Of Fish, Birds, Cats, Mice, Spiders, Flies, Pigs, and Chimpanzees: How Chance Casts the Historic Action Photograph into Doubt

The role of chance in producing a picture by snapping a shutter release before a complex and quickly changing scene weakens the bond between the historic action photograph and the meanings it is routinely asked to bear. To appreciate this problem and to understand the array of popular notions that have been marshaled to finesse or suppress the role of chance in photographic production, I consider the case of Joe Rosenthal's 1945 photograph of American servicemen raising a flag on Iwo Jima. The analysis pushes the production of this famous photograph through a series of zoological analogies: Is it like a fisherman reeling in a trophy catch ? Like a cat pouncing on a mouse or a spider setting a trap for a fly ? Like a pig pushing its snout through the dirt ? Like chimpanzees banging at typewriters ? These analogies are playful but also serious. We need new models for understanding the production of the historic action photograph because the predominant modern and postmodern approaches to that production have suppressed the role of chance. Whereas the modern regime tends to understand the historic action photograph as an inspired flash of history, the postmodern regime tends to understand it as a discursive effect. Entertaining the notion that such a photograph is instead a stochastic result leads to a new conception of photography and its relationship to history. Chance emerges as a third kind of photographic madness, alongside the industrial madness decried by Charles Baudelaire and the indexical madness that moved Roland Barthes.