The Image Of The Century

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America entered the twentieth century with its finger on the shutter of Kodak’s Brownie (“You press the button, we do the rest”). It gave the amateur point-and-shoot snapper rough equality with the professional photographer, and in its first year on the market, 1900, all sales records were broken. A quarter of a million people had put down a dollar and were busy recording history.

It was emblematic of the century that it opened with imagery. Nowadays, when every man is his own cinematographer, when we expect to watch news as it happens, when we have long since stopped marveling at having the finished Polaroid color prints in our hands within seconds of pressing the button...nowadays, the old saying that every picture is worth a thousand words has been turned on its head. Every story is worth a thousand pictures. Hardly anybody in the country at large knew at the time of his election what President Lincoln looked like. Everybody in the world could recognize John F. Kennedy, Jr., from babyhood, and it was through a million images, still and moving, that we commemorated his life.

 

When television arrived, the fashionable thing to say was that the still photograph was obsolete. How curiously wrong that was. Much of the century’s visual history is accessible only through the still photograph, but that is just half the point. Even in the age when everything moves in color, there is extraordinary vitality to the black-and-white still photograph. I think there are a number of reasons for this. The most important is that the still has an affinity with the way we remember. The moving picture informs and excites, but it cannot easily be recalled. If you think of a historic moment captured by photography, the likelihood is that you will visualize not a cine-sequence but a single scene from a single photograph that has been absorbed in the mind. Try it with a few Kennedy moments. Picture Jacqueline Kennedy, cradling her dying husband’s head in the back of the presidential limousine on November 22, 1963; Jack Ruby in the Dallas courthouse shooting Lee Harvey Oswald; JFK, Jr., saluting his father’s cortege. Of course, the image of Jacqueline was a still frame from Abe Zapruder’s endlessly scrutinized 8-millimeter home movie, but it is the still we can more easily summon to the mind’s eye—and more easily ponder.

The photograph shares two qualities with the moving picture that explain their potency. The image can trigger all the emotions aroused by the event or personality. And it can satisfy our ache for visual confirmation. This goes beyond the corroborative value of the photograph in disputed events like the death of Che Guevara or the My Lai massacre. Some events are beyond doubt, attested by credible witnesses, buttressed by evidence, yet are not complete without the final photograph. There was immense significance in just a few inches of blank space in a photograph taken on December 17, 1903. They represented the few feet of air between Orville Wright and the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, for all of the fifteen seconds that heralded the age of powered flight. In the Pacific war Iwo Jima was undeniably taken by the Marines in February 1945, but it was also taken by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press. The truly fulfilling moment was when we saw Rosenthal’s picture of six men trying to raise the Stars and Stripes on Mount Suribachi on the morning or the twenty-third. (Here’s another still image everyone can recall in a flash.)

When I was writing my history of the hundred years from 1889 to 1989, The American Century, I sifted through something like thirty thousand photographs, paintings, and cartoons with my collaborator, the photographic historian Gail Buckland. Long were the debates with Gail and my researcher, Kevin Baker, in the selection of the final nine hundred, seeking a balance that was fairly representative of turmoil and triumph, not too familiar, and visually arresting. American Heritage has made its own colorful collection of one hundred images, an informal glimpse of the century madly rushing to a close, and I relish its catholicity. Accepting an invitation to distill it into a single image is akin to accepting a ride in a tumbrel on its way to the Place de la Concorde. By the time one explains to M. Robespierre how one got there, the blade will have fallen.