The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph that Shocked America, by Louis P. Masur, Bloomsbury, $24.95
Adobe Photoshop arrived in the early 1990s, concurrent with functional digital cameras, and since then critical debates about photography and its interpretations of the world have largely centered on one question: How can we believe in an image as fact if it can be imperceptibly altered? Countless examples abound of how our faith in the veracity of the photographic image can be betrayed digitally, from rogue photojournalists adding basketballs to sports shots and smoke to battle scenes to the National Geographic squeezing two pyramids together to make a better magazine cover. As technically savvy commentators have pointed out, such infractions and worse were widespread long before the digital era; film photographers had the luxury of the darkroom in which to crop, lighten, darken, and double print, and their editors employed airbrush artists to make further changes to the scene.
But what we might call the “Photoshop question” about photography misses an essential element of how photographic meaning is produced: our ability to reasonably interpret what we see. The notion that photographs can be “read,” and that this requires a degree of what’s termed visual literacy, has been around longer than Photoshop, but even the most literate photography viewer can only guess at the facts a picture seems to convey. And when it comes to certain intensely symbolic photographs, like the one that earned Stanley Forman the Pulitzer Prize for spot-news photography in 1977 and is the subject of Louis P. Masur’s The Soiling of Old Glory, that guesswork can be intriguingly and dangerously wrong.
Forman’s “Old Glory” image was taken at a Boston anti-busing demonstration in April 1976, at the height of that city’s turmoil over court-ordered busing that was intended to break a pattern of racial school segregation. It appears to show a black man in a three-piece suit being set upon by a crowd of white teenagers, one of whom, on the left of the frame, is about to use the staff of an American flag to impale the man. After being published on the front page of the Boston Herald American, where Forman worked, and then picked up by wire services and reprinted in hundreds of newspapers and magazines worldwide, it became as much a symbol of northern resistance to racial equality as Eddie Adams’s image of Vietnamese General Loan executing a man on a Saigon street was a symbol of the corrupting influence of the Vietnam War.
In Boston and across the nation, the picture instantly inflamed already existing racial tensions. It generated additional outrage because the well-dressed black man who was set upon turned out to be a respected, Yale-trained lawyer named Theodore Landsmark, who was on his way to a meeting about equal-hiring opportunities in the city’s construction trades. With considerable equanimity and aplomb (and with a broken nose, which he had the emergency room liberally bandage), Landsmark spoke out at a news conference two days after the incident and identified racism as the root cause of the attack.
As Masur, a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, capably demonstrates, the picture’s impact reshaped the discourse of Boston’s busing debate. Opponents of what then was called “forced busing” found themselves on the defensive, trying to deny that racism was a fundamental element of their resistance. Liberal-minded politicians and civil-rights advocates in Boston repeatedly cited the image to call for more governmental efforts to end inequality and to effect interracial healing. A few weeks later a white man was pulled from his car and beaten by black teenagers (an event without a photograph, and thus little remembered). As a result, the city’s mayor, Kevin White, called for and led an antiviolence march through the city’s downtown streets.
Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who later became the Democratic nominee for the presidency running against George H. W. Bush, told his constituents shortly thereafter: “These are troubled times for the City of Boston. . . . A black man clubbed on City Hall Plaza. The weapon? An American flag.” Years later the picture continued to resonate. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, talking about patriotism in the wake of September 11, 2001, reminisced about “that famous 1976 photo of an anti-busing demonstrator thrusting a large flag on a pole into the stomach of the first black man he encountered.” The demonstrator in question, Joseph Rakes, then 17 years old and living with his parents in South Boston, was found guilty of assault and battery and of assault with a dangerous weapon and received a two-year sentence, which was suspended.
In fact, as Masur’s interviews with participants and his analysis of Forman’s negatives make clear, Rakes never touched Landsmark, who at the time was just getting up after being punched to his knees by other teenagers. What looks like an attempt to spear him was in reality a split second in an arc in which Rakes swung the flag in front of the victim. The man behind Landsmark, who seems to be restraining him so more blows can be landed, was helping him to his feet and, in Forman’s next frame, can be seen trying to stop any further carnage. But the contextual frames from Forman’s motor-driven camera were deemed less dramatic and thus never entered the maw of spot-news journalism.
This disparity between actual event and photographic appearance is what makes The Soiling of Old Glory read at times like a mystery story, as we wait to hear that over time the truth of the image has silted out into our cultural consciousness. But no luck: the symbolic nature of Forman’s image is so great that we still believe, as Moore does, that the flag is headed into the man’s stomach. The contradiction fascinates Masur and leads him into extended, and at times pedantic, explorations of the history of African Americans in Boston, of the American flag as a theme in art and social protest, and—most germane, in my opinion—of the elements of photographic interpretation.
“Forman’s picture is a masterful picture not simply because of what it depicts and where it appeared but because of how it is composed,” Masur writes in a chapter titled “The Photograph.” He proceeds to compare the photograph to Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre, made a little over 200 years earlier; to Joe Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima flag-raising shot from 1945; and to Peter Paul Rubens’s Christ on the Cross from 1620. Here one wishes the author were more an art historian than a social historian, or at least more conversant with how to make convincing connections beyond obvious resemblances. Knowing that both Revere’s engraving and Forman’s photograph “feature enclosed, claustrophobic spaces, and architectural shapes and textures, that create depth and confine the action” takes us down a formalist blind alley, akin to arguing (as some regrettably have) that the importance of Robert Mapplethorpe’s pictures of gay sexual antics lies in their classical sense of composition.
Masur leaves mere resemblances behind when he moves on to a close examination of Forman’s picture in relation to its temporally neighboring shots and to how it was cropped and displayed. Noting that some of the negatives are partially double exposed and torn, due to a fault in Forman’s motor drive, he argues that
the multiple exposures provide something else as well: the tear in the negative reminds us that the technology of representation is inseparable from our understanding of the event itself, that a photographer is present. Here, then, is a pictorial truth that the camera can provide.
This is a complex idea, itself worthy of an entire chapter. He concludes:
Photos deceive sometimes not because of the designs of the photographer but because the viewer does not have complete information.
Photoshop, you’re off the hook. If, well into the 21st century, we continue to confuse images and truth and to ask photographs to deliver an objective account of the world around us when their meanings are subject to our interpretations, we should at least acknowledge that the fault is not in whatever optical prosthetics we devise but in our own, always human mind’s eye.