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America the Empty

Recently USA Today ran a photo contest to answer the question, “Can a single image capture the essence of America?”  Of the 1,035 entries, this one was judged to be the best:


It’s a fine image, and one can easily concur with the judges’ statement that it has “gorgeous color, beautiful light and a killer reflection.  The visual surprise makes the eye move back and forth, and the subject is emblematic of the American West.”

But wait a minute.  There is a difference between the first half of that judgment and the second.  Color, light, and the reflection are one thing, while surprise and emblematic representation are another.  In fact, water reflections are standard stuff in nature photography, so there would be little surprise there (nor would viewers be likely to be confused about which horses are real).  And what about the idea that the landscape is the definitive image of the American West–and therefore of America?  Can you get more conventional than that?

My unease wasn’t helped by the paper’s claim that the contest photos “capture America the beautiful beyond obvious landmarks to its glorious landscape and spacious skies.”  OK, no Statue of Liberty, but the Western landscape is an equally obvious visual figure, and it is clear from the text that our perception is supposed to be shaped by the iconography of “America the Beautiful.”  Sure enough, the second and third place photographs are from Antelope Canyon, Arizona and Arches National Park, Utah: in other words, they are beautiful examples of familiar scenes in the photographic archive of Arizona Highways, National Geographic, and similar house organs of travel photography.

The fourth place photo is of an ocean sunset, and so it goes.  Most tellingly, of the top ten photos, only two–numbers 6 and 10–include people.  In the first of these, we see children practicing with lariats at a “cowboy training camp” representing “family fun vacations in the American West”; in the second, there are tiny figures in the background of a photo of kites at a beach.

Don’t get me wrong–some of the contest entries are fine photographs.  But what about the big question: do they picture America?  If so, we may have a problem, because then America is in some important sense essentially empty.

If you look at the rest of the submissions, it seems evident that America is the West, which is largely void of people.  As Richard Avedon, Michael Shapiro, and others have stated before, this is not an innocent idea.  The photo operates ideologically, whether by hiding the workers, implying that natural resoures are boundless, or reinforcing assumptions about American exceptionalism and providentialism (as if Central Asia didn’t have similar vistas, or lacked God’s grace).

To be fair, however, we also have to note that these photos also are negotiating other problems of political representation: by not featuring people, no one ethnic or social group is given the privilege of being the “face” of America, and showing natural scenes through conventional iconography does supply the typical places and common objects that are necessary for the shared seeing that is a vital element of democratic public culture.

That said, it seems to me that we could do better.  The dedication and skill of the amateur photographers in the contest needs to be augmented by critical discussion of how one might represent “the essence of America.”  One argument is that there is no such thing to represent; another is that no one representation could do so.  On the other side, the US is not simply a neutral aggregation of autonomous individuals having nothing in common, and collective living requires common images and ongoing judgments about what is more or less representative.

And let me say it as clearly as possible: America is not empty.  Nor is the natural order of things walking serenely in single file.  Nor can photographs represent a political community as neatly as still water reflects horses.   Public life needs many images–these and others as well.  America is beautiful, but not because the people are invisible.

Photograph by Joanne Panizzera/USA Today.


America the Empty


8 Responses

  1. BJ says

    Where, indeed, are the people? I don’t mind idealized images representing “America”, but this image is so generic that it is essentially meaningless. This picture, although beautiful, could have been taken in Africa, Brazil, China or France. There is nothing in it that says “America” because no Americans are in it. There are many unpopulated landscape shots that are uniquely American: the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, Old Faithful. Yet, USA Today selected a generic photo, with no people or distinguishing landmarks. The fact that the USA Today photo editors chose an empty shot of anyplace is a sad comment on their lack of insight about the power and meaning of photography. The USA Today folks missed an opportunity to say something–anything–about the United States.

  2. You want people in your Americana? Then take a look at the photographs at http://kodakgallery.com. Those tend to be warm, sentimental Norman Rockwell images, as opposed to the cold, depopulated Ansel Adams-esque images you discuss.

    Maybe that’s a hopeful sign, too. After all, even in his own lifetime Adams limited his activity to an emotional reservation. (He had real trouble taking pictures east of the Rockies, for instance.) The physical vistas on Adams’s reservation are vast, but the emotional ones aren’t. There, the only decorum observed is by Disney out of Wordsworth.

    That was restrictive enough in Adams’s time, and these days it’s policed by the National Rifle Association. But the Kodak Gallery seems to be open and unguarded in the blue states as well as the red ones, and it’s bustling 24/7 with cheerful customers.

  3. Great commentary. Obviously the photographers and the judges were more interested in the art of the US landscape as opposed to the truly unique “essence” of America. For the most part, the photos chosen by USA Today would be great images for a promotional calendar. But what comprises the essence of America? I suggest that “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” is a part of the country’s essence and for an image to communicate those concepts it would need to show the peoples of the USA.

    Keep up the good work.

  4. Dalton says

    All of these photos are vapid and empty, but I suspect that is intentional on the part of the editors of USA Today. I’m sure they got some pleasant feedback on the feature and few complaints about the images selected, which is exactly what they were looking for.

    A better picture of the essence of America, in my mind, can be found in Brian Ulrich’s “Copia” series; specifically “Retail”, and “Dark Stores”.


  5. M says

    I think some of the fundamentals of the image are being greatly overlooked. Some times the critics mind is to overpowered with defiance to realize the depth and insightfulness that could be otherwise understood. Look at the horses, the diversity here could not be better represented by many things. I would argue that an image of people “Americans” will never represent the diversity shown in this photograph. Not one of us that has contributed to this blog is the owner of a face well worth representing America. I would state that its not the people at all that represent America, anyone thinking so would only be scratching the surface. Its the idea of America, the gentlemen from China who just received his citizenship would just as well represent this country as our European forefathers. Though notably different and easily distinguishable in a lineup, what is unifying them is the idea of the place they call home. The idea that both my grandfathers fought for. Beyond that, an image of a landmark or identifiable location would only further stupefy the idea of America. We have all seen them and by this have all grown to disregard the beauty and mystique due to familiarity. What we see in this photo is a skyline that any one of us could possibly see. Not Arizona, nor New York. Both of those don’t represent my America. What can be said about the face value of the photo is that the horses have always represented the west, they are identifiable to the native as well as the pioneers. A child in rural America sees the image the same as the young boy in a city whose envisioning the wild west. what i have read here surprises me, to quote a former post as saying the photograph is generic. i would encourage that individual to find another example of such a unique image. not only is the arrangement of horses a most timely fortune but the lighting reveling so many layers is quite unique.

  6. Janis Edwards says

    I find M’s points well-taken. I would also add that the demand to show humans as emblematic of AMerica, while logical, disregards the importance of landscape and place in developing culture, and particularly for AMerica. I am quite comfortable with a depiction of the American West standing for AMerica, because it incorporates the unique rejection of Eiropean culture that founded the democracy–the move to a “new land.” This view is furthered by the country’s westward expansion and the role of “the frontier” in AMerican rhetoric (e.g. the important work of Janice Hocker Rushing and others, with which I am sure this site’s adminitrators are well aware.)

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