Tracing the growth of US cities through an antique camera's lens; Silver Cities The Photography of Americn Urbanization, 1839-1915. by Peter Bacon Hales. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 315 pp. $47.95.

Looking at an 1850s ambrotype of Henry Klinkel's Lager Beer Saloon in Chicago , Peter Bacon Hales proceeds to explicate it in the best tradition of American studies:

''This apparently artless, stereotypical group portrait deserves our serious attention, for it indicates the extraordinary range of implications the best commercial operators could encode into their views.

''The prominent inclusion of women and children in the scene makes this a portrait of a community rather then simply a symbol of entrepreneurial success. The photographer's decision to pose a man on the roof of the saloon in such a way that he mirrors the keg-keeper in the advertising sign was not, as it might appear, simply a formal nicety; in the photograph, the figure stands with a flag rather than a beer keg, thus declaring the Americanness of the German beer saloon in a time and place when nativist sentiment and temperance campaigns threatened Chicago's German-American saloons. Within this historical context....''

And so Hales dissects other images in ''Silver Cities,'' showing again and again how photographs supplied facts, bolstered myths, exploded myths, trumpeted the city's virtues, and contained all manner of cultural information beyond the instantly visible.

Hales's book is divided into five sections. The first concerns the ''Development of an Urban Photographic Style, 1839-1870,'' and subsequent sections deal with the ''Grand Style,'' reform photography, and ''Photography and the Dynamic City, 1890-1915.''

The photographers represented in ''Silver Cities'' range from the well known - Eadweard Muybridge, Southworth & Hawes, Jacob Riis - to a host of amateurs and unknowns. There are over 200 black-and-white plates, and they include three very fine foldouts, one of which is of Muybridge's spectacular ''Panorama of San Francisco,'' done in 1878.

Our visions of the city have often been formed by photographers like the ones whose images inhabit ''Silver Cities,'' and Hales knows this well. His work - necessarily interdisciplinary if a bit laden with academic buzzwords - is indeed ''the story of photography's interaction with American urban culture,'' and a welcome addition to the literature of photographic history.

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