Understanding America Through Four Remarkable Photographs

Louis Masur – Rutgers University

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.