Benjamin Cawthra, Ph.D.
Professor of History
Benjamin Cawthra is a U.S. cultural and public historian. His book Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz (University of Chicago Press, 2011) examines the evolving representation of jazz subjects from the swing era of the 1930s to the black nationalist 1960s. He has also published essays on musicians Miles Davis (2001) and Duke Ellington (2016); boxer Jack Johnson (2019); and photographer/curator Lee Tanner (2021). He is an associate director of the Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History, where he is the host of the Outspoken podcast. He has directed or curated several history exhibitions for the Center, including New Birth of Freedom: Civil War to Civil Rights in California (Fullerton Arboretum and Great Park Gallery, 2011/2012); Hard Times in the OC: Voices from the Great Recession (Oakland Museum of California, 2013); and Keystone Korner: Portrait of a Jazz Club featuring the photography of Kathy Sloane (Pollak Library/Atrium Gallery, 2015). Other curated exhibitions include Miles: A Miles Davis Retrospective (Missouri History Museum, 2001); Herb Snitzer: Photographs from the Last Years of Metronome (Sheldon Art Galleries, 2008); Federal Art Project: American Design (2017); and 52nd Street: Jazz and the Photography of William Gottlieb (2022) both for the Great Park Gallery. He also served as an on-camera consultant for the documentary Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Stanley Nelson, 2019). He has led study tours to Florence, Italy in the CSUF College of Humanities and Social Sciences Study Abroad program and has been awarded the Bakken Award for Outstanding History Faculty, the CSUF Award for Scholarly and Creative Activity, and the College for the Humanities and Social Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award.
Dr. Cawthra’s current projects include an exhibition on Dorothea Lange’s photographs in California during the Great Depression and World War II and a book on the US image of World War II and postwar Italy.
2007 Ph.D. History, Washington University in St. Louis
1996 M.A. History, Washington University in St. Louis
1989 B.A. English, History, Walla Walla College
Twentieth-century United States cultural history; visual history; U.S.-Italian cultural interaction; African American history and culture.
Courses Regularly Taught
HIST 506 Seminar in Public History
HIST 490T Senior Research Seminar: World War II Home Front in Southern California
HIST 475B The United States, 1920-1960
HIST 405 Visual History
HIST 402A Introduction to Public History
HIST 394 American Civil War
HIST 375 The Great Depression
HIST 340 Americans in Italy
HONR 302T Honors Seminar in Arts and Humanities: Jazz and American Culture
HIST 180 Survey of American History
Grants & Special Projects
Current Research Projects:
Dr. Cawthra’s current research projects include The Redemptive Lens: The Image of Italy in War and Peace, in which he explores the work of photographers and filmmakers whose images collectively envisioned a post-fascist Italy worthy of the West’s renewed attention and commitment. The work analyzes the production and dissemination of a refurbished image of Italy beginning during the war itself, when Fascist Italy had become an international cultural pariah due to its alliance with Nazi Germany. The Allied invasion and liberation of Italy and the massive economic investment in the country’s recovery positioned Italy as a founding NATO and Common Market member, a positioning anticipated by and reflected in contemporary photojournalism and film.