UW News

November 2, 2011

‘Images in Crisis: Exploring the afterlife of world-famous photos

UW News

Youve likely seen the photos many times over the years — a soldier being shot, his arms wide and rifle falling; a lone man confronting a massive tank, or the iconic portrait of a famous revolutionary.

Each image came from the camera of a professional photographer, and represents a moment in history. And yet they live on through the passing years, gathering different meaning. Are they still what they were, or have they become something more, or less?

Four UW faculty members have teamed up to explore the evolving meaning of such iconic images in a lecture and film series from November into January 2012 titled Images in Crisis: the Politics of Visual Representation in the Twentieth Century and Beyond.

Organizing the series are Anthony Geist, professor and chair of the Spanish and Portuguese Studies Division; Mark Jenkins, professor and recent head of the School of Dramas Professional Actor Training Program; Susan Glenn, Howard and Frances Keller Endowed Professor in History; and Glennys Young, associate professor and director of graduate studies in history.

“All of these are images that capture a crisis in history and yet which have continued to have what can be called an afterlife — an ongoing life,” Geist said. “They both capture a moment and yet live on to the future — and influence the future, in many ways.” He said the series “will pose a number of questions about what happens to images when they travel across space and time.”

Historian Glenn said photos shape our historical memories, but also influence our understanding of the present. “Photography has been a critical technology in the process of bearing witness. But what happens when certain kinds of images are endlessly reproduced or when they are recycled and decontextualized in order to convey the meaning of contemporary tragedies?”

Glenn offered the example of Holocaust images such as those of Allied armies liberating German concentration camps. “Some scholars have asked whether the constant reproduction of the same iconic images contributes to forgetting rather than remembering. They argue that repetition and recycling creates a kind of screen that not only limits our ability to comprehend the past but also interferes with our capacity to form an ethical response to current atrocities around the world.” She said not all share that view.

“Our series is intended to further explore not only the status of images in their own time, but what they have come to mean and represent for subsequent generations,” Glenn said.

Geist added, “Another example would be Alberto Korda’s iconic photograph of Che Guevara. Originally intended to capture steely revolutionary determination and a romantic image of the Cuban Revolution, it quickly migrated to other, often contradictory uses, and has been mobilized to sell everything from chewing gum to underwear.”

Korda would have earned a fortune from the photo had he copyrighted it, but he was “a firm believer in the Cuban revolution and didnt believe in copyright, he believed in public domain,” Geist said.

Young said outside China the Tiananmen Square photo became an icon of courage in the face of repression, but that it created a crisis of meaning for the Chinese government itself. In response, “Official Chinese television not only dehumanized the man by labeling him a ‘scoundrel, but also underscored the fact that the tanks not mowing the man down was evidence that Western propaganda about the Chinese states violence was incorrect, and indeed, ludicrous.”

Young said the point of the series “is not just to give our audiences examples of the contested and unstable meanings that such iconic images have.  It is also to explore the political, social and cultural consequences of the proliferation of meanings.”

Images in Crisis follows up on a popular film and lecture series the faculty members organized in 2009 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, in which all four have a professional interest.

The schedule of events for Images in Crisis, a linked lecture and film series, is as follows. All the events take place at 7 p.m. in 201 Gowen, and are free and open to the public.

Monday Nov. 7: Sebastiaan Faber of Oberlin College will speak on the famous photographer Robert Capa and controversies surrounding his iconic photograph of the Spanish Civil War, “Fallen Soldier.”

Tuesday, Nov. 8: A screening of Trisha Ziff’s new documentary  The Mexican Suitcase, followed by a talk with Ziff. The film tells the story of how 4,500 film negatives made by antifascist photojournalists Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour during the Spanish Civil War disappeared in the chaos of war-torn Europe and were eventually found in a closet in Mexico City in 2007.

Wednesday, Nov. 9: A screening of Ziffs 2008 documentary Chevolution, about Kordas famous photograph of Che Guevara, followed by a talk with Ziff.

The series will reconvene in January for four more evenings.

Monday, Jan. 9: A screening of Roberto Benignis Oscar-winning 1997 Holocaust fantasy Life is Beautiful.

Tuesday, Jan. 10: Marianne Hirsch of Columbia University will speak on Holocaust photography and the crisis of meaning. The iconic photo Geist and the others chose for this part of the series is from 1943 and its original was captioned in German, “Forcibly pulled out of dug-outs.”

Tuesday, Jan. 24: A screening of The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a documentary about the 1989 protests in China.

Wednesday, Jan. 25: Jeffrey Wasserstrom of the University of California, Irvine, will discuss visual images of the Tiananmen Square Massacre such as the famous photograph called “Tank Man,” taken June 5, 1989, by photographer Jeff Widener of The Associated Press.

The series is sponsored by the Department of History, the Division of Spanish and Portuguese, the School of Drama, the Samuel & Althea Stroum Jewish Studies Program, the China Studies Program and the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities. Learn more online.