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100 photos to write about

November 1, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Globe & Mail feature on 100 Photos that Changed Canada suggests that this is one photo book I’ll pass on.

This book seems to suffer from a disease common to such collections of historic photographs: its title suggests that the photographs themselves are important monuments that influenced history — as did Eddie Adams famous shot of a street execution in Vietnam, for example — but its content consists of photographs that peripherally relate to historical events, and serve only as starting points for essays on the importance of those events, rather than those photographs.

So we have, for example, the brilliant Karsh portrait of Winston Churchill. It’s an excellent portrait, to be sure, but what was its historical impact? None; it’s in the book to make space for a discussion of the historical importance of Churchill’s visit to Canada. So how is this one of 100 photos that changed Canada?

Consider a photo that actually did change Canada: Doug Ball’s CP shot of Stanfield fumbling a football on his way to an electoral drubbing at the hands of Pierre Trudeau. This photo arguably changed the outcome of Stanfield’s election campaign, and, like the Eddie Adams Saigon execution, it’s a starting point for discussions of how photojournalism removes events from their context, and the ethical implications. Most of Ball’s phjotos showed Stanfield catching the ball; the photo that ran in the papers was of the fumble, and it arguably influenced public perception of Stanfield’s competence.

That’s a photo with impact: not as artful as Karsh’s portrait, but carrying much greater import.

We don’t even get a serious discussion, in the Globe feature, of the Karsh portrait itself. There’s a great story behind this one: that trademark Churchillian glower was obtained when Karsh insouciantly confiscated the great man’s cigar. Churchill wasn’t posing; he was grumpy.

It’s a photo book that treats its photos as secondary to the text — text that’s written not by photographers, but by journalists and historians. Is it too much to ask of a book entitled 100 Photos that Changed Canada that it treat photographs with some respect?

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