Image problems

May 13, 2008

This Salon review of Louis P. Masur’s The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America has been on my mind ever since I read it two weeks ago or so. I haven’t been able to get a hold of the book yet via library channels, but the review itself brought up an idea that I think any writer or student of literature needs to think about: the ability of an image to tell its own truth, which may or may not coincide with the actual truth (granting for a moment that there is one, or something closer to it than the image itself might be telling).

Old Glory cover

The gist of this book is to dig underneath the famous (apparently–although it was new to me) image that you see on the cover. As reviewer Louis Bayard points out, this picture appears to be telling a shocking story about the moment an anti-busing protester turned on a young black lawyer who happened to be walking through the area:

No more than 20 seconds had elapsed, but an enterprising cameraman named Stanley Forman had been there the whole time, snapping away. And the image he came away with, once seen, can never be forgotten. On the right: Landsmark, writhing in another man’s grip. On the left: a high-school student named Joseph Rakes, caught in the act of driving an American flag into Landsmark’s pinioned body.

Looking through the entire roll of film, though, reveals a much different story, a story that this image does not immediately suggest. Forman’s finger never stopped snapping new pictures:

And that same finger, which seemed to scratch out a moment of unvarnished truth, proves, on closer inspection, to be as fallible as any other recording instrument. Look at the complete roll from Forman’s camera, and a more complicated portrait emerges. Rakes, we now see, was not driving the flag at Landsmark but swinging it in his general direction. In reality, the flag never struck its intended victim. Landsmark’s nose had already been broken when he was knocked to the ground. (A black doctor took care to exaggerate those injuries by covering Landsmark’s face with tape.)

Even more surprising, the man who seems to be pinning Landsmark’s arms behind him — anti-busing organizer Jim Kelly — is actually helping him to his feet. In the image that follows, Kelly has interposed himself between the mob and its victim, creating a human shield that allows Landsmark to escape; Forman never once leaves his post.

So, in addition to witnessing racial violence, we are watching a white man come to the rescue of a black man.

Uh, whoah.

Of all those images, of all that story, the one that is famous is the one that tells a story almost completely opposite of the whole truth. It’s a famous image because, well, it’s a great image. Too bad it’s a lie. I mean, it can’t lie per se–just look at it. What you see is there, undeniably. What you see has a coherence and a truth that is appealing and compelling. It’s just that what you see distorts a much bigger picture to the extent that you might never see it.

I know I am not the first or the most eloquent person ever to question the role of an image in telling a story, but this example really hit home with me, probably because as I get ready to dig into my MFA thesis, I’m thinking really hard about the kind of poet I want to be and the kind of poetry I want to make. What is the first lesson taught in your average intro poetry workshop? Begin with an image. Well, what is the cost of that? What does an image reveal and what does it hide? To what extent does going for a great image limit the world? And when you are reading literature, how much time do you spend decoding images? How many times have you built an argument about an entire work based on a few of its images? (Of course, getting better at reading literature involves not basing your argument around hand-picked images and thinking of more nuanced approaches and ways of finding and addressing the complexity within seemingly clear images–but the pull of reading that image is nearly irresistable.) This photo, and this book, proves that these are not academic questions, these are questions that affect our way of living in and understanding the world. As a reader and a writer, I know I’ll be thinking about them a lot more.

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2 Responses to “Image problems”

  1. S.O.S Says:

    “I mean, it can’t lie per se–just look at it. What you see is there, undeniably.”

    Images (without captions) allow viewers to project their interpretations on a scene. So, I see a white man to the left about to attack the black man to the right, and another white man on the right, holding the victim. I know the flag-toting man means harm…I can sense it’s a race-based anger, which must mean the other white man means harm too. I’m familiar with this picture, but I didn’t know the white guy on the right was helping the victim, rather than holding him for the attack. And now that I know, I also know my understanding of the white man’s anger on the left permeates my reading of the entire picture. It never occurred to me the guy on the right might be helping.

  2. Incertus Says:

    It’s a terrific example of how pictures can’t tell the whole story, much as we’d like to believe they can. I think there’s an interesting analogue here with poetry as compared to fiction–we expect a narrative arc with fiction, as well as with narrative poetry, so the more accurate comparison to a visual medium would be a film, whereas a poem, especially a lyric or a very short narrative piece is more akin to a photo, because it’s not meant to tell the whole story. It’s only there to give a glimpse into a particular moment.

    Fascinating story, SJ. Thanks.


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