Skip to content
How images capture, define our decisive moments
Countless images of the horror brought about by acts of terrorism at the World Trade Center and Pentagon are becoming, through repetition, indelible. They're about to take their place alongside photographs that provide a record of nearly 150 years of cataclysm.
How does this kind of image work on us?
Simply put, it's an aid to memory, triggering everything we took in about the events they document, from the description in the caption to longer news reports and even what we were doing at the time we first saw the image.
Of course, not every one of these pictures is memorable in and of itself. Some that record the fire and smoke at the Pentagon resemble photographs of a natural disaster such as the eruption of Mt. St. Helens; others of the collapse of the Trade Center towers recall images of the harmless detonations of old Las Vegas hotels. But because of the immensity of what they call up in us, even more than what they depict, again and again they will bring us close to the horror of Sept. 11, 2001.
Everyone knows this kind of photograph. We can take our pick from an image bank that includes, among many, many others, the explosion of the Hindenburg, mounds of bodies in concentration camps, a bullet exiting the skull of President John F. Kennedy, and the fiery extinction of the Challenger space shuttle. They trigger so many public and private feelings that we remember the images all our lives.
Some of these pictures -- very few, considering the total number -- make their way into museums, crossing over into the realm of art photographs, which work on us in a different way, distilling the experience of an event, rather than documenting it.
That's what happens with paintings, and we accept that they are less transcriptions of sights than reconstructions. But because most people have snapped away with a camera, it has been harder to grasp that art photographs are like paintings in that they are not taken as much as made. Little about them is left to chance. Viewpoint, composition, lighting, cropping, printing -- all are rigorously controlled with the aim of creating a picture in which form, line and tone concentrate the spirit of the subject. These photographs are constructed fictions that heighten reality exclusively through what is in the image.
Sometimes the self-sufficiency of pictures that required no captions got the photographer into trouble.
Andre Kertesz, the acknowledged father of European photojournalism, was told when he came to America, "Your pictures talk too much," meaning they rendered unnecessary an accompanying text.
If he photographed a barely perceptible window washer on the side of the United Nations building, no one had to be told about danger or isolation, the picture said it all. One of them proved the cliche: It literally was worth a thousand words.
On occasion, one photograph even summed up a great many others. For example, W. Eugene Smith, an American master of the photo essay, published a book recording the consequences of Mercury poisoning in the Japanese fishing port of Minimata. The volume included 175 photographs of everything from industrial waste to meetings of the central pollution board. But a single image, of a mother cradling her crippled daughter in a bath, had an impact that went beyond the rest. It is in art museums around the world.
Such photographs universalize particular events. Smith's "Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath" was highly controlled, made to resemble paintings of the Virgin Mary mourning the dead Christ. But others caught on the run can also achieve this universality. Robert Capa's image of a falling soldier, arms outstretched from the impact of a fatal bullet, is one that goes further than the immediate conflict, the Spanish Civil War, becoming an emblem of all war.
Capa's reflexes and artistry came together in a "decisive moment." But there are still other images by photographers whose names we don't remember that through inadvertent artistry transcend a specific event, communicating, say, the horror of war in general. An example close to our own time is the photograph of a naked young girl caught in the Vietnam War, crying and running down a road. It documents a specific incident yet speaks to us of something larger.
We seem to need both kinds of image: The one that puts us at a scene of horror, prompting a niagra of unformed thoughts and emotions, and the other that, through enlargement and universalization, helps us come to terms with our experience.
Where one unsettles, the other tells us we are not alone.