Indispensable Photographs


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 The Great American Novel that there is “nothing more wonderful than to see the pears attached by their stems to the trees. Earth, trunk, branch, twig and the fruit: a circle soon to be completed when the pear falls.” A perfectly seen photograph, such as Alfred Stieglitz’s Apple and Gable, Lake George , 1922, is thus indispensable because it triggers the imagination and makes us appreciate something we might have ignored. It is “larger” than its subject. It gives meaning to life. Photography is the great American democratic art form not because everyone can own a camera and take a picture but because still photographs have the ability to help us see clearly and give value to things both great and small.

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:

Lewis Payne

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.


A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

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.


Running (Galloping)

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 River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West , describes this photographer as “the man who split the second, as dramatic and far-reaching an action as the splitting of the atom.” She continues: “He had begun transforming photography into a scientific instrument revealing the secret world of motion. The medium had started out far slower than the human eye.… It was now going to cross a great divide, to bring into visibility, as the telescope and microscope before it, a world hidden to the eye.” Muybridge’s cameras froze the most basic actions, and the impact of his pictures on art matched their impact on science. He not only stopped action, through his use of optical devices, he got the pictures moving and, as such, was part of the revolution called motion pictures.

Albanian Woman With Folded Head Cloth, Ellis Island

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.


Pepper No. 30