The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Who do you trust?
Last weekend, I was working, editing a short essay about the rise of “citizen journalism” by Fred Ritchin, author of the recently published After Photography, which we’ll be uploading soon on click! photography changes everything. One of the interesting points Fred makes is that with the spread of cell phone cameras and digital photography, as multiple images made by multiple photographers at the same event become available on the Internet, it’s going to be hard for people to claim that any single news photograph is a hoax. But what about news photos that are made when no one else is around? And what about one of the most controversial ones from the past?
For years, the veracity of a number of historic images — including Joe Rosenthal’s classic Iwo Jima flag raising picture, Arthur Rothstein’s famous Dust Bowl sandstorm shot, photographs and filmed footage of man’s first steps on the moon — have been challenged by photo-doubters. Recent articles on both Time Magazine’s and London’s The Guardian websites update the story about the lingering doubts that have dogged Robert Capa’s iconic Spanish Civil War image from 1936, often called “The Fallen Soldier.” That image purportedly shows a militiaman the instant he’s been struck by a bullet. The photograph cemented Capa’s reputation as the consummate war photographer, and is celebrated for its graphic, emotional and political impact. To a great extent, the picture’s power stems from illustrating, as only photography could, the split second when life comes to an end. On top of that, the photograph has always underscored both the dangers and romance of photojournalism.
Interestingly, a traveling exhibition of Capa’s work that included many of his previously unpublished photographs from the Spanish Civil War, opened recently in Barcelona, and prompted local reporters and historians to address the controversy surrounding the photo by pinpointing exactly where and when it was taken. Ultimately, they determined the photo was taken 30 miles away from where Capa located it. But, does a topological discrepancy lend credence to the claim that the photograph was staged, as some of its observers have suggested? A representative from New York’s International Center of Photography, which circulated the exhibition and represents the Robert Capa Archive, acknowledges that Capa might have gotten the location wrong, but the picture’s not a fake.
And so the controversy continues, as will questions about how accurate we want or expect any photograph to be. Sometimes we want pictures to tell the truth. Other times, we’re happier when they stretch or redefine what truth and/or reality are supposed to look like. Ultimately that makes us and the pictures we make all the more interesting.