Foto’s zijn leugens maar daarom niet minder waar

De tentoonstelling ‘The Art of the American Snapshot’ in de National Gallery of American Art in Washington is voor Louis P. Masur in een essay enkele gedachten te wijden aan de kracht van de fotografie, die overeind blijft ondanks het vaak beperkte waarheidsgehalte van foto’s.
Very different, less private snapshots are the pictures taken by photojournalists, which can reach millions of viewers. Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, professors of communication, are interested in the transmission of social knowledge. They argue in No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy that iconic images like Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and Joe Rosenthal’s “Flag Raising on Mt. Suribachi” are essential to a “liberal-democratic citizenship” that demonstrates “the relationship of the abstract individual to the impersonal state.” Thus “Migrant Mother” becomes a brief for social welfare, and “Flag Raising” a testament to the American character.

Such images, however, are not fixed in meaning. Iconic photographs become so for a variety of reasons — their composition, the way they evoke other images in our visual memory, their impact at the moment — and they are also put to various purposes, become clichés, or are drained of original understandings. An icon of poverty like the stark, bleak portrait of Lange’s migrant mother is enlisted in a television campaign for the good life in California when a woman in a red convertible drives down Rodeo Drive and we see the image among the palm trees, a relic clearly from the past; a flag-raising mutates from civic piety to slapstick humor in an episode of The Simpsons when Bart plants the flag at a beach party.

• Lees het hele verhaal in The Chronicle Review:How the Truth Gets Framed by the Camera

(met dank aan Eddie Marsman)