University of Chicago Press, 2007, 419 pp., $30
The Art of Ill Will:
The Story of American Political Cartoons
New York University Press, 2007, 251 pp., $34.95
Agroup of U.S. Marines plants the American flag on Mount Suribachi. A sailor kisses a girl in Times Square. A young woman shrieks in horror over the corpse of a slain Kent State University student. A Vietnamese girl, naked and screaming, flees a napalm attack. A lone protester confronts a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square. And three firefighters, standing tall amid the rubble of Ground Zero, once more raise the Stars and Stripes.
Indelible images all, and documents whose wide dissemination, and occasional misappropriation, say as much about America in the Information Age as about the people and events these images depict. Whether such snapshots resonate because they pierce the daily barrage of “data” to capture something true and profound about modern life, or whether they are simply differently contoured manifestations of that barrage—themselves tokens of distortion and vehicles for manipulation—are important questions thoughtfully addressed by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites in No Caption Needed.
Hariman and Lucaites, communications professors from Northwestern University and Indiana University, respectively, acknowledge at the outset that their nine case studies (also included are the anxious “Migrant Mother” of 1936 and the Hindenburg and Challenger explosions) hardly encompass all of American history’s iconic photographs. They deliberately exclude, for example, the entire corpus of Civil War and Holocaust photographs; some in the latter category are iconic, to be sure, but the authors deem them “in a class by themselves” and thus inappropriate for comparative analysis. Also absent are the great sports photographs—like Babe Ruth’s stoop-shouldered farewell at Yankee Stadium or Rocky Marciano’s landscaping right to the face of Joe Walcott—because they circulate chiefly among “subcultures” of inherently limited public impact. Still other images, so prevalent as to seem inescapable, such as the Oswald assassination or the romanticized portrait of Che Guevara, also run afoul of the authors’ elaborate criteria of inclusion for one reason or another.
What remains, however, is a penetrating and provocative analysis of the way certain popular photographs, whether produced by professionals or amateurs, acquire the power to change public policy and with it the course of history. The key ingredient in the formula, the authors argue, is that the image, like a good New Yorker cartoon, must be readily digestible. A photo’s contents and context must be sufficiently familiar—even if shocking—so that viewers, or “consumers”, can approach the encounter, or “transaction”, equipped to process it instantaneously: “Thus, the iconic photograph is not about informing the public; rather, it offers a performance of social relationships that provide a basis for moral comprehension and response to what is already known.”
The authors’ analytical achievement is enabled by an extraordinary feat of research and reporting. They have unearthed the hidden facts, from both backstory and aftermath, surrounding each of their nine chosen photographs. In some cases, Hariman and Lucaites suggest, these facts might have changed the photograph’s interpretation and impact had they been known. What difference might it have made, for example, if newspaper readers worldwide knew that Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old girl captured in Nick Ut’s 1972 “Accidental Napalm” classic, was actually fleeing a strike by South Vietnamese, not American, forces? Or if all those who have seen an indictment of capitalism in “Migrant Mother”—Dorothea Lange’s stark portrait of a Depression-era farm worker with her tired and dirty babies—knew that the flinty-eyed subject, identified in 1978 as Florence Thompson, was later photographed in relative affluence with her adult, well-nourished daughters and always felt bitter that she wasn’t paid for the use of her face? Maybe no difference at all. But the questions the authors raise by introducing these ancillary facts demonstrate, perhaps inadvertently, that a photograph probably always needs some kind of caption.
Almost as compelling as these classic images are the stories of their subsequent appropriation. No Caption Needed details the uses and abuses of these nine iconic photographs by propagandists and peddlers of all kinds, with results that prove alternately haunting, playful, predictable, mercenary, dishonest and sometimes just plain twisted.
By definition their effort cannot be exhaustive: Who, after all, could claim or even aspire to have collected every visual allusion to the Iwo Jima flag-raising? It’s impressive enough that Hariman and Lucaites reproduce the next photograph taken on February 23, 1945 by the Associated Press’s Joe Rosenthal: a shot that captured all 18 of the Marines present on Mount Suribachi that day, smiling and hoisting their rifles in front of the freshly planted, wind-blown flag, a “powerless” image of subjects “acting on cue”, as the authors rightly describe it. To further establish how iconography endures, paradoxically, through ephemera, No Caption Needed offers a cell from The Simpsons in which Homer brandishes a cookie shaped like the iconic Rosenthal image, and a post-9/11 window display at a Des Moines café that depicts three women in aprons planting their own U.S. flag (an image snapped by Hariman himself).
These artifacts demonstrate that some photographs enjoy a life—multiple lives, really—beyond their snapping, development and first flash of publicity. Of the many misappropriations presented here, perhaps the most unsettling is one that, atypically, makes no effort to incorporate, or even to mimic, the likenesses or composition of its original antecedent. Its power derives instead from its radical departure from the original’s point of view: artist Jon Haddock’s 2000 take on “Accidental Napalm.” Haddock’s manipulation presents an aerial image made to resemble the action in a computer video game. The viewer looks down, as if from the heavens, on the U.S. soldiers and little Kim Phuc, seeing them as if from behind. Phuc herself barely makes it into the image’s upper right corner. “[T]hat shift in perspective”, Hariman and Lucaites write,
along with the flat surfaces and toy-soldier modeling, makes one aware of the combination of virtual involvement and emotional buffering characteristics of video game technologies. . . . By moving the viewer to the back of the scene, Haddock makes the soldiers the center of the photograph and perhaps the cause of the children’s terror. . . . . [S]ince there is now no sign of the napalm . . . it is the soldiers and not any ‘accident’ that is the leading edge of the war’s disruption of domestic life.
Some will quarrel with the authors’ choices: Doesn’t an image from the 1969 moon landing, or one of the first photographs of the whole Earth taken the year before by the crew of Apollo 8, enjoy greater resonance than the Challenger shot? Likewise, any number of images from September 11, 2001—that “high-water mark for photojournalism”—have since equaled the emotional power of the firefighters’ flag-raising. One recalls the spectacular wide shots of the second plane’s explosive impact; the sickening images of the victims plunging to their deaths; bystanders running toward a clicking video camera, an avalanche of smoke behind them, not unlike Kim Phuc; and the famous close-up of the Twin Towers’ twisted metal wreckage, reminiscent of Planet of the Apes in its vision of post-apocalyptic New York.
But choices of subject are matters both of taste and of potential for research. Less easy to overlook are Hariman and Lucaites’s too frequent lapses into academese, with references to “iconicity” and “syntactical impoverishment.” Their highly defensive brief on behalf of the equality of visual and textual studies offers a polemical artifact that could only have been produced by veterans of tenure wars. Some political bias colors their work, too. In their treatment of the Kent State photo, for example, they write matter-of-factly that “Nixon’s expansion of the war violated Cambodia’s neutrality”, an assertion that blithely ignores North Vietnam’s earlier, systematic violation of its southern neighbor’s sovereignty, which was the proximate cause of President Nixon’s action.
Still, No Caption Needed is an important book. Whatever its minor flaws, it examines some of recent history’s most influential photographs in original and insightful ways and explains how, why and with what effects these images have entered the modern mind. No Caption Needed deserves a wider readership than it may get, coming as it does from a university press whose promotional resources cannot match those of today’s commercial giants. But if America placed a higher premium on scholarly insights into the conditions of its social and political life, this book would be hailed as a classic.
Some of the cleverest appropriations of iconic imagery in American history have been produced by editorial cartoonists. Sometimes these ink-stained satirists have achieved their intended effect by tinkering subtly with iconic originals, as when the New Yorker’s Barry Blitt, weighing in on the gays-in-the-military debate in 1996, substituted another male sailor for the woman in Times Square. And sometimes they have employed a deliberately heavy hand: Tom Toles, then of the Buffalo News, satirized Disney’s plans to open an American history theme park in 1994 by inserting Goofy, running for his life, alongside Kim Phuc.
Yet readers of Donald Dewey’s edited coffee-table collection, The Art of Ill Will, will be hard pressed to identify a single American cartoon from the postwar era that has had anywhere near the impact of recent iconic photographs, whether those studied by Hariman and Lucaites or many others that come to mind, such as the execution of a Vietcong prisoner in 1968 or the beating of Rodney King in 1991. Indeed, today’s cartoonists can only dream of the power Thomas Nast wielded in the late 19th century, when his weekly savaging of New York’s corrupt political machine, Tammany Hall, contributed to the downfall and criminal conviction of William Marcy “Boss” Tweed. Who outside of media circles still remembers Doonesbury’s skewering of John Mitchell during Watergate as “Guilty, Guilty, Guilty!”, or that strip’s equally controversial 1981 series, “Inside Reagan’s Brain”?
Certainly the oft-chronicled decline of the American newspaper industry over the last half century, coupled with the ascendancy of television and digital media, have contributed to this diminution in the influence of editorial cartoonists. But recent events force us to reconsider whether it is premature to write the obituary for political cartooning. After all, 12 cartoon renderings of the prophet Muhammad, first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005, provoked mass protests, attacks on Danish and Norwegian Embassies, and bloody riots that caused an estimated one hundred deaths. While the episode exposed the sad state of free speech in the modern Islamic world, it also spoke to the continuing power of cartoonists to evoke strong, even frightening, reactions to their work.
The author of more than 25 books, mostly on pop culture subjects, Dewey covers well-trod ground here, admitting as much in the footnotes to his graceful introduction. But he goes beyond the standard path, thanks to his unlimited access to The Granger Collection in New York, which on its website boasts of possessing “more than six million color transparencies, photographs and black-and-white prints spanning more than 25,000 years of world history.” As examples of the art of ill will go, one featured here is a very nasty cartoon from 1942 advocating the rounding up and incarceration of American citizens of Japanese descent, drawn by none other than a youthful Theodore Geisel. It seems that before Dr. Seuss ever dreamed of putting cats in hats he waxed paranoid about putting “Japs” in jail.
Tastefully designed, with one cartoon reproduced per page, none of the ink-saving crimes that editorial cartoonists face every day in newsprint are committed here, The Art of Ill Will runs thematically by chapter and chronologically therein. The five themes tackled—presidents; wars and foreign relations; ethnic, racial and religious issues; local and domestic politics; business and labor—ensure a healthy sampling of the best-known greats (Nast, Bill Mauldin, Jules Feiffer, Pat Oliphant and Garry Trudeau, referred to here, inexcusably, as “Gary Trudeau”) and an acquaintanceship with their lesser-known contemporaries and forerunners.
Dewey starts with what is widely regarded as the first American political cartoon, an unsigned woodcut showing a snake chopped into eight pieces, representing the colonies, with the accompanying caption: “Join, or Die.” The image ran alongside an editorial in the Pennsylvania Gazette, penned by none other than Benjamin Franklin, urging unity amid attacks by the Iroquois. Sprinting through the decades, one is struck first by how often artists once incorporated labels into their drawings as a crude narrative crutch. An otherwise wordless single-panel offering by Clifford Berryman from 1928, depicting Al Smith and Herbert Hoover galloping off in divergent directions, carried no fewer than eight labeled objects.
One is also struck by how much more artistic effort the medium once commanded. Even the simplest 19th-century cartoons paid far greater fealty, in the service of realism, to the details of anatomy, perspective, clothing and background than anything produced by today’s most celebrated practitioners. Compare Frank Beard’s classic “Another Voice for Cleveland” (1884)—in which Democratic presidential candidate Grover Cleveland is accosted outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue by a distraught woman and a baby crying out, “I want my Pa!”—with anything drawn today by Walt Handelsman of Newsday, Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution or Nick Andersen of the Louisville Courier-Journal. None of these artists, the last three winners of the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, ever assays George W. Bush with any attributes more realistic than Dumbo-sized ears and a generic black suit.
Perhaps the growing availability of photographs, and the concomitant rise in the early 20th century of less representational schools of art, like Cubism, left cartoonists feeling they no longer needed to produce realistic renderings of faces and objects. Perhaps they considered themselves liberated from having to do so. In any event, engraving, cross-hatching and other representational techniques of the past have largely vanished from the nation’s op-ed pages, replaced by truly “cartoonish” figures and minimal detailing. The loss is the readers’, although we can all be reasonably sure the trend won’t progress as far as it has in other realms of the art world. Jackson Pollack is no one’s idea of an editorial cartoonist.
Unfortunately, David Levine, the modern practitioner most lovingly devoted to Thomas Nast’s brand of cartooning—to the mesmerizing cross-hatching line work and even to specific scenes and framings Nast developed—is bafflingly overlooked in The Art of Ill Will. This giant of modern illustration is credited in The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons (1975), a standard reference volume edited by Stephen Hess and Milton Kaplan and cited frequently in Dewey’s own footnotes, as having “revived the caricature form.” Levine penned the single most widely reproduced cartoon of the 1960s: Lyndon Johnson lifting his shirt and pointing to the Vietnam-shaped appendectomy scar on his belly. And Levine’s Nixons—as Dracula, the Godfather, Captain Queeg, Little Bo Peep—far eclipsed Herblock’s in virtuosity and insightfulness (though not in the psychic trauma they inflicted on the subject).
The omission of Levine, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, the covers of TIME and Newsweek, and to dozens of other publications over the past five decades, can only mean that Dewey and his publisher failed to secure the required rights and permissions, or that the author is somehow unaware of Nast’s truest and worthiest legatee.
That seems unlikely, but then how to explain the one other significant flaw in The Art of Ill Will—the fact that its index offers a navigation guide only to Dewey’s introduction, not to the artists and drawings that make up the bulk of the book?
Iconic photographs and acerbic drawings will both survive the death of the print medium—if its demise, so long anticipated, ever finally materializes. Both forms have emerged as natural extensions of man’s eyes and hands, and as long as both are still used to communicate, even if only virtually, there will be a demand for the documentation, representation and willful misrepresentation such images supply. This algorithmic certainty is exactly what scared the checkered pants off Boss Tweed. “Stop them damned pictures!” he once thundered, after viewing his latest execution by Nast. “I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!”