The Bigger Picture Tells the Story Beyond the Frame

August 5, 2022

Images can tell powerful stories. One iconic photograph can even symbolize an entire era. But if we expand the frame and examine the moment in which it was taken, a very different story can emerge. In The Bigger Picture, a new series of documentary shorts, Harvard University historian Dr. Vincent Brown meets with curators, photographers and other experts to challenge common assumptions about iconic American images.  The Bigger Picture will launch on the PBS YouTube channel on Tuesday, August 9, and will release new episodes every other week (see the lineup, below).

A man with dred locks stands with arms folder in front of a wall with four photographs from different eras.

Vincent Brown, historian at Harvard University and host of The Bigger Picture.

To explore these iconic images, Dr. Brown holds insightful conversations with experts such as activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis and photographers Andre D. Wagner and Thomas E. Franklin, discussing their making, meaning and historical significance. Learning the cultural and historical moments that lead to these creations is like unlocking a language with which to appreciate the photo and the photographer’s intent.

“I’m thrilled to take part in a project that shows how the meaning of pictures has never been instantaneous, even in the social media age,” said Dr. Vincent Brown. “The Bigger Picture explores the incredible backstories of well-known images, inviting audiences to engage in media literacy in a new way.”

“The WNET Group is a leader in developing and producing quality, engaging and thought-provoking content for PBS,” said Stephanie Carter, executive producer of The Bigger Picture and the long-running PBS series, Secrets of the Dead. “We are excited to partner with PBS Digital Studios to bring that same mission to this compelling digital-first series.”

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People under 30 might think of PBS as their grandparents’ television channel, but like any media network, PBS creates for all digital platforms. Having evolved from a network of YouTube creators, PBS Digital Studios has gone on to win Webby, Telly and Emmy Awards and in 2022 hit the ripe age of 10.  PBS Digital Studios and the WNET Group (parent company of THIRTEEN) used the Television Critics Association’s Summer Press Tour in July to announce The Bigger Picture as part of PBS Digital Studio’s 10th anniversary celebration.

How to Watch The Bigger Picture

The Bigger Picture will roll out seven episodes on YouTube, starting August 9. “We hope The Bigger Picture provides a fresh way to explore history via documentary films,” says Executive Producer Stephanie Carter. Follow The Bigger Picture on Instagram: @biggerpicturepbs. Join the conversation around the show with the hashtag #BiggerPicturePBS. The series will also live on PBS sites like THIRTEEN, with The Bigger Picture program page.

Episode 1, “Image is Everything”

Premieres August 9, 2022
Photograph: “Portrait of Abraham Lincoln,” Mathew Brady, 1860

A woman wears a blue plastic glove to hold a small portrait of a man which is also seen in larger format on a table behind here. She is in a clean office.

Ann M. Shumard, senior curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, shows The Bigger Picture host Vincent Brown a carte de visite of Mathew Brady’s iconic portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

Can the spectacle of modern politics today—the 24-hour news cycle, carefully orchestrated photo ops, the reliance on polling – be traced back to a photograph of Abraham Lincoln taken during the presidential election in 1860? In the first episode of The Bigger Picture, host Vincent Brown reveals the specific choices made by Lincoln and renowned portrait photographer Mathew Brady when producing this image, in hopes of casting the candidate as presidential. One of the experts weighing in is Harold Holzer, Lincoln scholar and director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute in New York City.

What New York City residents will especially appreciate: this portrait of Lincoln was taken at Brady’s studio at 643 Broadway at Bleecker Street, before Lincoln gave his “right makes right” speech at The Cooper Union college, a short walk away in the East Village. Mathew Brady, originally from Warren County, NY, went on to become famous for organizing battlefield photography during the Civil War. Within two years of taking presidential candidate Lincoln’s portrait, Brady mounted an exhibition of the works of photographers employed by his studio: “The Dead of Antietam,” showing soldiers killed in battle, delivered a graphic shock to New York viewers. The New-York Historical Society Museum & Library holds some 6,000 proof portraits in its Mathew B. Brady Studio Portrait Photograph Collection.

Episode 2, “We Live with What Happens Next”

Premieres August 23, 2022
Photograph: “The Blue Marble,” NASA, 1972

A man and woman talk within an air hanger-like museum room, in front of nose of plane. In foreground a person holds a camera and films them,

Behind the scenes with Vincent Brown, host of The Bigger Picture, as he interviews curator Jennifer Levasseur at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

How exactly did the “Blue Marble,” as it is now known, come to be? Host Vincent Brown learns just how extraordinary a technical feat it was for Apollo 17 astronauts to snap the photograph in 1972, and how early environmentalists hoped that an image of the whole Earth might spark a desire to protect our planet. One of today’s environmentalists featured in the episode is Maria Lopez Nuñez of Newark, NJ, who is Director of Environmental Justice and Community Development at Ironbound Community Corporation.

Episode 3, “The Hero Shot”

Premieres September 6, 2022
Photograph: Raising the Flag at Ground Zero, Thomas E. Franklin, 2001

In a museum gallery, a man stands with folded arms and views a photograph on the wall. The images depict scenes of 9/11.

Vincent Brown, host of The Bigger Picture, views Thomas E. Franklin’s “Raising the Flag at Ground Zero” photograph, on display at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

How does a single image become “iconic”? And when it does, will its meaning change? Host Vincent Brown explores these questions as he focuses on one of the most well-known photos from September 11, 2001: “Raising the Flag at Ground Zero.” He meets New Jersey-based photographer Thomas E. Franklin, who shares his account of that confusing and catastrophic day in New York City, the instant he captured the heroism of the firefighters, and the experience of watching his work become a cultural phenomenon.

Episode 4, ‘“We Aren’t Here to Preserve Anything. We’re Here to Live It”’

Premieres September 20, 2022
Photograph: “Mountain Chief, Listening to Recording with Ethnologist, Frances Densmore,” 1916

A man and woman stand in front of open book on filing table. They look at each other.

Vincent Brown, host of The Bigger Picture, in conversation with Michelle Patterson, historian at Mount St. Mary’s University and co-editor of Travels with Frances Densmore.

In this exploration of the “myth of the disappearing Indian,” host Vincent Brown interrogates the most common assumption about a photograph with ethnographer Frances Densmore and Piegan Blackfeet tribe leader Mountain Chief: that Densmore is recording a “dying culture.”  Host Vincent Brown visits the Library of Congress to hear an original wax cylinder recording of Mountain Chief and travels to Browning, Montana, where Blackfeet artist and teacher Jesse DesRosier demonstrates the deep connections Native Americans still feel today with their ancestors.

Episode 5, “This Land is Our Land”

Premieres October 4, 2022
Photograph: “The Steerage,” Alfred Stieglitz, 1907

A man with grey dred locks peers down to look closely at a model ocean liner.

Vincent Brown, host of The Bigger Picture, inspects a model of the Kaiser Wilhelm II – the ocean liner Alfred Stieglitz was traveling on in 1907 when he took his now-iconic photograph, “The Steerage.”

“The Steerage,” an iconic photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, is often used to illustrate the American immigrant experience. Through conversations with curators and historians, host Vincent Brown discovers that there is much more to the image than meets the eye and invites viewers to reconsider common assumptions about immigration to the U.S. in the early 20th century.

This episode of The Bigger Picture was partially shot on Ellis Island in New York Harbor, the immigrant processing center where many Europeans entered the United States in early 20th century.

Episode 6, “Enemy of the State, Woman of the People”

Premieres October 18, 2022
Photograph: “Angela Y. Davis, Wanted by the FBI,” 1970

A man with dred locks sits at big wood table and speaks virtually to a woman seen on computer monitor in front of him.

Vincent Brown, host of The Bigger Picture, speaks with academic and activist Angela Y. Davis, about her FBI Wanted poster and the evolution of her image as she became a popular icon in the 1970s.

How did the creation of a poster by the FBI, intended to make a criminal out of activist and academic Angela Y. Davis, end up transforming her into a powerful symbol of Black Power and a popular struggle for liberation? Host Vincent Brown considers the FBI’s actions, the impact of Davis’s image and the ways in which style can be used as a form of political activism. Professor Davis also shares her own complicated feelings about seeing her image take on a life of its own, and how her thinking about it has changed over the past 50 years.

Episode 7, “The Camera as a Weapon”

Premieres November 1, 2022
Photograph: “American Gothic,” Gordon Parks, 1942

Two men stand at table where photographs are displayed. They are in a loft space with photography material visible in background.

Vincent Brown, host of The Bigger Picture, in conversation with photographer Andre D. Wagner, whose own work is heavily influenced by that of Gordon Parks.

Moved by the racial segregation he experienced living in Washington, D.C., pioneering photographer Gordon Parks was determined to capture the inequalities he witnessed. With Ella Watson, a local cleaner who posed with her mop and broom in front of the American flag, Parks created what can be seen as a searing indictment of domestic racial politics during World War II. Host Vincent Brown discusses Parks’ motivation for taking the photo, how he worked with Watson, and the beginnings of his philosophy that the camera could be used “as a weapon.” Contemporary photographer Andre D. Wagner, based in Brooklyn, NY, then shows Brown his own work in and shares the lasting impact Parks has had on him and the field of photography.


Learn more about Gordon Parks (1912–2006) on The Gordon Parks Foundation site.

PBS YouTube

If you haven’t watched PBS on YouTube, right now is a good time for a look at its smart content. To date, PBS Digital Studios has accrued more than 30 million combined subscribers on YouTube, averages 50 million views each month and has generated more than 3 billion lifetime views. Series include the Webby Award-winning BE SMART and CRASH COURSE, as well as popular series such as TWO CENTSEONS and PBS SPACE TIME.

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