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Sunday Morning
March 14, 2004

A Weekly Column By
 Mike Johnston

Moving Pictures

In response to last week's column I received this e-mail from a reader named Steve Jantscher:

I'm sure I won't be the only one to pick this nit, but you are all wrong to suggest that the famous photograph of the Iwo Jima flag raising was "...'re-enacted' for the camera." This is a continuation of a mistake that occurred soon after the photographer, Joe Rosenthal, came back from the battle a week or so after the shot was taken. While he was on the island, the photograph was picked up by his news service and made famous throughout the United States. When Joe got back to "civilization," he was asked if the photo was staged. Rosenthal didn't even know he had captured the flag raising, as it was very much a snapshot. He thought the other war photographers and correspondents were referring to the group photos of the flag raisers he took following the flag raising (as of that time, he had not seen his soon-to-be-famous photograph, having sent his undeveloped film off
island) which were staged.

The famous flag was the second to fly over Mt. Suribachi. It was sent up because the first flag was too small, and it was thought by some Marine officers that a bigger flag would inspire the Marines, who would have to fight on for another week or so before the island was secure. Re-enacting had nothing to do with it. That accusation implies a cheapening of the decisive moment that Joe Rosenthal caught in one of the most famous (and reproduced) photographs of all time.

I'm not a Marine, but for those who are, and for those for whom this image still has meaning of sacrifice and patriotic struggle, the suggestion that this was a posed photograph cheapens it.

You might enjoy the photos taken around and of that famous decisive moment, which can be seen here.

I've read various interpretations of this event over the years. Conspiracy theorists see the replacement of a smaller flag with a bigger one with a photographer dispatched to record the event as something less than a spontaneous moment; on the other hand, it's certainly also reasonable to assume that the event would have happened as it did even if Joe Rosenthal hadn't been on hand to record it. I imagine that the best interpretation is that the flag raising commemorates and celebrates the effort, sacrifice, and success of the battle, and that the iconographic photograph says what should be said, means what it should mean, and symbolizes what it obviously symbolizes. Enough for me. In any event, it wasn't posed.

A Pet Peeve

A couple of weeks ago I happened to see an episode of a TV show called "CSI Miami" that perpetuates into the digital age one of television and movie screenwriters' more asinine conventions.

Of course, as with most TV shows, realism isn't this one's strong suit. The "star" of the show is a redheaded guy who evidently has exactly one mode in his acting repertoire — that of a sardonic, condescending poseur who spends an inordinate amount of time dramatically donning and removing sunglasses. (Perhaps Ray-Ban is a show sponsor?) The character he plays seems to have a limitless departmental budget and no supervisors whatsoever. Although putatively a "CSI," or crime scene investigator, he seems also to be a detective and a squad lieutenant, a one-man crime-fighting force with near-despotic powers over the citizenry. And wouldn't it be nice if once in a while these actors would act as if it weren't a foregone conclusion that they're on their way to solving the crime? But never mind that.

In the episode I saw, a paparazzi is found killed and his film stolen. Various plot twists progress until the film is recovered, at which point Our Hero sees something everybody else has missed — what looks like two shadowy figures in the dark window of a distant mansion.

Right away, I know what's coming. We're going to be treated to yet another iteration of that hoary old Hollywood myth about photographs, and are soon to hear some version of the immortal line, "Can you enhance that?" (It used to be "can you blow that up some more?" but times have changed...well, at least a little.)

Sure enough, the feckless dramaturge later shows us a technician clattering away at the keyboard of a laptop, by which time we are able to see that the shadowy figures in the distant window, though still barely resolved, may be up to no good. "That's about as good as I can get analog," says the technician.

"What" Asks the redheaded crime-fighter, portentously.

Oh, puh-LEEEEZ. You'll recall that in a recent, tragic real-life crime, an innocent young girl, walking home, was accosted by a grown man and led off to her death, and the abduction was captured on a surveillance videotape. No less an institution than NASA was called in on that real-life investigation and asked to "enhance" the surveillance tape. They weren't able to, of course.

What, don't they watch television?

Cameras cannot resolve more detail than they have captured. Yet this same plot device has been part of the screenwriter's bin of tricks for decades, because, evidently, screenwriters only read other screenplays. Note to screenwriters: CUT IT OUT. It's dumb. It doesn't work that way. (And note to makers of surveillance cameras: your cameras need better resolution.)

As a curmudgeonly aside, has it occurred to anyone else that TV routinely portrays just exactly the kind of police departments that a democratic society doesn't want? Week in, week out, we watch them break procedural rules, brutalize suspects, and violate peoples' civil rights right and left. These little plot liberties are always righteous, excused by the fact that the omniscient viewer knows they're justified, but if, say, Andy Sippowitz (of "NYPD Blue") is representative of real detectives, then this society is about two hops and a half-step from unbounded Nazism. Harrumph. Glad I got that off my chest.

Anyway, at the denouement of the "CSI Miami" episode, the shadowy figures in the distant window have become a recognizable woman being shot in the head by a recognizable man, whom our one-man Justice League convicts using an 8x10 of a scar on the suspect's hand, if you can believe that, in what must have been something like a 4,000X enlargement.

I don't know — maybe that dead paparazzi used a Canon DSLR from the future, you think?

World's Most Expensive SLR

So you thought Leicas were expensive, did you? I'm afraid another well-known German manufacturer has trumped Leica soundly in the how-expensive-can-you-make-it department. How about an SLR that costs $400,000?

Of course, I'm leaving out a few little details: the company is Mercedes, and the product is a car. The Mercedes SLR, built in cooperation with McLaren, takes its name from a Mercedes of c. 1955 — before single-lens-reflex cameras really amounted to much. Like many Mercedes automobiles, this one manages to look cool and ugly at the same time.

The newest German SLR. Copyright Daimler-Chrysler.

Looking Back in Time

Photograph Courtesy NASA

A small square of black with a scattering of dots and flecks of various colors (see above) is beyond a doubt one of the most remarkable photographs ever made. It's a cumulative exposure made by the Hubble Space Telescope over about 280 hours, through 400 orbits, of a patch of deep space so tiny that astronomers say it's "like looking at the sky through an 8-foot straw." The oldest objects in the picture are thought to be at least 13 billion years old — the amount of time it took the light we're seeing to get to Earth. It sure is fun to be alive right now, isn't it?

Another Peeve (But Not a Pet One)

Why would a digital camera manufacturer give the weight of its camera "without batteries," when the battery in question is proprietary and the camera won't work without it?

Nice Pictures — Except They Move

I've always believed — on very little actual evidence — that watching black-and-white movies can help black-and-white photographers get better. New on DVD recently is the famous "Schindler's List," which, although perhaps a qualified success as a film (only Spielberg could come so close to ruining a movie full of death and genocide with a saccharine ending), is indisputably a tour-de-force of superlative monochrome cinematography. Never mind the red cloak; Janusz Kaminski's camerawork is of an extraordinary standard, always very good and, quite frequently, flat-out great. A movie to rent if you're trying to learn how to see, or see better, in black-and-white.

I should definitely not get going on this topic, but a few more in the same category might be Woody Allen's "Manhattan," Peter Bogdanovitch's "The Last Picture Show," and Jean Cocteau's "La Belle et la Bete" (Beauty and the Beast), the last a strange and wonderful little fantasy set-piece, perfumed and magical, with special effects of a kind we're not likely to see more of now that everything's done on computers. And of course any good film noire worth its salt would also qualify. For a taste, try the nearly surreal "Double Indemnity." I will resist the temptation to keep listing more...I will resist....

While I'm on the subject of moving pictures, I note that the fine actor Paul Winfield has died, far too young. Among others, his performance in the movie "Sounder," opposite the incomparable Cicely Tyson, has stuck in my mind for decades. R.I.P.

— Mike Johnston

Please feed the beast.

See Mike Johnston’s website at Also, check out his monthly column in the British Black & White Photography magazine! (Usually available at Barnes & Noble bookstores.)

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Mike Johnston writes and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine called The 37th Frame for people who are really "into" photography. His book, The Empirical Photographer, has just been published.

You can read more about Mike and find additional articles that he has written for this site, as well as a Sunday Morning Index.

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Concepts: Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, Battle of Iwo Jima, Joe Rosenthal, Flag of the United States, Iwo Jima, Camera, Mercedes-Benz, Flag

Entities: Miami, Hollywood, Barnes & Noble, Canon, McLaren, United States, Mercedes, scar, Schindler's List, Manhattan, Sounder, Marines, NASA, Justice League, Michael Reichmann, Joe Rosenthal, Mike Johnston, Joe, Mike, Janusz Kaminski, Paul Winfield, Mercedes, Ray-Ban, Cicely Tyson, Woody Allen, Andy Sippowitz, Spielberg, Jean Cocteau, Peter Bogdanovitch, Hubble Space Telescope, SLR, CSI, NYPD Blue

Tags: camera, photographs, show, Mike Johnston, Joe Rosenthal, shadowy figures, CSI Miami, distant window, tv shows, 37th frame, movie, Iwo Jima flag, screenwriters, one-man crime-fighting force, limitless departmental budget, hoary old hollywood, incomparable cicely tyson, crime scene investigator, innocent young girl, tragic real-life crime, superlative monochrome cinematography, little actual evidence, famous flag, little fantasy set-piece, one-man justice league, Various plot twists, little plot liberties, quarterly ink-on-paper magazine, et la bete, bigger flag, Hubble Space Telescope, Sunday Morning Index, flag raisers, actor paul winfield, good film noire, Last Picture Show, digital camera manufacturer, White Photography magazine, smaller flag, decisive moment