Review: Unforgettable: Images That Have Changed Our Lives, by Peter Davenport

Unforgettable: Images That Changed Our Lives, by Peter Davenport
Unforgettable: Images That Have Changed Our Lives, by Peter Davenport

What makes an iconic image? What makes a painting, photo, sculpture, drawing or even logo indelible in our minds? What, in short, makes it unforgettable?

In Unforgettable: Images That Have Changed Our Lives, Peter Davenport argues that the best images are those that transcend their context — time, place, and sometimes even their original meaning — to take on a meaning that’s both broader and deeper. These are images that need only to be named, and their power is such that we recall them instantly. Not in an abstract sense, mind you. Very specific images.

After a very brief introduction, Davenport spends the next 240-odd pages proving his point in a striking and, I’d even argue, polarizing fashion. Roughly half of the people who see this book, or to whom you show it will be convinced that it’s genius, and the other half, give or take a few, will be convinced that it’s utter crap. Here’s why: Each of the aforementioned 240-ish pages is nothing more than a blank page adorned with a caption, a credit, and the year in which the photo, art object, or logo first appeared. That’s it. That’s all she (or he, in this case) wrote.

And therein, I think, is what makes this work. Just to give you an example, on facing pages, we find Grim Natwick’s Betty Boop squaring off with Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Other bits and pieces of visual history, from the book’s earliest image John T. Daniels’ 1903 photo of the Wright Brothers’ first takeoff) to its latest (the Towers of Light that commemorate the World Trade Center) and all points in between (the Hindenburg explosion, the Swastika, the Golden Arches) are left to unspool in chronological order, sometimes resulting in interesting juxtapositions.

Which brings me to the only gripe I have with this book, and it’s a minor one, at that. I understand the logic behind sequencing the book chronologically, but I think it’d be interesting to see the book done in the form of a card deck or even on the walls of a museum. For one thing, it leads to more opportunities for interesting juxtapositions. For another, while I’d argue that each of these images has a certain power in its own right (hence their longevity), I’d also argue that certain images are more powerful than others (with the relative “stickiness” of the image depending to some degree on the viewer’s own preferences, knowledge, and experience). 

At some point — and this is why I think there’s more to this book than meets the eye, if you’ll forgive the pun — the juxtapositions leave the page. Most of us, if not all of us, have seen the photo of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, for instance. But when all you’ve got is a blank page with a caption, leaving your imagination to literally fill in the blanks, something curious starts to happen. The images start to superimpose themselves, one over another (in Johnson’s case, it was hard for me to shake the image of the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk Quang Duc, “depicted” only a couple of pages earlier).

Sometimes, then, this results in the images communicating with one another in ways far more effective than if the editor had simply printed them side-by-side. Whether Davenport intended it or not, by leaving the pages blank, he made the images less a literal fact and made them something both more free and more resonant. All of which is a long way of saying that for all the things this is — a trip down memory lane, a test of visual and cultural literacy, a testimony to the power of the image — what it’s not is as glib or as slight as it might at first come off.

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