Changing meaning or morphin’ memes in photography

It is curious how within one’s lifetime, one can witness the connotation of an image or word change by 180 degrees.  For me the classical example of this is contained in a poem by English poet Robert Graves (1895-1985), “The Naked and the Nude.”  I think that to us today, the word naked refers to the lustful, the lascivious, and the sinful – something that you would see on a billboard at an adult movie theater.  In contrast, I think that the word nude describes the artful, the beautiful, the epitome of humanness – something that you would see in an art museum or gallery.  But here’s what Robert Graves said, scarce half a century ago (first published in 1961).

“For me, the naked and the nude
(By lexicographers construed
As synonyms that should express
The same deficiency of dress
Or shelter) stand as wide apart
As love from lies, or truth from art.

Lovers without reproach will gaze
On bodies naked and ablaze;
The Hippocratic eye will see
In nakedness, anatomy;
And naked shines the Goddess when
She mounts her lion among men.

The nude are bold, the nude are sly
To hold each treasonable eye.
While draping by a showman’s trick
Their dishabille in rhetoric,
They grin a mock-religious grin
Of scorn at those of naked skin.

The naked, therefore, who compete
Against the nude may know defeat;
Yet when they both together tread
The briary pastures of the dead,
By Gorgons with long whips pursued,
How naked go the sometimes nude!”

It is as if the two words have totally switched and interchanged their meaning.

Back in 1968, I took a set of three Kodak Transparency images of the Consolidated Edison Steam Power Plant on the lower East Side of Manhattan.  Before that day, in the fifties and early sixties such an image would most certainly have been a meme for industrial power, strength, and national growth.  By 1968 the meme was undergoing metamorphosis.  Such an image was coming to mean industrial pollution, global warming, and national putrification.  These images were taken right on the cusp of the transition – so much so that my friend and I were chased away by overzealous security guards at the power plant.

Figure 1 - Consolidated Edison #1, 1968, digitized from a Kodachrome transparency. (c) DE Wolf

Figure 1 – Consolidated Edison #1, 1968, digitized from a Kodachrome transparency. (c) DE Wolf

This entry was posted in Personal Photographic Wanderings.