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And Where Have You Seen This Before?

This t-shirt is available for sale at Turntable Lab 04, a website that tailors to hip-hop DJs and producers. Take a close look at the silhouetted pattern? Does it look familiar? Have you seen it somewhere else before? Maybe an abstract painting in a modern art museum? Or in a Rorschach Test? Somewhere else? Click on the shirt to see where.


Credit: In4mation; and with special thanks to Erik Johnson, Northwestern University for bringing it to our attention.



Viva La Icon

BBC News ran a story and photo-essay on Friday that readers of this blog might enjoy. “Che: The Icon and the Ad” provides some of the background of this iconic image:


The story touches on several of the features of iconic appeal and circulation, and it argues that this is the iconic image. “Combining capitalism and commerce, religion and revolution, the icon remains unchallenged, Ms Ziff says. ‘There is no other image that remotely takes us to all these different places.'”

Ms Ziff has reason to be so high on the image, as her work on the Che icon includes as exhibition that opens this October and a film coming out in 2008. Some people like to debate whether this or that image is the most iconic of them all, but I’m not among them. The question does open up some interesting issues in this case, and I mention them in part because they address an omission in the book No Caption Needed. John and I focused exclusively on the US, as we weren’t prepared to study other national media. We are confident, however, that iconic images play an important role in some other pubic cultures, although not necessarily in all of them. We assume that they will work along the lines we identified but also reflect differences in media, society, and political history. Those differences may be incorporated easily into our theoretical framework in some cases, and in other cases they may require fundamental adjustments.

In addition, there also is the question of how icons circulate internationally and help constitute something like a transnational public culture. We are certain that the Che icon is not the most widely circulated iconic in the US, but it may well be internationally. Likewise, the range of appropriations shown in the slide show and flickr link accompanying the BBC story contains nothing surprising to those who know something about how images become iconic, but it could be that they work differently in a transnational context than they would within a more circumscribed media environment.

In any case, each icon provides a unique basis for talking about what we see, what has happened, who are are, and what paths lie before us. Indeed, it could well be that there is more than one reason for the Che image to come around again.

 Update: Today’s New York Times is running a story on the Che icon.  They feature Che’s daughter while emphasizing the supposed contradiction between socialist ideal and commercial success. There is tension there, of course, which is one reason the image is iconic.  But don’t hold your breath for a companion story on the contradiction between a privately owned newspaper representing the public interest.  Nor do they point to a contradiction when quoting an Investor’s Business Daily editorial decrying use of the image as “tyrant-chic.”  I didn’t know that the Daily supported moral regulation of free enterprise.  They ought to talk with Che’s daughter, who also is concerned about commercial use of the image.

It’s the 40th anniversary of Che’s death, so there will be a number of stories about the iconic image this week.  Many of them will follow the conventions for reporting on iconic images, including personalizing the story and fretting about unrestricted circulation.  I find it interesting that icons can be used to manage contradictions, and also to expose them.



John-John Kidnapped!

The Public Editor at the Sunday New York Times had a lengthy column yesterday, and for good reason: he had a lot of explaining to do. The Times, along with many others, was taken in by photographer Joe O’Donnell’s fraudulent claim that he had taken the iconic photo of John-John Kennedy saluting his father’s caisson:


The problem was that the Times obituary for Mr. O’Donnell had featured the iconic image as his signature photo. As the paper soon learned–and reported–the photo had been taken by Stan Stearns, not O’Donnell. In fact, a second photo shown also had been taken by someone else, and soon a string of deceptions came to light.

Those who love to hate the Times will enjoy their evident mortification, but I’m not among that crowd. They were working at the demanding pace at which they nonetheless produce detailed and reliable stories day after day after day. More important, they were taken in by someone who apparently spent years crafting elaborate deceptions. It’s easy to be fooled by someone who already has fooled many of the people you trust.

The several stories provide an interesting glimpse into both the work of a con artist and the way stories are put together at the Times. They also reveal a thing or two about visual culture today. For one, the fascination with iconic images continues. In an earlier post I asked “Is there an icon for everything?” Well, it seems there has to be for noteworthy photographers. As quoted by the Public Editor, the night photo editor at the Times set aside his reservations about O’Donnell’s claim about the photo because “That the Times was writing the obituary made it ‘a done deal as far as I was concerned,’ he said. ‘I assumed that Joe O’Donnell, famous photographer, had already been verified, and my job was to find iconic images to illustrate his career.'” There you have it: famous photographers, like the great events they cover, must each have their iconic shots. Unfortunately, O’Donnell had taken other images that also deserved to be seen. Instead of yet another Kodak Moment with dead Kennedys, the Times missed an opportunity to show its readers something of the Cold War. Icons are important, but they should not be used to paper over the rest of the visual archive.

A second point allows me to grind another ax. One way or another many people in academia, the press, and more generally have picked up Susan Sontag’s critique of photography. Fortunately, nodding along to Sontag doesn’t inhibit their actual viewing practices–let’s hear it for hypocrisy–but they nonetheless parrot her arguments when talking about photography. Thus, we are re-exposed to her anxiety about the power of the visual image to counterfeit reality, to be manipulated, to deceive, and generally to corrupt our ability to know the world and be ethical. Images can do all of that, of course, but no medium or art is innocent of these charges. And that’s what I love about this episode with John-John. O’Donnell deceived a lot of people about the photograph–but not with the photograph. No, to fabricate reality he used another technology, one that also has a very good track record for deception: words.

Photograph by Stan Stearns/Corbis.



Who is that Man in the Picture?

Last week I commented on the latest effort to discover the “true” identity of the kissers in the famous “Times Square Kiss” photograph. Reporting on such efforts is a fairly common narrative that follows along with the circulation of many iconic photographs. After all, most such photographs rely upon a certain degree of anonymity and when we encounter the anonymous our curiosity is piqued. Who is the migrant mother? Or that young girl at Kent State? Or the man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square? And so on. Earlier this week Erroll Morris, an important documentary film maker, reprised the question raised last year (3/11/2006) in the NYT concerning the alleged identity of the man known as”Gilligan” in the iconic Abu Ghraib torture photograph:


Morris argues that the controversy demonstrates “how we make false inferences from pictures.” We think that he gets it wrong, or perhaps more to the point, he asks the wrong question and thus diverts attention from the very important range of ways in which photojournalism contributes to a vital and robust democratic public culture. Robert posted our response as a comment at the Times. We’ve reposted that comment below, but we also encourage our readers to attend to the continuing and very spirited and engaged debate on this topic at the NYT.

Posted at the New York Times, August 16, 2007:

Errol Morris’s essay is one example of his claim that “We do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather, what we see is determined by our beliefs.” His critique of the Abu Ghraib story depends on several axioms of Susan Sontag’s critique of photography. Unfortunately, each one of them is at best half true.

1. Photographs corrupt moral response by substituting the image of the victim for reality: “The no longer anonymous Hooded Man became a national news story – not because he was a victim of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib but because he was in a famous photograph.”

2. Photographs corrupt our knowledge of reality: “Namely, the central role that photography itself played in the mistaken identification, and the way that photography lends itself to those errors and may even engender them. . . . photographs attract false beliefs – as fly-paper attracts flies.”

The basic problem with both of these ideas is that the critic is attributing to photography what is true of all representation, verbal as well as visual. Think about it: can you depend any more on written accounts of reality? If so, I have a bridge to sell. You don’t have to spend more than ten minutes in a court of law to see that writing is highly suspect. Newspaper reportage is partial at best while details often are mistaken; government reports have an additional set of problems, scholarship is subject to paradigmatic restrictions, and so forth and so on. The most false, dangerous, immoral, and harmful publication in the world is not a photograph, but a book: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

And for all that, writing, like photography, is a remarkable tool for learning about, knowing, and navigating through the world. If left only to what we see directly, we would know and care about very few people (and no more accurately, by the way: eyewitness testimony is notoriously bad evidence). That we care about victims because we see images of them—or read about them, say, by reading the Diary of Anne Frank—demonstrates that we can expand our capacity to care through our use of the public media. Nor are we trapped in our representations. In fact, belief and experience work both ways: prior belief shapes perception, yet human beings, like other animals, continually adjust their conception of the world based on what they observe.

That said, I’ve gotta like the attention Morris pays to iconic images such as the photo from Abu Ghraib. (Full disclosure: I’m co-author with John Lucaites of No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, and John and I maintain the blog No Caption Needed.) The debate about identifying the specific individual in the Abu Ghraib icon is one measure of the photo’s status: similar efforts are made with every iconic photo. At least two issues need to be noted here: one is that, although indifference to the specific individual in the photo could be a moral mistake, the moral testimony of the photograph requires only that someone is there, not any one person. Morris makes the right distinction but gets things backwards when he claims, “Now we are talking about reality – not about photographs.” No, we are talking about photographs, specifically, about a photograph’s documentation of torture. As with other iconic photographs, the image’s moral power depends on the anonymity of those in the picture. We empathize because the person could be anyone, not because it is this or that individual. The photograph of the napalmed girl running down the road in Vietnam was moving not because it was a picture of Kim Phuc, but because it was a picture of a girl much like children you have known.

This is why I can’t get excited about the stories of who was in the photographs from Iwo Jima, Vietnam, Kent State, or Abu Ghraib. These narratives usually serve to domesticate the image, to transform its powerful call for public action into a feel-good story about private life. Barthes said the photograph could be mad or tame. Locating the individual in the iconic image, however accurately, only tames the photograph and perhaps the public as well.

Photo credit: Shawn Baldwin/New York Times



CSI Expert Determines Famous Times Square Kisser

Time/Life reports that it is their most valued commodity, a photograph that is requested and reprinted more than any other from the archive and – we might add – has been celebrated almost as much as Joe Rosenthal’s “Raising Old Glory on Iwo Jima.” It is, of course, Alfred Eisenstadt’s “Times Square Kiss.” Part of the allure of the photograph is that the kissers are anonymous: They could be everywoman/everyman. Robert and I have written about this photograph in several places, including the namesake for this blog, talking about the power that the image has for civic renewal, but it never ceases to amaze us how entranced the culture is with “who” the “real” kissers are and the incredible lengths to which we go to make the determination. In the 1980s Life magazine sponsored a national search for the sailor and nurse. According to Life the search was “inconclusive,” but that hasn’t stopped everyone from the Dean of the School of Art at Yale to the Naval War College in Rhode Island and a high tech electronics imaging firm in Cambridge, MA from getting into the fray.

Now, Lois Gibson, Houston Police Department forensic artist and Guinness Book of World Records “Most Successful Forensic Artist” reports that the kisser is actually 80 year old Glen McDuffie:

McDuffie the Kisser

Gibson’s method was to have McDuffie don his uniform and pose for new pictures, using “a pillow instead of a nurse.” After measuring his “ears, facial bones, hairline, wrist, knuckles and hand” she compared them with the original photograph. Her conclusion, “I could tell just in general that, yes, it’s him … But I wanted to be able to tell other people, so I replicated the pose.” According to the news report, “Life magazine isn’t convinced.” Neither are we. But we are convinced that the photograph remains a cultural treasure, precisely because people like McDuffie—and no doubt the many who will show up at the August 14, 2007 “kiss-in“—can can see themselves as part of this national imaginary.

Photo Credit: Pat Sullivan/AP

Update: The New York Times has posted a story on the photo at their City Room, and a discussion is developing there.



Back Lot Iwo Jima

Yesterday’s New York Times reports that “Iwo Jima Sculpture, Model for Marine War Memorial, Is Losing Its Home on Floating Museum.” The story is about a statue created as one of the models for the Marine Memorial at Arlington Cemetery. Since 1995 it has been part of the Sea, Air, and Space Museum on the aircraft carrier Intrepid. Museum officials have decided that the statue has no place in a renovation now underway. Other items have been shipped out to other museums, but there are no takers for the statue.

Is the Iwo Jima icon being consigned to the back lot of US public culture, or, worse, the scrap heap of history? Could happen, of course. Photographic icons are not immortal and many have strong generational resonance. Ken Burns has remarked that his forthcoming documentary on The War reflects his sense of urgency about recording soon-to-be-lost oral testimony. Perhaps he also sensed that his primary audience was slipping away as well.

The photo accompanying the story reflects some of these tensions.


The flagraising dominates the middle of the frame but also is set back as if receding into blue (heavenly) sky beyond and then into the vanishing point of the picture. The lighting, faux bronze hues of the men, and bright flag give the sculpture a heroic cast, but it also looks colorized in comparison with the rest of the picture and, more important, with the iconic photograph that was the inspiration for the statue. The effect seems contrived, as if to evoke reverence that already has faded, or to appeal to a younger audience that already has too many flashier distractions.

This sense of futility is reflected in the other figures in the picture. On the far right, we see a young man; if he isn’t old enough to be drafted, he soon will be. He is the natural successor to those memorialized by the statue, whose civic republican aesthetic carries with it the anxiety that the sacrifices of one generation will be squandered by those who follow. This is the visitor who should be gazing reverently up at the model of civic virtue. Instead, he isn’t looking at the statue, and he seems to be either fixated on the kilted bagpiper in front of him or hurrying by as if intent on getting to something more pressing such as the cafeteria. The piper, who is hard to pick out of the background figures, seems to be another contrivance, and his Scottish costume suggests that the whole tableau is one of pastiche. Other figures continuing leftward around the statue also are looking away. The only person looking at the flag raising is the woman in the wheelchair that dominates the left foreground. Indeed, she is the counterpoint to the statue: both sit in metal, and her umbrella points directly to the base of the flagpole. Thus, the one connection being made in the picture is between able-bodied men in the past and a disabled woman in the present. This does not bode well for the statue.

The full implication might be that times have changed and different people are dealing with different issues. We need national solidarity and heroic effort not on the battlefield but in health care reform. We need museums, too, of course, and we may still have good use of the Iwo Jima icon. What we don’t need, however, is to keep one of several poorly crafted statues in the public eye. Today, as in 1944, the public art that counts is photojournalism.


Photograph by Librado Romero/The New York Times.



Iconic Tattoos

Or tattoos of icons, anyway. We already have an image of an Iwo Jima flag raising tattoo on our images page, but this complementary portrait of World War II victory culture just turned up:


Tattoos are emblems of personal identity and of identification with collective symbols. They must mean a lot to some people, but what they mean remains a matter of interpretation, as the discussion here makes clear. The body in this photo obviously was born well after V-J Day, yet another example of how icons can be carried across generations.


Iwo Jima: fact or fiction

A letter to the editor of this month’s Journal of American History is the most recent example of a typical debate about how to interpret iconic photographs. The author, Robert W. Gabrick, writes:

The recent release of Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) caused me to revisit Paul C. Rosier’s article, “‘They Are Ancestral Homelands,'” in the March 2006 JAH, which featured Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph of the Iwo Jima flag raising. The caption in the article declares, “Ira Hayes (a Pima) is not quite reaching the flag, his pose an unintended symbol of his inability to secure basic rights after returning home to New Mexico” (p. 1304).
The person Rosier identifies as Pfc. Ira Hayes is, according to an Associated Press print, Pfc. Franklin R. Sousley. Hayes is not the last person on the left, but the second figure on the left. Hayes has both hands firmly on the flag’s staff. As a result, the photograph does not offer Hayes’s “pose” as a “symbol of his inability to secure basic rights after returning home to New Mexico.” . . .

Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that the fact-checker is wrong. If I recall correctly, Bradley’s Flags of Our Fathers makes a good case, right down to pointing out that the blanket hanging from the last figure’s belt was an adaptation of traditional Pima dress.


The letter goes on:

It is also important to keep in mind that at one point all of the men in the photograph had their hands on the flag’s staff and that eventually the hands of all of the men would not be “reaching the flag.”. . .

A good point, but a small one. Any symbolism depends on what is in the picture, and what was there or not there moments before or afterwards can in fact carry very different implications. But, of course, the image is used because of what it signifies. Earlier and later images were available on the same roll of film, but they were not chosen.

The next point focuses on a persistent myth about the Iwo Jima photograph:

The caption states: “The presence of Hayes in this staged event also came to symbolize ethnic integration” (ibid.). The characterization of the action depicted in the photograph as a “staged event” offers an interpretation equally problematic. That it was “staged” suggests that the entire episode was mere propaganda. My research suggests the photograph was more the result of fortunate circumstances. Lou Lowery, a Marine photographer, had photographed an earlier flag raising. The opportunity for Rosenthal developed because Lt. Col. Chandler Johnson wanted a larger flag on top of Mt. Suribachi. He gave the flag to Pfc. Rene Gagnon, barely visible behind Pharmicist’s Mate Second Class John Bradley, second from the right. Rosenthal took a series of photographs of this second flag raising. He sent the film to Guam for developing, and the photograph was already widely published before he ever saw it.

That’s the correct account as Bradley and others have documented it, but the idea that the iconic image was staged will not go away. There will be several reasons for its persistence, but one of them may be that the term “staged” inadvertently touches a deep truth about iconic images, which is that they are performative. So it is that people can talk past one another: if you see a photo only as a representation, then you want to know if it is accurate; if you understand that the photo (and not the event depicted) also is a performance in a public space, then you need to appreciate how it works artistically, emotionally, symbolically . So it is, perhaps, that the author of the original article was disposed to use the term “staged,” and why Gabrick would not want to see it that way. He concludes:

Rosier’s use of the photograph to link Hayes to the larger issues he raises is faulty. The use of photographs to advance a particular point of view is acceptable only if the factual basis for the interpretation is established.

Well, yes and no. Iconic images are used to advance many points of view, most of which can’t be dismissed solely be reference to a factual basis of interpretation. More to the point, publics use photographs as both fact and fiction, documentary witness and parables for interpretation. Both are important. Both need to be true, but truth does not follow a single set of criteria, even when it seems to be something that you can see.


Soft News from Iwo Jima

U.S. seeks Marine killed on Iwo Jima

By Eric Taldadge, Associated Press Writer

TOKYO – A U.S. search team on Iwo Jima is slashing its way through thick, thorny brush to find a cave where the Marine combat photographer who filmed the iconic World War II flag-raising is believed to have been killed by machine gunfire.


It’s the first American search of the remote Japanese island in 60 years. The team is seeking the remains of Sgt. William H. Genaust and other Marines who died in the battle for Iwo Jima, a turning point in the war with Japan.

This is today’s example of how icons generate stories. Often they are stories of the people photographed or the photographer, or of how photographer and those in the picture developed a relationship in later years. The iconic image seems to create a need for narrative continuity and closure. The image may create a social rupture or simply a need for to know more about those we become attached to, but the stories always appear and keep appearing. This story of a second cameraman, one all but forgotten, may demonstrate the historical and emotional depth that the Iwo Jima image has acquired.

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