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Photo history of Phoenix earns professor Glyph Award

August 21, 2008
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a couple hundred pictures – and the stories behind them – are worth a Glyph Award, according to the Arizona Book Publishing Association (ABPA), which has presented its version of the Emmy to “Historic Photos of Phoenix,” by Arizona State University Associate Professor Eduardo Obregón Pagán.

The book was recognized by the ABPA in the Coffee Table-Large Format category. It is published by Turner Publishing, an award-winning, independent publisher of specialty and trade titles headquartered in Nashville, Tenn.

Pagán, born and raised in the Valley, is a noted expert in the field of U.S. cultural and intellectual history, cultural exchange and negotiation in U.S.-Mexican borderlands, and Latino cultures in this country. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history from ASU in 1987, followed by a master’s from the University of Arizona in 1989. He received a master’s (1991) and Ph.D. (1996) in history from Princeton where he served as assistant dean of students before becoming a faculty member at Williams College (Williamstown, Mass.). From 2002-2004 Pagán was a senior program officer for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in Washington, D.C. He joined the Language, Cultures and History Department at ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences in 2004.

“I’m a historian of the Southwest, and I’m always interested in ways of making history accessible to the general audience,” says Pagán, whose previous title, “Murder at Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race and Riot in World War II L.A.,” was published in 2003 by University of North Carolina Press.

“Most people don’t seem to be aware of the fact that the history of Phoenix as a site of human civilization stretches all the way back in time to before the fall of Rome,” Pagán notes. “Although this particular collection of historic photographs does not cover the pre-Mexican and Anglo occupation of the area, I did try to provide that sense of antiquity in my introductory chapters.”

The book features 198 photographs selected from collections belonging to the ASU Library, Archives, and Public Records; the Phoenix Public Library; the Library of Congress; and the Sharlot Hall Museum in the old Arizona territorial capital of Prescott. Each of the photographs included in the book was studied for identifiable and researchable information in order to provide readers with greater context. Pagán estimates he spent some 200 hours researching photographs.

Jessica Tribble, chair of the ABPA’s Arizona Book Awards, says Pagán’s effort hit a pair of moving targets.

“The coffee table book, in my opinion, must serve a difficult double role – it must be both visually stunning and editorially engaging. It employs high-resolution digital photographs that require nearly as much qualitative text to thoroughly engage the reader. The judges and the ABPA believe Dr. Pagán and Turner Publishing skillfully achieved both of these goals.”

Pagán, who says he was “born in the shadow of Sun Devil Stadium,” the home of ASU’s football team, believes his book is important because history is important and surrounds us in everything we do.

“The present is a direct result of the past, so understanding the past helps us better understand the present,” he notes. “But I fear that we in the Valley generally do not appreciate our history, and in fact have actively disregarded it in important ways.”

He points to the fact that the home of Darrell Duppa, the Cambridge University-educated Englishman who became a pioneer in the settlement of Arizona before it became a state and is the man responsible for giving Phoenix its name, is “utterly abandoned and unrecognized in the downtown area” as evidence of the lack of historical consciousness in the Valley.

Currently working on a pair of book-length projects – the first exploring racial constructions and violence in territorial Arizona, the second a history of Latin terrorism in the U.S. – Pagán says the growth of Phoenix in his lifetime has been explosive, to say the least.

“It’s hard to separate the growth of the Valley from the growth of Phoenix, which has been nothing less than phenomenal. When I was born in 1960 the population of Phoenix was about 400,000, and now it is well over 1.5 million. When I was young there were clear delineations between Phoenix and Mesa, Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert, Litchfield Park, Peoria, and so on. You knew when you left one town and entered another, because towns in the Valley were separated by space and each had a different look and feel. Now those geographical delineations are all but gone and, although there are still differences between many of the towns in the Valley, those differences are quite subtle now. Most of the valley, in my mind at least, has become a part of greater Phoenix.”

Tribble of the ABPA says Pagán’s latest work suits the association just fine.

“The Arizona Book Awards are meant to help to promote and support quality work created in or about Arizona and to recognize excellence in craft and creation in the Arizona book industry. Dr. Pagán’s work is about Arizona and is by an Arizona author.

“We are thrilled to be spreading the word about the Arizona publishing front.”

Pagán, who has held an NEH Fellowship and was a post-doctoral fellow at Wesleyan University (Middletown, Conn.) and the University of California, San Diego, worked with the award-winning PBS series “American Experience” as the lead historical consultant for the television episode and Web site titled, “Zoot Suit Riot.” He has also served as a panelist for the Department of Education and NEH, and as a committee member for the Organization of American Historians.