Wednesday, October 13, 1999

'Century of Images' proves the lasting value of photos

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Take a picture, it lasts longer. Kids who hear that childish put-down in school today know it's no longer true.

        With dad's digital camera, you can download the photos you want — and discard the rest. No longer do families, or our culture, have photographic evidence of everything.

  What: American Photography: A Century of Images
  When: 8-11 p.m. today
  Where: Channels 48, 54, 16

        That's the underlying message of PBS' American Photography: A Century of Images, a marvelous three-hour documentary airing today.

        You'll be mesmerized by those powerful images branded into our collective consciousness: Kent State. JFK's funeral. The Hindenburg. The Holocaust. Iwo Jima. An atomic mushroom cloud. Marilyn Monroe's upturned dress. Man on the Moon. Monica hugging Bill.

        Those infamous pictures of Bill Clinton hugging intern Monica Lewinsky on the White House lawn would not be omnipresent today if the entire White House press corps had been shooting digital images, explains Dirck Halstead, veteran Time magazine photographer. He wasn't, but most were.

        When Mr. Halstead first saw news photos of Ms. Lewinsky, as the scandal broke early last year, he said to himself: “I've seen that face. I've photographed that face.”

        So researchers began inspecting his photo archives, stored at the University of Texas.


        Then he hired a researcher to look through 18 boxes, each with 1,000 transparencies, stacked in a Time magazine room.

  Picture this: A photo from each year of the 20th century in American Photography: A Century of Images (Chronicle Books; $40), the companion book to the PBS' documentary.
  The book includes many of the photos seen in the show, from Lewis Hines' child-labor pictures at the turn of the century, through World War II, Vietnam, the Apollo 11 lunar mission to computer-aged photos on missing children's posters.
  The text was written by the two principal advisers for the PBS film: Vicki Goldberg, New York Times photography critic, and Robert Silverman, University of Minnesota film studies director and associate professor of art history.
        After five days, and roughly 5,000 images, one frame was found. Then Time magazine decided to sit on the image for eight months, until Ms. Lewinsky agreed to testify before the grand jury in August 1998.

        “Within six hours of the time Time magazine put out a press release with that picture, ABC was able to go into their files and find the video,” he said. “Once they had the day (date), they had a place to look.”

        “But the more interesting lesson that comes from this, and this goes to the whole point of how we can lose our visual legacy: On that (White House photographer's) stand with me that night were photographers from AFP (Agence France-Presse), AP and Reuters, and they were all shooting the same thing. The difference is, they were shooting digital.”

        The photographers had gone through the images on their laptop computer and deleted what didn't “seem to be useful,” he said. “They all erased their pictures. Every one of them.”


Images can't be replaced
        American Photography opens with pictures that were lost in a different way, a scene that will strike home to some Blue Ash and Montgomery residents.

        PBS shows Oklahoma City tornado victims in a church basement looking over family photographs scattered for miles by the mighty winds in April. Churches did the same thing here last spring, trying to return wedding, school, birthday, Christmas, reunion and other family photos to their owners.

        “Pictures are more important than all the other stuff I lost,” one man explains. “Furniture and all that stuff can be replaced.”

        The following 21/2 hours are a wonderful examination of how indelible photography has become in our lives this century — in magazines, advertising, newspapers, movies, postcards, television.

        It traces the growth and popularity of photography from the first $1 Brownie camera in 1900 through National Geographic, tabloids, wars, wire services, home movies, Moon missions and presidential “photo ops.”

        Surprisingly, this Century of Images skips over one of America's most famous photos: the Wright Brothers first powered flight. (On my June vacation visit to Kitty Hawk, a National Park Service tour guide held up a photo made from the original Dec. 17, 1903 negative.)

Manipulating pictures
        In the third hour, former Reagan White House adviser Michael Deaver explains how he maneuvered press photographers, sometimes with his foot. He'd kick photographers when they squatted down to shoot Ronald Reagan, capturing his wrinkled neck.

        “I didn't want any kind of surprises. So everything I did was preplanned, premeditated. The background was perfect,” Mr. Deaver boasts.

        In the new Digital Age, the background doesn't have to be perfect. Computers can manipulate images in thousands of ways. (Remember how Forrest Gump was inserted into historic photos?) Computers can help us do more — with less.

        Says Mr. Halstead, the Time photographer: “We see photographers who cover the White House, cover major news events, things that are history, throwing away two-thirds to three-fourths of their pictures from the desktop (computers), just to clear space.”

        Can you imagine tossing out three-fourths of your negatives, just to clear space in a drawer or closet?

        I didn't think so.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.


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