May 2nd, 2014
08:50 PM ET

Kent State professor compares iconic photo to Michelangelo sculpture

Jerry M. Lewis is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology. As a faculty marshal on May 4 he witnessed the shootings by the Ohio National Guard. He is featured in 'CNN Special Report Witnessed: The Killings at Kent State’ airing Sunday at 7p E.T.  

Source: John Filo/Getty Images

Source: John Filo/Getty Images

The most important carry over from the anti-Vietnam War movement is John Filo’s famous picture of Mary Vecchio screaming over the body of Jeffrey Miller.  John was a Kent State University  photo-journalism major. He  was acting as a news professional even though he was student at the time.  He said in a 1990 interview that immediately after the firing had stopped, "I thought, I've got to get out of here.  Then I said, Wait a minute. What am I doing?  You say you're a journalist, let's go." He thought it was essential that he take his pictures out of the Kent area in order to escape the clutches of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  There had been persistent rumors that the FBI had been confiscating camera and film over the weekend.  John drove the back roads of Pennsylvania to Tarentum to have picture published saying to the editor who he knew from previous work that he thought he had some good pictures.

The Valley Daily News of Tarentum, Pennsylvania  published the picture as well as putting it on the Associated Press wire service.  John won the Pulitzer Prize and other awards for his picture.

The girl in the Pieta picture was Mary Vecchio a 14 year-old run-away from, Florida.  She eventually found her way to Kent arriving on the campus May 1, 1970, four days before the shootings and leaving immediately afterward for Indianapolis. Soon after the picture was published in Newsweek, she was tracked down by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and returned to her home.  The picture had an immediate impact on the Vecchio family, said Mary  Vecchio.  Her family received many letters most of them hostile.

Vecchio was a self-described antiwar activist. What kind of activist was she?  There were three ways that students got involved in the antiwar movement. First, there were the core activists who did most of the work of organizing rallies, writing pamphlets, sending letters to newspapers and so forth. Next were the secondary activists, who were interested, did a little work, but for the most part just lent the movement moral support. Lastly were "event participants" (rally attenders), whose main activity was to show up at programs and demonstrations such as large rallies and teach-ins.  I would put Vecchio in the latter category.

It is possible to interpret and understand the picture by comparing it to the Pieta of Michelangelo. The Pieta  was commissioned on August 25, 1498 by the Cardinal of San Donigi.  At the time, Michelangelo was an unknown artist.  However, the Pieta was not an unknown image to worshipers of the time.  Many artists had used it.  Robert Coughlan writes:

Until the 15th Century, the theme of the Pieta belonged almost exclusively to the artists of the northern Europe, whose gruesome figure of Jesus and Mary, mainly of wood, seemed designed to shock worshipers into awareness of Christ's sacrifice. Michelangelo's Pieta dramatically shifted the conventions but portraying the dead Christ as . . ."still alive, His veins distended by the pulse of life . . .    Mary who was traditionally portrayed in agony and disfigurement in her sorrow, is depicted with physical and spiritual beauty showing her grief with her left hand.

Most people experience Michelangelo’s Pieta which is in the Vatican as a photograph.  Both women use their faces and hands to express their grief over the tragic deaths.  Michelangelo’s Pieta and the Mary Vecchio photograph are framed as triangles with the top being the heads of each Mary while the bases are the earth for the Pieta and the parking lot for Jeffrey Miller. The Mary Vecchio picture shows the shock and horror of the shootings at Kent State by the look on Mary's face.  Next, her upraised hands, as if in prayer, capture the sorrow of the moment.  The Mary by Michelangelo expresses her grief over the death of her son with her left hand.

Jeffrey Miller is seen lying on his stomach while the Christ lies on his back cradled by Mary.  Jeffrey Miller's vitality before the moment of the shooting is illustrated by the blood on the Prentice Hall parking lot, while the Christ's blood is seen in his pulsing veins.

Both are outdoor scenes.  The Pieta has dirt at the feet of Mary, while the Vecchio picture is on the tarmac of a Kent State University parking lot.

There are differences.  Michelangelo's Pieta has no one else in the frame–only Mary and Jesus; the Kent State picture Kent State show students present.  The student standing near Jeffrey Miller is closer to his body than is Mary Vecchio.

Why has the picture been influential?  One cannot be completely certain why this picture was been used so often, but it is possible to suggest a basic reason. The Mary Vecchio picture captures the passion of the anti-Vietnam War conflict for audiences who see this cultural object. It has emotional power.  Many  see Michelangelo's Pieta in the Filo’s photograph.  This suggests an answer to why John Filo ‘s picture of Mary Vecchio, the “Anti-Vietnam War Pieta”, picture has had such a long cultural life and will continue to be an iconic symbol of the Vietnam era.


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