Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Story of a Photograph

In 1976 news photographer Stanley Forman captured an image of a teenager lunging a pole with the American flag at a black man walking near city hall during Boston’s protests about forced school busing. Historian Louis P. Masur provides the story of the photograph, winning later a Pulitzer Prize, in his The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008). “In one click of a photographer’s shutter,” writes Mazur, “the anti-busing claim that the movement was not driven by racism and that protestors were patriotic defenders against tyranny, came undone” (p. 53).

Mazur spins a good story, chronicling the school busing controversy, following-up on the various players associated with the photograph, dissecting the nature of news photography and the veracity of photographs in general, and making interesting comparisons with other images of the American flag. “One can tell a compelling story about America from the three great news photographs that feature Old Glory: Joe Rosenthal’s [image of the flag raising at Iwo Jima], Stanley Forman’s, and Tom Franklin’s [photograph of the flag raising at the World Trade Center site after its destruction on 9/11]. The story would be about triumphant nationalism in World War II, deep-rooted hatred at the time of the Bicentennial, and stubborn courage in the face of catastrophe in the new millennium” (p. 177)

What we also have is an example of how each photograph, residing in an archives, yearns to tell a story. Mazur’s book is, in one sense, a lengthy finding aid to the Forman image.