- Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images
In her recent essay on the photographs of Americans torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Susan Sontag reminds us that for about the past 60 years photographs have played a central role in determining how conflicts are judged and remembered. Photographs now have a special role in constructing historical memory. We seem to be so aware of this today that we look for the iconic image that will define an event, as Sontag does in her essay by arguing that the Abu Ghraib photographs will become the defining images of the Iraq war. At the same time, there is increasing uncertainty as to what such images [End Page 70] mean—are they photographs of "what really happened" or were they staged for profit or propaganda? The continuing debate over Robert Capa's "Falling Soldier" or the images of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein are evidence of this insecurity and the desire to unlock the meaning of photography and its relationship with contemporary culture and history.
As the Iraq war and its aftermath unfold before us in a series of photographs, televised images and videos, questions about how such images gain their power and what they mean have a particular urgency and relevance. In Shooting Kennedy, David Lubin addresses these questions by analyzing films and photographs John F. Kennedy's years in the White House and his assassination. Lubin uses an art historical approach and identifies aspects of the images and then relates them to other historical images, aspects of popular culture and music. The range of historical and cultural references is dazzling. Lubin invokes Greek and Roman art, 17th-century Dutch painting, American sitcoms, movies, popular songs, Chopin, Beethoven and John Cage. He does not confine himself to a chronological approach but moves backwards and forwards in time, spinning out visual associations and linking the art of centuries largely through its visual characteristics. Little attention is given to how these cultural objects were constructed, what they meant to their makers, the specific conditions of their making, and how they were and are understood and used by different groups. "My subject," writes Lubin, "is the impact of images on images." But images can have no impact, indeed cannot even exist, without human agency.
This question of human agency raises the issue of who understands these images by reference to this complex web of contemporary and historical sources stretching across countries and continents. Lubin's answer is that the images are powerful because they "activate latent memories of other powerful images in the histories of art and popular culture." This seems to imply some sort of unconscious mind, but whether it is Jungian or based on the now discarded theory of mind posited by Levi-Strauss or some other alternative is unclear. Lubin does not explore this question. His interest lies primarily in weaving webs of resemblance between the Kennedy images and numerous aspects of various Western cultures.
Sontag interprets the Abu Ghraib images as acts that took place in a specific context. She reveals the legal and power relations that made them possible. Lubin's analysis, by contrast, never stays still for long enough to uncover these conditions. His claim to de-mythologize the images is, therefore, unconvincing. The myth of Camelot lives in this book. [End Page 71]