- Historic Sites
November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
The most indispensable photographs show us who we are: the formal portraits of our great-grandparents as newly arrived immigrants and our own parents on their wedding day; the candid snapshots of our youthful selves and of our own children at moments in time gone forever. They mean little to anyone whose life is not tied to the memories.
Pictures that teach us how to see are the next most indispensable photographs. William Carlos Williams wrote in his novel
Indispensable photographs should not be confused with photographs of important historic events: the joining of the rails at Promontory Point; the Wright brothers’ plane lifting off at Kitty Hawk; the first man on the moon; the horrors of Auschwitz, My Lai, and Kent State; Ike rallying the troops on D-day; Martin Luther King, Jr., giving his “I Have a Dream” speech; John F. Kennedy, Jr., saluting his dead father. These images are part of our collective historical consciousness and are vitally significant, but their importance is inherent in the subjects they depict, not in the manner in which they frame moments in time.
Ten indispensable American photographs in chronological order:
by Alexander Gardner (1865). Here is one of the first celebrity portraits. Payne was a criminal; he had attempted to assassinate President Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward.
He was hanged for his role in the plot. There were 10 conspirators; Alexander Gardner photographed 8 of them, but Lewis Payne was the only one who knew how to play to the camera and use his good looks to seduce his contemporaries and every succeeding generation.
The portrait of Payne is indispensable in reminding us that the camera can make celebrities out of both the worthy and the unworthy. The image is not the reality.
by Timothy O’Sullivan (1863). This is one of the greatest war photographs. It is a eulogy to all who have fallen in battle, a meditation on life and death. It simultaneously honors the men by forever hallowing the ground on which they fell and presents their once-pulsating bodies as human debris, used and abused. This image makes sacred the sacrifice but shows there is no glory.
by Eadweard Muybridge (1878–79). William M. Ivins, Jr., of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote, “The nineteenth century began by believing that what was reasonable was true, and it would end up by believing that what it saw in a photograph of was true.” No group of photographs illustrates this arresting observation better than the human and animal locomotion studies Eadweard Muybridge made in the late 187Os and 188Os. Rebecca Solnit, in her brilliant recent book
by Lewis Hine (1905). A great portrait is supposed to be able to reveal the character, the essence, of the individual. Mine’s portrait of this unnamed young woman on the threshold of a new life reveals little about her except her ability to be totally in the moment—to proclaim, “I am here.” The marvel of this portrait is that one feels her courage without knowing anything of her past or her future. The photograph is homage to the individuality of each immigrant to our shores.