Sunday, July 9, 2017

Those Damned Iconic Pictures

I keep coming back to this. The single iconic photo, and its power. Or, really, lack thereof.

I noted in my previous remarks that, somehow, we seem to associate Single Iconic pictures with social changes that occurred before the picture was taken. This, I chalk up to memory effects, the fact that we tend to remember the last thing on a list, the more recent occurrence.

Noodling on it more I think there's also a process of rationalization. We want simple answers, pat answers. We want strong reasons.

I believe in anthropogenic climate change. Not that I want to debate it, but there it is. I suspect that the reason I believe in it is because Al Gore made this movie, which I found convincing. Why was I convinced? Not because the movie is air-tight. In fact it is precisely the sort of well-crafted self-consistent set of things that so often turn out to be bullshit. Did I check any of the scientific facts presented in the film? Nope. Are all those facts even true? Probably not.

I believed the film for essentially emotional reasons. It had the general shape of a strong argument, but more importantly it appealed to my peers, my politics, my history. In short, Gore's film is an effective piece of propaganda. Never mind whether it's true or not.

Over the years since, I have continued to rationalize my belief. The media has not had a Big Reveal that it's all bullshit, in fact the story remains more or less consistently the same. My experience teaches me that this further suggests that it's basically right, in some sense. Kennedy probably was not assassinated by the CIA, and Climate Change is probably a real thing.

True or not, the reasons for my belief are in fact muddy and emotional. All my rhetoric about science and media is merely window dressing, rationalization.

In a similar way I think we seek to rationalize and simplify reasons for changes we see in society, and sometimes those rationalizations crystalize around a picture, or a couple pictures (or a book, or a movie, etc). The US military adventure in Vietnam ended for a wild array of interlocking reasons, one large one being public outcry, a total collapse of public support. The reasons for that outcry, that collapse, are also myriad, interlocking, muddy.

But we like our history simple, so we seize on a simpler version: The US withdrew from Vietnam because of public outcry against the war which was in turn driven by Nick Ut's picture of a naked little girl on fire.

It's rationalization and simplification. The public outcry was driven by a bunch of factors, including but not limited to a steady, apparently unending, drip of media coverage of the war and its atrocities.

Worth noting: I am not the only person who thinks this. The Pentagon, manifestly, agrees. They're very carefully managing the steady drip of media coverage. We know almost nothing about the many dozens of adventures they are currently having abroad, and what little we hear is largely positive (we are heros!) or dramatic (a few of our boys and a helicopter died doing a Super Important Thing). There's nothing of the venal, stupid, dirty, bullshit that is 99.9999% of "warfighting."

A few Abu Ghraib's don't matter, it turns out, though everyone in The Media was pretty sure that one was the Napalm Girl moment that would spell the end of US involvement in Iraq. Oops. Not so much.

And all of this of course, is rationalization for my purely emotional belief that photobooks are the greatest thing ever and the fine print is a dead end. How's my propaganda campaign working for you?


  1. I remember watching that film. They had a screening in my apartment complex. I don't remember much about it though.

    The Pentagon's propaganda machine is A++, absolutely fantastic work they do. Really an example for Armed Forces the world over to strive towards. I've seen parades look scrubbier than the 'In Action' pictures they put out.

  2. Are these iconic photos not 'rallying points' for the like-minded, in a metonymic relationship with the events they form a miniscule part of? In some ways they're like the great national and religious anthems (e.g La Marseillaise, Jerusalem), and patriotic and party songs (e.g. Land of Hope and Glory, Keep the Red Flag Flying, the Horst Wessel Song).

  3. I think ericke just beat me to it. Iconic photos are metaphors or perhaps allergorical. That is why they stick in our heads.

  4. Raising the flag at Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal... does this one ring a bell here?

  5. Several years ago, I forget exactly where, at an art museum, I saw an exhibit of photojournalism's greatist; might have even been the award winners. I had seen them all before in newspapers and magazines so I looked at them then for their technical aspects; and if they weren't technically great, my memory and emotion carried them along. I enjoyed the exhibit. But they were all stuck in an historical timeline - pictures to remember. Great pictures, great or scary memories. Is this what you mean by iconic?

    Frequently, not always, I come across a picture that stops me cold, like Eggleston's Red Ceiling, or Kertesz's Martinique, or Friedlander's Maria, Edinburgh, 1973. Iconic, well maybe a little, depends, eh? Still, single images tell stories within the frame.

    So, while I think I follow your thought, I have to ask, can a single picture be a book? If yes, then I probably wouldn't pay for it, and if no then I'm at a loss.