Ellen Macfarlane

Ph.D., 2018


Ellen Macfarlane is the 2018–2020 Postdoctoral Scholar in the Visual Studies Research Institute at the University of Southern California. She specializes in the history of photography and modern art, with a particular focus on the visual culture of the United States from 1890-1945. Her research examines the relationship between art and politics; art in the Anthropocene; intersections between commercial and artistic forms of expression; and issues of deception, truth, and bias in photographic representation.

Ellen’s dissertation, titled “Seeing Plus: The Photography of Group f.64” reconsiders the 1930s Bay Area photography collective by investigating its position within fraught debates about the relationship of aesthetics and politics during America’s Great Depression. Arguing against the commonly held belief that f.64 was concerned only with beauty and form, “Seeing Plus” shows how the group understood the concept of photographic objectivity to have political implications in areas as far-reaching as interwar race relations, the rise of Communism, and environmental preservation. The central thesis of the study is that f.64 possessed serious, if varied, political convictions that ultimately manifested in the collective’s overarching concern with “purity” and “transparency” in photography. In fall 2016, Ellen’s essay on f.64, “Group f.64, Rocks, and the Limits of the Political Photograph,” was published in American Art.

Her current research is concerned with the concept of persuasion in commercial and artistic photography in the United States after 1930. Recently, Ellen explored this theme in an article for Southern California Quarterly, titled “Photography and the Western Worker: Organizing Farm Labor in Early 1930s California” (summer 2018). The essay explores how the communist newspaper Western Worker used narrative photographic strategies like montage and serial imagery to present images of immigrant farmworkers and labor organizers for the purpose of rallying activist support.

Before arriving at USC, Ellen held an ACLS/Luce Dissertation Fellowship in American Art and was previously a Predoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Her work has also been supported by The Center For Creative Photography and the Huntington Library.

Selected Publications

“Photography and the Western Worker: Organizing Farm Labor in Early 1930s California,” Southern California Quarterly 100:2 (summer 2018): 183–215.

“Group f.64, Rocks, and the Limits of the Political Photograph,” American Art 30:3 (fall 2016): 26–53.

Review of Kathryn E. Delmez, ed., Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video (2012), August 2013, CAA Reviews online.

Introduction, From Ethiopia to New Jersey: Photography and HIV/AIDS, The Johnson & Johnson Corporate Art Program, 2010.