I recently watched through a series of documentaries from the late 90s produce by the BBC. The title of the series is Decisive Moments: The Photographs that Made History. This is of course a kind of abuse of the « decisive moments » terminology that was popularized by Henri Cartier-Bresson and related more to street photography, but it’s an apt title as it shows how some photographs, sometimes accidental, had an impact on world history.
The six episodes are roughly chronological, though they are somewhat themed as well. Here is a quick breakdown of the episodes:
- Pictures, Pictures, Pictures tells the story of the emergence of sensational photography and the tabloid press in the US. The most powerful segment relates to the incredible story of how the photo of the execution of Ruth Snyder on the electric chair was obtained.
- The Persuaders charts the early use of photography in political influence and propaganda. It raises some really interesting questions on the fine line between framing and staging photos, especially examining the controversy around the FSA photos. I also discovered Alexander Rodchenko whose photography I will clearly need to look into.
- Are You Crazy? shows the impact of photography in the first conflict that was really under the eye of the camera. It looks at famous war photographers like Capra but also at the impact (and censorship) of the pictures. It highlights the story of Joe Rosenthal‘s Flag on Iwo Jima and its cousin picture Yevgeny Khaldei’s Raising a Flag over the Reichstag.
- Some Intimacy explores the post-war glamour role of photography in advertising and the star-system. The highlight is the story of Yousuf Karsh‘s famous Churchill portrait, but overall this is the episode that interested me the least as it focuses on glamour photography.
- Only in the Light of Day is a very interesting delve into the role of photography in Vietnam and other conflicts. Really interesting section on Larry Burrows and how he went from photographing propaganda to really photographing the war. This episode also shows how governments took a long while to adapt to the idea of photography not being a controllable medium for politics.
- A Rough Road is a 1997 assessment of the profession and its future. One of the dramatic stories is Jeff Widener retelling the circumstances of his photo of Tien an Men’s Tank Man. It’s ironic and sad that even then, before the advent of digital photography, the writing was on the wall: war photographers were often taking risks for nothing and the prospect was bleak even then.
All in all it’s a good series, even if a little too US/Britain centric in my opinion. Still, as photo documentaries go, this one is interesting in that it doesn’t focus on the photographic process but rather on the impact. Well worth your time if you can find it.