemic between old world (European) whiteness and the explosive colors that mark America’s twentieth-century “white imaginary” are charted through an archaeological critique of early advertising, photography, and the development of electric palettes for large-scale illuminated signs. By zeroing in on the “White City” at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian World’s Fair, and New York City’s “Great White Way” in the 1910s-1930s, I argue that a new training ground was forged for the American subject, engendering a unique brand of spectatorship rooted in visual possession by way of spectacle-based consumption.


Multipurpose Room (Room 1040), LSA Building
500 State St
Ann Arbor, MI 48109 United States
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