Share This Article

Amelia Earhart: Image and Icon

by Kristen Lubben, Susan Butler and Susan Ware, Steidl/International Center of Photography, New York, 2007, $28.

Paris Hilton and Amelia Earhart would have had much in common. Both women are or were quite beautiful in their own way, both of them blessed with, as one Earhart biographer put it, an “unerring instinct for making a physical statement of who and what she was.”

That’s about as far as I can take the Hilton/Earhart link, although Amelia and Paris did both market clothing lines. But this handsome, large-format photography book reveals how skillfully Earhart and her publisher husband/Svengali George Putnam manipulated the burgeoning craft of photojournalism to create an image that made her into an icon.

Utterly unlike Hilton, Earhart was strangely sexless. Her marriage was apparently more of a business arrangement than a physical union, and though it was inevitably suggested, it was impossible to imagine that there was really anything going on between Earhart and her dour navigator, Fred Noonan. So Earhart was perfect for the time, not only in vaguely resembling Charles Lindbergh—a connection that photographers (though not Earhart herself) exploited—but in being modest and wholesome when the country wanted something to celebrate other than the Prohibition Parises of the jazz age.

This is not an aviation book by any means, but its substantial collection of images, essays and notes deserves a place in any enthusiast’s collection. It also bears noting that $28 for a book of this size and quality is a substantial bargain.

For me, the most poignant of the many fabulous photos is one of the last taken of this fascinating, mysterious woman. A reporter has just asked her how big Howland Island is, since she’ll have to somehow find it after a 2,556-mile flight from Lae, New Guinea. At a time when that must still have seemed an amusing question, she is shown peeking through the small circle of her thumb and forefinger, grinning mischievously.


Originally published in the March 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here