Cultural and Political Icons

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In an era resonating with the consequences of two world wars, the construction and dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and the aftereffects of the colonialist legacy in South Africa, commemoration has provided a rich subject for photographic investigation. Some of the most significant photographic essays of the twentieth century—Walker Evans’s American Photographs (1938), Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958), Lee Friedlander’s The American Monument (1976), and David Goldblatt’s The Structure of Things Then (1998)—articulate to different degrees the particular value of photography as a means of defining the cultural and political role of monuments. Evans’s emblematic image of a crushed Ionic column made of cheap sheet metal; Frank’s picture of a statue of St. Francis preaching to the bleak vista of a gas station; Friedlander’s photograph of a monument to World War I hero Father Duffy engulfed in the cacophony of Times Square’s billboards and neon; and Goldblatt’s pictures of monuments to some of the most potent symbols of Afrikaner triumphalism—all take a critical look at the world that public statues inhabit.