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Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy

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Two articles on Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites’s No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy ran this month, both of which cite the book for its controversial look at some of the most influential images of the last century, and how such images have radically changed the political and social landscape of America. An article in the November 29 London Review of Books (only available to subscribers) begins with a critique of “one of the most reproduced photographs in American history”—Joe Rosenthal’s image of U.S. troops struggling to raise an American flag on top of Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima. The LRB‘s David Simpson writes:

The Pulitzer-prize winning photo of the Suribachi Summit… was actually of a second flag-raising, staged with a larger flag after the fighting had died down. Literally speaking it was not so much a struggle against military odds as a struggle against gravity. This was known at the time, and was a sufficiently sensitive issue for both Time and Life to refrain from publishing it until it had become so ubiquitous as to be beyond complex questioning. That happened very fast. The photo became more or less instantly a leitmotif of American popular culture and a key item in the manufacture of consent by politicians and advertisers alike.…
Debates about the authenticity of photographs, especially war photographs, have been commonplace since at least the American Civil War. In No Caption Needed Robert Hariman and John Lucaites are less concerned with these debates than the ways in which iconic images have been used to propose and renegotiate various kinds of ‘democratic citizenship’ and ‘civic identity.’ Here original truths matter less than accumulated traditions or assumptions.… For these authors the Iwo Jima flag works because it is aesthetically compelling, … because it converts military into civic action, and because it effaces the personalities of the soldiers in the service of a common and anonymous effort. …

The review continues:

The authors think we have a ‘need’ for these iconic images, and often suggest that democracy is better for them. But it is a fine line (if there is a line) between the vigorous, deliberative debate conducted by empowered citizens… and the consumption of patriotic propaganda.

A feature in the Chronicle of Higher Education also focused on the author’s take on the powerful yet complicated impact of iconic images on American culture. You can read the Chronicle piece online at their website, read an excerpt from the book, or navigate over to the authors’ blog where they frequently post provocative critiques of notable images in contemporary photojournalism.