Elspeth Brown,

Historian: markets, visual culture, gender, sexuality


I am a cultural and business historian of the 20th century United States, with a special interest in the relationship between the market, the body, and commercial culture. My early research concerned the rationalization of the body and the role that photography played in producing a positivist discourse that naturalized newly codified economic relations. This research resulted in three books: The Corporate Eye (Hopkins, 2005); Cultures of Commerce (Palgrave, 2006), co-edited with Catherine Gudis and Marina Moskowitz; and Feeling Photography (Duke, 2014), co-edited with Thy Phu. In addition to my work as a historian, I am active in the interdisciplinary field of photography studies. 

I’ve long been interested in the tensions between capitalism’s drive for efficiency and standardization, and the role of sexual, racial, class and gender difference in market relations. This focus has resulted in work on race and masculinity in Eadweard Muybridge’s human and locomotion studies; the commercialization of queer affect in WWI-era fashion photography; the rise of the black modeling industry in early post-WWII America, and other topics (see below for specific essays).  As part of this research interest, I work in the fields of gender history, history of sexuality, and the history of racial formation. 

More recently, I have been researching the relationship between the market and the body through the lens of the modeling industry in the 20th century U.S. I see this project as a contribution to the (intersectional) history of sexuality. Rather than a producing a history of sexual object choices, or sexual categories, or even sexual communities/identities,  in the modeling research I am exploring the relationship between sexuality and the market. My focus is in an under-researched terrain: the zone of commodified sexual appeal that is constituted outside of the historical practice of prostitution but which has emerged as a central aspect of modern marketing.

My theoretical framework has shifted over time. Early work was shaped by Foucault, Barthes, Benjamin, and the generation of photo theorists represented by Allan Sekula, John Tagg, and others. More recently I have been reading actively in queer theory, trans studies, and affect. This focus has found its way into my recent scholarly work on modeling, as well as a capstone American Studies seminar "Queer Feelings," which I taught recently.

Research which has not yet resulted in publications or other finished form can be found on the ‘projects’ part of the webpage.  

For pdfs of select articles and book chapters, please see below.

"The Commodification of Aesthetic Feeling: Race, Sexuality, and the 1920s Stage Model," Feminist Studies, vol. 40, no. 1 (2014), 65-97.

“From Artist’s Model to the ‘Natural Girl’: Containing Sexuality in Early Twentieth Century Modeling,” in Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wissinger, eds., Fashion Models: Modeling as Image, Text, and Industry ( Berg, 2012).

Black Models and the Invention of the U.S. ‘Negro Market,’ 1945-1960” in Detlev Zwick and Julien Cayla, eds., Inside Marketing: Practices, Ideologies, Devices (Oxford University Press, 2011), 185-211.

De Meyer at Vogue: Commercializing Queer Affect in First World War-era Fashion Photography,” Photography and Culture, November 2008, vol. 2, issue 3, 253-275.

Welfare Capitalism and Documentary Photography: N.C.R. and the Visual Production of a Global Model Factory” in History of Photography vol. 32, no. 2 (summer 2008): 137-151.

Marlboro Men, Modeling, and Outsider Masculinities in Postwar America,” in Regina Lee Blaszczyk, ed., Producing Fashion: Commerce, Culture, and Consumers (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, October 2007), 187-207.

"Racializing the Virile Body: Eadweard Muybridge's Locomotion Studies, 1883-1887," special issue of Gender and History on "Visuality and Gender,” vol. 17, no. 3, (November 2005): 1-30.

"Reading the Visual Record," in Ardis Cameron, ed. Looking for America: An Historical Introduction to the Visual in American Studies, 1900-2000 (Blackwell, 2005), 362-370.

"Technology, Culture, and the Body in Modern America," American Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 2 (June, 2004): 449-460.

The Prosthetics of Management: Motion Study, Photography, and the Industrialized Body in World War I America,” in Katherine Ott, David Serlin, and Stephen Minm, eds., Artifical Parts, Practical Lives (NYU Press, 2002): 249-281.

"Rationalizing Consumption: Lejaren à Hiller and the Origins of American Advertising Photography, 1913-1924," Enterprise and Society ,, vol. 1 no. 4 (December 2000): 715-738.