What you take a picture of is irrelevant. The fine art photographer Emmett Gowin taught me that. No matter how poignant or beautiful the subject a photographer must consider shape and form, composition and lighting. A pretty face isn’t enough. This is great advice for an aspiring photographer but it happens to be deeply untrue. Some things are more photogenic than others. Wrinkled old crones and beautiful girls are inherently camera-friendly. So is war.
War and photography go together like marriage and 19th century novels or renaissance painting and martyred saints. But painting could survive without Goya’s series on the Peninsular War and literature without Stendhal’s battle of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma. Without Robert Capa’s picture of the GI in the surf on Omaha beach, or Evgeny Khaldey’s raising of the Soviet Flag over a smouldering Berlin or the portrait by an anonymous snapper of that little boy in the Warsaw Ghetto, photography would be infinitely poorer.
Yale University Press has just published War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath, a book to accompany a new exhibition now touring the United States. With 500 pictures, from the Crimea to the Congo, it gives us an opportunity to examine what makes war so photograph-friendly. Unfortunately, the curators have made the regrettable choice of lumping pictures together by subject (daily routine, shell shock, death) rather than chronologically. A photograph of Che Guevara’s corpse sits next to coffins from the Paris commune. We lose the sense of reportage that is the first function of war photography. There is no narrative power. In an exhibition of still lifes, say, it might be informative to see Zurbaran’s fish painted 400 years ago next to some hip young artist’s fish painted last week. But photography, especially war photography, depends on context. When we look at Lee Miller’s picture of an SS guard with a bloody nose, we need to know it was taken immediately after the liberation of Buchenwald.
Look at this. Were Marine Wedding a painting or even a scene in a movie, it would be pretentious, jejune, say more about the artist and her fashionable views on patriarchy or fairy tales than anything else. But as a photograph it is heartbreaking. We cannot ignore the shattered lives, the tragic waste. Despite Photoshop, we always assume that when we look at a photograph the print before us duplicates a real life incident. Even the most heavily art-directed fashion shot, records a moment that occurred in front of some snapper’s lens. The artist’s role recedes and we are gripped by the moment captured. This sense of reality is what gives photography, and especially war photography much of its power.
Which is not to say that formal concerns don’t matter. The dynamism of battle can create stunning compositions. This is one of my favourites, by Larry Burrows in Vietnam. The mountains in the top right corner look out of a renaissance painting. The soldier in the foreground, his arm outstretched, reminds us of Christ. Your eye keeps moving and finds no place to rest. Striving for reportage, Burrows created timeless art.
Years ago, my father, a journalist returning for a third time to Vietnam quoted Patton on war: “God forgive me but I love it.” I know what he means. War is an abomination but there are few human activities more primal. It is danger, yes, that gives war its hyper reality but cliff diving and car racing are dangerous too but unlike war, those are games, indulged in by choice. War is deadly serious, and that appeals to our voyeuristic side, that is what gives war photographs weight.
It is one of the great successes of the modern west that, unlike our great grandfathers, few of us have much personal experience of war. As Susan Sontag observed, these days most of us know war through photographs. No wonder men and women keep risking their lives to snap it.