The Age of the Image. Series 1:2 Power Games. James Fox


The Age of the Image (1) is a four-part BBC documentary series in which art historian Dr James Fox explores how the power of images have transformed the modern world. This blog post is not intended to be a deep dive into any particular part of the programme but simply intends to serve as a personal aide-memoir. Fox says that in these programmes he intends to ask four questions:

  • Why do images give us such pleasure?
  • How do we make sense of them?
  • Where do they get their power?
  • Can we trust them?

In this episode, JF examines how image-makers helped transform 20th Century society.

The Power of Film

Adolf Hitler commissioned Leni Riefenstahl to produce ‘The Triumph of the Will’, a film of the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg. There is no speech for the first 22 minutes, and Hitler doesn’t speak for 36 minutes. The messages are conveyed by sounds and images only. JF questions whether ‘The Triumph of the Will’ is political art or stylish propaganda. And if the latter, does it cease to have artistic value.

The Power of the Comic Book Superhero

FJ says that by the mid-1930s thousands of Jews had fled fascism in Europe for New York. Many of them entered the creative field. As the political situation worsened in Europe they turned their superhero characters into political weapons. Superhero is created by Jewish artists include Batman, Captain America, Spider-Man and Superman. This is the cover of the first edition of Captain America from 1941 – seen here thumping Hitler.

It needs to be remembered that America didn’t join the war until December 1941. Clearly the bombing of Pearl Harbor was critically influential but these anti-Nazi popular American comics were clearly important in framing American public opinion.

The Power of Photography – Robert Capa

JF tells us that Robert Capa was embedded into the D-Day landings. He says to look at the images is to be ‘catapulted into the maelstrom of war’. JF says the photos have acquired a mythic power, telling the story of courage sacrifice and Lorrae lost in a way words could not.

The Power of Art – Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon. Painting 1946

The Power of the Picture Post Photo Essay

Picture post pioneered the photo essay In which images drove the story, often making the lives of ordinary people visible.

The Power of Surveillance

Fox discusses the great 1954 Hitchcock movie rear window. He describes it as a film within a film. Here are some examples:

The cabaret,

the weepy (bottom right),

the romance,

the musical, and….

the thriller.

According to JF, it signifies a society terrified of being watched but obsessed by watching.


Producers realised that with increasing audiences that they could produce material that would influence politics. In connection with the legalisation of abortion in the UK for example, Ken Loach’s play ‘Up the Junction’ first screened in 1965 was influential. But the screening of an episode of Dr Finlay’s Casebook in which a doctor wrestled with the dilemma of giving an abortion to a woman who had been raped made a huge impact on the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act. Dianne Munday, a former activist with the Abortion Law Reform Association, says:

I still do some talking in schools and I always say it was the things we couldn’t control, but took advantage of, and I reckon that issue of Dr Finlay’s Casebook moved the campaign on three years for us without us doing anything. It raised the issue in a way we were not able to (1:56).

The US Government spent $25bn of the Appollo Space Program which was masterful propaganda success but at a cost to the US population. As American Gil Scott-Heron’s poem ‘Whitey on the Moon’ says:

A rat done bit my sister Nell.

(with Whitey on the moon)

Her face and arms began to swell.

(and Whitey’s on the moon)

I can’t pay no doctor bill.

(but Whitey’s on the moon)

Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still.

(while Whitey’s on the moon)

The man jus’ upped my rent las’ night.

(’cause Whitey’s on the moon)

No hot water, no toilets, no lights.

(but Whitey’s on the moon)

I wonder why he’s uppi’ me?

(’cause Whitey’s on the moon?)

I was already payin’ ‘im fifty a week.

(with Whitey on the moon)

Taxes takin’ my whole damn check,

Junkies makin’ me a nervous wreck,

The price of food is goin’ up,

An’ as if all that shit wasn’t enough

A rat done bit my sister Nell.

(with Whitey on the moon)

Her face an’ arm began to swell.

(but Whitey’s on the moon)

Was all that money I made las’ year

(for Whitey on the moon?)

How come there ain’t no money here?

(Hm! Whitey’s on the moon)

Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill

(of Whitey on the moon)

I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills,

Airmail special

(to Whitey on the moon)

And of course, the Civil Rights movement in the States used the image to advance its cause.


(1) Kandiah, M. and Staerck, G., 2002. The Abortion Act 1967. [ebook] London: Institute of Contemporary British History. Available at: <> [Accessed 13 May 2020].

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