Picks and Pans Review: Out of the Forties

updated 08/22/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Nicholas Lemann

Lemann, executive editor of Texas Monthly, heard about the haunting photographs that are the core of this book from a friend, historian Michael Lesy. We should all thank him. The pictures are part of an 85,000-piece collection now at the University of Louisville but originally shot for Standard Oil of New Jersey. Taken during and a few years after World War II, they were intended for various public relations purposes but were shot by master photographers—Gordon Parks, Russell Lee and John Vachon among them—who loosely interpreted their commission to depict the glories of the petroleum company. They shot picnics, dances, returning servicemen and children by the side of the road—always in towns where Standard Oil had operations. As Lemann writes of the photos, "It is impossible to escape the feeling that a lesson must be contained in them." In search of that lesson he went back to many of the people in the photographs and found that, sadly, their lives had been overwhelmed by technological and social change. All of which takes nothing away from the wonderful sense of innocence and enthusiasm contained in the pictures. Overanalyzing the photographs is probably a mistake in any case. As historical artifacts they stand the test of time, and they are also fascinating monuments to a life-style that might otherwise have been forgotten. (Texas Monthly Press, $21.95)

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