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On this date in 1970, one of the more resonant images in modern American history hit the front pages. Taken on May 4 by John Filo, a photojournalism student, it depicted a 14-year old runaway named Mary Ann Vecchio with her arms outstretched; crying over the dead body of Kent State student Jeffrey Miller.

Kent State students had been protesting since May 1 in response to the My Lai massacre, the draft and Nixon’s recent announcement that American troops had invaded Cambodia. Each day had seen some sort of confrontation: vandalism, looting, arson, tear gassing and finally, on May 4, the appearance of the National Guard.

There isn’t a definitive rationale for the events of that day, but one could attribute it to a combination of the heightened emotions of the previous three days, inflammatory statements by Ohio Governor James Rhodes, Guardsmen not properly trained in riot control, and rock throwing by the students.

During an attempt to disperse protesters, 77 Guardsmen, with bayonets at the end of their M-1 rifles, bottled themselves into a football practice field; fenced on three sides. After a few minutes of confusion, they withdrew up Blanket Hill.

While most of the students thought the confrontation was over, a few remained to taunt and throw rocks at the Guardsmen. As soon as the Guard reached the hilltop, 28 Guardsmen turned and fired 61 shots. Four students were killed, nine wounded.


Photo: John Filo

When we look at an image, we look within a larger context of experience and cultural training. Filo’s image was one of the most powerful to come out of the Vietnam era, and this is most likely due to its innate familiarity. It hit home because people knew this image — they knew it really, really well.


Unknown South Netherlandish Pietà, 1450/1475. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Pietà, meaning “pity,” is the depiction of the Virgin Mary as she laments over the body of the recently-crucified Christ. Most people may think of Michelangelo’s in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but it’s actually a standard motif found throughout art history.

In The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, Leo Steinberg suggested that the reason one often sees Christ’s penis in images of him as an infant — while the crucified Christ is always covered up — is that the penis represents the Word of God made flesh. Once Christ ceases to be flesh, the representation of that flesh disappears — often resulting in amazing waves of flying fabric over his privates.

The reason I bring this up is upon looking at John Filo’s image, I’m struck by its iconographic correspondence with more classical Pietàs. We have the arms outstreatched in an early prayer gesture often found in Giotto and the traditional triangle composition of our Mary over Jefffry Miller. And we also have a denial of the flesh in how Miller’s body is turned over, face down.

America already knew this picture. No interpretation needed.


Giotto The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, Arena Chapel, Padua.

Art historian Moshe Barasch suggests that the two onlookers at the right of Giotto’s painting are holding their hands in a gesture of awe or incapacity. In this light, the bystanders in the Kent State image take on the role of silent commentators.


Antonello da Messina The Dead Christ Supported by an Angel, 1475-78. Museo del Prado, Madrid.


Marc Chagall Red Pietà, 1956. Museo Vaticani.

Revisiting this image, on this day, during another war, within a government-sanctioned bubble, brings a bitter taste to my mouth. The greek word “kenosis,” which means “emptiness,” signifies Christ’s self-emptying in Christian theology: sacrificing the divine to become man, sacrificing the human to return to the divine. From Giotto to Filo, one can get a sense of the Void when contemplating the Pietà. It’s horror and loss, bitterness and pain.

Kenosis in literary theory is the interpretation of a text while free of personal interest and prejudices; taking the text at face value. While a good goal in theory, it’s close to impossible in practice — even more so in our current media state.

Since March of 2003, the US military has enforced a regulation forbiding “taking or distributing images of caskets or body tubes containing the remains of soldiers who died overseas.” In October of that year, you may remember a minor controversy over images of flag-draped coffins containing recent Iraqi war dead landing at Dover Air Force Base. Only after a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Russ Kick, were they released.



Personally, I felt nothing when I saw the pictures. The symbolism of salutes and honor guards rang hollow and the flags over the coffins were more mask than rite. And it’s not because I need my pain delivered obviously — Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial does the trick elegantly and abstractly.

Maybe it’s the sanitized, pre-packaged, choreographed air about them. Maybe it’s because as a New Yorker in post 9-11 shock, I got a belly full of honor guards accompanying even the smallest bit of goo on its way to the morgue. Maybe it’s because there aren’t any rituals yet for the particular brew of anger and fear running through us.

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Although our government tries its damnedest, other kinds of horror slip out occasionally into the public’s purview: Abu Gharib, for example. But even this has been run through the irony filter and rendered almost meaningless.


How I wish for simpler times.

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PUBLISHED ON May.05.2006 BY m. kingsley
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:


A nice job of weaving the threads of public grieving but I wonder whether the resulting tapestry obscures even as it narrates:

How much of the resonance of the Kent State photo is from the art tradition of the Pietà and how much is the direct, human reality (seemingly) depicted? Do we need a iconographic precedent in order to have empathy? Certainly there are similar images in the art and life of non-Christian/non-Western cultures. Isn’t the death of a child such a common (yet almost unthinkable) tragedy that we might see the resonance of Pietàs as part of that rather than as an emotional model? (Or am I misreading your intent of the comparison?)

The Kent State photo and the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial are, like most powerful symbols, more of a projection screen than a clear image: I know that the reason I cry like a baby as I walk between the black stone walls is very different from the reasons of those crying around me.

The photo’s power now seems to be the tragedy of a violent death and the mourning of it. (As is so common, the violent death of a male and the mourning by the female left behind.) At the time, however, assumptions colored our reactions to the image. The assumption was of personal and probably deep political involvement on the part of Ms. Vecchio, intensifying the reaction of many and justifying her situation for others.

It seemed less a universal human image and more a charged political image. Anger rather than pity dominated for many of us.

On May.05.2006 at 08:51 AM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

Looking for shapes in the clouds again, Mark? Please keep it up!

On May.05.2006 at 10:19 AM
Adrian’s comment is:

"Personally, I felt nothing when I saw the pictures...Maybe it's the sanitized, pre-packaged, choreographed air about them."

Maybe it is because you relate more to the dead protester (who you compare with Christ) than you do to the American soldiers. Personally, I see the soldiers as heros and feel great pride in American troops especially the ones who gave their life for their country. I think there is an even better analogy that can be made between Christ and the soldiers. They died so that we can be free.

On May.05.2006 at 11:02 AM
m. kingsley’s comment is:

Gunnar, in the case of the Kent State photograph: consider it a result of the purveyance of Christian imagery in American culture. Even if you're not of that persuasion, chances are you've seen some form of the Pietà.

Yes, we obviously know how to interpret a person grieving over a dead body. But when the image has an added resonance with the culture's visual tradition, consider the message underlined.

I wish I had your "projection screen" metaphor when I wrote the post. It captures the essence of a reader bringing their experience and references to the text nicely.

Jeff, not looking at clouds... looking at pictures. Filo made the decision to take the photograph, and newspaper editors made the decision to select that particular image out of the seven that went over the wire service the night before. When I select images from a photo shoot, I know that I'm reacting emotionally and intellectually. There's a list of references and logical decisions I go through when picking... the... perfect... frame.

I wouldn't be surprised if an editor somewhere that night made the same comparison I have. It's not an uncommon notion; as shown by Googling "kent state" and "pietà."

On May.05.2006 at 11:12 AM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

I was referring to the dismissive comment by 'Snake' about your rather superb post earlier this week. I realise that this one is about something different entirely (except that it also shows another connection between two things -- an event & an iconic image -- that just happened), but I was trying to be clever. I should have just said: Another great thought-provoking post, Mark!

On May.05.2006 at 11:37 AM
Jeremy’s comment is:

i think the point here has been misconstrued by a couple of readers due to M. Kingsley's wandering tangents. What I think he was trying to say is that we (the human race) respond emotionally to archetypes. the massacred student is not directly 'christ-like', rather the context adheres to iconic imagery - the most powerful and ancient tool of story-telling. These images are powerful because of a historical pattern that is older than Christ himself.

On May.05.2006 at 12:06 PM
Kevin’s comment is:

What has always really struck me about the Kent State photo is the surrounding students, not so much the iconic central figures. Take them out of the picture, and aside from a few awkward glances, this is pretty much business as usual on campus, kids strolling to class... This, to me, clearly illustrates the complete absurdity of the event, the students had dispersed (does that look like a "crowd" to you? - no one is running towards or away), and yet still the guardsmen opened fire... 61 shots...

Neil Young's Ohio also bears mentioning. And pushing absurdity even further a trite piece I wrote celebrating the anniversary (FedEx truck reference included).

On May.05.2006 at 12:46 PM
Brian Jackson’s comment is:

Boy, I think you all intellectualize this photo wayyyyy too much and instead should get back to work!

On May.05.2006 at 06:01 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Mark—If I had the time I might engage you in a conversation about archetypes and reality (realities?) I doubt we’d convince each other but at least we’d flush out all of the closet Jungians at Speak Up. (And what is the source of the Anne Geddes goes to Abu Gharib photo?)

BTW, They built a gym or something on the site of the killings many years ago. In about 1978 a friend of mine was in Kent so he went by to look at the site. He asked several people where the killings had taken place. They all said they didn’t know.

Adrian—I think your reaction is an example of the projection screen phenomenon that I mentioned. I don’t claim to offer any real insights (Jungian or other) into how Mark’s brain works but I think distilling his reactions to a tribal/political, good guys vs. bad guys thing is way too simple. There is a great tendency to forgive the aesthetic transgressions that support one’s point of view (witness the drecky posters celebrated by leftish designers) and condemn the aesthetics of whatever opposes one’s convictions; I think we need a more nuanced look at why we react to certain displays. If the only standard is a “Which side are you on?” test then everyone yammering on this site ought to go out and get a real job (as Brian seems to believe we should.)

I doubt that you have the least idea of my political stance on almost anything but I can say that the photos of the flag-draped coffins (and the efforts to keep them from public view) spoke more to me of the way the war was being handled than they did of the sacrifice made by the soldiers and Marines wrapped in the flags. Saying so in no way dishonors them or the grief of those of us who mourn their deaths.

Brian—Just what kind of work do you do? Mark and I both make our livings dealing with meaning and emotion in stuff like photos. Telling us that a photo is just a photo is like telling a gold miner or a farmer that it’s all just dirt.

On May.05.2006 at 06:13 PM
m. kingsley’s comment is:

Gunnar, I'm not really a Jungian — more an inadequate acolyte of Erwin Panofsky (and his heirs: Leo Steinberg, Moshe Barasch and John Berger) with lite-Marxist flavorings. But it's all different flavors of interpretation, determined by the glasses you're wearing at the moment.

> And what is the source of the Anne Geddes goes to Abu Gharib photo?

It comes from this article in Seattle's The Stranger — done in jest and questionable taste by the paper's (nationally syndicated) sex-advice and pop-culture columnists.

Jeff, sorry mate. I prefer to gloss over the anonymous members of the peanut gallery. I get it now.

On May.05.2006 at 06:56 PM
Scott Orchard’s comment is:

I'm going have to agree with Brian here, I think your're intellectualizing this too much. Its a pity so much time was wasted discussing this, I think its a bit pointless. The Kent State image represents a tragic event, though I would argue that the Pietà represents a much more tragic event in human history, to compare the two is reaching at best.

On May.05.2006 at 06:56 PM
Brian Jackson’s comment is:

I never said "a photo is just a photo" (ignoring context is very bad). It is undoubtedly a photo of historical value, for sure. But the blabbering here is thick and the stretching of symbolisim and meaning is almost insulting.

On May.05.2006 at 06:58 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Brian— I think you all intellectualize this photo wayyyyy too much

So are you saying (as you, in fact, said) “wayyyyy too much” or do you mean wrong? If the man is wrong, suggest how. Saying that we “intellectualize” too much seems to indicate that the amount of scrutiny is excessive. Mark can be wrong (I think he is, at least in part) but dismissing the act of consideration is inane. Not as inane, however, as Scott’s dismissal based on some relative historical tragedy scale.

Scott—Mark Did not say anything close to a comparison of tragedies nor did him imply anything holy about anyone who died at Kent State. He claimed, in fact, that the power of the photo derived from a preexisting image set, implying that the Christ images were powerful in and of themselves and the photo was made powerful by its physical and thematic similarities to the well-known images. To say that X gets its power by being a reflection of Y hardly implies equating the two.

On May.05.2006 at 10:56 PM
Ravenone’s comment is:

Question of the translation of the word Pieta as to mean "Pity". My recollection of latin is that Pieta comes from the same root as Pious; or Faithfull/loyalty to fammily and gods. Therefore Pieta would be a depiction not of a mother's pity, but of a mother's loyaty to her family, and god, in a time of tragedy.
What's your source?

On May.06.2006 at 01:13 AM
m. kingsley’s comment is:

Ravenone — What, your Google's broken?

Try here, here, here, and here.

On May.06.2006 at 02:58 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

It’s two, two, two mints in one! From http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?l=p&p=18

Pity: c.1225, from O.Fr. pite, pitet (11c., Mod.Fr. pitié), from L. pietatem (nom. pietas) "piety, affection, duty," in L.L. "gentleness, kindness, pity," from pius (see pious). Replaced O.E. mildheortness, lit. "mild-heartness," itself a loan-translation of L. misericordia. Eng. pity and piety were not fully distinguished until 17c. The verb meaning "to feel pity for" is attested from 1529. Pitiful is c.1303 in sense of "compassionate" (implied in pitifully); c.1460 in sense of "exciting or deserving pity;" 1582 in sense of "mean, wretched, contemptible."

On May.06.2006 at 12:14 PM
Theo’s comment is:

Where did that picture of the child in an abu ghraib costume come from?

On May.06.2006 at 12:51 PM
Ravenone’s comment is:

Google? Bah. I'd planned to look it up in my Latin-English Dictionary. Alas I left it at my mother's house, along with some Rilke! :(
Call me a freak but I still do hold favoratism to sources in print. :>

On May.06.2006 at 11:10 PM
Ravenone’s comment is:

Another question came to mind:
IS one's behavioral reaction to grief near-instinctive, or is it culturally shaped?
I know not everyone reacts to the death of a loved one in the same way, but on the whole, are there certain behaviors which are more likely to occur: Ie the pieta-type scene?
I've only been to one funeral in my life, so my experience with this kind of grief is quite lacking. Do people really flail?

On May.07.2006 at 10:48 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Behaviors and reactions are not completely culturally defined but they are culturally shaped. Public displays of grieving are shaped by culture (both broadly and by narrow subcultures) both in the sense of limiting what is considered acceptable or expected personal displays* and by broader expectations. In some cultures quiet sniffling by a widow would be considered the frontier of public decorum; in some cultures wealthier families hire extra people to wail loudly; in some the widow is expected to throw herself onto the pyre to join her husband.

I would not, however, conclude from this that a cultural trope such as the pietá defines our reactions, only allowing us to experience shared grief when displayed in the established cultural form. Similarities between the photo and the art historical tradition could be explained by the photographer’s cultural knowledge and/or that of the photo editor, as Mark implied. I doubt, however, that the precedents defined the public reaction.

I suspect that the majority of the American public was unfamiliar with any pietá and that most of those who were at all familiar thought that Michelangelo’s was the only one. The US was and still is dominated by sects that display a limited range of imagery and art history classes are not a major part of most people’s educations.

*My mother commented that she was worried that her reaction to the recent death of my father wasn’t as strong as it should have been. Although everyone else admired the way she dealt with things, she compared herself to a cultural norm where grief was relatively more histrionic.

On May.08.2006 at 11:38 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

How'd we go from Kent State Atrocities to Jesus' penis?

Silly internet.

"But even this has been run through the irony filter and rendered almost meaningless."

I disagree with that. Irony (and it's relative, sarcasm) is a very powerful tool to fight the establishment. That said, in today's American culture, there does seem to be a lot of people that can no longer comprehend irony and sarcasm.

"But the blabbering here is thick and the stretching of symbolisim and meaning is almost insulting."

We're graphic designers and this is a blog. This is often the natural result of such combos. (and I'm as guilty as anyone).

On May.11.2006 at 09:29 AM
the blabbering here is thick’s comment is:

my eyes hurt reading this crap.

On May.26.2006 at 09:12 AM