Abstract This dissertation argues that realism – however fraught the term – stages scenes of community in order to make claims upon the “real world” in the twentieth century. It identifies and analyzes forms of vernacular realism from 1941 to 1984 as well as aesthetic experiments that consider themselves to mimetically represent the “real world” in order to reconceive scenes of attachment and counterpublics. The project tracks how realism, conceived here as the interplay between image and narrative, changes in the twentieth century in response to moments of social crisis. In the process, it pays particular attention to realism’s elusive nature. Fredric Jameson’s 2013 book The Antinomies of Realism, begins with the observation that when we consider realism, it “is as though the object of our meditation began to wobble, and the attention to it to slip insensibly away from it in two opposite directions, so that at length we find we are thinking, not about realism, but about its emergence; not about the thing itself but about its dissolution.” This “wobble,” the way realism as an object of study tends to deflect attention away from itself and toward its origins or its destruction, guides this project. My dissertation argues that visual-narrative projects, primarily but not exclusively the phototext, provide a unique mechanism for representing the “real” in the twentieth century United States: the growth of social-image culture and the simultaneous cultural fear around the possibility of “representation” open up a fissure in narrative possibility that visual-narrative objects attempt to heal. By tracking four quite different scenes of belonging and nonbelonging over the course of the mid-twentieth century, this project pulls realism into the contemporary era by providing a genealogy of the narrative/visual “snapshot.” This project began in the archives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the Newberry Library, which has a surprising aesthetic congruence with a much more familiar but understudied set of photos – Allen Ginsberg’s snapshots. Evaluating avant-garde and bureaucratic images together reveals a developing mode that I have come to call experimental realism or “unfiction.” “American Snapshot” situates the development of photography/film and its attendant narrative contingencies in the American city at the moment of urbanity’s apparent rupture, and in so doing, traces an emergent realism’s broaching of politics and aesthetics. The first chapter, “Revising Documentation: Richard Wright, Realist Modernism, and Representing the City,” reframes the critical conversation around Richard Wright through an evaluation of his 1941 Twelve Million Black Voices, a photo-text co-authored with Edwin Rosskam. It pairs this text with Horace R. Cayton and St. Clair Drake’s 1945 Black Metropolis, with an introduction by Wright, in order to underline how Wright, profoundly attached to and also alienated by socialistic feeling, utilizes real happenings and images of the real world in order to call attention to how a documentational epistemology provides a diagnostic for political crisis. 12 Million Black Voices, a photo-text that cleaves to what Michael Denning calls a “ghetto pastoral,” also invents a critical mechanism for reading text and image together with respect to urban space. Wright’s evocation of the kitchenette, his discussion of urban scenes, and his relationship with the Great Migration combine to demonstrate that this formal experiment responds particularly well to a moment of political upheaval. From readings of a formally organized phototextual project the argument shifts to an encounter with a governmentally organized archive, one that underscores how photo and text together describe emerging communities and alternative forms of belonging. Between 1951 and 1955, The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) organized what it called the “relocation project,” which moved American Indians from rural reservations to major American urban centers. The Bureau maintained an archive of photographs of relocatees both before and after relocation and produced pamphlets, internal documents, newsletters, and other bureaucratic material. This chapter illustrates how realist genres narrate new claims on urban belonging in the US in the early 1950s. It contextualizes American Indian relocation as an institutionalized endeavor that produced a series of overdetermined images. I juxtapose these pictures with an archive of aestheticized modernist-realist images of a group of poor whites and show how artists and journalists made this migrant Appalachian population visible to demonstrate that emerging liberal conceptions of race affected those thought to be racially “unmarked.” Furthermore, it explores an aesthetics of the ordinary that demands rethinking the “work” of photography, as it performs a purported social function while also inducing visual pleasure. The third chapter shows how the Beat collective and Allen Ginsberg in particular deploy the photograph and narrative together to give permanence to the historical moment and its attendant political problems. In Ginsberg’s archive, photographs are accompanied by extended, unfolding captions written directly on the prints. Using Ginsberg’s phototexts as primary multimedia objects I ask how an aesthetic community “opts out” of its political present by turning to experiments in ways of being and an expansive model of documentation. As a response to a moment of social repression (as they perceive it) the Beats turn to this mode and other experiments in documentation in order not to participate in the flawed “mainstream.” I provide a new perspective on the Beat canon in considering Allen Ginsberg’s poetic practice as part of a documentary canon, one that enfolds his poetry, photography, and the extended captions that accompany most of his images. Furthermore, I provide an expansive realist framework that allows us to rethink the Beat canon through Ginsberg, pointing to how its practitioners demanded an un-fictional framework in order to assert their significance. This chapter argues that when we consider “realism” in generic, modal, historical, and constructed terms, it appears as a practice, and even as an effect of efforts to make claims upon the “real world.” The final chapter rewrites the genealogy of the L.A. Rebellion to acknowledge the multitude of aesthetic influences that informed it, and asserts that this fuller account provides a way of revising twentieth century realist cinema. This group of filmmakers produced a series of films centrally dedicated to describing the black working class in Los Angeles in the post-industrial 1970s. For this group, different questions about the practice of representing reality – indexing national and urban belonging, self-documentation, labor, and everyday life – demanded a dynamic aesthetic practice that stood accountable to a wide swath of aesthetic and political movements, including the French, English, and Italian New Waves, Cuban and Argentinian radical cinemas, and Senegalese and Nigerian anti-colonialist film movements. The chapter demonstrates that, after the broken promise of the liberal consensus, filmmakers like Burnett and Woodberry continue to evaluate belonging, despite the seeming impossibility of community among the urban ruins. It shows how the commitment to a collaborative, improvisational style opens up new possibilities for the long-established realist mode and captures a practice of narrative autodocumentation.