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Images that can last a lifetime

— I’m willing to wager, that if I mention a significant event in history, you will summon up from the depths of your memory the image of a still photograph that symbolizes that event for you. In fact, not just for you, but for millions of others.

For example, if I say “Vietnam,” you immediately see one of two photographs in your mind. It’s either Nick Ut’s heart-wrenching image of a little girl name Kim Phuc, her clothes burned off by a napalm attack, fleeing the village of Trang Bang. Or else it is Eddie Adams’ disturbing photograph of South Vietnamese Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executing a suspected Viet Cong.

If I say “Civil War” and the first thing that pops into your mind is Matthew Brady’s haunting image of Union dead on Little Round Top, then you are about 144 years old just kidding. I didn’t set out to be morbid let me begin anew.

If I ask, “Who wants to marry a millionaire?” you immediately conjure up an image of Rick Rockwell planting a big wet one on television bride Darva Conger. OK, maybe not.

Just the same, it is a matter of no small fascination that in an era when we can watch video footage of Sunday’s cruise missile attack on Kabul exploding on our television screens that very same day, still photographs hold the power to endure.

Those images from the past actually reside in your cerebral cortex think of it as your brain’s internal hard drive.

Not all of the iconographic images stored in our minds involve tragedy. John T. Daniels made a photograph at Kittyhawk, N.C., in 1903 of Orville Wright accomplishing the first powered flight while brother Wilbur ran along beside him. That was certainly uplifting. And Alfred Eistenstaedt’s 1945 image of a sailor kissing random strangers in Times Square on VE Day was one of unbridled joy.

The world of sports has also provided us with enduring images. If I say “boxing,” you can’t help but see Muhammad Ali looming over Sonny Liston, an image captured by the lens of Neil Leifer. If you’re a Colorado sports fan, your cerebral cortex may have a difficult time choosing between John Elway holding the Lombardi trophy aloft, a tear rolling down his cheek, and Ray Bourque kissing the Stanley Cup.

If I say Elian Gonzalez, the picture of a federal agent pointing an assault rifle at a little Cuban boy is still fresh in your mind. It is an image made by Alan Diaz that happened in a split second but required weeks of preparation.

If I say “Great Depression,” you’ll almost certainly envision Dorothea Lange’s photograph of a migrant mother staring into space, her chin cupped in her hand. Other photographs galvanized a movement. If I say “civil rights,” chances are you won’t recall photographer Charles Moore. But you haven’t forgotten the images he made in Birmingham, Ala., in May 1963 images of fire hoses knocking black men and women to the ground and of police dogs tearing the trousers off a black man.

For my generation, the image that cannot be erased from our collective psyche is that of a student at Kent State University, dead in the street, the victim of a bullet from the rifle of a National Guardsman.

If there is one single image that symbolizes American patriotism, it is surely Joe Rosenthal’s picture of Marines of the 28th Regiment of the Fifth Division, raising the American flag above Iwo Jima during World War II.

How eerie is it that already, one of the most dramatic images of the attack on the World Trade Center is a newspaper photograph of firefighters raising the American flag amid the rubble of the twin towers.

The photo was made by Thomas E. Franklin, shooting for The Record in Hackensack, N.J.

The newspaper has given away 10,000 8×10 prints of the photograph and still receives 1,000 calls a day from people inquiring about it.

Just as I’m certain you will always remember that image, I’m certain photojournalists are already in position in Afghanistan. I’m almost afraid to see what lasting images emerge from this struggle.

Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.


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