Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Visions of America by Joseph Sohm

Visions of America: Photographing Democracy by Joseph Sohm
Copyright 2009
Visions of America LLC - Photography/Coffee table
312 pages
Visions of America website

You will seldom find Bookfool at a loss for words, but I've sat down to write about Visions of America three times and stared at the screen with my derrier going numb. I think I'll start by embedding the video about the book because it's excellent.

When I opened the book -- and it's a whopper of a book at approximately a foot square and 312 pages -- I thought, "No big deal; I'll whip this review out in no time." But, it's not just another coffee table book. The author set out to photograph a concept that's a little hard to understand: democracy. I don't think of democracy as something one can photograph and I still have a little trouble with that particular title, even after reading the text, but what I think the author accomplished in the process was a comprehensive view of America, her history, her people, the beauty and ugliness and the vast array of backgrounds represented by this unique nation and its hodge-podge of citizens. It took me a long time to get around to reviewing because it's so beautiful that I wanted to take my time and savor the book. I probably shouldn't have done that, but I certainly did enjoy the reading and viewing.

From the author's letter that came with the book:

“Visions of America” is premised on a single question – “how do you photograph Democracy?” (After all it’s an idea!). My answer unfolds over 1300 images and 21 essays that catapult you on an unforgettable journey across the fifty states.

Although as a photographer, I have been published over 50,000 times in the worldwide media – from the NY Times, National Geographic, CNN, NBC, the Wall Street Journal and in hundreds if not thousands of books (including the cover of John Grisham’s “King of Torts” and the back-cover of Bill Clinton’s “My Life”), “Visions of America” represents my first solo title where I serve as both photographer and author.

Over thirty years, this book was the driving force behind my ongoing adventure to capture the images defining Democracy. Those 30 years could also be translated into 10,000 days of my life; 1,000 nights in a Motel 6; 1,000 nights sleeping in my RV; 200-250 radial tires and 1 million miles by air and car. When I started, I thought it could be done in a few years, but after three decades, I now know better. “Photographing Democracy” can never be completed. In many ways, that’s the point as Democracy itself is a never-ending journey. When I went to press, I tried to have it as contemporary as possible and thus the FINAL pictures added to the book were of President Obama. They were taken two days before the election and the final shots were from the Philadelphia Phillies World Series victory parade with two million people in the streets of Philly.

I'm not going to copy the entire letter, but I thought that section gives you a good understanding of the concept.

The book itself is divided into thirteen chapters. All packed with stunning photos but my absolute favorite chapter is "Photographic Memory - Living and Loving History". The author talks about his desire to somehow inject history into the book but feeling like it was one area he was likely to come up short because you can't simply turn back the clock. And, then he realized he was wrong. Living history exhibits and reenactments of battles and events take place in the United States all the time. So, for this particular chapter, he sought out places and events where he could photograph people dressed in historical costume, reenacting important events in America's history, playing the roles as if they were occurring right now. I think the results are absolutely stunning. Some of those photographs look like he dug through archives to locate photos that fit the time, but they're not. They're all modern, taken during his 30-year quest to photograph democracy.

The photos of our modern military are also quite moving, in my opinion.

Layout-wise, my initial impression was that the book is too cluttery. I'm a little on the ADD side and I prefer a clean layout and large photos to montages. The advantage to that heavy layout is that, as a coffee table book, you can't beat the fact that you could return to it 100 times, flipping through casually, and find something new each time. And, the photographs are so phenomenal that I can't imagine anyone sitting down to look at it and not saying something to the effect of "Ooooh. Ahhh." My husband and son were also impressed, although they're even more twitchy than I am and didn't look at the entire book. Guys.

My rating: 5/5 for the photographs and 4/5 for the layout. My desire for a cleaner layout still hollers at me, but I don't think you can lose by purchasing this book. You could honestly enjoy flipping through it for years.

Visions of America can be purchased (and autographed) through the author's website and will arrive more quickly than if you order through Amazon -- if, say, you're in a hurry to buy a copy for a gift or specifically want that signature. I highly recommend it for gift-giving.

Thanks to the author and Lisa Roe for my review copy.


  1. The pictures are just stunning and prove that the little things do matter.

  2. You are an award-winning blogger, and my post today proves it. Come collect your award, my friend.

  3. Kathy,

    What a great way to put it. :)


    Why, thank you, dear. I'll jog over to have a look. :)

  4. I responded to your comment:

    And here's a teaser for the book you want to read:

  5. I'll come look, thanks Bonnie. I think you and I are the only bloggers who haven't gone somewhere for the weekend.

  6. It does sound like an interesting book. How cool!

  7. Wow, beautiful photos. I would love this in my classroom.

  8. I just posted my review of this one today, and I agree with you about the layout. I didn't think to mention it in my review, but I was annoyed by the overwhelming amount of images at times, too. So much to see!

  9. Krista,

    It's beautiful. I think I may have even learned a thing or two (like, I need to get up in the morning for the good shots). :)


    I forgot to mention that I don't think his text was always necessarily accurate -- there were two things that caught my eye and I neglected to mark them -- but nothing so major that it would be a problem in a classroom. The photos would be great for showing certain themes.


    We're going to have to dash, but I'll have to check out your review later. I gave it some thought and decided there's good at bad to the quantity of images. The book has a cluttery look, but if you're going to stick it on a coffee table, there's so much to look at that you could definitely leave it there to peruse for years.

  10. The photos are awesome. I think I need this book in my home library.

  11. Violette,

    I agree. You should go for it. :)

  12. In spite of the cluttered pages, this sounds like something I'd love to look at. Actually, just from the photos you've shared and those in the video clip, I have a feeling this is a book I need to buy! Great review, Nancy.

  13. Les,

    Oh, yes. I'm sure you'd appreciate this book. :) Thanks!


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