We've Seen It Before

by David L. Jacobs

In The Power of Photography, Vicki Goldberg has written a comprehensive and readable book on photographs that have changed our views of ourselves and the world. Goldberg discusses the impact of photography after its appearance in 1839 in such diverse work as photographs from the Civil War, early scientific photography, police and surveillance photography, Western landscapes, and the time-efficiency studies of workers by Frederick Winslow Taylor and Frank B. Gilbreth.

The emphasis of the book, predictably, is on documentary and photojournalism. There is a black adolescent from Chicago who was beaten to death on a visit to Mississippi. Jet magazine published a photograph of his battered face in 1955, but it took more than 30 years for the white press to publish it, and then only as a part of the first episode of the TV documentaryEyes on the Prize (1988). Iconic images such as Lange’s Migrant Mother, Rothstein’s cow skulls, the explosion of the Hindenburg, Bourke-White’s photograph of prisoners at Buchenwald, and the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima, are reproduced and discussed at length.

Special attention is given to the 1960s and early 1970s when several images achieved iconic status through documenting the violence and turmoil of the period. There are ample discussions of Che Guevara’s death photograph (1967), Ron Haeberle’s photography of the My Lai massacre (1970), Eddie Adams’ photograph of an assassination in the streets of Saigon (1968), the Kennedy and Oswald assassinations (1963), the screaming girl at Kent State (1970), and Nick Ut’s photography of children feeling napalm (1972). Goldberg discusses some of the sociopolitical contexts of the events depicted in these photographs as well as their subsequent publication in newspapers or magazines.

This is well-ploughed territory, and even though Goldberg doesn’t turn up much new sod, her discussion is certainly well researched. Her writing, although too breezily casual at times, is clear and well paced. She has a good ear for anecdotes. Goldberg reminds us, for example, that in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories a huge blow-up of Eddie Adams’ General Loan Executing a Vietcong Suspect serves as a “backdrop for dialogue about human suffering and the complaint that ‘everything’s over so quickly, and you don’t have any idea was it worth it or not.’” And kitschy references like the following on Joe Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima picture, enliven the book: “this may be the most widely reproduced and recreated photograph in history: 3,500,000 posters of the image were printed for the Seventh War Loan drive, 15,000 outdoor panels and 175,000 car cards were published, and the photograph was reproduced on an issue of three-cent stamps. In 1955 the photographer said: ‘It has been done in oils, water colors, pastels, chalk, and match sticks. A float based on it won a prize in a Rose Bowl parade, and the flag-raising has been reenacted by children, by gymnasts…It has been sculptured in ice and in hamburger.’” Someone somewhere must have entombed it on black velvet as well.

Goldberg characteristically develops her themes by discussing early examples and then jumping to subsequent examples culled from more recent times. In her chapter “The Unimpeachable Witness,” for example, she discusses our assumptions about photographic truth through photographs of Civil War atrocities, Muybridge’s galloping horses, and German concentration camps. In another chapter, “Fame and Celebrity,” she touches on the rage for cartes-de-visite, Brady’sGallery of Illustrious Americans, and John Mayall’s photographs of Queen Victoria, before providing a more extensive discussion of Sojourner Truth, the famous emancipated slave who supported herself in large part by selling her photographic portrait. (Her motto: “I’ll sell the Shadow to support the Substance.”)

There are several pages on the risqué photographs of actress Adah Isaacs Menken and her lover, novelist Alexandre Dumas, which were all the rage in mid-nineteenth-century Paris. Goldberg then turns to a 1902 lawsuit concerning a photograph of Abigail Roberon that was used to advertise Franklin Mills flour without Roberson’s permission – an interesting early example of how the courts regard questions of photographic infringement and personal rights. After discussing the famous and the sexy – Clark Gable’s bared chest in It Happened One Night, Betty Grable’s legs, Marilyn Monroe’s swirling dress – Goldberg shifts to how Jackson Pollock’s career was advanced by Arnold Newman’s photographs in Life magazine (1949) and Hans Namuth’s images a few years later.

This far-ranging chapter concludes on the following note: “Photographs sign cruel pacts with youth and beauty and publicity. Lainie Kazan, the singer and actress, told a television interviewer in 1986 that she did not go out of the house for seven years because she could not live up to her airbrushed and retouched portraits. ‘I went to bed in 1969 and didn’t get up until 1976… I would not come out until I looked like my photograph.’”

The Power of Photography brings together photographs that have unquestionably changed our ways of seeing and knowing. The book has the considerable virtue of being accessible to a broad audience. However, this is not a book that poses new questions about the medium or its impact upon society. Despite her ambitious scope and solid research, in the end Goldberg doesn’t shed much light on the inner workings of photographic rhetoric. She gives short shrift ways in which these images were used toward persuasive ends. How, for example, editors decide which pictures should and shouldn’t be published, and in some cases endlessly republished until they achieve near mythic status. We don’t learn much about the deeper structures that created the depicted events in the first place… or how the photographer decided what and how to see and know them… or how the editor/publisher/curator determined what and how to present them… or the incalculable ways that viewers (and by extension, societies) process and assimilate photographic information. Snapshots are ignored, despite their pervasive, if elusive, effects on our self-definitions. And scant attention is paid to ways that photography has represented and reinforced our notions of gender, whether through fashion advertisements or pornography.

While Goldberg touches on some of these issues, it’s usually in a glancing rather than developed way. She is a short-winded writer, which has its benefits when writing columns for photo magazines or reviews in The New York Times (or book reviews in SPOT). But a book with the subtitle “How Photography Has Changed Our Lives” demands a more rigorously theorized perspective than what we get in these artfully assembled short essays. And too, Goldberg’s reflexes are still grounded in the rah-rah-photography mode, which may prevent her from diving headlong into some of the thornier political and philosophical questions that photography presents.

To understand why photographs have exerted such power and influence, we finally must grapple with why people, past and present, need to invest authority into representations of experience. In any rhetorical relationship there is the persuader and the persuaded, and Goldberg, like many photographic commentators, in large measure sidesteps the psychological and sociological dynamics of the latter. Since 1839 we have used these wondrous banal, eloquent mute paradoxical images to pursue, in John Dewey’s phrase, our “quest for certainty.” In order to understand photographic rhetoric we must eventually confront our ancient ongoing rambling trembling quest for fixed knowledge of our fleeting times and lives.

David L. Jacobs is chair of the University of Houston Art Department and co-curator of “Ralph Eugene Meatyard: An American Visionary” organized by the Akron Art Museum.