Jennifer Tucker, an authority on the history of photography, discusses why some photographs become iconic images that capture an event or an era, or change the course of history.
The little girl in the center of the photograph is naked. From the news account, we know that she has torn off her own clothes, desperate to escape the flesh–burning napalm. She runs toward the viewer, holding her arms out to the side as she cries in pain and fear. The boy to her left is closer to us; he also runs, his face a mask of terror. Other children, too, are fleeing. Soldiers are on the road with the children, standing a few paces farther back and seemingly uninvolved. The men seem to be almost ambling, as though the children’s terror and the event from which they flee are merely a fact of daily life.
The photo first appeared on the televised evening news of June 8, 1972, accompanying a report of an accidental napalm bombing of a pagoda where South Vietnamese villagers had taken shelter. Several children were seriously burned.
The next morning, this photo appeared on the front page of seemingly every newspaper in America. Shocking in its use of full frontal nudity of a child, in the terror it portrayed, in the children’s vulnerability, it was inescapable that summer—and it has never disappeared from our consciousness. It was said to re–energize the anti–war movement— and several months after it appeared, the United Nations released its report calling for a ban on napalm. The photo won a Pulitzer, was made into a poster, and is still used today to illustrate the horrors of war and its devastating effects on innocents.
This was freelance photographer Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut’s “Terrified children fleeing down road after bombing.” Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker cites it as one of “Ten Photographs That Shook The World,” the title of a course she taught for the first time last summer in Wesleyan’s Graduate Liberal Studies program.
With the class, Tucker explored the iconic photographs, admiring their strong composition, the clear simplicity of their message. The images, however, were only part of the story and served as springboards to discussions about the place of images in our culture and the ways in which historians use photography: as evidence and as historical documentation. In some cases these photographs seem to crystallize history, becoming a pictorial shorthand to evoke an era. In other cases, historians point to them as catalysts for the upheaval that brings about a new social order.
“We can ask how each image serves as a touchstone for exploring broad questions about the role of visual imagery in history, collective memory, and public art: What makes some images more powerful than others?” says Tucker. “Why do images become—and remain—meaningful? What do the photographs explore? What goes unsaid?”
If we are seeing the same photo reprinted in various venues, what other images are we not seeing, she asks. Some soldiers felt betrayed by Ut’s photo—both by reproductions that often cropped out soldiers whose stance suggested that all could be in danger, as well as by the absence of an image of a nearby photographer, who appeared as preoccupied with his job as the soldiers.
In discussing the creation of iconic images, Tucker also notes the role that mere chance—and the discretion of the photo editor—play in the photographer’s ability to capture a defining moment for his era. For example, Nick Ut happened to stay longer than other photographers near the Vietnamese village. His informants had told him that there was going to be some action. After he transmitted the image to Hong Kong and then on to New York, he wasn’t sure anyone would publish it because there were strong conventions against nudity, especially that of children.
“Nick Ut was one of many freelance photographers or ?stringers’ that U.S. news agencies hired during the Vietnam conflict,” Tucker observes. “Photography exerted a powerful influence on the national conscience during the Vietnam era. Images like these, which were widely viewed as facilitators of anti–war sentiment then, have become the touchstone of debate and struggle over the control and public uses of images of war—including the war in Iraq—today.”
Current war photos arrive from a source that wasn’t available in the 1970s. The digital age has been credited with democratizing image–making, making it a tool of the masses, as well as providing a platform for sharing these widely and quickly. Images of Iraq that shook the world came from the digital cameras of soldiers themselves—in one case, from the camera of Private Lynndie England, who documented abuse of the prisoners of Abu Ghraib as a souvenir, with a callousness that was unforgettable in its shock value. This also appeared on Tucker’s pick of 10.
Images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib led to the closure of the prison—not the first image on Tucker’s list to catalyze institutional change. The power of documentary images continues to intrigue her, urging her to wider and deeper conversations on photographs throughout history with colleagues from varied disciplines. [See sidebar.]
Among the pressing questions in her discipline is whether converting images to digital bits has ended the era of documentary photography.
While a photograph is printed from a negative, one single original source, to which historians can compare with any later prints to determine if modifications were introduced or editorial cropping eliminated key elements, no such permanent “negative” exists for the digital image. The image may have been falsified, be fictitious, or be true to life; it may have originated by way of this camera or on that computer—it is impossible to trace. “Those most concerned with this aspect are very skeptical about what the digitalization of images means for the status of photography as truth,” says Tucker.
On the other hand, those who are delighted with the new era see digital image–making as democratizing the ownership and distribution of images. They argue that digital technology makes access to images easier, enabling people to use them in ways that previously would have been unimaginable. “Proponents of this view see digital photography as a form of empowerment, as part of the information revolution,” she says.
The digitalization of images in libraries and archives has placed millions of historic images in the hands of the public, historians, and teachers of history. They are searchable—which might seem an overwhelmingly positive change until one considers the dystopic view: Our world is awash in images; we’ve been given too much to absorb already. Who is really going to use all those images that everyone with a camera or cell–phone camera has taken?
“One thing is sure,” she observes. “There’s a change in status for the documentary photographer. So many people today have digital cameras and camera phones that some fear these casual observers will dilute the importance of photojournalists. However, digital media also creates possibilities: People outside the structure of government (including military) agencies or those outside the field of journalism, who are not employed by any magazine or newspaper— can create photos that can gain new audiences and acquire different uses and meanings.”
The first photograph on Tucker’s list of 10 was taken during the Civil War, little more than two decades after the invention of photography in 1839. “Dead of Stonewall Jackson’s Brigade,” by Alexander Gardner, offered civilians their first shocking image of a battlefield before the dead had been buried.
Previously, painters had leaned toward images of glory: soldiers in sparkling uniform on horseback, charging into battle, with colorful banners held aloft. The few other photographers who ventured into this subject area had offered portraits of soldiers smartly garbed and posed.
Unlike Ut, Gardner did not have the shutter and film speed to capture a moving figure, so these post–battle arrays of corpses were, for their era, the height of photo journalism. But in the same spirit that Ut created and shared his images of a child’s pain that shocked the world, Gardner expressed hope that his photos, by exposing the true nature of war, would bring about an end to all battles. Widely disseminated, his photographs of the Civil War were displayed in exhibitions and served as the basis for engravings that illustrated newspaper accounts of the war.
While the brutal realism of Gardner’s images seem clearly in the genre of modern photojournalism—“and his contemporary audience viewed a photograph to be unimpeachable witness,” Tucker adds—no photojournalistic code of ethics existed to prevent him from moving the bodies on the fields, positioning the corpses in such a way as to improve the formal composition of his photo and heighten the horror.
By World War II, however, the photojournalists’ work was understood to be solely that of documenting what occurred without rearranging the scene. Stringent respect for this code almost served to suppress the image that has come to represent World War II—all because of a misunderstanding
“Raising the Flag on Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima” was one of three images that Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal caught on Feb. 23, 1945, when he headed up the mountain to record a moment of hard–fought triumph. For the first two, he caught Marines in the process of erecting a flag that could be seen from every place on the island and from the sea. For a final photo, he asked the Marines to pose around the newly erected flag.
He sent the film off–island without ever seeing the developed photographs, so when his editor wired to say that he liked the photo and asked whether it was posed, Rosenthal assumed that he was speaking of the last image, and replied in the affirmative. While “Raising the Flag” was an instant hit, galvanizing a country in the difficult days of 1945 in its embodiment of the democratic ideal, Life magazine initially chose not run it, believing that Rosenthal had manipulated the action. When the truth became clear, Lifepublished it, even pairing it with an image of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” signifying its status as a new national icon.
Tucker points to the formal elements of the photograph’s composition: effective history is also good art—and in this case, a Pulitzer winner. The diagonal angle of the flagpole is a dramatic slice across the page. It’s nearly vertical; the flag, itself, is about to unfurl; one Marine has just lost touch with the pole, as another is about to let go. The energy is potential; the moment is about to be realized, and this engages the viewer; it’s exciting. While Rosenthal might have expected that his best photo would have been one in which all faces were visible, that’s not necessarily the case for iconic images. In this photograph—and in others on Tucker’s list—the anonymity of the subject serves not only to highlight the selflessness of the goal but also allows the viewer to understand this effort as one in which the larger group—the nation, in this case—is participating.
Several years after the photo, the Marines were able to provide the names of those men who raised the flag in Rosenthal’s photo by tracing the location of troops on that day. Of the six, three had later died on Iwo Jima.
One of the most well known images of the Depression, “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange, is striking in its individuality but ironically gains some of its iconic power through anonymity. Lange, hired in 1935 by the historical section of President Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration (later known as the Farm Security Administration) to provide documentary photographs of conditions in which Dust Bowl farm workers were struggling, found her iconic subject in a camp of folks who had arrived to pick peas, but the crop had frozen. With no work, no money, and no food, the workers faced desperate straits, and Lange captured that fear—along with stoic resolve and perseverance— in a woman’s face. Lange did not note her name, nor did she photograph her whole family. Instead, Lange carefully crafted this mother’s anonymous image to make it a compelling appeal for the assistance that the New Deal provided.
While the woman, in her early 30s, had seven children, Lange focused her camera on the youngest of these, a baby sleeping in the woman’s arms, and two toddlers who crowded close. Neither teenage children nor husband entered the frame. Instead, Lange selectively omits anyone who would help the mother. Isolated in the frame, this subject’s appeal for help goes directly to the viewer, much in the manner that Ut’s photo of the child with outstretched arms seems to appeal to the viewer for help.
Additionally, Tucker notes, the photo is constructed to evoke the Madonna and Child, one of the images in Western culture with the strongest appeal. An image that invokes a deeply ingrained cultural icon cannot help but be powerful. This photograph ran in a local paper with the story of the frozen crop, and made an effective appeal: aid—money and food—soon arrived to the destitute camp.
Some years later, the anonymous woman came forward. Florence Thompson was less than pleased that her face had gained fame in this photo—one that for many people had come to represent the Great Depression—yet the fame had not earned her one dime. Neither, though, had it directly earned money for Lange who, employed by a federal agency when she took the photograph, had no rights to the photo. “Migrant Mother” is a public domain
Quite the opposite of a nameless face, the portrait “Emmett Till” gained its power through its identification with one specific individual, a young black boy, barely into his teens, who went to visit cousins in the South and was brutally lynched in the summer of 1955. Most accounts concur that Till may have spoken to a white woman who owned a store and possibly whistled at her. Several days later, the woman’s husband and his friends kidnapped the 14–year–old in the middle of the night. His body was later found in the river, horribly mutilated and showing clear signs that he had been tortured. His mother, in anger and grief, insisted on opening his coffin. Photographs of the corpse, in juxtaposition with the sweet–faced young boy of his portrait outraged the nation.
This image appears on Tucker’s list for the role it played in galvanizing civil rights activism and shaping views within the civil rights movement about the power of the press. After the photo of Emmet Till’s mutilated body and accompanying story was reproduced in Jet magazine and other black newspapers, Till’s murder was covered by the white press and became one of the most publicized racial crimes of the century. Many leaders of the civil rights movement have traced their participation in the movement—and their growing view that press photography could be used viably to foster a broad base of multiracial public support for civil rights struggles—to events surrounding Till’s death and the media coverage of the trial of his murderers. Just a few month’s after Till’s death, the Montgomery bus boycotts began.
Also credited with harnessing public support for a cause, the 1968 moonshot photo, dubbed “Earthrise” for the way our planet appears to ascend over the moon’s bleak horizon, eventually became an iconic symbol for the expanding ecology movement. The photo, taken from an entirely new perspective, presents certain facts: Earth is clearly a limited resource; its people are too tiny to be visible from space; and any borders dividing one nation from another are only imaginary. Earth is one planet and is all we have.
Images that seem to illustrate a moral or belief can speak to the heart of a nation. Another on her list, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, illustrates this kind of iconic photo. As a nation watched, their beloved civilian astronauts and brightest technological wonders disappeared in a burst of flame, smoke, and debris. Tucker notes that the sense of loss for viewers galvanized a broader national debate about the gambles and risk of high–tech space science, science policy priorities, and the perils of an underfunded space program.
However, Tucker notes that the moral of the photograph is often only in the eyes of the beholder: Stuart Franklin’s “Tiananmen Square” (1989) conveys one ideology to an American audience and quite another to the Chinese. In this photo, a lone protester stands in front of a line of tanks, stopping them in their tracks. Tucker points out that throughout Western nations this became an image of an individual standing up to the forces of a militarized state. In 1989, the Chinese government mounted photographic exhibitions supporting the official version of the crackdown, with photos of student violence and dead soldiers. The picture of the man holding up his hand to stop the tank was exhibited as an illustration of the restraint of the troops, who chose not to run over him.
The broader point, says Tucker, is that individual photos are subject to interpretation depending on what context and frames viewers bring to them. Their meaning (and evidentiary power) are context–dependent, and she would like to teach a future course on global photography that examines histories and theories of the photographic image outside the dominant Western view of photography, including the role of photography and other technological media in shaping global media landscapes. This is yet another direction in which Tucker would like to pursue conversations on photography in history.
Tucker shared an 11th iconic photograph with the class. Though not an earth–shaker—the sepia toned image shows an early–20th–century family standing proudly beside a wagon, presumably at the end of a good day of harvesting cotton—it was widely circulated throughout Oklahoma as the poster advertising the state’s archives and was even reproduced in state history textbooks.
“That’s my grandmother,” she says, pointing first to the littlest child and then to the adult in the group, “and that is my great–grandmother.”
Her family discovered their heirloom had become a state icon when a Midwestern visitor to her parents’ Seattle home recognized it. Tucker’s family believes that one of their grandmother’s 12 siblings must have donated his copy of the photo, among others, to the state archives.
In itself, it is a small lesson in the manner in which icons are created, notes Tucker. The curators happened upon a strong image, one that illustrated firmly held community values, and, in the anonymity of its subjects, represented many other people. Tucker keeps a framed copy in her office—and looks forward to additional conversations with students and colleagues, historians and artists, on the role of iconic photographs in history and memory, and on the ways that photographs help us understand, claim and represent the past.
The discussion of the role of photography in historical documentation has come to the center of academia, says Jennifer Tucker: “Much of the familiarity with our world—certainly in the West— comes through photographic visualization as a surrogate for firsthand experience of places and events. Photography occupies a central place in our culture; it can be a meeting point for people with varied interests and backgrounds, within the academy and beyond.”
To further this, she and colleagues from the Center for the Arts (Director Pam Tatge ’84, Zilkha curator Nina Felshin, and Davison Art Center curator Clare Rogan), as well as University Archivist Suzy Taraba ’77, organized a series of 10 exhibitions, talks, and films for the Wesleyan community last semester, under the title Eye of History: The Camera as Witness. Conceived with the goal of bringing together “people who share a common interest in photography, art, and historical memory,” the series featured shows in Zilkha Gallery, the Davison Art Center, the Green Street Arts Center, and Olin Library. Members of the Wesleyan community, including Family Weekend attendees, joined in discussions throughout the semester that grappled with the questions that surround the use of images, private and public, photographic and digital, to study and record history.
Additionally, Tucker organized a conference through the journal History and Theory in preparation for a theme issue on “Photography and Historical Interpretation,” forthcoming in December 2009 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the journal. Gathering a select group of distinguished scholars and photographers to explore photography and its role in historiography, historical memory, and public life in several different geopolitical regions, the group presented preliminary drafts of papers exploring the individual topics of interest on that theme.
Tucker also notes that Wesleyan’s resources make the campus a particularly fertile environment in which to teach a course on iconic images, as well as entertain discussions on all facets of photography. The Davison Art Center, with its wealth of 20th–century prints—many of them a gift of Russell D’Oench Jr., the late husband of curator emerita Ellen G. D’Oench ’73—offers students and members of the community the opportunity to view iconic 20th century photographs.
Download a PDF of the complete article HERE