The Trouble with Icons

Here is a fascinating 37-minute documentary on the use — by photographers, artists, journalists, institutions, and ordinary citizens — of the American flag in response to war/terrorism, from British film makers David Dunnico and Cat Gregory.

They compare two cases: the 1945 attack by US Marines on Japanese-held Iwo Jima out of which came Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photo, and the 11 September 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda on the World Trade Center, out of which have come a number of images, artifacts, and memorials, but none that have (yet) achieved the iconicity of Rosenthal’s photo.

The still unsettled nature of the cultural response to 9/11 is not necessarily a bad thing, allowing room (in theory at least) for artistic questioning and reconsideration, which is closed off when representations become fixed as icons, only suitable for narrowly prescribed contexts, or for parody and cliche.  Dunnico and Gregory also highlight important differences between art, memorial, and propaganda, and between still photography, sculpture, and film or other dynamic media.

Joe Rosenthal’s famous World War 2 photograph of the raising of the US flag on Iwo Jima has acquired so much cultural currency, it has transcended its original form and become the most iconic photograph ever taken. But in doing so it has given the culture it came from a problematic legacy, that has become all too aparent in artisits’ responses to the attacks on 9/11.

David Dunnico is a documentary photographer from Manchester in the UK. Cat Gregory is a freelance film editior based in London.

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