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June 3, 2007

“Iwo Jima? Uh Oh!”

Hariman-Lucaites Homer

To BAGreaders,

A couple weeks ago, John Lucaites joined our discussion thread about a photo I posted from Greensburg, Kansas.  John, along with Robert Hariman, are co-authors of the newly released No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy.  Their book, and their theoretical approach to iconic photos, closely dovetails with our mission here, emphasizing how political pictures, in a completely practical sense, represent a mainspring of insight into our culture, politics and media.

The following is their “Homerian” follow-up to our Greensburg discussion.

The Migrant Mother, Times Square Kiss, John-John saluting the passing caisson, Accidental Napalm, the lone dissenter in Tiananmen Square, the Firefighter and the Baby … and the list goes on.

We recognize them  across generations, classes, ethnicities, and any other number of demographic borders.  They are what we often refer to as the “iconic photograph” – the photojournalist’s “command performance.”  They have become so important that in many instances we don’t believe that an event is actually significant unless there is an iconic photograph to mark it.

The question is, what makes an iconic photographic “iconic”?  There are numerous answers to this question, not least being their powerful emotional resonance, but at least one important attribute of all those images that seem to achieve the status of iconicity is their reproducibility.

The iconic photograph – although not alone in this regard – is characteristically reproduced across a wide variety of media and genres, and in contexts that exceed the moment of its original production, sometimes being used to mark history (as when an image such as the Times Square Kiss becomes the visual marker of  “the return to normalcy” following WW II), sometimes to fuse individual and collective identity (as when one has the image of the Iwo Jima flag raising tattooed on their arm or back), sometimes to note ironies (as in many editorial cartoons that draw on the images), and many other uses as well.

In short, iconic photographs become primary resources of visual quotation and function as storehouses of the classifications, economies, wisdom, and gestural artistry that make up social interaction.  Because they are distinctively public images, they recast social knowledge with regard to the distinctive concerns and roles of public culture – what it means to see and to be seen as a citizen.

A few weeks ago there was a discussion here at The Bag concerning the most recent visual quotation of what by some accounts is the most famous photograph ever, Joe Rosenthal’s Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.  This image has been much written about and commented upon, but what makes it especially interesting is how often and how widely it has been reproduced and appropriated to often competing political ends and usages.

A quick search at e-bay, for example, will show that it has been emblazoned on key chains, t-shirts, book covers, and fine china, as well as reproduced in figurines.  It has been recreated in numerous contexts ranging from the most patriotic (the statue in Arlington Cemetery being the most famous such example, but by no means the only one) to the silly (as on a gag T-shirt that replaces the Iwo Jima flag pole with a fishing rod).

And, of course, it has become something of a template for marking a certain kind of patriotism, as it is “seen” in apparent repetitions in places like the image of the firefighters at the WTC and in the image from Greensburg, Kansas.

Hariman-Lucaites Eastman2That different people see it in different ways (as the discussion in The Bag indicated), some underscoring a certain piety, and others a certain cynicism, underwrites a key point: iconic images contain common appeals for influencing  the public, but they also are also are open to interpretation.

To continue with the Iwo Jima image, consider two very different usages, one underscoring a pious interpretation of the image, the other a more cynical interpretation.  The first usage comes from an advertising brochure for the George Eastman House, a museum in Rochester, NE York.

The picture is, of course, “cute”: the rhetoric of military honor is performed by a small, rumpled child; he is so caught up in observing that he is unaware of being observed; instead of being what he desires to be, a soldier engaged in heroic action, he is a civilian immobilized by spectatorship.

The brochure is an exercise in civic education, albeit one that portrays the public as a child.  It also is one that extends the designs in the iconic image.  Although still male, now more obviously white, and less ambiguous regarding class, the use of the child is an egalitarian trope that orients the model citizen towards acts of service and sacrifice on behalf of the nation.

Likewise, the range of imitation is extended from military to civilian action, while a lack of self-consciousness is again presented as an important part of democratic identity.  Of course we need to note too that the appeal to patriotism is in some measure secondary here, as the point of the brochure is not so much to encourage civic action as consumerism, i.e., to become a “member” of the George Eastman House.

Explicitly ironic usages and appropriations of the image abound, often found in editorial cartoons where one element of the image (the flag, the flag raisers, etc.) is substituted for in a way that underscores a deep irony about the power of the original image or the ways in which we have failed to live up to it in contemporary times.  The tension between piety and irony is indicated most powerfully by, of all people, Homer Simpson.

Homer, of course, is the paragon of unfettered desire.  In Season 4, he is bequeathed a collection of potato chips molded in the form of celebrities “such as Otto Von Bismarck and Jay Leno.”  When he comes across a potato chip in the form of the flag being planted on Iwo Jim he immediately acknowledges its cultural significance by uttering “uh-oh!”  Then, after contemplating it for no more than two seconds, he succumbs to temptation, pops it in his mouth, and eats it.

Instead of the individual sacrificing himself to the community, we have the communal icon being sacrificed to the most banal of individual desires, the impulse to eat junk food. The image, which began as a sacred emblem of the nation’s greatest collective achievement and a model of civic identity, is profaned in potato paste as a symbol of the nation’s love affair with commercial consumption and an unbridled individualism.

Political history has become popular culture, the selfless, heroic citizen has become the acquisitive individual defined by consumption.

Many other examples could be invoked here, but the point is that the Iwo Jima flag raising demonstrates how iconic photographs have strong qualities of artistic performance that facilitate civic life.    They can’t do it all, however.  To use images well, we ought talk about them: to admire them, criticize them, and argue about what we see together.

That’s why The Bag is important, and why we encourage readers to argue with us and with each other about photojournalism and public culture.

>>  Note:  John and Bob will be available in the discussion thread to respond to comments, as well as to answer any questions. <<

Robert Hariman is professor of in the department of communication studies at Northwestern University and the author of Political Style: The Artistry of Power.

John Louis Lucaites is professor of in the department of communication and culture at Indiana University. He is coauthor of Crafting Equality: America’s Anglo-African Word.

Some of this material was taken from No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, recently reviewed here.

(images: FOX Television. Selma’s Choice, Episode 9F11, originally broadcast Jan. 21, 1993.  brochure: George Eastman House. Rochester, N.Y.)

  • Greg Koos

    I rather think the boy in the brochure image is intended to convey the idea of a legacy being passed to a new generation. The message here is that it is in the public’s interest to convey important lessons and facts to those who will follow us. This is a pretty standard appeal in museum fund raising – and this is a fund raising brochure.

  • John Lucaites

    Greg’s point is well taken. And wholly consistent with our reading of this pious usage of the image. The only question is, what is the “legacy” or “important lesson” being handed down? And here it seems pretty clear that whatever civic identity we see being performed, it clearly inflects it through a model of the citizen-child as both “spectator” and “consumer.” Remember, our central concern is with “how” certain images with huge recognition factor and cultural resonance get “used” in ways that exceed their original context of production and publication. And such usage will always alter or inflect the meaning in a somewhat different direction (depending upon the particular interest being used), even as it might engage a specific tradition (here one that draws on and reenforces a certain sense of patriotism).

  • Cactus

    I wonder if there are stages in the life of an iconic image. For instance, the Iwo Jima photo when first published, struck a chord of passion in a country weary of war and war talk. It wins awards and is reprinted countless times and it settles into the comfortable iconographic status among all who see it. A younger generation who only heard about WWII from older family members learns to revere the photo. The next generation grows tired of what they sense is sentimentalism and looks for ways to take potshots at such iconography. The luster having been removed from its status, the corporations and NGO’s take the opportunity to capitalize on its remaining iconic value, e.g., the Eastman photo above. The anti-sentimental cynicism stage then takes over and we have the Homer episode, which is gobbled up by a whole new generation of iconoclasts.
    Of course, this doesn’t work for all images. IMHO the napalm image may always be too sensitive to ridicule because we sense that it is terror of a real person who survived and lives (I think) in Canada. Plus the fact that we lost that war. That we were the victors may be the reason certain photos become overly sentimentalized and hence the grist for the cynic’s mill. ‘Times Square’ has been satirized on TV and I’m sure Tiananmen will be next. John-John was on the verge of satirization but got a reprieve because of his airplane crash and the firefighter w/baby is still too raw to judge. It took Iwo Jima flag over three decades to transition.
    I may be getting too off-topic here, but I’m also wondering if there is a left-right dichotomy to the progression from icon to satire. The IJFlag became a patriotic icon, hence ‘of the right.’ The Dust Bowl photos were a left project about poverty (not a right-wing concern). John-John refers to a popular left president who was assassinated. Since most artists (but not all) are more liberal/progressive, is it easier for them to satirize icons of the right?
    I’d also like to comment on Eastman’s use of the young male image. I have the pamphlet that came with my first camera, a Kodak Brownie in the 1040’s. It shows a boy of about 12 developing film and the brochure says “…a perfect hobby for your boy.” How would that Eastman photo above change if it were a little girl standing in front of it. Would it become obscene to see a girl viewing a male patriotic iconographic image?

  • John Lucaites

    Cactus: All good questions and I’ll try to respond to them more fully tomorrow. One point now: we had the same sense about “napalm,” i.e., there would be no parodies of it for the reasons you state. But boy were we wrong … they are plentiful and run a huge gamut of possibilities. We discuss some of them — and list a number more — in No Caption Needed. Another one we thought would be immune from profane appropriations was John Filo’s “Kent State Massacre,” but there too we were wrong.

  • John Lucaites

    Cactus: I promised more of a reaction to your excellent observations. You are spot on correct about the life cycle of iconic images. What is most interesting for us in this regard is how the underlying transcriptions of meaning continue to live on in the image and thus fuel the cynical or consumerist appropriations. So, for example, one doesn’t have to know that the Iwo Jima image took place in WW II (hard to believe, I know, but I have more than a few students who think it is an image from the Korean or Vietnam Wars) to identify the ways in which the aesthetics of the image coordinate a sense of egalitarianism, nationalism, and civic republicanism (as, again, my students are able to identify with a great deal of facility). This might give us some pause the next time we see studies telling us how little “history” our students really know … While I would certainly feel better about their having the “facts” straight, there is another kind of “knowledge” or “understanding” about such histories that they DO get – what we might call the “meaning” of history – and this can certainly be for BOTH good and ill. This is something we need to think more about — especially in terms of how a visual history animates our memory of and understanding of the past — and it is a project, I think, that The Bag does a great job of animating.
    Another point about life-cycles of such images: Sometimes the images can simply die. This might be happening to the “Migrant Mother” image. Increasingly students claim never to have seen the image and know nothing about it (though again, they can usually identify the sense of vulnerability and social responsibility being invoked). So, original prints can still be sold for enormous sums in public auctions, and the image can be appropriated by The Nation to take shots at Wal Mart, but there is also a certain degradation to the influence and power of the image for more recent generations (who probably simply have little contact or resonance with Depression-era America ). We try to mark this on the cover of No Caption Needed with the Warholesque appropriation of the image and the increasing degradation across time.
    For me, your most provocative comment has to do with what happens to the Eastman House brochure if we change the boy to a girl. That’s a great question, particularly if the captions (Get in the Picture, Membership) stay the same. I’m not sure that it would be pornographic, though I’d like to hear your ideas on that. I do think it would complicate notions of the “gaze” – who is looking at whom, what does it mean to see/be seen as a citizen (and by whom) – and would perhaps resonate differently in an age of Jessica Lynch and Lyndie England than in an age of Rosie the Riveter.
    But again, these are precisely the kinds of questions we need to be talking about.

  • readytoblowagasket

    We recognize them across generations, classes, ethnicities, and any other number of demographic borders.
    Can you please back up this claim with some examples? By “We,” I’m assuming you mean all Americans, yes? But how do you know the photographs recognizable to white, middle-class Americans (a.k.a. Baby Boomers) are recognizable to all Americans, regardless of age, class, “ethnicity” (whatever that means exactly), and I would add, education? Many of the iconic images you cite are widely used in school textbooks, which need to succinctly illustrate historic events that otherwise require hundreds of words to describe and explain to readers. So can’t an argument be made that the education system in this country (as it adapted to the influx of the Boomers) has dramatically influenced what makes an image “iconic” (rather than saying we somehow need to have an image illustrate an event for us because we don’t believe that an event is actually significant unless there is an iconic photograph to mark it)? It bothers me the images you cite here as iconic are all connected to the experience of white Americans. African Americans (and other groups) in this country would argue that they need to have their experiences more widely represented (and disseminated) in images in the first place. So how can visual icons be One Size Fits All? Or is iconic status imposed on all of us by dint of majority opinion?

  • John Lucaites

    To “Readytoblowagasket”:
    Again, these are all important comments, and I don’t write that gratuitously. I’m a bit new to the blogosphere and trying to summarize a 400 page book in a blog post is, well, hard. So, it results in generalizations … and lots gets left out. But we (Bob Hariman and I) address all of this in No Caption Needed and I hope you will read it to get the fuller texture of analysis we are offering.
    The reference to “we” that you call attention to is those “publics” that are invited to see themselves in the images and show some evidence of accepting the invitation (through reproduction, appropriation, and the like). So you are right to suggest that there are strong biases here driven by race, class, ethnicity and gender considerations. How do we “know” that those outside the mainstream see themselves here? In the book we track patterns of circulation and appropriation. So, for example, the Times Square Kiss is very obviously an image of a heterosexual kiss, but then we discover numerous appropriations (including a rather famous one on the cover of the New Yorker) that have two men doing the kissing. There is a certain cynicism here, of course, but it surely invites consideration of how the gay culture imagines itself in relationship to the dominant image/culture. In another such appropriation (an advertisement this time) the kissers are black, which suggests other possibilities. Does everybody get them? Well, no, not in any totalizing sense. But it is also pretty clear we think that the audiences that do get them are far from homogenous — if they were we doubt there would be the wide range of appropriation, parody, and the like.
    And you are absolutely correct about education – textbooks do play a big role here and we discuss this in some detail in our chapter on the Hindenberg and Challenger images in particular – but don’t forget that civic education takes place in lots of different registers, including newspapers, magazines, coffee table books, advertising, etc. And in an important sense the images that get reproduced the most – cherished and vilified by various publics, all of whom imagine some stake in the larger public culture – are the ones that appear in all of these venues a lot … far more than most other images.
    The issue of race and whiteness is an especially important topic and we are very sensitive to it. In our study, however, we discovered that while there are many important images of race – most of them affiliated with either lynching or the Civil Rights Movement – there are none that really take on the singularity of presence or influence that the “icons” take on. There is much more substitution of images for particular events and far less appropriation. We are currently working on this to figure it out. But our concern in this book was to take account of what seems to frame the dominant public culture – and yes, that poses political questions and problems.
    As to whether we need icons to make an event significant … I think maybe you misread our point (or more likely I wasn’t clear). What I was trying to suggest was the growing attitude one hears expressed by numerous people – including media professionals – that we have to find “the” image that marks an event, almost AS IF the event were not significant absent such an image. And here, I am thinking in particular of how much attention was devoted during 9/11 to finding “the” image of the event, or the war in Iraq, Katrina, etc. I’m not sure what this is a symptom of. It might be that we are truly becoming a “visual” culture that lives in the realm of the simulacrum. Or it may be something else … I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on that.

  • Cactus

    John, to address your last point first, traditionally, art has been the depictions of more or less naked women and the observer assumed to be male. Is it possible that this “mind-set” is still with us, no matter what the image? For instance……In the late 1950’s, one of my bosses had an advertising photo of a naked woman in an airline seat of the company in question. He passed it around the (male) engineers but hesitated when I wanted to see it because ‘he didn’t want to embarrass me.’ To which I replied that I had, indeed, seen a naked female body before. Without realizing it he was covering up his own embarrassment by projecting it on me. The power in these situations is in the observer. When the boy looks at the IJFlag photo, he is looking forward to his manly self. If a girl were to be looking at it, it becomes a female ’seeing’ a totally male activity. Is it that, in some subliminal way, a girl looking at that photo would be taking the power from the photo, or from the male activity and, thereby, castrating maleness itself?
    BTW, you mentioned Jessica Lynch and Lyndie England vs. Rosie the Riveter. Seen as mythology, Jessica had to be “rescued” by a cordon of males and Lyndie was punished for ‘looking’ at naked men. Hmm… Rosie, OTOH, took a man’s tool and did a man’s job and looked us in the eyes while doing it. That’s power!
    About the “Migrant Mother,” I don’t think I’ve seen any satirizations of it, but that’s probably my fault. As to its resonance with young people today, I can understand that because it basically affected probably only two areas of the country, the dust bowl midwest and the west coast where the immigrants fled. I live in California and haven’t heard the word “Okie” for a few decades now. I wonder if this could be the same phenomenon as losing the war, the dust bowl being a heart-breaking event for thousands of people who were reluctant to talk about it. Or maybe it has to do with the shame associated with such a failure of the supposed American self-reliance. My mother was an “Arkie” and carried that shame with her to San Diego.
    Your comment, “….to identify the ways in which the aesthetics of the image coordinate a sense of egalitarianism, nationalism, and civic republicanism …” brought up another thought. Perhaps the power of these images we think of as iconic lies in the emotions evoked in the viewer. “Migrant Mother” e.g., shows the pain of poverty, “Napalm” shows the horrors of war, and they do it in such a way that the viewer, without even knowing the history or location of the image, can take away from it a feeling of injustice that must be rectified. At least, I think that’s what you were saying; please correct me if I’m wrong here. And sad to say, I also think the reason students today are not familiar with the photos of the depression era, such as MM, is perhaps a deliberate obliteration of evidence of the failure of capitalism. Just a thought……
    I appreciate your thoughtful answer……..I have much more to think about.

  • ummabdulla

    I had the same question as readytoblowagasket. As a Baby Boomer who grew up in white, middle-class, suburban America, these photos are familiar to me – except for the one of Tiananmen Square, which I couldn’t identify. But I’m also interested in whether these really are so well-known to Americans of other backgrounds. (And I assume that we’re only talking about Americans.)
    But thanks, Michael. Call me shallow, but I was happy to see an image of Homer Simpson instead of more politicians. ;) No, really – it’s an interesting topic and discussion, and the book sounds good.

  • readytoblowagasket

    Please, call me rtbag.
    I do have some thoughts about media professionals’ quest for “the” image to mark every major current event, but it’s going to take me a little longer to gather my own thoughts into a coherent, blogosphere-worthy response.
    In the meantime, thank you for your explications. I’m trying to understand your definition for iconic images, so I have still more questions. Sorry!
    I’m curious if images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Buzz Aldrin on the moon (appropriated by MTV), or Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics qualify as iconic? Along these lines, have you studied images not taken by professional photojournalists or images without people in them?

  • John Lucaites

    Your psychoanalytic reading – Freudian, I’d say – is interesting and clearly calls attention to another transcription in the image that underscores connections between nationalism and gender, a point reinforced by your deft reminder that Jessica Lynch and Lyndie England were both caught and disciplined within the same symbolic and political registers (regimes?). To see it as pornographic, however, we would have to imagine “what” the young girl would see.
    She could be “undressing” the flag raisers, making them “naked,” and in the process affecting castration or she could be seeing them in a desiring gaze – either admiring what they are accomplishing or imaging what it might be like to be them. How might we tell? I’m not so sure.
    On the MM: The parodies here are not as numerous as for other images, but they are there. But remember that “parody” is only one version of appropriation and reuse. More commonly we find the image used as a template for other images. So, for example, a few years back Time did a cover with a woman in Kosovo and her baby that was clearly a “visual quotation” of the original. And the image is used in editorial cartoons and other places. Why it is less and less recognizable is a bit harder for me to get a handle on. I want to resist the notion that there is some sort of conspiracy (“deliberate obliteration of evidence”) if only because I think that such a thing would be almost impossible to pull off, particularly in the age of the www.
    And yes on the issue of emotion. You have it exactly right. Though I think we need to work to nuance the sense in which those emotions are “invoked in the viewer.” I’d want to at least retain a strong sense that the “invocation” is in some strong measure a matter of “invention” and a modicum of aesthetic eloquence that functions to manage and control the emotions in a variety of ways. Many point to the “horrors of war” invoked by “Accidental Napalm” and they are surely there. BUT there were other images taken and circulated at the time that were far more gruesome and horrifying than the image that has achieved iconic status, and we have hardly seen them again. The same could be said about many (if not all) iconic images. But yes, they are powerful emotional markers and we need to work harder to understand how such public and political emotions work in a more productive way (rather than to assume with so many iconoclasts that images and emotions together get in the way of “reason” and a “true” democratic life.
    Thanks for your thoughts and comments. If you get to see the book I’d be interested in hearing your take on our larger argument about how iconic photographs in mainstream American mark a shift form a liberal-DEMOCRATIC public culture (where the focus is on collective interests and social welfare, etc.) to a LIBERAL-democratic public culture (where the focus is on the citizen as individual/consumer). But to talk about that you really need to take account of the bredth of our argument across numerous pictures and appropriations.

  • John Lucaites

    Keep the questions coming. We are operating with a somewhat narrow definition of the iconic photograph. In some usages the term is used to identify any famous or popular image or any image that simply marks an event. Such types of images are important, but we want to distinguish those images that become important to public/civic culture and which seem to take on a life of their own well beyond their initial production. Your question about non-professional photographers is much to the point here. We have become very interested in photojournalism as a mode of public art that has to do with more than just illustrating events of the day, but which underwrite a very normative sense of what it means to be a citizen. So the quick answer is, no, we have been looking at the images of professionals. Of course, “photojournalism” is undergoing something of a transformation. We are currently working on lynching imagery and the ways in which it has been transformed from literal lynchings (“strange fruit” photographs of the sort we find in Without Sanctuary) to more metaphoric “lynchings” such a we find with images of Rodney King being beaten, and of course here we have an image by a non-professional performing the role of the photojournalist. And note, again, the way in which it creates something like a scopic regime for observing and disciplining “citizenship” (almost however you read the image). So if the next question is, do iconic photos have to be by professionals, the answer is no, not necessarily, but most from the past have been. This my have as much to do with networks or production and circulation (and how the www is changing that) as anything.
    As to the other images you mention: Yes, I think they are all iconic. We don’t write very much about any of them (I think we make some passing references to Hiroshima), but the book is already 400 + pages and we are focusing on 9 images. So we figured we have to stop at some point. The Smith/Carlos image could be the exception to our claims about the problem of race, although we think it is more of a minor image I some measure … but this is surely open to debate and something we’d be happy to talk about more. Do we do pictures w/o people? Yes and no. If you mean do we do landscapes or still lifes of some sort, the answer is no. But then I’m not sure I can think of any such images that meet our criteria for iconicity and implicate questions of public/civic culture. If you have some in mind I’d be interested in hearing about them. On the other hand, we do a chapter on the Challenger Explosion which in one sense has no people, though technically we are looking at death in process. This image is, in this respect, quite like the Hiroshima image, where the public interpretive frameworks for the image direct attention away from the fact that the images are pictures of people being incinerated: in the Challenger image we have the sheer “beauty” of the image inflected by Ronald Reagan’s words describing the astronaut’s “touching the face of God”; in the Hiroshima image we have the pure of “sublimity” of raw, unleashed power famously captioned by Oppenheimer who is reputed to have witnessed the explosion and quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” thus marking the famous image as transcending individual deaths and seeing the face of an awesome godly power.

  • Cactus

    John, I just ran smack into one of your points about younger generations. At a ‘Philosopher-Citizen” forum I met a 30-something woman named Rosie. I quipped oh, like Rosie the Riviter. She had no clue, yet she was a vibrant, interested and seeking person. But I guess the reason I think that is sad is because I’m so connected to images I just assume that everyone is. Sadly, not true.
    “…To see it as pornographic, however, we would have to imagine “what” the young girl would see….” I am puzzled by your use (twice) of “pornographic.” While I’m no psychoanalyst, nor Freudian, I never used the porno word. The views I expressed came from personal observation and some slight knowledge of art history. But I am a woman living is what is more and more apparently a man’s world. I seriously doubt a ten-year-old girl would be “undressing” the flag-raisers or seeing them naked. What I meant, and probably mis-stated, was that from a male’s viewpoint, a girl looking at a powerful male image brings up a whole different set of feelings, assumptions, whatever. In this photo of male warriors, doing the job of claiming victory for their tribe over the defeated, a man looking at a boy looking at that photo could be expected to have feelings of compassion, fatherliness and such, sort of a handing over of the scepter of manhood. However, a man looking at a girl looking at that photo might elicit much more confused reactions. Reactions such as we have recently seen in the male bashing of powerful women like Clinton and Pelosi and Sheehan and ODonnel. Of course, I’m speaking here of stereotypes, but isn’t that part of what makes a photo iconic?
    Well, that’s it for me tonight……….I’m too tired to make sense. I’ll revisit tomorrow with, hopefully, more insight and intelligence.

  • John Lucaites

    Cactus: You used the word “obscene” in your original post and I read the word “pornography.” [I was so convinced that the word was "pornographic" that I had to go back and look. I wonder what Freud would say about that?] Your discussion of the “gaze” (my word not yours) and “castration” only reinforced what I took to be a psychoanalytic reading. “My bad,” as my 13 year old daughter says. As to your main point, there can be no question that there is a key difference invoked by the imagined brochure that would effect questions of “manhood” and by implication nationhood in profound ways. And quite possibly in the ways you suggest. But since what we are describing here is something on the order of a “visual metaphor” we should attend also to the sense in which with any metaphor the “vehicle” effects the “tenor,” but often the “tenor” can effect the “vehicle.” Put differently, to talk about athletics in military metaphors alters what we see on the playing field, but it can also cause us to redefine what we see on the battlefield. So for me the interesting question is whther or not a change in the brochure as you suggest would not only risk changing our understanding of manhood viz. nationalism (what I took to be the “obscene” and “castrating” characterizations) but might also change our understanding of gender more generally, to imagine a world in which women can be warriors too (for good ro for ill … I realize that one is fraught with all sorts of problems).
    Thinking thrugh this reminds me of a photo some students showed me this past semester in a course I teach on “Visualizing War.” I don’t have it anymore, but it was an image from a Veterans Day ceremony at Pearl Harbor. And it had a grandfather and grandson looking at a memorial wall of names of those who died on December 7th. The photo clearly features the child looking at the wall in rather the same way as the boy in the brochure from Kodak. A given your comments I’m caused to wonder if there are ANY instances we might find where the valences are changed? Or have we identified something of a visual topos here, a form that gets repeated in varying contexts? Are there counter examples? There is a great episode of the Simpsons called “Lisa Goes to Washington” and I haven’t seen it in years, but I wonder if they comment on this problem as Lisa encounters the Mall and war memorials? While it moves in a different direction, I’m thinking of those old Nike commercials that feature “Just Do It” and show girls playing sports of one sort or another … there we have girls emulating “men” (well, at least Michael Jordan), but I wonder if that is the same thing at all? There is certainly NO civic dimension to it as the athletes there are all “consumers” and not “citizens.” So perhaps that becomes a key point in thinking about agency here. No answers and something of a ramble, I know. But good conversations are like that. Thanks for the thoughts.

  • Cactus

    John (if you are still with us), my use of ‘obscene’ was more in the general sense of horrific or taboo. I probably should have chosen a better phrase instead of the one-word shorthand. My bad.
    “…[S]trong sense that the “invocation” is in some strong measure a matter of “invention” and a modicum of aesthetic eloquence that functions to manage and control the emotions in a variety of ways….” To address this I’d have to have the background and intelligence of you or The Bag. Perhaps after I read your book (if I can afford it) I’ll be able to formulate an answer. I’m also interested in your concept liberal-DEMOCRATIC vs. LIBERAL-democratic culture…………so I guess I’ll really just have to read your book.
    BTW, I don’t think there is a conspiracy, per se, to devalue or obliterate certain images. However, there is apparently a ‘committee’ whose sole purpose is to ensure that every town in the country has some site or building named for Reagan. Is that a conspiracy? From my observation, all of the many think-tanks are funded and operated by very right wing people, with the possible exception of one or two. They advise and consult on anything and everything. Is that a conspiracy? Or the MSM ‘deciding’ not to be critical of the Bush administration or the Iraq occupation, due to ‘enlightened self-interest?’ Is it so unreasonable, then, to wonder if, when a textbook is being written that one of the ‘advisors’ mentions that there is no need to illustrate the depression of the 30’s because, after all, it was so long ago?
    Sometimes I wonder if the adaptation of these images for commercials (as with the music of the 60’s and 70’s) devalues the image and trivializes it for the current generation as well as the original observers, and in a way that parody and satire do not. But then that leads to a whole discussion of advertising that is outside the scope here.
    Obviously, you have sparked quite a discussion here and we appreciate your taking time to answer our questions. I’ve enjoyed it and I will really try to buy your book. And read it. Thanks.

  • Daniel Venzon

    I find the discussions very thoughtful and interesting and as for the Iwa Jima Icon, no one has mentioned the fact that it was staged as an icon and has remained a very strong image after all these years and the knowledge that it was staged. This really speaks to the fact that, one, we need these images, and two, we will be lead to see what the government or society wants us to see, rather than appreciate events individually and with a personal insight of our own.

  • John Lucaites

    Daniel: There are a number of interesting issues here. First, it is important to note that the Iwo Jima image was not staged, even though that story has circulated since the very beginning and continues to get distributed by folks you would think should know better (the most recent, I think, was the latest Susan Sontag volume before she passed away). I discussed it here at The Bag a few weeks ago. The long and the short of it is that it was indeed the second flag raising that day, but it wasn’t staged and the photograph was something of a luck shot. However, the more important point might be the one you allude to, which is that despite the general assumption by many that it was a staged image, it nevertheless continued (and continues) to have an incredible power and resonance for a wide range of audiences, some who treat it with piety and reverence, some who treat it with a fair bit of cynicism. So you are spot on correct when you say we “need these images.” Put another way, even when people have thought the image was a fake they didn’t seem to care — and this is not the only image that has experienced a similar reaction. The third point, that we see what the government wants us to see is, at least for me, a bit more problematic. It is true, I think, that there are a wide range of institutions – political administrations, the military, and even the media – have a strong interest in promoting certain kinds of images, encouraging us to “see” the world in particular ways. So that far I agree with you. But, I also think it can be much more complicated than that. A particular institution can’t just make an image work however it wants and with impunity … certainly, IMHO, iconic photographs do not emerge with such facility. Think, for example, about how hard the current administration/military worked to feature various images as the “icons” of the Persian Gulf War — pulling down the statue of Saddam, the Marlboro Marine, etc. — and notice how unsuccesful they were. And what has become the icon of the war? Hard to say for sure, but if I had to bet it would be either Lyndie England pointing at naked Iraqui’s or more likely the hooded individual standing on a box with wires attached to his body. That’s surely not what the government wanted us to see. So while I agree with your impulse here, I think we need to push harder on how such images work (and are worked) in a variety of different ways. And thus the importance of sites like this to think through such images, to discuss (and even argue) about them, thus hopefully enriching our sensibilities and contributing to a more robust public culture.

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