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Summing Up

The Image Of The Century

June 2024
6min read

It’s one in a billion

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.

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.

No single image can sum up all this, but I am drawn to Alex Henderson’s carefully posed 1951 descriptive photograph of the Du Pont worker Steve Czekalinski with his wife and two boys. They are framed amid a cornucopia of good food, the 669 bottles of milk, 578 pounds of meat, 131 dozen fresh eggs, 440 pounds of fresh fruit, the coffee, cereal, flour, and so on that the typical American family enjoyed in the booming mid-fifties. It’s a materialistic and commercial image, and some will object to that, but the pursuit of plenty has been an American preoccupation—and the business of America is business, is it not? I admit I hesitated long before nominating the Czekalinski, but it also has something of the American character—it is an honest, unpretentious boast—and it suggests the central story of America in the twentieth century. Here is a man of Polish descent standing proudly and happily with his family, enjoying a prosperity never before known in the history of the world. A photograph that hints at a fulfillment of the American dream is not a bad way of marking the end of the millennium.

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