Understanding America Through Four Remarkable Photographs

Louis Masur
Louis Masur
Rutgers University

Louis Masur is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University. A cultural historian who has written on a variety of topics, his most recent work is The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America (2020). A specialist on Lincoln and the Civil War, he is the author of Lincoln’s Last Speech: Wartime Reconstruction & The Crisis of Reunion (2015), Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union (2012), and The Civil War: A Concise History (2011). Masur’s essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington PostSlate, and on CNN. He has been elected to membership of the American Antiquarian Society, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and the Society of American Historians and has received teaching awards from Harvard University, the City College of New York, Trinity College and Rutgers University. His website is www.louismasur.com.

 

Overview

From its introduction in 1839, photography has transformed the ways in which we see the world. Photographs capture events and also transform them; they depict reality but also tell a story. Scores of photographs have changed America, and we will discuss four of them in detail. Some won’t come as a surprise, while others may open eyes anew. Examining the histories of these images, and learning how to read them, provides a deeper understanding of how photographs have shaped, and continue to shape, American society and culture.

  • Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother (1936). The most iconic photograph of the depression, “Migrant Mother” changed how people thought about poverty.
  • Joe Rosenthal, Flag Raising on Mt. Suribichi (1945). People thought it was posed, but it wasn’t. It helped the United States to win World War II and define the nation.
  • Nick Ut, Napalm Girl (1972). Images from Vietnam fueled opposition to the war, and the story of the girl in the picture traveled around the world.
  • Stanley Forman, The Soiling of Old Glory (1976). This Pulitzer-prize winning photograph brought the civil rights struggle to the North and transformed how Americans thought of the bicentennial.

 

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