• The Parallax View

    A Dutch academic has conducted a worldwide survey seeking to establish whether famous photographs are truly famous. Many represent moments of extreme drama, from wars or other conflicts, with most of those taken by the only person present. Or is that really the case? In truth, the results – and what they might mean – are less important than the knowledge of other images of or angles on these events, which might be similar but not as well known. Why? Because it is surely more relevant in today’s world of billions of images, fake news and immediate online circulation to examine the parallax or difference in the apparent position of an event when viewed along different lines of sight.

    Jeff Widener’s ‘Tank Man’ (top left, above) taken in Tiananmen Square was used in the research, and the Associated Press photographer’s picture has indeed come to be regarded as the defining image of those protests. But other people also took photographs of the same man, from different locations and other angles; the others are by (clockwise) Stuart Franklin (Magnum), Charlie Cole (Newsweek) and Arthur Tsang (Reuters) and the stories of three are caught in Patrick Witty’s superb piece for the New York Times. To add a further layer, Terril Jones, another AP journalist, only revealed his own take on the scene a few years ago:

    Also featured in the survey is a photograph of an astronaut on the Moon, as representative of that giant leap for mankind. It might thus be assumed to be a picture of the first man on that body, Neil Armstrong, but is in fact of Buzz Aldrin, his fellow lunar module crewman – Armstrong took it. Ironically this was probably the only time that the man who had just become the most famous person in the world was behind rather than in front of a camera from then on, though given Armstrong’s humble nature I suspect he secretly preferred that.

    One shot of a plane about to hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 was chosen. That others exist, as well as stills from video camera footage, is noted in the Guardian coverage. In that context it is perhaps worthy of comment that only a couple of frames, extracted from one CCTV camera’s output, exist to depict the aircraft that hit the Pentagon whilst not a single image of United 93 on its final flight into the Pennsylvania earth is known, and that this has given rise to conspiracy theories in the former case but solemn tributes in the latter.

    Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph of US Marines hoisting a flag and pole on Iwo Jima in 1945 has a double shadow – not only was it also captured as a moving image by a military film crew, but the event itself was a repeat of the original flag-raising, which had occurred during the actual battle for the mountain on which it stands; this first raising too was itself photographed, by SSgt. Louis R. Lowery.

    Outside of the survey, Eddie Adams arrested the moment in which a member of the Viet Cong was killed by a South Vietnamese general in a photograph that defines the dual meanings of ‘shoot’. But this, too, was also filmed by a news cameraman, which gives greater context that only appears in additional images. So was the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald six years earlier; not only that, but Bob Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning picture is invariably cropped, losing more than half of the image. The full frame is far richer.

    And it’s appropriate that the Guardian covered this, though I bet few on the paper realised – it’s more than 30 years since its brilliant TV advert about just this point was first screened.

    Question everything.


Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here


Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443


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