Overrated/Underrated Photograph


Most Underrated Photograph:  There is a difference between an icon and a good picture, as this category clearly indicates. This rather pedestrian photograph—generally unknown—is a shot of Lincoln’s funeral cortege, stalled near Union Square, in New York City, as it made its long, mournful way back from Washington to Springfield. The only remarkable thing about it is the two little heads, barely visible in the window of the corner house on the left. They are none other than six-year-old Teddy Roosevelt, our remarkable 26th president, and his younger brother Elliott, father of Eleanor Roosevelt, watching from second floor of their grandfather, the wealthy merchant prince Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt. (A third head would have been visible, but the two boys had already locked TR’s future wife, Edith Kermit Carow, in a back bedroom for having the affrontery to cry.)

It is an almost cosmic coincidence, one nearly equal in our history to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams dying on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and the heralds of their deaths passing in front of Philadelphia’s Constitution Hall. It conveys as well as anything could how intimate our country still was in 1865, how quickly it would grow in size, and power, and influence. Lincoln’s death, of course, came as we had finally settled the question of slavery and national unity. One of the little boys in the window would first project American power around the globe, from San Juan Hill to the building of the Great White Fleet. The son-in-law of the other would lie in state eighty years to the month of this photograph, having brought the United States to the pinnacle of world power.

Most Overrated Iconic Photograph:  Weegee’s photograph of moviegoers watching a 3-D flick in a New York bijou is known to millions, and deservedly so. Like so many great Weegee pictures, it is, at the same time, funny, bizarre, and a little bit frightening. It neatly encapsulates how America became a place of such crass, mindless conformity in the course of the 1950s.

Except, of course, that it didn’t. Fifties America lives on as a stereotype, thanks mostly to images such as this. In fact, it was a period characterized by considerably more taste, individualism, and outright rebellion than our own era. The booming, postwar years saw bold new movements in art, literature, and yes, even film, along with the beginning of the civil rights revolt, an unprecedented number of working women, outraged investigations of everything from the mob to television—and continuous, running critiques of conformity, much along the lines of what Weegee has given us. Even prefabricated, model suburbs such as the Levittowns were quickly remodeled by their residents into individualized homes—and 3-D movies went nowhere. So much for Happy Days.

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