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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Pictures with Weight

You don't have to look to far to see people talking about Pictures that Changed Everything, and wondering what's going on now. It seems that anyone who fancies himself a bit of a thinker about photography has a go at it. It is commonly thought that Nick Ut's "Napalm Girl" and Eddie Adams photograph of the execution by pistol and a few others changed the face of history. I have almost certainly made this claim myself. I have also claimed that Gene Smith's work at Minamata altered the course of history.

I am no longer convinced that this is quite right. History is more complicated than that. It's right in a sense, but it's not completely right.

The public and policy perceptions of the Vietnam war were on a cusp of sorts, we can observe from our comfortable chair in the future. Public opinion was shifting, policy was following reluctantly behind to one degree or another. The time was ripe. The iconic photos dropped into a super-saturated solution of change, and change obligingly crystallized violently around them. You can argue that the photos were indeed the agent of change, but the point is that it was not blind luck that these particular photos dropped into the world. Other photos, other slogans, other glib essays, other fragments of media, might just as well have been the seed.

Likewise, Gene Smith's work at Minamata crystallized a super-saturated solution of god damn it these corporations are making gigantic messes. Without Nick Ut, without Eddie Adams, without Gene Smith, the changes would still have happened. History would, I think, have played out somewhat differently. Minamata might have never become a scandal, but somewhere else would have, in the hands of another agent of change. Corporate behavior would still have been reined in, the USA would still have left Vietnam, and on more or less the same schedules.

Did the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand "cause" WWI? No. But it catalyzed it. It set the start date. Without that event, WWI would still have occurred, and at roughly the same time. Who attacked who first might have been different, and it might have started weeks or months later, but it was going to happen.

Reading the Pictures, to my amazement, has placed their finger pointedly on an interesting counterpoint (which they then fumbled). The direct our attention to an album of photos from the White House, chronicling the first 50 days of the Trump presidency. Then they cut&paste their own tweets and go on a little about Trump Fake, Obama So Cool.

That's not the point. The point is that the Trump presidency is presenting a particular view of itself. The steady drip of pictures of a Presidential, Strong Trump is obviously a deliberate artifice. The steady drip of Cool, Relaxed, Human Obama was just as much an artifice. You don't think we saw those pictures of Obama looking tired, vulnerable, by accident, do you? These are sophisticated people, being handled by sophisticated media experts.

What can, I suspect, change the course of history is a stream of carefully selected pictures. Compare our notion of the Vietnamese conflict with the Iraqi wars. In the former, there was some silly idea of letting guys with cameras just run around shooting whatever they liked, and that didn't go so well for the guys running the Pentagon. Now they restrict things much more carefully, and the image we get is of a very professionally run war. Whatever that could possibly even mean. This has, I postulate, been instrumental in preventing the creation of that super-saturated solution that got the USA so ignominiously out of Vietnam.

The same things are happening. Our guys are getting hideously wounded, our gear is exploding when it ought not, our guys are screwing up left and right. But we don't see it, and we don't feel it. Even I don't feel it. Even I cannot escape the vague idea that our guys are a bunch of pros and the whole thing is pretty "clean" even though I know it's not. It's exactly the same mechanic by which I "know" that BMW is the Ultimate Driving Machine, that Coca-Cola refreshes, and that Nikon is totally committed to serious photography.

I "know" that Obama is cool, human, and an all around good guy even though I suspect strongly that none of those is true except the middle one, and that only in a strict biological sense. God help me, I might wind up "knowing" that Trump is presidential, and yet tough. The only way to avoid it is to not consume those pictures, I suspect.

One picture doesn't change history. The best it can do is violently crystallize what was already in play. A series of pictures, a media campaign, manages not the crystallization process (it's too late by the time the solution is super-saturated) but the preparation of the solution.

The role photography plays in history, and in the management of the populace (they're often the same thing) has changed radically, and the bad guys are winning.


  1. "The iconic photos dropped into a super-saturated solution of change, and change obligingly crystallized violently around them"... Very nice metaphor indeed.

    My sense, though, is that any change is retrospective, most of us not being in a position to affect the course of history one way or another. Like those earliest childhood memories -- partly real, partly constructed out of scraps of family legend -- our sense of history is mediated by those "iconic" images. I was 9 in '63, have no idea where I was on Nov 22nd, but have a very strong sense of what the Kennedy assassination looked like. I was *there*... Well, kind of.


    1. I am still very smug about that metaphor, thank you for noticing!

      I spent some time this afternoon looking at dates, and there appear to be several cases in which the events "caused by" such and such a photo actually predate the picture, which is a bit of an oops.

      I might have more to say on this, but it's possible that much "super-saturated solution" metaphor might just be bunk. Well, it describes WWI pretty well, but it's not clear it works for pictures at all.