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Last modified: Tuesday, October 23, 2012

IU professor John Lucaites receiving two major awards from National Communication Association

Oct. 23, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- John Louis Lucaites, associate dean for arts and humanities and undergraduate education in Indiana University's College of Arts and Sciences, will receive two major awards from the National Communication Association in recognition of his career of scholarly research.

John Lucaites

John Louis Lucaites

Lucaites, a professor of rhetoric and public culture in the Department of Communication and Culture, will receive the association's Charles H. Woolbert Research Award and its Distinguished Scholar Award during its annual convention Nov. 15 to 18 in Orlando, Fla.

Over its 98-year history, the association has selected only about 80 members as Distinguished Scholars for a lifetime of scholarly achievement. Current Distinguished Scholars nominate and elect other National Communication Association members to join the select group.

The Woolbert Award recognizes a journal article or book chapter that has stood the test of time and has become a stimulus for new conceptualizations of rhetorical and communication phenomena. It may not have been seen to be as influential when it was first published.

Lucaites' research has often focused on how the rhetoric and aesthetics of photojournalism and documentary photographs serve to promote political agendas. Lucaites has received more than a half dozen other awards from the National Communication Association over his 35-year career.

In receiving the Woolbert Award, Lucaites is being recognized for his essay that studied the 1941 book, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," by author James Agee and photographer Walker Evans. That book resulted from their efforts to chronicle the lives of white sharecropper families in the Deep South during the Dust Bowl era. It challenged the practices of documentary photography animated by the New Deal's Farm Security Administration, as well as the prevailing journalistic conventions of the time, by combining photos and prose to present a story of impoverished but hard-working Americans.

At the time of its publication, the book received little attention because of the outbreak of World War II. Its real impact came during the 1960s, when it resurfaced on college campuses as a popular title among the increasingly activist youth generation and in the context of the emergence of America's War on Poverty.

"I did a study of it, really focusing attention on its implications for the way in which we think about visuality and our notion of 'the people.' It was in the 1930s that public opinion emerged, and the prevailing idea was that we could define what 'the people' thought by aggregating individual opinions," Lucaites said. "Agee and Evans invite us to consider the possibility that photography reverses that process by allowing us to see the collective in a particular individual. I call this the 'individuated aggregate.'

"This notion of the individuated aggregate turned out to become an important idea for trying to understand how some iconic photographs make arguments that far transcend the significance of the life of that individual," he added. "They stand in for something bigger."

Among the examples that Lucaites cites is Dorothea Lange's famous photo, "Migrant Mother," which went on to symbolize the human impact of the Great Depression; and Joe Rosenthal's "Raising the Flag on Mount Suribachi," which has been recreated many times to honor American service men and women.

Lucaites' research led to his award-winning book, co-written with Robert Hariman of Northwestern University, "No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture and Liberal Democracy" (University of Chicago Press, 2007). It also led to an influential blog of the same name, which has 1,500 to 2,000 visitors each day.

"Photojournalism and documentary photography are important not because they illustrate the world; the pictures we see in newspapers are often anchored to articles," he said. "But we say it's more important because it serves as a kind of public art for a liberal democratic society that allows us to see ourselves," Lucaites said. "Photojournalism puts us in a position to imagine what it means to see and to be seen as a citizen in particular ways and the rights and obligations that go along with that."

Lucaites said the recognition for his work is humbling. "I'm really interested in contributing to a kind of productive liberal democratic public culture, and the work that we do contributes to that in important ways. These awards stand in recognition of the regard that this work has been held by others, which I find most gratifying."