People and events map the time line of history. Pivot points mark changes in direction from which a city, a state, a nation, or the whole world spins into new directions. History is littered with pivot points. The ones I’ve experienced mapped not only the time line of world history but also the time line of my own life. These pivot points are recorded in images that evolve from pop culture to national icon.
Images spark instant recognition of a time and place in history. Sometimes the artists share in the fame of their work. Many, however, live quietly under the radar of public scrutiny.
Incredible color film footage stopped the nation’s collective heart as it looped on network television after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The sight of this film transports me back to that day in 1963 when I came home for lunch to find my mother unexpectedly watching daytime television and ranting about the news. When I returned to school, I found students and teachers alike in tears. I was in the fifth grade. The man behind the camera was amateur Abraham Zapruder who died in 1970, a slightly richer man for his footage, but one haunted by the vision he’d captured.
Stark black and white images document the American civil rights movement. Another 1963 photograph__the one of Martin Luther King, right hand punctuating his “I Have a Dream” speech, raises the fine hairs on my arms. The award winning photojournalist, Bob Adelman, who took this photo, has recently released his newest book, Mine Eyes Have Seen: Bearing Witness to The Struggle For Civil Rights, coinciding with the new Martin Luther King Memorial in the National Mall in Washington, DC.
The portrait of fully-clothed, arrow-straight Yoko Ono cuddled by her naked husband, John Lennon, stirs loathing in some viewers and a drug-hazed reminiscence in others. Annie Liebovitz’s name is nearly as well recognized as the many celebrities she has arranged before her lens.
Fashion photographer, Richard Drew, was one of many in the right place at the wrong time on September 11, 2001. As a man fell to his death from one of the Twin Towers, Drew’s eye was behind the lens, capturing the agony of a nation looking over a precipice to the unknown.
In 1968, a stark reality flickered into America’s living rooms. The black and white image of the point-blank execution of a Viet Cong guerrilla by Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan was one of several that turned already-wavering, public opinion, along with my own, solidly against America’s involvement in the Vietnam war. Quoted in the New York Times, Eddie Adams, the Pulitzer prize winning photographer who took the image, said …”you never know who is looking at your pictures or how your pictures are going to affect other people’s lives. I wasn’t out to save the world. I was out to get a story.” And this is perhaps my point.
Who, in the ever growing club of images masters today or tomorrow, will steer memory for future generations? The volume of images grows exponentially each year. Will the cream always rise to the top? How will today, be remembered in the future? And how will the images that flash before us today, affect the trajectory of history 50 years from now?