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The art of photography

Two transformative images, among the most famous of the 20th century, are currently up for sale on Strauss & Co's August online auction.

August 19th is World Photography Day, which celebrates the art, craft, science, and history of photography. Photographers are also encouraged to share a single photo that encapsulates their world.

Two transformative images, among the most famous of the 20th century, are currently up for sale on Strauss & Co’s August online auction. History and photography buffs, and collectors interested in artworks that refer to momentous events, will be captivated by Molotov Man by Susan Meiselas, taken during the 1979 Nicaraguan Revolution, and Tank Man by Stuart Franklin, a record of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

Both images are featured in TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential Images of All Time. They have appeared in various contexts in popular culture, and have been pastiched and reappropriated for different causes, much to the chagrin of the image makers.

‘The Tank Man’, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, June 4, 1989.

“An unexpected act of defiance”

Franklin describes Tank Man as “an image of a single man, up against the juggernaut of The State,” and “an unexpected act of defiance.”

“I remember lying prone on a balcony on the sixth floor of the Beijing Hotel,” Franklin recalls in an interview with The Guardian newspaper. “Alone the man blocked the path of the tanks, watched by groups of nervous bystanders, and journalists, camera crews and photographers on balconies on almost every floor of the hotel.”

The British photographer, who was on assignment for Magnum, an international photographic co-operative, recalls that he didn’t initially realise that he had captured such an epoch-defining image. “I recalled images from 1968 in Prague and Bratislava where protesters stood up bare-chested against Russian tanks and similar accounts from China during the Japanese invasion. Tank Man felt very distant by comparison.”

The roll of film had to be smuggled out of China because of the communist state’s strict censorship laws. The task fell to a French student, who carried the film out of the country in a small box of tea. In Paris, the film was processed, duplicated and distributed by Magnum’s office in the French capital. Tank Man featured on the cover of Time magazine on 19 June, 1989.

Icon of a revolution

The interesting thing about Molotov Man, Meiselas said during a lecture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, is that ‘he’ went on to lead multiple different lives.

The image captures Pablo ‘Bareta’ Arauz, a member of the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front during the Nicaraguan Revolution, throwing a petrol bomb at the headquarters of the National Guard. It was a hugely significant moment in the history of Nicaragua, and this image ended up representing that moment for many years afterwards. Several publications juxtaposed Arauz with Che Guevara, the instantly recognizable ‘face’ of the earlier Cuban revolution.

“The other part of the story,” says Meiselas, “and this is important for any image maker, is to constantly be aware about what we control when we send those images into the world. Do we control the frame, do you control how the frame lives in the world?” Meiselas has had to grapple with these questions endless times, especially after the image was reappropriated by anti-communist propagandists as a symbol of communist aggression.

Both prints, which appear in Strauss & Co’s August Online-only auction, are signed, dated and printed with the title and a statement by the photographer on the reverse. 

The online sale is currently live for bidding and closes on Monday, 23 August 2021, at 8.00pm.

Visit https://www.straussart.co.za/ to register to bid.

Notes: 

The Guardian: Stuart Franklin: How I photographed Tiananmen Square and ‘tank man’

Princeton University Art Museum: The Life of an Image: “Molotov Man,” 1979–2009, 2015.

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