During a recent visit with some media-saturated friends, I noticed a curious thing. On a lark, they had set their boom box on top of the TV and sat half listening to the radio, half watching the pictures flash across the tube. Television, boom-boxes and computers are, after all, the sort of companionable appliances people turn to for the comforting illusion that they are not alone.
The problem was, the radio was blaring rap music; on TV, the volume was turned down while Merryl Streep, outfitted in some improbable Old West get-up, glided soundlessly across panoramic vistas of sagebrush and prairie. I found myself unconsciously trying to read the pictures as if they somehow illustrated the rap lyrics.
I was reminded of this by the death, at age 96, of Alfred Eisenstaedt, one of the great pioneers of photojournalism. During his long career as a Life magazine photographer, "Eisie," as he was called, did as much as anyone to convince the world that a picture really is "worth a thousand words."
The sort of cognitive dissonance I experienced with my friends' mix-and-match media illustrated how powerful photography's illusion of truthfulness is. Presented with a striking visual image, we instinctively reinterpret the evidence of our other senses to conform with the "reality" in front of our eyes.
Eisenstaedt became famous for making pictures people believed and because his work was so convincing it helped spawn a whole new field of picture journalism.
Everyone knows Eisie's celebrated picture of the sailor and nurse kissing in New York's Times Square on V-J Day. The photograph has become an icon of pop culture because it so completely expresses the elation Americans felt when World War II finally ended and the killing stopped.
To most people, the identity of that particular sailor and that particular nurse pale in importance next to the event their chance encounter records. What matters about the photograph is that it has come to symbolize a national mood, an ephemeral instant from our past preserved as if frozen in amber.
When Eisenstaedt began his career it was still possible to believe that "the camera never lies." Not so today. The television age has taught us, if nothing else, how easily images can be manipulated in order to manipulate us. In an Eisenstaedt photograph one never finds the kind of radical discontinuity that fuels our skepticism today. His pictures match the sound they make in the viewer's imaginative world.
The peculiar power of photography lies in its illusion of truthfulness. The invention of photography made possible, for the first time in history, an imitation of reality produced wholly by mechanical means. The photographic image conveys the impression of possessing a reality independent of human hand or eye.
This illusion of objectivity lends photography a psychological veracity that obliterates the distinction between image and reality in the viewer's mind. We unconsciously accept the "truthfulness" of the camera's image as if it were some purely natural phenomenon, like the reflection in a mirror.
It is not, of course, which is why only the greatest artists can create photographs that are "true" in the deepest sense. Dorothea Lange, a contemporary of Eisenstaedt, used to divide all pictures into two categories: Those that made a big first impression, and those she called "second lookers" -- the ones you keep going back to because each time you look you see something new.
The advertising industry long ago recognized that, ultimately, the mental processes of comprehending a photograph are as much an act of faith as of perception. What looks objective -- a single sliver of time separated out from all other possible instants -- is in fact highly selective. Yet so powerful is the illusion of truthfulness that even when the visual "reality" is at odds with the rest of our experience, our deepest impulse is to believe the picture.
The critic Jacob Deschin wrote: "Eisenstaedt is a master of the little detail, the homely trifle, that tells a bigger story. His pictures are never sensational, only direct and easily understood observations about ordinary human behavior. He is fascinated by people and delighted with everything about them. . . ."
That was the way Eisenstaedt's pictures felt, whether he was photographing Hitler and Mussolini shaking hands or Marilyn Monroe in a slinky dress. His images had a basic honesty and integrity about them that we are perhaps only now beginning to see was really a quality of the man rather than the medium.