The Historian's Eye

Photography, History, and the American Present

By Matthew Frye Jacobson

The Historian's Eye

192 pp., 7 x 10, 122 halftones, notes, index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-6936-6
    Published: February 2022
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-4967-2
    Published: March 2019

Documentary Arts and Culture

Buy this Book

For Professors:
Free E-Exam Copies

To purchase online via an independent bookstore, visit
Between 2009 and 2014, as the nation contemplated the historic election of Barack Obama and endured the effects of the Great Recession, Matthew Frye Jacobson set out with a camera to explore and document what was discernible to the "historian's eye" during this tumultuous period. Having collected several thousand images, Jacobson began to reflect on their raw, informal immediacy alongside the recognition that they comprised an archive of a moment with unquestionable historical significance. This book presents more than 100 images alongside Jacobson's recollections of their moments of creation and his understanding of how they link past, present, and future. Jacobson’s documentary work between 2009 and 2014 tracked in real time the emergence of what we now know as Trumpism.

The images reveal diverse expressions of civic engagement that are emblematic of the aspirations, expectations, promises, and failures of this period in American history. Myriad closed businesses and abandoned storefronts stand as public monuments to widespread distress; omnipresent, expectant Obama iconography articulates a wish for new national narratives; flamboyant street theater and wry signage bespeak a common impulse to talk back to power. Framed by an introductory essay, these images reflect the sober grace of a time that seems perilous, but in which “hope” has not ceased to hold meaning.

About the Author

Matthew Frye Jacobson is the Sterling Professor of American Studies and History at Yale University.
For more information about Matthew Frye Jacobson, visit the Author Page.


"Contains over 100 photos that the author took over a six-year period, structured by essays that are at once historically analytical, reflective, and critical."—Ethnic and Racial Studies Review

"Raises larger questions about photographs as a kind of primary source evidence and about how historians might engage photographs as historical documents. . . . [Jacobson's] intentions as a photographer and reflections as a historian are woven into the images, not easily disentangled by anyone who might want to think about these pictures in a different way."—Reviews in American History

"Jacobson excels at creating meaning by integrating words and pictures."—The Journal of American History

"Channeling the zeal of WPA writers and artists who were sent out to document American lives during the Great Depression, Jacobson's remarkable national tour serves up a bittersweet aftertaste of the Obama years--when a wave of toxic white blacklash washed up against the popular joy over his presidency."—Andrew Ross, author of Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal

"By turns erudite and irreverent, observant and moving, The Historian's Eye brings a scholar's sensibility to the tradition of first-person reportage. I cannot overstate my admiration for this illuminating and accomplished book."—Franny Nudelman, author of John Brown’s Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War