Who We Were: A Snapshot History of America

There are still a few copies of my 2007 book Who We Were: A Snapshot History of America (co-authored with Mike Williams and Rich Cahan) available at a reduced price through the publisher City Files Press. 



“With the way that photography travels these days—from a cell phone to the Internet in a heartbeat—it is hard to remember that so many powerful images from our history remain locked up in shoeboxes and junk drawers. Who We Were: A Snapshot History of America, by Michael Williams, Richard Cahan, and Nicholas Osborn, published by CityFiles Press, is the first comprehensive attempt to plumb the depths of America’s private archives.” New Republic

“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.”   BookList

“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.” All Things Considered, National Public Radio

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, Writer / Critic

“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, Journalist / Author

“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, Michael Williams 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, Photographer

“A perfect sum-prance 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, Artist / Author