American Photography: A Century of Images

American Photography, A Century of Images

“I think it’s very dangerous for a free society to have all the information distilled and packaged by our government and given to us. Do we know to this day who we killed in Iraq? I don’t think so. If bringing war into the living room means that we as a people will say we don’t want to do it that way anymore we want to figure out other ways to solve these conflicts, then I would say that photography and television have done us a great service.”

– Michael Deaver, former Deputy White House Chief of Staff

Well one of the great things about Netflix is that it gives me an opportunity to go back and see so many great programs that I somehow missed the first time around. For me, one of those programs was PBS’ excellent documentary, American Photography: A Century of Images. Although not quite as long as last year’s equally fine BBC documentary “The Genius of Photography,” I found it compelling in an entirely different way.

At a little over 3 hours in length, American Photography: A Century of Images chronicles the last century of photography in the United States. Broken down into three parts, the series covers 1900-1934, 1935-1959 and 1960-1999 (when the program was produced).

So many of the greatest American photographs and photographers are profiled in the documentary, Ansel Adams and his ahead of his time photographs of our environment, Gordon Parks and his photos depicting racism in the U.S., Dorothea Lange and her work for the FSA in the Great Depression, Edward Curtis’ chronicling of the American Indian, Robert Frank’s post war photographs of the real America.

Much of the documentary focuses specifically on politics and war. Moving from World War 1 to World War 2 to the extraordinary and intimate role of photography in Vietnam and finally to the deeply troubling censorship that took place with the most recent Iraq war, you recognize the amazing power that photography has not so much on our minds, but on our hearts and emotions.

You hear stories told by people like musician Graham Nash about how after seeing the historic photo of students killed at Kent State that Neil Young went into the woods and came back out an hour later having written one of the angriest and most powerful songs of the Vietnam era, Ohio.

Or stories about President Kennedy’s reaction upon seeing for the first time a photo taken by photographer Malcolm Browne of a Buddhist Monk’s suicide by fire that ran in newspapers across America (even though the New York Times refused to run it).

The documentary also spends a fair amount of time on the history of photographic technology — how the advent of a camera like the Kodak Brownie become a great democratizer of photography, or how image manipulation possible today was able to remove a cigarette from Jackson Pollock’s mouth in the photo used for his postage stamp.

There are so many great segments in this documentary. Edward Steichen’s 1955 historic exhibition “The Family of Man” at New York’s MOMA. The impact of a photograph of black Emmett Till’s brutal bludgeoned murdered body on the civil rights movement. Michael Deaver talking about how tightly he controlled photographic access to Ronald Reagan. Four of the most significant photographs of the Vietnam war (including Eddie Adams’ gripping photo of an execution of a Viet Cong soldier). The great rise of Life Magazine. The photo appropriation of artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Prince to comment with art on social culture.

If you love photography like I do and you haven’t seen this documentary yet, do yourself a favor and go out and rent or buy it. It will inspire you as a photographer and it will give you an amazing historical perspective on this great art and craft of ours. Along the way you will see some of the most amazing photographs ever taken. The documentary is chock full of photographs that almost everyone will recognize — and getting the stories behind these photographs brings even greater clarity to the moment and an even deeper respect for the photographers who made them.

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