A DENVER JURY'S verdict of guilty in the bombing and conspiracy trial of Timothy McVeigh last week recalled the searing image that brought the tragedy home to millions of Americans.
The picture, shot by an amateur photographer and transmitted worldwide by the Associated Press, showed an exhausted rescue worker holding the limp, bloodied body of a baby moments after it was pulled from the wreckage of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Little Baylee Almon, who had turned 1 year old the day before, had been in a government child-care center on the second floor of the building when the bomb went off. She was pronounced dead at the scene by emergency medical technicians shortly after the picture was taken.
The image summed up all the horror of the bombing and its grotesque unfairness. It also reminded us that the image produced by camera and lens is unique in its capacity to move the heart and mind of the viewer.
The peculiar power of photography lies in its illusion of truthfulness. The invention of photography made possible, for the first time in history, an imitation of reality produced wholly by mechanical means. The photographic image conveys the impression of possessing a reality independent of human hand or eye.
This illusion of objectivity lends photography a psychological veracity that obliterates the distinction between image and reality in the viewer's mind. We unconsciously accept the "truthfulness" of the camera's image as if it were some purely natural phenomenon, like the reflection in a mirror.
So it seems ironic that for the first half century of its existence, photography struggled to establish itself as an art not by exploiting the illusion of truthfulness intrinsic to its nature but by imitating the artificiality of painting.
Oscar Rejlander and Julia Margaret Cameron became famous for their allegorical, narrative photographs in neoclassical style that fulfilled the Victorian ideal of art imbued with high moral purpose and noble sentiment.
Only gradually, and under extraordinary conditions of political upheaval and social reform, did photographers begin to define an independent vision appropriate to their medium, with its own aesthetic and technical standards.
The apparent truthfulness of photography was first widely exploited in the art of portraiture, but soon was recruited in bringing the harsh realities of war and poverty to the public's attention as well.
When Matthew Brady's grim images of the Civil War dead at Antietam were first exhibited in New York a few weeks after the battle, visitors to his gallery were stunned by the brutality of his images, so unlike the romanticized depictions they had become accustomed to by centuries of painted battle scenes.
Later, the work of photographers like Jacob Riis publicized the appalling conditions of life in America's urban slums at the turn of the century. During the 1930s, the photographers of the Farm Security Administration expanded the genre by compiling a monumental documentary record of conditions among the country's rural poor.
Meanwhile, technical advances in printing had enabled news and advertising photographs to emerge as definitive cultural reference points. Magazines like Life and Look created the picture-essay form, which combined reportage with images that portrayed the everyday lives of their subjects.
All these developments owed little to the self-conscious community of "art" photographers. When Edward Steichen mounted the Museum of Modern Art's landmark "Family of Man" exhibit in the 1950s, he pointedly restricted the show to what he called "working photographers" -- by which he meant photographers working within the social-realist tradition.
Subsequent changes in fashion have challenged the view that photography is primarily a documentary medium. The postmodern critique of art has called into question not only the illusory nature of photography's claim to truthfulness, but the very concepts of "art" and "artist" as they have traditionally been defined.
The dollhouse photographs of Laurie Simmons currently at the Baltimore Museum of Art, for example, exploit the tension between the camera's claim to truthfulness and the obvious artifice of the scenes the artist has portrayed.
Still, I doubt the postmodern debate will substantially alter our reactions to pictures like those from the Oklahoma City bombing. It is an example of the unrivaled communicative power of the photographic image and of its ability to move us regardless of trends and changing critical fashion.
The critic Gustave Geffroy, an early defender of painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, wrote in 1893, "There is a brash humor and cruelty in Lautrec's work but he retains his integrity as an artist; his pitiless powers of observation preserve life's beauty."
The camera's eye, no less than Lautrec's, preserves life's beauty. And it seems to me this is what makes pictures like the one of the death of Baylee Almon, despite the cruelty of the subject, compelling in a way only a photograph can be, beautiful as only a photograph can be in conveying the terrible illusion of truthfulness.
Pub Date: 6/08/97