on August 27, 2005
The folks at PBS deserve the gratitude of photography teachers and students everywhere. Taking on subject matter as impossibly broad as photography in 20th Century America? This documentary covers-- sometimes comprehensively, sometimes briefly-- virtually every important topic germane to the field of study, from Pictorialism to Straight Photography, from fashion to the scientific. Along the way, we are introduced (or reintroduced) to what has been the medium's most important uses: journalism and documentary. "A Century of Images" is as instructive for the novice as it may be reaffirming to those already familiar with much of the material. Underlying a wealth of historical examples and anecdotes are the two twin themes that raise this effort above the mundane: concern over the ethical issues photographs present, and the effects of mechanically produced images in the post-industrial age on the psyche of our nation. These themes manifest themselves in ways that are often revelatory and moving. One memorable example: the way Edward Curtis's images of Native Americans are placed into context by a woman who appreciates them, yet yearns for more images that show her people the way they "really were." Sections on war photography cover WWI, WWII, Vietnam and the Gulf War with compassion, and work as excellent visual aids to discussions on todays situation in Iraq. Another bonus: the section on the transition to a digital age has not yet outlived its usefulness.
Until I was able to buy this fabulous history on DVD, my biggest complaint was that while using the VHS version, I had all kinds of problems locating the various scenes I wanted to pull out to show my photography and visual communication courses at the university where I teach. Now that I can happily locate scenes at will using the DVD menu, I can direct my ire at its few but significant omissions and shortcomings. More on Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus please . . . . they were pretty damned influential.
In no other aspect has the photograph been so impressive as in the documentation of events and in the immortilization of history. To prove a point: the documentary's first video is of a 1999 display of photographs lost in a massive hurricane. Photos were lined up in a hall and residents had to sort through them to find their lost treasures. Nothing is more lost in a disaster as the loss of old photographs. It is the one connection we have with the past.
I had the opportunity to play this video for a high school photography class one day, watching several chapters twice to allow it to sink in. There were few aspects let out.
This 160-minute video is divided into three parts: Photography from 1900-1934 (with a lot of pre-1900 history of photography; 1935-1959; and 1960-1999. The last part also discusses photographic alterations and the legal aspect of that trickery.
One realizes after watching this documentary how effective still photographs have been in influencing people and governmental policies, both good and bad. Photographs of murder victims as well as criminals, crime scenes, battle scenes, disaster scenes, historical events such as World War I, the Great Depression, Big City crimes with the mafia, World War II, the Civil Rights Era, Vietnam and anti-war protests, the first photographs of the moon, the Gulf War, and even presidential candidates are featured here. What the viewer gets in this documentary is not just remembering some of these haunting photographs, but also the background story to these photographs. Photographers, former news reporters and editors, even some artists are featured in this work.
Some current students may say this documentary is already ten years outmoded, which it is. Digital photography first became marketable in the late 1990s, and 35mm film was sold profitably until 2004. No mention of Thomas Franklin, the Newark photographer who took the photograph of the firefighters hoisting a dusty, torn flag after the New York Trade Center terrorist act of 2001. But, this is one topic educators could use to continue to theory of still photography.
This documentary should be required viewing for all photography students, but social historians will also find this work quite impressive.
on September 5, 2008
This PBS series shows 100 years of American History and how photography influenced society. Photography makes the unseen visible and brings things isolated to public view. Child labor is abolished, civil rights violations announced to the world, the truth about war is all shown via photography.
This can be used in a photography classroom as well as a history class.
I am a baby boomer and there are many things I didn't understand as a teenager about the civil rights movement and Vietnam that become clear through this excellent documentary. Many experts are interviewed. Not dry, but you will want to view it in "chunks" so you can process it all. I've seen this now at least four times.
on October 9, 2014
I was looking for a documentary that would span the history of photography for use in the classroom. I didn't find exactly what I'd hoped for and ended up purchasing three different DVDs in order to cover everything I wanted. However, while I only use bits and pieces of the other two, I have my students watch this one in its entirety. It's very well made and covers a lot of ground.