Friday, 4 July 2014

"Say Cheese!" ... Iconic Photographs

Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch

Photography has come along way since Louis Dagurerre started fiddling with his silver salts and iodine crystals in 1826. Thanks to technological advances, even beginners can turn out lovely photographs. There is no shortage of interesting and beautiful pictures for us to post online, where they ricochet back and forth endlessly between friends and strangers in e-mails and social media.
Among the countless images, there is a handful that absolutely stands out. Once seen, never forgotten. Here are some of them.

Man Ray's Le Violon d'Ingres (1933) is, as the title suggests, an homage to the painter: he pays tribute to the Ingres nudes, in particular The Bather and The Turkish Bath, but the photograph is also a visual pun that refers to the fact that Ingres was a talented violinist. Man Ray photographed the model Kiki in a turban, then painted the f-holes on the print and rephotographed it. Her arms are hidden, to emphasise the resemblance between the female shape and that of a violin.
Ingres: The Bather
Also from the 1930s is the photograph by Charles C. Ebbets of eleven construction workers, nonchalantly  seated on a girder eating lunch, 260 meters above the streets of New York. The picture was taken in 1932, during the building of the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center. No safety harnesses: I suppose OH&S wasn't much of a concern back then. The country was in the grip of the Great Depression, and perhaps people were desperate enough for work to disregard safety issues.

You don't have to be an acrophobic to remember this one!

This photo, taken during the roundup of Jews after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, is perhaps the most emblematic one of the Holocaust. The picture is part of the official SS report on the "police action", which consisted of the destruction of the ghetto and the transportation of the people to Treblinka, where they were gassed. 

The seven-year-old boy with his hands up (in case he attacked the soldier with the gun?) is an unforgettable and heart-wrenching image. Some of the faces in the picture, including the soldier pointing the gun, have been identified. The little boy's identity is still a mystery. He may or may not  be Arthur Chmiotak, gassed at Treblinka, or Tsvi Nussbaum, who survived and eventually reached the US via Israel. Over the years several fame-seekers have claimed to be the boy, but their stories have all been disproved.

The award-winning Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry is sometimes called "the Third World's Mona Lisa". The photograph was the cover picture of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic Magazine.  

Her identity remained a mystery until 2002, when a National Geographic team travelled to Afghanistan to try and find her. Until then, the country was pretty much closed to Western journalists by the Taliban.

She was positively  identified, through iris recognition technology, as Sharbat Gula, twelve years old when the picture was taken. At 14,  she was married off to Rahmat Gul, with whom she lives in their remote village in Afghanistan.

They have three daughters and Sharbat hopes that they may someday be allowed to get an education.  So do I.

A young photography student, Robert Wiles, took this photograph just minutes after Evelyn McHale leapt to her death from the Empire State Building in May 1947.
Wiles was struck by her beauty as she lay, like Snow White, in the "bier" that the impact of her body had sculpted out of the roof of a Cadillac. Contrary to what one would expect after a fall from such a great height, there is no blood, no mutilation. Her skirt is decorously in place, her eyes are closed and her face serene, as if she is asleep. One elegant white-gloved hand is touching her pearls.

Robert Wiles named the picture "A Beautiful Death". LIFE Magazine published it in that month's issue. The image captured the imagination of the public and was endlessly reproduced. Andy Warhol included it in his "Death and Disaster" series.

Evelyn's suicide was an enigma: she was 23 years old, recently engaged to be married, and the cryptic letter she left behind did not explain her motive, merely saying "Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies.”  Ironically, she added: “I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation? I beg of you and my family – don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me." 
Evelyn was not to have her last wish. Her picture and the remembrance of her tragic beauty live on. 

There are so many more iconic photographs that have become part of our collective memory: the mushroom cloud of the first atom bomb; Sherpa Tensing on top of Mount Everest; our planet seen from the Moon, like a beautiful blue marble; Neil Armstrong in his space suit; Marilyn with her white dress billowing up; Jackie Kennedy with her husband’s blood on her pink suit; little John Kennedy saluting his father's coffin; The man with the shopping bag in Tiananmen Square; the sailor kissing the girl on the day WW2 ended; three Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima ... And how about the fire-fighter giving the koala a drink on Black Saturday in 2009?  Magic!

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