Our Family Album

A three-hour documentary argues that photographs have given us a lens through which to view our century, but some of the images may be distorted

October 13, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"American Photography: A Century of Images" makes a convincing argument that the still photograph has been the dominant social force, and certainly the dominant force for social change, of the past 100 years.

What the exhaustive three-hour PBS documentary airing at 8 tonight on MPT (Channels 22, 67) argues less convincingly is the photograph's status as art. Boundary-pushers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, who tried to merge art and painting into a whole new art form, are dealt with rather cursorily.

What the show ignores altogether is the idea that the still photograph may not be the greatest gift God ever gave man. Anyone who's ever had to dodge the paparazzi may have a few negative thoughts about photography. And modern pornography, which pretty much owes its well-being to the photograph, is hardly the most noble legacy of the 20th century.

Left, then, is a three-hour testimonial to the wonder that is the photograph. While the frozen images shown onscreen are undeniably powerful and glorious -- you'll recognize most of them, since they've already been seared into our collective memories -- you can't help but feel something's being glossed over here.

The program wastes no time setting up its central idea, that the photograph has become an inextricable, and very personal, component of modern life. It opens with the aftermath of a May 1999 tornado in Kansas that killed 46 people and caused millions of dollars in damage. Recognizing the survivors' psychological devastation, rescue workers collected the thousands of family photographs that had been strewn all over the landscape and lay them out on tables inside an open room. Area residents are seen anxiously searching for lost pictures of the people they loved and the places they'd been.

This opening is one of the most emotional segments of "American Photography," bringing home the personal relationship people have with their photographs, regarded as treasured family heirlooms. Houses can be rebuilt, lives re-established, but once that picture of Uncle Will at the family picnic is gone, it's gone forever.

"Photography -- imagine the world without it," ad man Jerry della Femina says later in the program. "How would I know, how would I remember, what I looked like as a kid? How did my mother look when she graduated from junior high school on Mott Street? It links us all; it keeps us all together. It's what history is. It's really what our history is."

"American Photography" breaks the century into three hourlong segments. Part 1, "The Developing Image, 1900-1934," begins with the introduction of the Brownie camera on Feb. 1, 1900.

Photography had been around for more than a half-century, but the equipment was expensive and bulky; people sat for formal portraits only a few times in their entire life. It wasn't until the $1 Brownie that photography became readily available to the masses. Soon, everybody was taking pictures of everything, from birthday parties to funerals, family vacations to family reunions.

Thus was born photography as a social phenomenon. Throughout the show's three hours, the filmmakers pause occasionally to let people show off their family albums, and several segments emphasize the delight people take in their family photographs. They serve as welcome, light-hearted breaks from the main concern of "American Photography," which is to document the camera as a chronicler of events.

Photography as an instrument of social reform took off with the invention of the halftone process, which enabled newspapers and magazines to abandon line art in favor of pictures -- which, readers figured, couldn't lie.

Lewis Hine's photographs of children working under inhumane conditions, taken in 1906, led to the passage of child labor laws throughout the country -- and the camera's role as advocate was established.

Part 2, "The Photographic Age: 1935-1959," argues that this 24-year period constituted the Golden Age of still photography, and the images make that label hard to dispute. Wire photos allowed images to be transmitted speedily by wire all over the world. A picture of a confident, grinning Franklin Roosevelt may have been as important in raising America's spirits as any of his vaunted New Deal programs.

In an impressive display of the power of the image, "American Photography" uses six photographs -- including Robert Capa's blurry shot of a soldier coming ashore at D-Day, Betty Grable's legs, the horrors of Auschwitz and the flag-raising at Iwo Jima -- to sum up World War II. It works.

The segment ends with a photograph of the bloated body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a black teen-ager beaten to death in Mississippi because he might have whistled at a white woman. Several African-Americans talk about how that one picture helped spur a generation's fight for civil rights.

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