Iwo Jima, Kent State, Marilyn Monroe, civil rights and the Great Depression have a common thread. They are etched into the national consciousness by the images that recorded them.
| ||Dorothea Lange's 1936 photo of a migrant mother captured the despair of the Depression.|
America's photographic memory will be explored by PBS in "American Photography: A Century of Images" tomorrow on WQED/WQEX. The three-hour series airs at 8 p.m. and uses a small army of experts and thousands of pictures to explore the impact of still photography.
An immediate eye-opener is a picture published in Pittsburgh, but unseen by most of the city's residents, that helped galvanize the civil rights movement.
In August 1955, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago named Emmett Till allegedly whistled at a white woman in segregated Mississippi. A crowd of whites chased down the youth, who was then savagely attacked and killed. The Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender, newspapers published by and for the black community, ran page one pictures of Till's body next to a school portrait of the teen-ager. The comparison is shocking. To describe Till's face as beaten beyond recognition would be an understatement. The only clue his head is human is the fact that it's still attached to his shoulders.
That image outraged a generation of blacks into fighting back through the civil rights movement.
Whites were similarly appalled when photos documenting the repression of black activists began appearing in the mainstream press. Images of police dogs and fire hoses being turned on cowering demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., convinced a wave of whites to join the civil rights cause.
PBS asked the experts why still photography is so compelling. Hal Buell, who directed the photo operation of the Associated Press for many years, explains that when people see a memorable image and have time to examine it, then have that impression reinforced by seeing the picture again, it becomes an icon indelibly linked by the mind to a person or event.
If someone says "World War II," what images leap to mind? Robert Capa's photo of an Allied soldier splashing through the water off the beach at Normandy? Joe Rosenthal's photo of Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima?
Malcolm Browne wrote about the Vietnam War for The New York Times and won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. He notes -- without apparent irony -- that the work of his that has lasted longest in the American memory doesn't involve words. It is the horrifying image of a Buddhist priest going up in flames after committing suicide on a Saigon street with a can of gasoline and a match to protest government repression.
| ||Following the Aug. 10 shootings in a California Jewish community center, Los Angeles Times photographer David Bohrer captured this picture of police leading children to safer ground. The photo will always be synonymous with senseless shootings.|
The photo was so gruesome Browne's own paper wouldn't run it. But others did.
Browne said, "President Kennedy saw it the following morning, and Ambassador Lodge, who was about to go out to Saigon, told me that Kennedy had pointed to this picture of mine and said, 'This just won't do. It's time to get rid of the Diem regime.' "
The PBS special doesn't dwell on death and war, although the experts note that photographs satisfy a need to vicariously experience the darker side of life.
The show has fun with the rise of newspaper tabloids. For viewers who think image fakery began in the digital age, there is a hilarious segment on the "composograph" -- an image in which scissors and glue are used to place celebrities everywhere from the bathtub to the operating room.
The series explores art photography, following its evolution from the beginning of the century, in which photographers struggled to give their images a hand-made quality like paintings, to the '60s where artists like Andy Warhol used the iconographic power of photography as the basis for paintings.
There is a creepy segment on the political photo-op in which former Ronald Reagan adviser Michael Deaver revels in revealing the extent to which he was able to manipulate news coverage of the president.
The show, underwritten by Eastman Kodak, also explores the role of snapshot photography. The introduction of the Brownie box camera in February 1900 and its price tag of only a dollar made photography accessible to the masses. Eager amateurs leaped at the chance to make pictures themselves rather than having to go to a studio. A quarter million cameras were sold the first year.
Wonderful segments are included on tornado survivors being reunited with snapshots blown miles from their homes. Leonard Nimoy recounts an uneasy first meeting with Russian relatives in which the discovery of a 25-year-old photo of his children in the relative's family collection revealed common ground.
A century of photography is a huge amount to distill into even three hours of television. A companion book , also named "American Photography: A Century of Images" ($40, Chronicle Books), has been published for viewers who want to study the photos at a slower pace.
On the small screen, most of photography and history condenses well, although a segment on landscape photographer Ansel Adams is nearly incomprehensible in the low resolution world of TV. A piece on New York crime photographer WeeGee fails to show his real claim to fame -- his pointed sense of the absurd.
The inclusion of 41 experts also gives the series a chaotic feel, as the viewer tries to keep track of who is talking and why their opinion is important. The series glosses over the relative importance of television as a visual medium in one sentence and completely ignores the turn of the century mass media role of stereo photography.
But for the viewer who stays the course for three hours, there is a wealth of insight.
Advertising executive Jerry della Femina says he is awed by the power of photography to sell products and ideas. He said he learned to appreciate the impact of the still photo growing up in an Italian-speaking home in Brooklyn. The family subscribed to Life magazine, looking at the pictures and reading the captions to learn how to be American.
"I can't remember what I ate this afternoon. I can remember what I saw in Life magazine," he said.