Louis P. Masur's "The Soiling of Old Glory" explores a disturbing classic of American photojournalism.
“The Soiling of Old Glory:
The Story of a Photograph
That Shocked America”
by Louis P. Masur
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Bloomsbury, 224 pp., $24.95
Every picture tells a story. Photojournalism, with its unique power to capture iconic images in a split second, tells stories that inform not only the moment, but ones which can resonate in public consciousness long after the event and effect lasting social change.
One such image is examined in “The Soiling of Old Glory,” a “biography of a photograph” written by Louis P. Masur, a professor at Trinity College.
The centerpiece of the book is a searing image, showing a raging white teenager charging at a black man with the American flag. The Pulitzer-winning photograph, made by photographer Stanley Foreman in 1976 during an antibusing demonstration in Boston, was published worldwide. Though the civil-rights movement had produced many powerful images from the 1950s and ’60s, this one proved that along with progress, there was continued backlash and failure in the struggle.
“And it was not just any violent assault, but one that employed the American flag as a weapon — in the year of the nation’s Bicentennial, no less,” Masur writes. “An assault against a black man with the American flag in Boston, the so-called Cradle of Liberty, made the image all the more revolting,” he continues.
The victim, Ted Landsmark, a Yale graduate and lawyer heading for a city meeting when he encountered the demonstration, emerged as a powerful community leader. The teenager wielding the flag, a disillusioned misfit from South Boston who grabbed his family’s American flag before joining the demonstrators, experienced brief legal and long-term personal consequences.
Masur examines the photograph’s visual power and provides an informed deconstruction of the image in terms of composition, texture and light. With his precise skills as a cultural historian, Masur probes deeper, analyzing the photograph’s role in the emotional collision of civil-rights activism with continued racism and the resulting changes in the community.
The heart of the image, Old Glory with its inherent symbolism of justice for all, is seen through Masur’s historical lens, focusing on the flag’s controversial depiction in art and media. It’s a fascinating look at both the sacred and profane ways the flag has been portrayed in the name of artistic expression and the legislative attempts to limit them.
Equally important to the social issues that Masur explores is his emphasis on our need for visual literacy. “Photographs do not speak for themselves. Like all texts, they must be read. Ours may be a visual culture, but we are not necessarily visually literate,” he observes. He stresses the necessity of looking beyond the surface of a photograph to identify what associations we bring to it which may alter our perception of the event.
“Photographs simultaneously document and interpret events. They hold us in their spell by freezing action,” he writes, “and those frozen, decisive moments reveal and conceal, show what is and what may not actually be.” he writes. Confounding this argument for visual literacy, the book suffers from very poor reproduction of the many interesting photographs and artwork vital to its points. Fortunately, the writing is sharp and vivid.
Every picture tells a story. Reading both the book and the image, “The Soiling of Old Glory,” we know this is a story in which the ending hasn’t been written.