【原文标题】Most Influential Photos
The Vanishing Race
Edward S. Curtis
Native Americans were the great casualty of the U.S.’s grand westward advance. As settlers tamed the seemingly boundless stretches of the young nation, they evicted Indians from their ancestral lands, shoving them into impoverished reservations and forcing them to assimilate. Fearing the imminent disappearance of America’s first inhabitants, Edward S. Curtis sought to document the assorted tribes, to show them as a noble people—“the old time Indian, his dress, his ceremonies, his life and manners.” Over more than two decades, Curtis turned these pictures and observations into The North American Indian, a 20-volume chronicle of 80 tribes. No single image embodied the project better than The Vanishing Race, his picture of Navajo riding off into the dusty distance. To Curtis the photo epitomized the plight of the Indians, who were “passing into the darkness of an unknown future.” Alas, Curtis’ encyclopedic work did more than convey the theme—it cemented a stereotype. Railroad companies soon lured tourists west with trips to glimpse the last of a dying people, and Indians came to be seen as a relic out of time, not an integral part of modern American society. It’s a perception that persists to this day.
As a leader of the Photo-Secession movement, Alfred Stieglitz searched for beauty through the craftsmanlike creation of photographs, held pioneering exhibitions of his contemporaries, published their works and sought to have the still nascent art form taken as seriously as painting. But as modernism seeped into the cultural ferment in the early 20th century, Stieglitz became mesmerized by the growing cacophony of society, of rising skyscrapers and soaring airplanes, and strove to create what he termed “straight photography,” offering truthful takes on the real world. In 1907 he was sailing to Europe, 4x5 Speed Graflex in tow, when he set off from the first-class deck and came upon the huddled masses in the ship’s steerage. There, the shawled and swathed were crammed together on the compact lower deck, the skewed geometry of the ship emphasizing their claustrophobic accommodations and visually segregating them from those on the upper deck. “A round straw hat; the funnel leaning left, the stairway leaning right; the white drawbridge, its railings made of chain,” Stieglitz later wrote. “I stood spellbound for a while. I saw shapes related to one another—a picture of shapes, and underlying it, a new vision that held me.” Despite its momentary impact, Stieglitz’s photo, with its clear, unapologetic take on life, lay unnoticed for four years. But when he published it on the cover of his magazine Camera Work, The Steerage presented a radical way of thinking about photography, not as a momentary mimic of painting but a wholly formed and unique type of art. Appearing at the time of a seismic revolution in the arts, with the emergence of such seminal figures as the composer Igor Stravinsky and the architect Walter Gropius, this, one of the first “modernist” pictures, helped photography to be seen on a par with these other innovative forms of art. None other than the painter Pablo Picasso admired The Steerage’s cubistic sense and wrote that both he and Stieglitz were “working in the same spirit.”
Cotton Mill Girl
Working as an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, Lewis Hine believed that images of child labor would force citizens to demand change. The muckraker conned his way into mills and factories from Massachusetts to South Carolina by posing as a Bible seller, insurance agent or industrial photographer in order to tell the plight of nearly 2 million children. Carting around a large-format camera and jotting down information in a hidden notebook, Hine recorded children laboring in meatpacking houses, coal mines and canneries, and in November 1908 he came upon Sadie Pfeifer, who embodied the world he exposed. A 48-inch-tall wisp of a girl, she was “one of the many small children at work” manning a gargantuan cotton-spinning machine in Lancaster, S.C. Since Hine often had to lie to get his shots, he made “double-sure that my photo data was 100% pure—no retouching or fakery of any kind.” His images of children as young as 8 dwarfed by the cogs of a cold, mechanized universe squarely set the horrors of child labor before the public, leading to regulatory legislation and cutting the number of child laborers nearly in half from 1910 to 1920.
Even if she could see, the woman in Paul Strand’s pioneering image might not have known she was being photographed. Strand wanted to capture people as they were, not as they projected themselves to be, and so when documenting immigrants on New York City’s Lower East Side, he used a false lens that allowed him to shoot in one direction even as his large camera was pointed in another. The result feels spontaneous and honest, a radical departure from the era’s formal portraits of people in stilted poses. Strand’s photograph of the blind woman, who he said was selling newspapers on the street, is candid, with the woman’s face turned away from the camera. But Strand’s work did more than offer an unflinching look at a moment when the nation was being reshaped by a surge of immigrants. By depicting subjects without their knowledge—or consent—and using their images to promote social awareness, Strand helped pave the way for an entirely new form of documentary art: street photography.
There is a certain formulaic approach to August Sander’s photography. But that was his aim. By presenting doctors, farmers, chefs and beggars all with the same stark directness, the German-born Sander made everyone the everyman. He set out to show that there is much to learn from all layers of society, noting, “We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled, for life unavoidably leaves its trace there.” Sander’s most celebrated portrait, of a bricklayer in Cologne, Germany, embodies that insight. For while the laborer’s work entails toil and sweat, he maintains a proud bearing. The classical framing, with the lines of the bricks evoking the lines of the bricklayer’s vest, reinforces the dignity of the subject. Which was no small thing for a nation still reeling from the humiliation of World War I. Sander gathered Bricklayer and his other portraits in the monumental People of the 20th Century, the first body of work to document a culture through photography. Sander’s photographs celebrate the importance of the individual, elevating portraiture of ordinary people to art.
Portly statesmen have long gathered to weigh the fate of nations, cigars and brandy at the ready. But they were always sequestered far from prying eyes. The German photojournalist Erich Salomon changed all that, slipping into those smoke-filled back rooms with a small Leica camera built to shoot in low light. Nowhere was his skill on greater display than during a 1930 meeting in the Hague over German World War I reparations. There, at 2 a.m., Salomon candidly shot exhausted Foreign Ministers after a long day of negotiations. The picture created a sensation when it was published in the London Graphic. For the first time, the public could look through the doors of power and see world leaders with their guard down. Salomon, who died in Auschwitz 12 years later, had created backstage political photojournalism.
Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare
Speed and instinct were at the heart of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s brilliance as a photographer. And never did he combine the two better than on the day in 1932 when he pointed his Leica camera through a fence behind Paris’ Saint-Lazare train station. The resulting image is a masterpiece of form and light. As a man leaps across the water, evoking the dancers in a poster on the wall behind him, the ripples in the puddle around the ladder mimic the curved metal pieces nearby. Cartier-Bresson, shooting with a nimble 35-millimeter camera and no flash, saw these components all come together for a brief moment and clicked his shutter. Timing is everything, and no other photographer’s was better. The image would become the quintessential example of Cartier-Bresson’s “Decisive Moment,” his lyrical term for the ability to immortalize a fleeting scene on film. It was a fast, mobile, detail-obsessed style that would help chart the course for all of modern photography.
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper
It’s the most perilous yet playful lunch break ever captured: 11 men casually eating, chatting and sneaking a smoke as if they weren’t 840 feet above Manhattan with nothing but a thin beam keeping them aloft. That comfort is real; the men are among the construction workers who helped build Rockefeller Center. But the picture, taken on the 69th floor of the flagship RCA Building (now the GE Building), was staged as part of a promotional campaign for the massive skyscraper complex. While the photographer and the identities of most of the subjects remain a mystery—the photographers Charles C. Ebbets, Thomas Kelley and William Leftwich were all present that day, and it’s not known which one took it—there isn’t an ironworker in New York City who doesn’t see the picture as a badge of their bold tribe. In that way they are not alone. By thumbing its nose at both danger and the Depression, Lunch Atop a Skyscraper came to symbolize American resilience and ambition at a time when both were desperately needed. It has since become an iconic emblem of the city in which it was taken, affirming the romantic belief that New York is a place unafraid to tackle projects that would cow less brazen cities. And like all symbols in a city built on hustle, Lunch Atop a Skyscraper has spawned its own economy. It is the Corbis photo agency’s most reproduced image. And good luck walking through Times Square without someone hawking it on a mug, magnet or T-shirt.
Couple in Raccoon Coats
To many white Americans in the 1930s, black people were little more than domestics or sharecroppers. They were ignored, invisible, forgotten. But that was not what James VanDerZee saw when he gazed through his camera lens. Seeking to counter the degrading and widely disseminated caricatures of African Americans in popular culture, VanDerZee not only photographed Harlem weddings, funerals, clubs and families but also chronicled the likes of black nationalist Marcus Garvey, dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and the poet Countee Cullen—the leaders, artists, writers, movers and strivers of the Harlem Renaissance. In his Guarantee Photo Studio and along the neighborhood’s streets, VanDerZee crafted portraits that were meticulously staged to celebrate the images his subjects wanted to project. And nowhere is this pride more evident than in his glowing picture of a handsome couple sporting raccoon coats beside a Cadillac roadster. The swish backdrop—props curated by VanDerZee—challenged popular perceptions about race, class and success and became an aspirational model for generations of African Americans yearning for a full piece of the American Dream.
The Loch Ness Monster
If the giraffe never existed, we’d have to invent it. It’s our nature to grow bored with the improbable but real and look for the impossible. So it is with the photo of what was said to be the Loch Ness monster, purportedly taken by British doctor Robert Wilson in April 1934. Wilson, however, had simply been enlisted to cover up an earlier fraud by wild-game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell, who had been sent to Scotland by London’s Daily Mail to bag the monster. There being no monster to bag, Wetherell brought home photos of hippo prints that he said belonged to Nessie. The Mail caught wise and discredited Wetherell, who then returned to the loch with a monster made out of a toy submarine. He and his son used Wilson, a respected physician, to lend the hoax credibility. The Mail endures; Wilson’s reputation doesn’t.
The Loch Ness image is something of a lodestone for conspiracy theorists and fable seekers, as is the absolutely authentic picture of the famous face on Mars taken by the Viking probe in 1976. The thrill of that find lasted only until 1998, when the Mars Global Surveyor proved the face was, as NASA said, a topographic formation, one that by that time had been nearly windblown away. We were innocents in those sweet, pre-Photoshop days. Now we know better—and we trust nothing. The art of the fake has advanced, but the charm of it, like the Martian face, is all but gone.