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Indispensable Photographs

May 2024
5min read

The most indispensable photographs show us who we are: the formal portraits of our great-grandparents as newly arrived immigrants and our own parents on their wedding day; the candid snapshots of our youthful selves and of our own children at moments in time gone forever. They mean little to anyone whose life is not tied to the memories.


Pictures that teach us how to see are the next most indispensable photographs. William Carlos Williams wrote in his novel The Great American Novel that there is “nothing more wonderful than to see the pears attached by their stems to the trees. Earth, trunk, branch, twig and the fruit: a circle soon to be completed when the pear falls.” A perfectly seen photograph, such as Alfred Stieglitz’s Apple and Gable, Lake George , 1922, is thus indispensable because it triggers the imagination and makes us appreciate something we might have ignored. It is “larger” than its subject. It gives meaning to life. Photography is the great American democratic art form not because everyone can own a camera and take a picture but because still photographs have the ability to help us see clearly and give value to things both great and small.

Indispensable photographs should not be confused with photographs of important historic events: the joining of the rails at Promontory Point; the Wright brothers’ plane lifting off at Kitty Hawk; the first man on the moon; the horrors of Auschwitz, My Lai, and Kent State; Ike rallying the troops on D-day; Martin Luther King, Jr., giving his “I Have a Dream” speech; John F. Kennedy, Jr., saluting his dead father. These images are part of our collective historical consciousness and are vitally significant, but their importance is inherent in the subjects they depict, not in the manner in which they frame moments in time.

Ten indispensable American photographs in chronological order:

Lewis Payne

by Alexander Gardner (1865). Here is one of the first celebrity portraits. Payne was a criminal; he had attempted to assassinate President Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward.

He was hanged for his role in the plot. There were 10 conspirators; Alexander Gardner photographed 8 of them, but Lewis Payne was the only one who knew how to play to the camera and use his good looks to seduce his contemporaries and every succeeding generation.

The portrait of Payne is indispensable in reminding us that the camera can make celebrities out of both the worthy and the unworthy. The image is not the reality.


A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

by Timothy O’Sullivan (1863). This is one of the greatest war photographs. It is a eulogy to all who have fallen in battle, a meditation on life and death. It simultaneously honors the men by forever hallowing the ground on which they fell and presents their once-pulsating bodies as human debris, used and abused. This image makes sacred the sacrifice but shows there is no glory.


Running (Galloping)

by Eadweard Muybridge (1878–79). William M. Ivins, Jr., of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote, “The nineteenth century began by believing that what was reasonable was true, and it would end up by believing that what it saw in a photograph of was true.” No group of photographs illustrates this arresting observation better than the human and animal locomotion studies Eadweard Muybridge made in the late 187Os and 188Os. Rebecca Solnit, in her brilliant recent book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West , describes this photographer as “the man who split the second, as dramatic and far-reaching an action as the splitting of the atom.” She continues: “He had begun transforming photography into a scientific instrument revealing the secret world of motion. The medium had started out far slower than the human eye.… It was now going to cross a great divide, to bring into visibility, as the telescope and microscope before it, a world hidden to the eye.” Muybridge’s cameras froze the most basic actions, and the impact of his pictures on art matched their impact on science. He not only stopped action, through his use of optical devices, he got the pictures moving and, as such, was part of the revolution called motion pictures.

Albanian Woman With Folded Head Cloth, Ellis Island

by Lewis Hine (1905). A great portrait is supposed to be able to reveal the character, the essence, of the individual. Mine’s portrait of this unnamed young woman on the threshold of a new life reveals little about her except her ability to be totally in the moment—to proclaim, “I am here.” The marvel of this portrait is that one feels her courage without knowing anything of her past or her future. The photograph is homage to the individuality of each immigrant to our shores.


Pepper No. 30

by Edward Western (1930). Edward Western could turn a pepper into a monument. He transformed the most mundane subjects—a cabbage leaf, a piece of seaweed, a torso, a tree—into works of profound beauty and spirituality. But as Professor Alan Tractenberg reminds us in an essay on Weston, saying that a rock is “more than a rock” is ultimately an act of faith. It doesn’t matter if the viewer of a Weston photograph sees the subject as sublimely beautiful or as the equivalent of some spiritual force of nature. Once someone has seen a Weston photograph, he or she understands the camera to be a powerful tool for revealing form and detail, and it is difficult to again see any of his subjects—be they shells or carrots or kelp or sand dunes—in the same way.


Farmer’s Kitchen, Hale County, Alabama

by Walker Evans (1936). In 1936 Fortune magazine assigned the writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans to collaborate on a series of articles about the daily lives of tenant farmers in the Deep South. Their work was subsequently published as a book with the title Let Us Now Praise Famous Men . Evans and Agee were unable to view these families as a “social problem” and saw dignity and grace where others saw poverty and squalor. No image challenges assumptions about quality of life more than Farmer’s Kitchen . A dishcloth hangs on a hook, as elegant as a fine piece of chintz. The ceramic jug in the background is as functional and as aesthetically pleasing as those broken vessels of ancient civilizations that grace museum showcases. Someone cared enough to place a simple, single bowl just so on a shelf before the open doorway. To Evans, this tenant family’s home has an inherent balance and grace, and he teaches us that the value we place on things comes from how we see, not how much they cost.

Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, From Manzanar, California

by Ansel Adams (ca. 1944). There are scores of indispensable nineteenth-century photographs of the American West. Photographs by Timothy O’Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, and others brought to the attention of Congress the necessity of preserving the wilderness. I choose the twentieth-century work Mount Williamson , by Adams, however, because millions of people saw it in the 1955 Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Family of Man and the book that followed. It was the first truly great landscape photograph many people experienced. Unlike most all pretty color pictures, Adams’s photograph is about a communion with nature at the heart of the American spirit.


Trolley-New Orleans

by Robert Frank (1955–56). Traveling around the United States on a Guggenheim fellowship in the mid-1950s, Robert Frank used his camera to capture the complexity and confusion within American society. Postwar prosperity did not mean all was well in the 48 states. Jack Kerouac wrote in his introduction to Frank’s book The Americans that the photographer “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film.” Using his little camera, Frank captured the big issues facing Americans: alienation, isolation, integration, quality of life. Trolley—New Orleans is like a sad song telling us that no matter how different we seem to be from one another, whatever our particular woes are, we all are on a journey through time together, each of us occupying our own space but sharing a destiny and a destination. Kerouac said of Frank, “You got eyes,” and Frank’s eyes have helped us all to see.

Demonstrators Blasted Against a Doorway, 17th Street, Birmingham, Alabama

by Charles Moore (1963). Empathy. A great work of art can make the viewer feel the power, the pain, the positions of the subjects depicted.

The pictures of the civil rights movement constitute a golden age of American photojournalism, a period when masterpieces of documentary photography were made that struck many hearts and changed many minds. The Charles Moore photograph from the Birmingham riots is a classic, like a frieze on a Grecian urn, and is as piercing as the jet of water from the firemen’s hose. It is indispensable because it exemplifies the emotional and political power of a great news photograph while teaching the importance of humanity.


Untitled Film Still #48

by Cindy Sherman (1979). Cindy Sherman has produced a rich and complex body of images of herself, but they are not selfportraits. Her portraits tend to be “types” of women we recognize from movies and pictures and the grocery store but don’t really know at all. Sherman’s work, beginning with her seminal series Untitled Film Stills , illuminates American life as a composite of culture, fantasy, ego, and vulnerability. Her images remind us that photography, like life, is both fact and illusion. Her pictures, like all indispensable photographs, help us uncover what is real and what is not.

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