It’s that time of year again: there’s something about the impending close of one year, and the dawning of another, that brings out the “list maker” in us all. Film fan are drawing up their best of the year movie lists, as are book critics, and music aficionados; but Time has come up with a candidate for most ambitious of the year: assembling a list of the “top 100 most influential photographs ever taken.”
Editors Ben Goldberger, Paul Moakley and Kira Pollack set about this daunting task by interviewing a host of photographers, subjects, friends and family, and just following the trail wherever it took them. As one might imagine, the very definition of “influential” was subjected to close scrutiny. What makes a photograph stick in the memory? Is it just because the photographer was there at the right time? Sam Shere’s record of The Hindenburg Disaster was clearly taken on the hoof, in the footsteps of history; but there is also a powerful aesthetic to the image, that perfectly captures a sense of combustible scale.
Is it because the subject matter is so important to our socio-political history? It’s no coincidence that there a number of choices in the list that document the effects of the Vietnam War (Malcolm Browne’s The Burning Monk, and Nick Ut’s The Terror of War); perhaps the first time when photojournalists fully broke with ‘official’ media-controlled narratives of a war effort.
Is it the intrinsic value of the photograph as art? The totemic shock of Andres Serrano’s Immersion (Piss Christ), or the ingenious deconstruction of feminism in Cindy Sherman’s Untitled series (#21 makes the grade, one out of her many diversions into examinations of fluid identity), point to a different dynamic than roving reportage, but have become as equally iconic (and of their time) as David Jackson’s terrifying real-life portrait of the remains of racism victim Emmett Till.
Goldberger, Moakley and Pollack manage to broadly identify at least one key aspect of the project:
In the process of putting this list together, we noticed that one aspect of influence has largely remained constant throughout photography’s nearly two centuries. The photographer has to be there. The best photography is a form of bearing witness, a way of bringing a single vision to the larger world. That was as true for Alexander Gardner when he took his horse-pulled darkroom to the Battle of Antietam in 1862 as it was for David Guttenfelder when he was the first professional photographer to post directly to Instagram from inside North Korea in 2013. As James Nachtwey, who has dedicated his life to being there, put it some years ago, “You keep on going, keep on sending the pictures, because they can create an atmosphere where change is possible. I always hang on to that.”
Whatever your own choices – no list is perfect, and, doubtless, some will quibble with the list not including their own favorites – there is a wealth of information here. In what, ironically, may be the most telling comment on the state of contemporary photographic dissemination, Time’s online version of the list is more comprehensive, and satisfying, than the print version (which only displays 17 out of the 100 images); not least because Time has attached an amazing amount of supporting materials that goes much deeper into the photographs themselves. A four-minute documentary of Richard Drew, explaining the selection process of which of his Falling Man pictures would editorially encapsulate the horrors of 9/11, makes for heartbreaking viewing, and a reminder of the power of the medium.
Conversely, click on Pillars of Creation, shot by NASA on its Hubble telescope, and one gets a sense of serenity and majesty far removed from earthly atrocities, delineated in a huge range of supporting images.
The cumulative experience is immersive, thought-provoking, richly informative and entertaining; almost like a Photography History 101; so take a little time to dip your toes in the river of history…