Constructing Modernity and Progress: The Imperializing Lens of an American Engineer in the Early Twentieth Century


  • Stefano Tijerina University of Maine
  • Sonya de Laat McMaster University



Maxwell Waide Smith, photography


Recent visual theory on the decolonization of the photographic frame offers an important alternative to thinking of photographs as artifacts of the past. Here, the authors build on Ariella Azoulay’s idea of ‘watching’ photographs—as opposed to ‘looking’—to restore and reinscribe links to the past in order to locate ‘potential histories’ in the construction of America (2008, 2013). In ‘watching’ photographs in American engineer Maxwell Waide Smith’s albums of the Kansas City, Mexico & Orient Railway (1907-1908) and the Panama Canal construction project (1913-1914), the authors explore the arena of action and actors beyond the frame of the photographs to contextualize the social and political histories in which the albums were made. Approaching photography as an event rather than an artifact enables consideration of the encounters recorded by the camera and the relations, responsibilities and repercussions generated by the photographic situation, from the perspectives of those implicated in the picture-making process. These photographic albums provide an opportunity for exploring the engineer’s perspective, contrasting it with views of laborers and local communities caught up in American nation-building activities. Between the albums, a clear transition appears through the lens of the young, naïve engineer in his first field project in Mexico, taking on a more imperialist perspective as a seasoned engineer in Panama. Presented is a reflection—founded on historical photographic analysis—on (discounted) opportunities to build a cooperative rather than competitive America, and to explore the internal cultural changes that took place within the U.S. as the nation moved from a progressive engine of modernity to an agent of expansionist imperialism.


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