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June/July/August 2007
Nikons and Icons

Is the aestheticization-of-suffering critique still valid?

By David Levi Strauss

There was a time, at the end of the 1980s, when the critique of documentary photography based on the “aestheticization of suffering” was so influential that it became virtually impossible to defend documentary practice. Any such defense was regarded as at best naive and at worst ideologically suspect.

Then came 9/11. I have argued elsewhere that the attack on the Twin Towers, the most photographed event in history, effectively reset the clock on documentary images, clearing away years of accumulated censure. The affective unreality of the event cried out for representation, and most people experienced it as an image. Photography’s special capacity as a medium for mourning brought us close to it again and made us realize how much we need public, shared images to make sense of such events. Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) was in part a recognition of this epochal shift, and it revised and updated her earlier views on photographic images and their social effects in On Photography (1977).

Looking back on it now, those earlier critiques of photographic representation appear dated and overdetermined. Too many of the persistent questions about our complex relation to public images were answered as if for good. The trenchant critiques of documentary photography by Martha Rosler, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Allan Sekula, and others were necessary corrections to a great deal of muddled mystification about photographic representation and the real effects of public images. But over time, these critiques became enshrined as definitive, and writers and artists began to treat them as unassailable truths rather than as timely interventions. Students made operational assumptions ostensibly based on, but not always supported by, these texts, and the aestheticization-of-suffering critique entered a period of academic mannerism. . . . .

No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy approaches the question of the social effects of public images very differently. The authors, Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, who come from the field of rhetoric (which they call “both a practical art and a theory of public address”), are remarkably free of the basic assumptions of the aestheticization-of-suffering discourse. They announce early on that they “take aesthetics seriously,” that they consider photojournalism to be “a patently artistic form of public address,” and that “the zenith of photojournalistic achievement is the iconic photograph.” Challenging “the presumption that visual media categorically degrade public rationality,” they approach photojournalism as “an important technology of liberal-democratic citizenship.” . . .
READ MORE Customer Reviews

Looking at the ways iconic photographs matter in this country, June 9, 2007

Reviewer: Lawrance M. Bernabo

This summer I have been having to constantly update the section of content pages in my Pop Culture class dealing with the “Media Lolitas,” and I was thinking of just forgetting about trying to keep up with the escapades of Britney, Lindsay, and Paris and just have “before” and “after” photographs. My thinking was that the iconic images for each of these tabloid princesses were now having a shaved head, being passed out in a car, and crying on the way to jail, respectively. But then I picked up “No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy” by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites and was graphically reminded of what real iconic photographs look like and how such images have a profound impact on not only our popular culture but our popular democracy. . . .

Superb Study of Photojournalism and Democratic Culture, August 30, 2007

By Stephen C. O. Gencarella (Amherst, MA United States)

This is an important book.

No Caption Needed speaks with eloquence to a topic of tremendous significance for contemporary society and the state of democratic public culture. It is a deeply interesting study relevant to academic and general audiences alike. Part history lesson and part analysis of where we are and where we might head, this book examines what democracy means in a culture oriented to the visual. It’s one of those gems that makes the reader rethink the world by pointing out something important right under one’s nose.


Chronicle of Higher Education
November 23, 2007

How the Truth Gets Framed by the Camera

By Louis P. Palmer

Think about the photographs in our lives, the ones we keep on our desks, load on Facebook, take with cellphones and digital cameras, and attach to e-mail messages. Although the word may now be out of fashion, for nearly 100 years these images were known as snapshots. That term, however, covers some very different kinds of photographs — and some very different meanings they have for us. Indeed, in recent years, scholars and curators have been drawn to unpacking those meanings in a thriving study and display of images.

It should not surprise us that this subject has become a growing focus of interest. There has been a revolution in the past decade in digital imaging and visual technology. We live in a world of pixels — picture elements — not only on our monitors but also in our everyday lives. Ours is as much a visual culture as a written or oral one, and of late, images, more than print and speech, have had the greatest impact: Visualize Katrina, Abu Ghraib, 9/11.

All such images are, in effect, snapshots. . . .

Very different, less private snapshots are the pictures taken by photojournalists, which can reach millions of viewers. Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, professors of communication, are interested in the transmission of social knowledge. They argue in No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy that iconic images like Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and Joe Rosenthal’s “Flag Raising on Mt. Suribachi” are essential to a “liberal-democratic citizenship” that demonstrates “the relationship of the abstract individual to the impersonal state.” Thus “Migrant Mother” becomes a brief for social welfare, and “Flag Raising” a testament to the American character.

Such images, however, are not fixed in meaning. Iconic photographs become so for a variety of reasons — their composition, the way they evoke other images in our visual memory, their impact at the moment — and they are also put to various purposes, become clichés, or are drained of original understandings. An icon of poverty like the stark, bleak portrait of Lange’s migrant mother is enlisted in a television campaign for the good life in California when a woman in a red convertible drives down Rodeo Drive and we see the image among the palm trees, a relic clearly from the past; a flag-raising mutates from civic piety to slapstick humor in an episode of The Simpsons when Bart plants the flag at a beach party. . . .

London Review of Books

Imo Jima v. Abu Ghraib

By David Simpson

. . . Debates about the authenticity of photographs, especially war photographs, have been commonplace since at least the American Civil War. In No Caption Needed, Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites are less concerned with these debates than with the ways in which iconic images have been used to propose and renegotiate various kinds of ‘democratic citizenship’ and ‘civic identity’.

Subscribers to LRB can read more at the link above.

Screening the Past

By Mike Lim

. . . the fact that it is American in its scope and address does not render No caption needed irrelevant to those outside the disciplines of American Studies or U.S. politics or history. Again, the quality of its analyses is one reason for this. The other is the sheer recognisability and resonance of the images that it deals with. No caption needed deserves to be read widely for its careful readings of images, its rich scholarship, and its intelligent engagement with visual culture and public discourse.


Review of Communication, vol 8.1 (2008)

Marouf Hasian, Jr., “Iconic Materials, Hermeneutics of Faith, and the Postmodern Reproduction of Public Democracies,” pp. 1-15.

Our response: “Problems and Prospects in the Study of Visual Culture,” pp. 16-20.

This review is available in print form, and online for members of the National Communication Association.

European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 11.

by John Corner

Cultural studies has had a rather strained relationship with photography, one overwhelmingly governed by suspicion. The idea of the photograph as essentially deceptive, routinely duping people in various politically negative ways , has been paramount. Denunciations of the apparent ‘innocence’ of the image have appeared in critical writings with a remarkable degree of repetition, as if, without them, scholars and students were always in danger of slipping back into believing in transparency (not just having their ‘transparent moments’ with a given image). For sure, any social analysis of photography has to recognize its long and continuing history of condensing and ‘naturalizing;’ meanings to strategic purpose. However, its aesthetic and cognitive force, its constitutive impact upon social imagination, needs broader terms of address. How might photography contribute to our understainnding of the world and to constructive critical alignments with it emotionally? How much do our regular enchantment by it (an enchantment whose recognttion in Barthes’ writings is part of their continuing alue) and our routine uses of it deserve more by way of scholarly attention than yet another attack on ‘transparency’ can by itself provide?

The authors of this welcome new monograph try to open up a broader debate about how photographs are put to work and re-worked within public discursive space. . . .

For access to the rest of the review, go here.


Hariman (Northwestern Univ.) and Lucaites (Indiana Univ.) provide an intellectually engaging, highly informative examination of six iconic photographs of the 1930s-80s, framed by three theoretical discussions of visual rhetoric. Professors of communication, the authors assume that public discourse and public arts contribute to the success of democracy. As such, iconic photographs function as public texts, first documenting a specific event and then being adopted by viewers–whether political cartoonists, artists, political demonstrators, advertisers, or ordinary citizens–for their own political or commercial uses. The multifaceted expropriation of the images results in diverse political meanings about group identity, community, and power in modern democratic societies. The authors explore images pertaining to rural poverty during the Great Depression, dissent against the Vietnam War, the democracy movement in China’s Tiananmen Square, and the space tragedies of the Hindenburg and Challenger. The book overflows with thought-provoking insights about the place of visual communication in public culture. Hariman and Lucaites’s interpretations should help students and scholars navigate different scholarly viewpoints about understanding photographs. The footnotes include additional commentary and clarification for readers interested in scholarly debates and the explosion of Internet sources. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. —M. Greenwald, University of Pittsburgh.

Journal of American History, vol. 94.4 (March 2008): pp. 1297-1298

By Bruce Bustard

Those who study twentieth century photography face overwhelming numbers of images. The National Archives holds eleven million. The Library of Congress has collected thirteen million more. Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites’s book No Caption Needed examines only nine. With all those millions of photographs waiting to be explored, one might wonder if studying a handful of very familiar shots is a promising project; but these two communication scholars have written a book that demonstrates a great deal can be learned by closely reading a few photographs we thought we knew. . . . .

The rest of the review is available at The History Cooperative.

The American Interest, May/June 2008, pp. 127-129

by James Rosen

Some will quarrel with the authors’ choices . . . Less easy to overlook are Hariman and Lucaites’s too requent lapses into academese . . . Some political bias colors their work, too. . . .

Still, No Caption Needed is an important book. Whatever its minor flaws, it examines some of recent history’s most influential photographs in original and insightful ways and explains how, why and with what effects these images have entered the modern mind. No Caption Needed deserves a wider readership than it may get, coming as it does from a university press whose promotional resources cannot match those of today’s commercial giants. But if America placed a higher premium on scholarly insights into the conditions of its social and political life, this book would be hailed as a classic.

The rest of the review is available online for subscribers to The American Interest.

The Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol 94.2 (May 2008): pp. 213-216. This review is available in print form, and online for members of the National Communication Association.

Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 6, no. 2, June 2008: pp. 372-373. Available in print and online for members of the American Political Science Association.

Photography and Culture, vol. 1.1 (2008): pp. 129-132. The review is available as a free download here.

Although not labeled a review, David Cheshier’s July 25, 2008 post on The Visual Iconic at The Amateur Humanist provides thoughtful discussion of the book.

[Dutch Journal of Media History] TMG 2.1 (2008): 140-142.  The review is in Dutch.

Journal of Communication vol. 58, no. 3 (2008), pp. 588-596: Review Essay: In Whose Hands? Visual Authority and the Public, Kevin G. Barnhurst and Ryan E. Henke. (One of six books reviewed.)

Invisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Culture, 13 (Spring, 2009).  The review is online here.

Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 12. 1 (2009): 124-125.

Argumentation and Advocacy 44.2 (2007): 110-112.

Rhetoric Society Quarterly 40.1 (2010): 94-97.

Sociologica 2/2011,




6 Responses

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  2. Marcos F. de Brum Lopes says

    I have just bought the book and the reading is nothing but a pleasure. This blog is really helpful as well. I wish it was translated into Portuguese to my fellows in Brazil. Cheers!

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