The Research Questions
Perceiving that their research questions must drive the nature of the text, Hariman and Lucaites wanted to make some significant discoveries. They sought to determine which photographs are so famous and so often reproduced that they have become embedded in our collective consciousness as Americans. Approaching the query anecdotally, they asked people they encountered which "famous pictures from the news media" came immediately to mind, and they found the list was not long. They inquired of both friends and strangers, from every walk of life. No matter whom they asked, the same images were mentioned repeatedly. These are the icons of our liberal democracy, those images that capture a performance of people in a time and space of crisis or catharsis. Why are these visual representations so powerful? What can they tell us about the nature of our liberal democracy, and the nature of ourselves as members of the public?

The Argument
The task of this book," write Hariman and Lucaites, "is to demonstrate how these photographs fulfill several important functions in U.S. public life" (pp. 6-7). They select nine iconic photographs for study that are not only widely recognized but also have had an influence on public views. Their research questions and their analysis of these photos lead to their argument that the pictures reveal "pervasive features of American public life" by demonstrating how "photojournalism underwrites democratic polity" and by revealing a "shift within public culture from more democratic to more liberal norms of political identity" (p. 13). They note a tension in American life between the individualistic nature of liberalism and the civic responsibility of a democracy. Thus, in short, they argue that the citizens of the United States have become more aligned with liberal norms of civic identity.

Form and Content
In order to prove this thesis of increasing liberalism, the authors identify five "vectors of influence" that the photographs perform: 1) reproducing ideology; 2) communicating social knowledge; 3) shaping collective memory; 4) modeling citizenship; and 5) providing figural responses for collective action (pp. 9-12). They argue for these five vectors through a careful examination of nine photographs:

  1. "Migrant Mother"
  2. "Times Square Kiss"
  3. "Flag Raising at Iwo Jima"
  4. "Flag Raising at Ground Zero"
  5. "Kent State"
  6. "Accidental Napalm"
  7. "Tiananmen Square"
  8. "The Hindenberg Explosion"
  9. "The Challenger Explosion"

For rhetorical effect, some of the photos are paired. For example, the pairing of "Migrant Mother" and "Times Square Kiss" allows Hariman and Lucaites to examine the "borders of the genre" (p. 51). The other juxtapositions of images are the two flags raising and the two explosions.

The authors do not use one particular theoretical lens, but in the way of cultural studies, they pull from many theorists and methods to reinforce the validity of their findings. Including nearly a hundred pages of notes, Hariman and Lucaites have clearly done their research, and they cite from many well-known scholars such as Burke, Foucault, Habermas, Barthes, Derrida, and Althusser. They also include a comprehensive index, but no bibliography, that lack being one of the few shortcomings of this noteworthy book. The inclusion of a multitude of images of the icons as well as the appropriations in journalism, artwork, political editorials, and other public documents such as posters and fliers reinforces their already strong rhetorical analyses. Each chapter introduces the overarching theme of the chapter and the gives the history of the icon. A lengthy rhetorical analysis of the form and content of the photo follows, then an analysis of various appropriations of the image in such forms as posters, signs, cartoons, websites, broadcasts, artwork, performances, and consumer goods. The analysis of the icon itself is recursive: while analyzing the appropriations, Hariman and Lucaites interweave more commentary about the icon. This method leads to a bit of repetition, but does not detract from the readability of the text; in fact, it shows the tensions and parallels between the icons and their rhetorical offspring. The human element of the photos is never missing, and when possible, the authors highlight the subjects of the photos, if they are known and still alive. This biographical narrative adds to the richness of the arguments regarding the place of these icons in a liberal democracy.