WAR…HUH…YEAH, WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR? (SOME AMAZING DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHS!)
Recently I stumbled across two images I thought I would share as they struck me as remarkable comments on modern warfare.
ROGER FENTON AND THE EARLY DAYS OF WAR PHOTOGRAPHY
The history of photographing wars and conflicts is long stretching and has been practiced since the Crimean War. Roger Fenton (1819 – 1869) is commonly cited as the first war photographer – making images of the Crimean in 1855. He was commissioned to photograph it following continued criticism of the government for entering the conflict. He made over 350 images in all. Interestingly, this first voyage into the world of documentary war photography was essentially propaganda. As Fenton was commissioned by the government – his images were predominantly fairly positive and perhaps did not show the grim realities. They generally depicted the well being of the troops and often featured officers.
The image to the left is a portrait of Roger Fenton on his wagon! Utterly amazing, for over 3 months he traveled around with this van – the back of it set up as an on location darkroom, so he could make his own negatives and prints in the back of it. That sort of dedication that early pioneers had cannot help but inspire.
The two images below are an example of the images Fenton created. Camp of the 4th Dragoon Guards is fairly typical of his work from the Crimea – groups of soldiers is set up images, perhaps showing a romanticised view of the conflict.
However, in contrast, there are a few images which suggest something else. “Shadow of the Valley of Death” is a dark and somber image – although it shows no overtly obvious signs of the horrors of war, the ground is littered with canon balls and the earth churned up from the conflict. You can almost imagine this landscape continuing far off into the distance of the photograph, suggestive of the size and brutality of the war. However, the title for me is the most interesting twist to this image. When it is viewed and considered with the words “Shadow of the Valley of Death” a whole new symbolism creaps into the mind.
MATHEW BRADY AND THE ADVENT OF DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY
Fenton’s war photography was relatively short lived and not that successful on his return from the Crimea. However, perhaps the most well known and successful of early war photographers, Mathew Brady (1823 – 1896), was hot on his heels. Brady, an American, photographed the Civil War between 1861 – 1865. Brady had been involved in Photography from an early date and took the daguerreotype to America in 1839, establishing a highly successful portrait and gallery business. Interestingly, Brady almost operated as an early Agency – many of the images of the Civil War that carry his name were actually taken by other photographs. He employed up to 20 people and equipped them with a Photographic van like Fenton’s who went out and took the images of the Civil War. Brady as their employer, had his name appear on the photographs.
None the less, this approach was very successful and resulted in an amazing document of this conflict and his images were well received and considered important as they brought the realities of the war to the public. In fact, it can easily been seen that Brady established the tradition that war images did not need to be posed and it has been argued his work was one of the first instances of documentary photography.
I have picked a couple of examples which I think are particularly striking and must have had a huge effect when they were first seen in the 1860’s. Prior to this, the brutality of war had been depicted in paintings and drawings and of course literature. An immediate and powerful example that jumps to mind are the series of Etchings made by Goya ‘The Disasters of War’ made in the 1810’s depicting the horrors and brutality of the Peninsular War.
But Brady’s images, being photographs and what was then considered a very new and accurate technology, must have been quite shocking.
Of Course, the legacy of these early documenters has continued and we are now subjected to countless images of war and conflict – perhaps to the extent that some level of desensitisation has happened in respect of some of the material offered for consumption. Interestingly, part of the most recent war in Iraq, was the media and propaganda war that happened in our own front rooms. For the first time journalists were placed with troops, they received daily briefings and the military approach to the media was inclusive and of course controlling. We got first hand, battle front images – but of course this imagery was heavily controlled, censored and monitored by the military press machine.
MODERN PHOTOGRAPHS OF WAR – DAVID GUTTENFELDER AND SHAUN GLADWELL
With all this in mind, the two images i happened across last week really stood out for me.
First up is an image by David Guttenfelder, a Tokyo based Photographer who has worked for Associated Press for some time. He was embedded as a photographer in Afghanistan and took this image in 2009 when the soldier scrambled from his sleep during a Taliban attack.
This image has been plastered all over America and indeed the UK, to the extent it is threatening to become an iconic image of the war. For me, its power comes from the dichotomy of emotions it triggers. First, you cannot help laugh when seeing the soldier in his bright red T-shirt and I Love NY boxers. But a bit more consideration of the image and it is a stark reminder that those who are involved in a war are living with the realities day in day out. I guess for us, at a distance from conflicts like Afghanistan, we can turn on and off the news and be reminded of what is going on at our discretion. But for those involved – there is no such escape and duty calls whether in your pants or not!
This image is somewhat different and is a production still from a film by the Australian artist film maker Shaun Gladwell. The film is called Figure/Firearm study – but I have been unable to find much more information than that about it.
However, I think it is a great image – very striking and simple, but has a lot to say about conflict and again the realities of war.
Again this image is quite amusing, and suggestive of not only the boredom that must be experienced on a tour of duty, but also over time, how hard it must be to not become casual or flippant about one’s situation.
Sadly, I cannot find the whole film so not sure of the overall context, but thought his image on its own said a lot anyway. It also reminded me of the film Jarhead – which I thought I would hate, but was actually a very cleverly executed film – again touching on the boredom of war and the desperation of those involved to be able to do something.