Thursday, July 24, 2008

What We're Reading: The Soiling of Old Glory

The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America
by Louis P. Masur

On April 5, 1976 the city of Boston simmered with tension over forced school busing. News Photographer Stanley Forman arrived at a protest in time to take a photograph that would be seen around the world and would name Boston as a city mired in racism. In the photo Ted Landsmark, an African American, is being restrained by several white people while a young man rushes at him holding the American Flag as a lance. It appears that in the next moment Landsmark will be impaled on the flag.

The Soiling of Old Glory is a fascinating “biography” of the famous photograph. Author Louis P. Masur discusses the qualities that make this particular photo stand out from all others taken that day. He points out how photographs can be unreliable and unintentionally “lie”. One of the men appearing to restrain Landsmark was actually trying to help him up from the ground where he’d fallen, yet in the photo he’s frozen in time as one of the perpetrators.

The photograph is an echo of a Paul Revere engraving of the Boston Massacre, which took place on the same site. Only in a town like Boston could a street look much the same in 1976 as it did in 1770. In 1856 a reimagining of the Revere engraving added Crispus Attucks, a previously ignored black Revolutionary War hero, falling in the Boston Massacre at the end of a bayonet. The parallels to Forman’s photo are shocking.

In only a little over 200 pages we learn about photography, the political and racial history of Boston, the history of Old Glory as our country’s symbol, and about the individuals in the photograph taken that day. Masur tells us what happened to the main players in the incident, including the angry young man charging with the flag. This is a biography of people, a city, political history, a national symbol, and a photograph capturing one moment in history for all time.

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