Heroes, Just for One Day

It is said that my generation doesn’t believe in heroes. On the surface, it’s easy to see why: When we rejected the values of our Baby Boomer parents, we also shook off their unfaltering (and to us, inexplicable) faith in authorities – political and social.

Gen Xers side with the nerdy, the misunderstood and the maligned. We scratched Nirvana lyrics into our desks. We liked Bender in The Breakfast Club, not because he was smart but because he was right, and we wondered why Danny wound up good in Grease when naughty Sandy was so damn hot. There is some Bender-style self-sabotage at work in all of us, and some days it wins out.

But here’s the rub: Just because we don’t believe what our parents did doesn’t mean we believe in nothing. The outpouring of grief today over David Bowie’s death has me musing about our relationship with heroes and the sheer force of love and passion I see in my peers. The famously dead-inside generation has a heart after all, and it beats in 4/4 time.

Bowie wasn’t a Marvel hero. He was a gawky, cheeky, demanding, sometimes cranky chameleon. He was constantly pushing himself to produce something meaningful and interesting, even if that resulted in a back-catalog that can fairly be called “patchy.” My Bowie was not your Bowie, and that is just fine.

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Hero is a complex word. It is about achievement, as measured by the yardstick of a prevailing culture – and when was the last time we felt we had one of those? It’s for this reason that we usually reserve it for emergency service workers – paramedics, firefighters, emergency room doctors – and why most people will shrug off the title if it is offered them. In the Australian vernacular, it is commonly used sarcastically: “Check out this hero, who just face-planted off his bike.” And here in the U.S. it’s also a sandwich, arguably so named because “you have to be a hero to eat it.”

By definition, the word hero singles out a winner, which implies that someone else has to lose. That doesn’t seem like Bowie’s style. He was a frontman, sure, but also a collaborator, an artist and a ratbag.

There is another definition for hero, however, one photographers and designers will know: A hero shot is the best or clearest photo, one that will lead the magazine article or collection. It’s that perfect combination of composition, light and that special moment when the image is greater than the sum of its parts.

That sounds more like my Bowie, don’t you think?

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