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925 Silver Collection

Photos that Go for the Gut

By Margaret Hawkins

Gordon Parks, “Department Store, Mobile, Alabama,” 1956, color photograph. Courtesy of © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Awards, rankings, and best-of lists are mostly absurd, especially when it comes to art. But they’re irresistible, too, if only as inspiration for comparison and disagreement. So when I saw the email from the New York Times announcing their list of the “25 photos that defined the modern age,” I immediately clicked.


Scrolling through the images (which are helpfully combined with comments from the panel that selected them), I wondered, how do we measure the influence of an image? We can appraise its qualities or talk about its personal impact, but the path of culture is unpredictable. What sticks and what doesn’t?

David Jackson, “Mamie Till and Gene Mobley Standing Before the Body of Emmett
Till at a Chicago Funeral Home, 1955,” photograph. Courtesy of © David Jackson.

Surely, familiarity is a factor. Many of the photos here are famous. They have traveled around the world, first in newspapers, then on the Internet. Most are important, addressing human cruelty in its manifold grotesque forms. A few are also beautiful, even when what they depict is ugly. These images, the ones that deploy the power of art to expose ugliness, are the most striking, the most likely to capture our attention and change the world. To stun a viewer, not merely educate her, an image must subvert logic and go straight to the heart, or the gut. Without art, an image won’t fully grab us and hold our attention over time no matter how important its subject is. A bit of mystery takes a photo over the top.

There are a few photos on the NY Times list that do that for me.

William A. Anders, “Earthrise,” 1968, as seen from beyond the lunar surface from Apollo 8, the
first crewed spacecraft to circumnavigate the Moon. Courtesy of NASA/William A. Anders.

“Earthrise” by William A. Anders, the Apollo 8 astronaut who died in June, is the only hopeful image on my list. His view of Earth as seen from space in 1968, the first ever, shows our fragile, beautiful planet as a fertile welcoming place, a small floating oasis that looks like a marble suspended in black infinity. Half-a-century later it’s still shocking to behold this image of our tiny selves. How small and cozy we seem from space. It’s a reminder of how alive our planet is, even now, despite our efforts to kill it. The image always reminds me of returning home at night to the welcoming sight of a house with the lights on.


At the opposite end of hope and beauty stands David Jackson’s “Mamie Till and Gene Mobley Standing Before the Body of Emmett Till at a Chicago Funeral Home, 1955,” gruesome evidence of American racism at its worst. The men who tortured and murdered 14-year-old Till for whistling at a white woman went free. The image is shocking, disgusting. You want to forget you saw it, but nobody should ever forget. Till’s mother was the one who made sure the casket would be open and the maimed body photographed. Her serene, loving face is the mystery at the center of the photo.

Staff Sgt. Ivan L. Frederick, A detainee at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, in a
file image obtained by The Associated Press in late 2003. Courtesy of AP Photos.

Another unforgettable document of white Americans torturing people of color is Staff Sgt. Ivan L. Frederick II’s  2003 photo of a hooded Iraqi detainee at Abu Ghraib Prison. Part of the disastrous fallout from 9/11, the image contains a sickening paradox. The composition and graininess impart an almost religious quality, giving it the sour hint of a modern crucifixion. The content is pure debasement, the powerful abusing the powerless. Apparently, despite our claims, Americans are not “better than that.” The prisoner stands on a box with a hood over his head, hooked up to electrical wires. His suffering is internal, his face hidden. We are left to imagine what he feels, if we are capable of that. If you are not prone to empathy, it allows you not to know.


Richard Drew, “Falling Man,” 2001. Courtesy of Richard Drew/AP Photos.

American atrocities in Iraq were the result of our tragically misguided response to 9/11. The attack itself is represented here by Richard Drew’s famous falling man photo, showing a jumper plummeting head-first from the Twin Towers. It’s a remarkable image but I don’t think it belongs here. It is sensational and deceptive, suggesting grace and intention as this man falls to his unplanned death. Drew has captured coincidental beauty, imposing art onto horror. He has glamorized the man’s desperate act. I don’t think it’s fair to the anonymous faller to interpret his death this way, so I would have left this image off the list.  


Nan Goldin’s self-portrait addresses domestic horror. "Nan One Month After Being Battered, 1984,” is one shot of hundreds from her “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” slide show, a carousel of images that clicks through her personal reportage on love, friendship, and addiction, accompanied by an eclectic, wrenching soundtrack. It’s about junkies and burnouts, love and AIDS and, yes, the plight of women. In Charles Portis’ novel, “Gringos,” about life in the Yucatan, one character cites a Mexican belief that we never really know someone until we’ve seen their face illuminated by a flash of lightning. The same might be said of the candid camera of Nan Goldin.


Nan Goldin, “Nan One Month After Being Battered,” 1984, from the series “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” 1979-2004. Courtesy of © Nan Goldin and Gagosian.

Stuart Franklin’s 1989 photo of a lone man in a pure white shirt blocking a phalanx of tanks in Tiananmen Square reminds us of the power of personal bravery.


My favorite image on this list is Gordon Parks’ “Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956.” It shows a Black woman with a little girl standing under a neon sign that says Colored Entrance. The woman is beautiful and beautifully dressed, as is the child. So much is contained in this photo. The message on the sign is cruel, but the idea that this woman is somehow lesser is proven nonsense by the objective documentation of her loveliness. Parks thus subverts the intended insult of the signage. Even the sign is beautiful. The Colored Entrance seems like the best place to be.   


Stuart Franklin, the subject of Franklin’s famous image from the Tiananmen Square massacre has come to be known as Tank Man, 1989. Courtesy of © Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos.

The photo is complex, though, more than a moral lesson. Not least important is that its subject is a proud-looking woman. We can see the effort she’s put into preparing for this mid-fifties outing. Women were expected to dress up, Black women especially, if they were to be seen as respectable. Later, the subject of this photo said she regretted that the strap of her slip was showing, but I love that slippage. Without it she would look like a model. Instead, the tiny wardrobe malfunction reminds us how difficult it was to be a woman, more so a Black woman, at mid-century. Parks documented American racism during the Civil Rights movement, but here he's also given us a sly glimpse of another revolution about to crash into American life. Almost seventy years later, American women are still struggling for rights over their own bodies. At least we no longer have to wear slips.

Margaret Hawkins is a writer, critic and educator. Her books include “Lydia’s Party” (2015), “How We Got Barb Back” (2011) a memoir about family mental illness, and others. She wrote a column about art for the Chicago Sun-Times, was Chicago correspondent for ARTnews, and has written for a number of other publications including The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Art & Antiques and Fabrik. She teaches writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Loyola University. Visit Margaret Hawkins’ website.
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