Icons: What Does Heroism Look Like?

Posted on September 26, 2011

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You don’t rummage through literature or art long without bumping into heroes–those few, those happy few –and they certainly populate the history of photography. The photographic icons we freshly remember show us the idols we need, the archetypes we use to define what is best in us all. Recently Life.com asked me to look at a number of images and write about what heroism looks like. The assignment was part of the website’s marvelous ongoing series called “What Makes a Photograph Great. “You can find my piece here, but I thought I would include a couple of examples below. What do you think a hero looks like? Do we get the heroes we need, or the heroes we deserve?

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Ella Watson Photographed by Gordon Parks, 1942

Photographer Gordon Parks created an alternative hero with his portrait of Washington, D.C., charwoman Ella Watson. Parks had moved his family to D.C. in 1942, after joining the Farm Security Administration, and was struck by the city’s racial divide. He met Watson, who told Parks about how her father had been lynched, how her daughter had died at childbirth, and how she was raising two other children on a “salary fit for half a person.” Parks took powerful American imagery — the flag, and Grant Woods’ famous “American Gothic” painting — and turned them inside-out to create an emblem of injustice.

Country Doctor Ernest Ceriani Photographed by W. Eugene Smith

So many of our heroes are presented in isolation — living according to their own moral code in a world apart, a world that the rest of us can’t understand but that writers like Hemingway and photographers like W. Eugene Smith can describe. Smith’s images of Ernest Ceriani, the protagonist of his famous 1948 LIFE photoessay, Country Doctor, capture a man beset by and beholden to his own duties. In one shot, the doctor is seen standing alone, drinking coffee and adrift in his own thoughts. In another, we see a tight close-up of his face as he tends to a patient. Here, in this photograph, which opened the story, Smith backed up, showing Ceriani illuminated against a dark Colorado sky, part of the environment, yet apart from it, as he makes house calls. As the magazine noted in its headline, “His Endless Work Has Its Own Rewards.”

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I would love to find out what other people think heroes look like…if you have any images in mind, let me know. And consider this–not all heroes are famous. And not all pictures of heroes are iconic.

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