The Digital Journalist
America 24/7
A Family Photograph Album
November 2003

by Patrick Cox, Ph.D.

Americans have maintained a long love affair with their lives and images.

In America 24/7, Rick Smolan and David Elliott Cohen captured a remarkable series of images of the lives of everyday Americans during one week in May 2003. Instead of attempting to capture America's epic moment on film, the authors chose to select the digital photographs of professional and amateurs from around the nation. Americans at work and play, pictures of celebration and meditation, urban and rural landscapes the pages contain photos that portray the ideas and lives that represent the very fabric of our nation.

Photographs play an essential role in defining our character. In the modern era, films and television provide a popular format for news and entertainment. Most people will state that they obtain information and visual images from television and the movies. Yet every family in America maintains their own highly prized collection of photos of their family and their history. These are the most coveted of all family treasures. Early in my life, working as a young reporter at a newspaper, I interviewed the local volunteer fire department chief about residential fires. I don't remember much of the story, but one statement always stayed with me. When a person's home catches on fire, people always want to save their loved ones, their pets and their family photographs.

Photos of everyday life are treasures. I have hundreds of family photos and pictures in my personal albums - my exuberant daughter with her first car, my wife and I on a secluded beach in Mexico, my dogs in the back of the pickup truck, a scenic waterfall on a back trail at Yellowstone, childhood photos when we were all slim and trim, family shots with everyone squeezed in front of the Christmas tree (and trying to have everyone smile and keep their eyes open).

One of my favorite photos is an 8x10 black and white picture of two great gentlemen who befriended me as a young newspaper editor. Standing on the left is Chester Franklin, white hair with a cowboy hat, and on the right is Beven Varnon, balding with a white beard. They are standing next to Indian Rock on the Blanco River in Wimberley, a small town about 40 miles southwest of Austin. Both men are smiling as they have just finished some great tale. In my early career, these two men were the wise old sages and the guiding forces who helped steer me through treacherous waters of my formative adult years. Both are now deceased, but their image and influence is firmly embedded in my mind. But they are the people who represent the best in American ideas and values.

These are the images and ideas that are captured in America 24/7. As the authors state in the book, the product is a visual patchwork. This is not a glitzy version of a Hollywood personality venue that is often promoted as the image desired by Americans. And this is not a public relations production intended to show only the desirable, edited photos for marketing a corporate brand. The photos capture the true essence of American character and communities. Just like the family photo album, this includes pictures from everyday life and records a week of American history for posterity.

© Patrick Cox, Ph.D.
Assistant Director, Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin

Patrick Cox, Ph.D., is historian and Assistant Director of the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Cox specializes in twentieth century American political, media and social history with an emphasis on Texas and the Southwest.

Dr. Cox authored the biography on the late U.S. Senator Ralph W. Yarborough (D-Texas) published by the University of Texas Press. Ralph W. Yarborough: The People's Senator, was a finalist in the Western Writers Association and the Robert Kennedy Foundation Book Award for 2002.