The exhibition’s black-and-white photographs cover the American scene from World War II to the mid-1970s, virtually all of them gelatin silver prints. As I am not a photographer I am not qualified to discuss the relative merits of the traditional process versus the new digital technology. From what little I’ve gathered, the quality of black-and-white gelatin silver prints, and palladium-platinum, for that matter, has been a challenge for digital photography, though a significant number of Magnum photojournalists now make use of the new technology. More to the point, the primacy of the gelatin silver print in pre-digital photography has made it something of a hallmark of good photojournalism. The gelatin silver print requires a sure command, gained with experience, of the formal aspects of the craft and their function in capturing the subject. Alfred Eisenstaedt’s image of the Hiroshima mother and child four months after the atomic bomb is a masterful composition in lights and darks demanded by the gelatin-silver process. That very formal mastery enables Eisenstaedt’s placement and setting of his two figures to tap into the Renaissance mother-and-child motif with great effect, transforming its conventional Raphaelite repose into the pathos of a sixteenth-century pietà.
Chance is said to play a key role in capturing an image that becomes “iconic.” Perhaps it is more accurate to say that what is critical is the training and experience to be in the right place at the right time, recognize the chance, and seize it. Cases in point here: Nick Ut’s untitled photograph of Vietnamese children fleeing an aerial napalm attack, John Filo’s Kent State J’accuse showing a young girl grieving over a slain student, and Stanley Forman’s The Soiling of Old Glory.