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American Icons; 'Picturing What Matters' is a Photo Survey Loaded with Emotion

What constitutes an iconic image in post-9/11 America?

That's one of the questions raised by an exhibition at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art that comes clothed as a historical photography survey but is in fact much more because of the circumstances of its origin.

"Picturing What Matters: An Offering of Photographs from the George Eastman House" debuted at the Rochester, New York, museum on Sept. 11, 2002. The images were chosen from the permanent collection by members of the museum staff, who were invited after the Sept. 11 attacks to select visual representations of something that mattered to them.

The exhibition has been traveling since.

Some of the selections appear to have personal meaning, others communal, and some are both. What "matters" is as diverse as the people doing the choosing.

They begin with 19th-century daguerreotypes and continue into 2001, and include portraiture, landscape, narrative, photojournalism/documentary and still life. Few are negative in nature.

Together they paint a picture of American values at a particular place and time, some of them generalized and some localized. Children are specific individuals, but also representative of everyone's children. The Capitol was in the news in 2001 after it was identified as a possible terrorist target, and a capitol is pictured here -- but it's the one in Albany, closer to home and to heart for these New York state residents.

That the viewer's response is likely to be quite different today than it would have been on the 2002 anniversary, and different yet 10 years from now, suggests something of the mutability of memory, even in the presence of moments that have been permanently frozen on film.

Add to that the variance of interpretation brought by each visitor, and the challenge of arriving at agreed-upon shared recollection becomes evident.

Yet, throughout time and cultures, select images have risen to the status of iconic, as have many here, eliciting emotional response and codifying something of importance.

Picture, for example, "Old Glory Goes Up Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima," photographer Joe Rosenthal's 1945 portrait of heroism that shows marines raising the flag after the deadly battle. An icon? Undeniable.

Framed with it (a curatorial choice that appears overdone now, but doubtless originally had a memorial aspect) is Thomas E. Franklin's 2001 "Three Firefighters" raising the flag at the World Trade Center ruins, an image that was immediately embraced nationally. Has it achieved iconographic status?

The flag appears in 11 of the show's 108 images, not surprisingly considering its ubiquitousness after 9/11, a testimony to its uncontested iconic position. In a twelfth, Edward Farber's 1941 "The Flag is Passing By. Citizens Day Rally, Milwaukee," it is the unseen subject that men hold hats over their hearts for or salute, the latter emulated by three boys sprawled on the grass beneath a reviewing stand.

Another icon, Abraham Lincoln, appears within the "Legacy" section of the exhibition, which also includes photographs of the frontier West by notables Timothy H. O'Sullivan and William Henry Jackson, both of whom were documentary photographers on U. S. Geological Survey teams.

O'Sullivan and Jackson are also represented in "The Road," a part of Americana that is itself iconographic, especially when reduced to a long, lonely, black and white two-lane stretch.

Other categories are Glimpses, Workers, Family and -- Icons, here referring to the many famed photographers, and some of the works that built their reputations, in the Eastman House collection.

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