First and foremost, this PBS special has done a great job at reminding us just how engrained photography has become in our culture. It has such great power over us; it affects what things we desire, our world views, what we think about and how we think about these things. For this reason, as the video shows, it far surpassed the ability of text to describe and endow the reader (or viewer now) with real emotions. Of course, to no surprise, it has been a primary player in the success of several publications coming out of the Great Depression.
The special has also convinced this author that photography is here to stay, forever and always, in some form or another. The captured image is and always will be how the human mind links memories. A good photograph can tell a thousand words, as they say. Some argue that since television runs at roughly 30 frames a second, it tells potentially millions of words between station breaks. This, however, has not rung to be true. It is the single captured image--a moment in time--that gives one's mind an anchor to that place, to that event, to the people in the photograph.
But of course, a photograph simply provides us a sensory input. It is nothing more than visual information. How can it be that a photograph could cause so much a connection and emotional response where even the most superbly written news article could not? The answer, it seems, lies in the delivery. I'm probably going off on a tangent, but the message may be lost in a translation of sorts, as the premise of language is spoken word being interpreted as a series of experienced real-world objects. We do not see a cow and think the word "cow". When someone says the word "cow" you must then translate it into the image of a cow. If we are presented with the photograph of something that is actually happening, then we have cut out the middleman of language. That said, photgraphy is universal. I can guarantee we won't be able to find a job listing for "photo translator" in the local newspaper.
I chose any random image--I figured pretty much any image I chose would illustrate excatly what I discussed in this post. I was right! Try describing this image to someone instead of just handing them the image....time's up! Good try though. In fact, I think they made a board game based on this exact thing. Fun stuff.
"Cowboys around branding fire, Custer National Forest Montana" photographed by Rothstein, Arthur in 1915