[In honor of the 150th anniversary of Butch Cassidy’s birth, in this week’s series I’ll AmericanStudy histories and images of some of our more famous—or infamous—outlaws.]
On how images can reflect and shape but also distort our histories.
Arthur Penn’s film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) might seem to fit perfectly into my argument in yesterday’s post about pop culture beautifications of outlaw stories: the film’s leading man Warren Beatty (as Clyde Barrow) was one of the few 1960s stars who could rival Paul Newman and Robert Redford in matinee idol appeal, and his co-star Faye Dunaway (as Bonnie Parker) was just as stunning. Yet in this case, the casting of beautiful Hollywood stars made particular sense, on a couple of significant levels. For one thing, Bonnie and Clyde’s early 1930s heyday (what came to be known as the Public Enemy era) was a period defined by famously attractive criminals: John Dillinger was said to be strikingly handsome, and the nickname Pretty Boy Floyd pretty much speaks for itself. And for another, even more specific thing, Bonnie and Clyde’s 1930s fame and narrative came to be thoroughly associated with a set of carefully posed images disseminated through mass media.
In April 1933, police officers raided a Joplin, Missouri apartment that had been serving as a hideout for Bonnie and Clyde, as well as other gang members including Clyde’s older brother Buck, Buck’s wife Blanche, and William Daniel Jones. After a shootout that left two officers dead the criminals escaped, but among the possessions they left behind was a set of posed photographs of the gang, including a picture of Bonnie chomping a cigar and flaunting a gun that would become (and has remained) synonymous with her public image. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that Bonnie and Clyde intended for the pictures to be found and made public, as they seem overtly created in response to and amplification of the evolving narratives of the two as daredevil lovers. Even if the pictures were originally intended for their own personal use and enjoyment, they likewise reflect how much the pair were aware of and excited by those public narratives. And art went on to imitate life imitating art, as many of the moments and images in Penn’s film are drawn directly from those famous photos.
Photographs are of course not the same as film recreations or historical fictions—even if they’re posed or staged, photographs capture aspects of reality (at least in the pre-Photoshop era) and in so doing become part of the real world as well. Yet at the same time, when photographs become a primary way in which we remember history (as they have so often in the 150 years since the development of the form), they risk distorting as much as reflecting or illuminating those histories. And that seems to be the case for the aforementioned iconic image of Bonnie Parker: per the FBI testimony of fellow gang member William Daniel Jones, as well as subsequent stories provided by Jones and other gang members, Bonnie neither smoked cigars nor (far more importantly) ever shot at a police officer. Even if we do not take Jones’s memories and perspective as authoritative, his statements remind us that neither can we see these posed photographs as necessarily illustrative of the duo’s identities or actions. As with so many American outlaws, the real Bonnie and Clyde reside alongside, but not quite within, such public images and narratives.
Last outlaw tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other outlaws you’d analyze?
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