- Historic Sites
The Image Of The Century
It’s one in a billion
December 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 8
I have endless objections of my own to every image I considered. Numbers are not much help. The photograph that the twentieth century valued the most was Alfred Stieglitz’s portrait of his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, Hands With Thimble, sold for a record $398,000 in 1998. The single presidential photograph the public most requested from the National Archives was Richard Nixon with Elvis Presley. But these are no more than curiosities. When one thinks of what was uniquely different about the twentieth century, the picture that comes to mind at once is earthrise seen for the first time by the human eye, an awesome sight brought to us by the astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968. Magnificent—but it suggests nothing of what was happening on terra firma in the twentieth century. And is that surreal sight the most fitting to represent the climax of the effort for man to escape his earthly bonds? Is it not too impersonal? What of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who took those first small steps in the moondust? But then again, pursuing antecedents, should the first astronauts displace a picture of the Wright brothers? Or the much-derided Robert H. Goddard standing frostily by his tiny liquid-propellant rocket on his Massachusetts farm in 1926, vindicated by the two and a half seconds of flight penetrating forty-one feet of sky?
In the end I sought an image that could signify the extraordinary advances in the well-being of the average American.
These all were expressive of the American spirit, but none of the portraits was a fine composition in which content and geometry were in expressive equilibrium. Nor could it be said that the personalities, though significant, were dominant influences in the twentieth century. What about President Theodore Roosevelt raising his top hat in salute to the great white fleet departing the United States on its round-the-world trip in December 1907, an apt expression of America’s emergent world leadership? Or Martin Luther King, Jr., declaring his dream at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963? Or the only four-term President, Franklin Roosevelt? There are thousands of pictures of Roosevelt, but the one that best symbolizes man and moment was taken in 1939 and has since assumed iconic status: FDR in jaunty profile, head up, chin up, cigarette holder up, epitomizing the sparkling sunshine he brought to dispel the swamp gases of the Depression. “Happy Days Are Here Again!” But they weren’t really. FDR gave hope, but he did not solve the Great Depression. His contribution was to preserve faith in the democratic system when extremism stalked the world and to lead the Allies in World War II, the most momentous event of the century. There is a strong case for an image from the war —not tragic Hiroshima, I think, though the atomic bomb, like the moon shot, was an event unique to the century. I would choose Joe Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima because it is a perfect aesthetic expression of the heroism and desperate human striving that marked the war. Rosenthal took several pictures that day of the Marines and the flag, but none of them conveyed the emotion and drama of the occasion, and they are rarely reproduced. The photograph we know is electric with suspense. The pole falters on the diagonal. Two hands reach up, clutching air, as they try to join the effort. The unfurling flag catches a breeze. We yearn for the act to be complete. It is sometimes said that this picture was reenacted or staged, which is not true. It is a genuine moment of history, caught on the wing. It would have needed an artistic genius to imagine the postures, and no genius could have posed it if he had spent a year in a studio with six gifted actors, lights, and a wind machine.
Perhaps Iwo Jima is too familiar. There is a quieter World War II candidate that says much about American life: James Stewart at an Army induction in Los Angeles in March 1941, eight and a half months before Pearl Harbor. He stands like the other eighteen ethnically varied Americans, hand raised in the ceremony of taking the oath. Jimmy Stewart was a real hometown American hero, and focusing on him is a reminder of the power of the American dream factory in Hollywood. Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in Frank Capra’s Christmastime staple It’s a Wonderful Life was also an uncanny forerunner of the real-life savings-and-loan scandal in the eighties.
See how impossible the task is? So much heroism, so much tragedy, so many titanic personalities—female as well as male, let it be said. In the end I sought an image that could signify the extraordinary advances in the well-being of ordinary Americans in the twentieth century. By the mid-fifties the American people were living twenty years longer than their grandparents, their children were two to three inches taller than children in 1900, and they all were enjoying an unprecedented prosperity. Personal incomes nearly tripled between 1940 and 1956. The number of two-car families doubled between 1951 and 1958; 83 percent of American homes had a television. A whole new middle class was created, made up of 60 percent of American families. And how productive they were! America, with 6 percent of the world’s population, was consuming one-third of the world’s goods and services.