This summer I have been having to constantly update the section of content pages in my Pop Culture class dealing with the "Media Lolitas," and I was thinking of just forgetting about trying to keep up with the escapades of Britney, Lindsay, and Paris and just have "before" and "after" photographs. My thinking was that the iconic images for each of these tabloid princesses were now having a shaved head, being passed out in a car, and crying on the way to jail, respectively. But then I picked up "No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy" by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites and was graphically reminded of what real iconic photographs look like and how such images have a profound impact on not only our popular culture but our popular democracy.
This book looks at nine of the most famous photographs of the past seventy years to examine why these images are so powerful, explain how they remain meaningful across generations, and explore what they expose (and what goes unsaid). The book has nine chapters, most of which are significant revisions of essays examining particular photographs that have previously been published in academic journals (e.g., "Quarterly Journal of Speech"), and all of which represent an interest in how they function rhetorically, as established in the (1) Introduction. (2) "Public Culture, Icons, and Iconoclasts," lays out the author's interpretive method, which includes defining iconic photograph and then identifies five dimensions of cultural meaning that coalesce in the iconic image.
Then we get to the case studies: (3) "The Borders of the Genre: Migrant Mother and the Times Square Kiss," looks at both Dorothea Lange's 1936 photograph of the "Migrant Mother" and Alfred Eisenstaedt's 1945 shot of the sailor kissing the nurse on VJ-Day (to be confused with naval photographer Victor Jorgensen's similar shot known as "Kissing Strangers" that has the virtue of being in the public domain and not owned by TIME-LIFE). The two iconic photos are presented as defining the "greatest" generation and what the authors call the "individuated aggregate," which means individuals who are used to depict collective experiences, in this case the Great Depression and winning World War II respectively. (4) "Performing Civic Identity: Flag Raising On Iwo Jima and Ground Zero" traces how the most popular image of World War II had been used both to celebrate the ideal of the citizen-soldier and to fault subsequent generations for their lack of virtue. With the image of the three firefighters raising a flag at ground zero in New York City, the original image is reprised in a new context. Having watched Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" again recently I found this essay particularly informative and insightful.
The Vietnam War provides the context for the next two iconic photographs. (5) "Dissent and Emotional Management: Kent State" focuses on that particular photograph to demonstrate how photojournalism communicates essential resources for democratic deliberation. (6) "Trauma and Public Memory: Accidental Napalm" details how the photograph of a Vietnamese Girl running from a "friendly" napalm attack exposed the criminal conduct and systematic deception that ended up defining the war. (7) "Liberal Representation and Global Order: Tiananmen Square" considers the political consequences of aesthetic designs. (8) "Ritualizing Modernity's Gamble: The 'Hindenberg' and 'Challenger' Explosions" compares two midair explosions as capturing the profound anxieties that come from living in the machine age, while at the same time organizing public mourning around a virtual pyre to sanction continued sacrifice. Finally, (9) "Conclusion: Visual Democracy" returns to the notion of visual democracy, covering not only the limits of iconic memory, but reconsidering the visual public sphere and the role of photojournalism in a liberal democracy.
The main appeal here is going to be these case studies, where Hariman and Lucaites look at the different ways these different iconic photographs have functioned. For example, to give you a sense of the various ways they find an image resonating across time, with Eisenstaedt's "Times Square Kiss" photo there are also a "Life" cover photograph from two years earlier by the photographer that presages the motif, an advertisement that echoes the image, a version on the cover of a videotape on "America in the '40s," a pair of cartoon rabbits outside of a Disney store in Times Square, a cover of "The New Yorker" with two male sailors kissing, and a photo of VJ-Day being replayed in 2005 for the 60th anniversary that includes not only copycats but a but also the original nurse standing next to a statue striking the pose. Although each case study looks at its photographs in significantly different ways, these examples give you a sense of the extent to which such images can resonate.
The images of the man standing in front of (and up to) a line of tanks and the explosion of "Challenger," may well speak to the death of the iconic photograph in that both of those images exist as not only still shots but as film (in contrast to the WWII photographs that are of specific moments in time). But even in the world of Youtube much of what Hariman and Lucaites have to say about iconic images will still apply. "No Caption Needed" is written for scholars, but I would think that lots of teachers at both the college and high school levels would be interested in taking one or more of these case studies and finding a way of using them in the classroom. Finally, you might want to grab a pair of bookmarks when you read this book, because Hariman and Lucaites have almost a hundred pages of footnotes in the back of their book, arranged chapter by chapter, and most of them end up being content notes rather than just citations of sundry sources. If you like to flip back and forth as you go along, then plan ahead to take advantage of the additional information in the back of the book.