A couple weeks ago, John Lucaites joined our discussion thread about a photo I posted from Greensburg, Kansas. John, along with Robert Hariman, are co-authors of the newly released No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. Their book, and their theoretical approach to iconic photos, closely dovetails with our mission here, emphasizing how political pictures, in a completely practical sense, represent a mainspring of insight into our culture, politics and media.
The following is their “Homerian” follow-up to our Greensburg discussion.
We recognize them across generations, classes, ethnicities, and any other number of demographic borders. They are what we often refer to as the “iconic photograph” – the photojournalist’s “command performance.” They have become so important that in many instances we don’t believe that an event is actually significant unless there is an iconic photograph to mark it.
The question is, what makes an iconic photographic “iconic”? There are numerous answers to this question, not least being their powerful emotional resonance, but at least one important attribute of all those images that seem to achieve the status of iconicity is their reproducibility.
The iconic photograph – although not alone in this regard – is characteristically reproduced across a wide variety of media and genres, and in contexts that exceed the moment of its original production, sometimes being used to mark history (as when an image such as the Times Square Kiss becomes the visual marker of “the return to normalcy” following WW II), sometimes to fuse individual and collective identity (as when one has the image of the Iwo Jima flag raising tattooed on their arm or back), sometimes to note ironies (as in many editorial cartoons that draw on the images), and many other uses as well.
In short, iconic photographs become primary resources of visual quotation and function as storehouses of the classifications, economies, wisdom, and gestural artistry that make up social interaction. Because they are distinctively public images, they recast social knowledge with regard to the distinctive concerns and roles of public culture – what it means to see and to be seen as a citizen.
A few weeks ago there was a discussion here at The Bag concerning the most recent visual quotation of what by some accounts is the most famous photograph ever, Joe Rosenthal’s Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. This image has been much written about and commented upon, but what makes it especially interesting is how often and how widely it has been reproduced and appropriated to often competing political ends and usages.
A quick search at e-bay, for example, will show that it has been emblazoned on key chains, t-shirts, book covers, and fine china, as well as reproduced in figurines. It has been recreated in numerous contexts ranging from the most patriotic (the statue in Arlington Cemetery being the most famous such example, but by no means the only one) to the silly (as on a gag T-shirt that replaces the Iwo Jima flag pole with a fishing rod).
And, of course, it has become something of a template for marking a certain kind of patriotism, as it is “seen” in apparent repetitions in places like the image of the firefighters at the WTC and in the image from Greensburg, Kansas.
That different people see it in different ways (as the discussion in The Bag indicated), some underscoring a certain piety, and others a certain cynicism, underwrites a key point: iconic images contain common appeals for influencing the public, but they also are also are open to interpretation.
To continue with the Iwo Jima image, consider two very different usages, one underscoring a pious interpretation of the image, the other a more cynical interpretation. The first usage comes from an advertising brochure for the George Eastman House, a museum in Rochester, NE York.
The picture is, of course, “cute”: the rhetoric of military honor is performed by a small, rumpled child; he is so caught up in observing that he is unaware of being observed; instead of being what he desires to be, a soldier engaged in heroic action, he is a civilian immobilized by spectatorship.
The brochure is an exercise in civic education, albeit one that portrays the public as a child. It also is one that extends the designs in the iconic image. Although still male, now more obviously white, and less ambiguous regarding class, the use of the child is an egalitarian trope that orients the model citizen towards acts of service and sacrifice on behalf of the nation.
Likewise, the range of imitation is extended from military to civilian action, while a lack of self-consciousness is again presented as an important part of democratic identity. Of course we need to note too that the appeal to patriotism is in some measure secondary here, as the point of the brochure is not so much to encourage civic action as consumerism, i.e., to become a “member” of the George Eastman House.
Explicitly ironic usages and appropriations of the image abound, often found in editorial cartoons where one element of the image (the flag, the flag raisers, etc.) is substituted for in a way that underscores a deep irony about the power of the original image or the ways in which we have failed to live up to it in contemporary times. The tension between piety and irony is indicated most powerfully by, of all people, Homer Simpson.
Homer, of course, is the paragon of unfettered desire. In Season 4, he is bequeathed a collection of potato chips molded in the form of celebrities “such as Otto Von Bismarck and Jay Leno.” When he comes across a potato chip in the form of the flag being planted on Iwo Jim he immediately acknowledges its cultural significance by uttering “uh-oh!” Then, after contemplating it for no more than two seconds, he succumbs to temptation, pops it in his mouth, and eats it.
Instead of the individual sacrificing himself to the community, we have the communal icon being sacrificed to the most banal of individual desires, the impulse to eat junk food. The image, which began as a sacred emblem of the nation’s greatest collective achievement and a model of civic identity, is profaned in potato paste as a symbol of the nation’s love affair with commercial consumption and an unbridled individualism.
Political history has become popular culture, the selfless, heroic citizen has become the acquisitive individual defined by consumption.
Many other examples could be invoked here, but the point is that the Iwo Jima flag raising demonstrates how iconic photographs have strong qualities of artistic performance that facilitate civic life. They can’t do it all, however. To use images well, we ought talk about them: to admire them, criticize them, and argue about what we see together.
That’s why The Bag is important, and why we encourage readers to argue with us and with each other about photojournalism and public culture.
>> Note: John and Bob will be available in the discussion thread to respond to comments, as well as to answer any questions. <<
Robert Hariman is professor of in the department of communication studies at Northwestern University and the author of Political Style: The Artistry of Power.
John Louis Lucaites is professor of in the department of communication and culture at Indiana University. He is coauthor of Crafting Equality: America’s Anglo-African Word.
Some of this material was taken from No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, recently reviewed here.
(images: FOX Television. Selma’s Choice, Episode 9F11, originally broadcast Jan. 21, 1993. brochure: George Eastman House. Rochester, N.Y.)