Archive for Civil War photographs

Fake Takes: Photography & the Doctoring of War

Posted in Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on August 27, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Timothy O’Sullivan, Battlefield of Gettysburg—Dead Confederate sharpshooter at foot of Little Round Top, photographed 1863, printed later
Albumen print
(Courtesy Library of Congress)

During the first great flowering of the photographic medium, Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-1882) began his career as an apprentice in Matthew Brady’s studio, capturing field images of the Civil War.  Brady is reputed to have once said, “the camera is the eye of history.”  Certainly, the public has colluded with this view, although the only one it deceives is us.   Since the invention of the camera, we have had difficulty distancing ourselves from the veracity promised by the instrument.  If a picture does not accurately portray events as they happened, we’ve been quick to label it a “fake.”  Curiously, however, photographers have held themselves to no such standard.

It is now common knowledge that O’Sullivan (and perhaps accomplices) relocated a dead Confederate soldier from where he had fallen on a battlefield to the empty cove pictured above. In death he became an actor in scene—no doubt this scene replicated many real occurrences, but it was staged for the purposes of this photograph.  What ultimately gave it away?  Apparently, O’Sullivan either didn’t know or didn’t care that the rifle he added as a prop was not a variety used by Confederate sharpshooters.

Joe Rosenthal, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, 1945 (©Joe Rosenthal/AP)

In her 2003 essay on the visual representation of violence, “Regarding the Pain of Others,” Susan Sontag discusses a number staged photographs taken since the Civil War, including the above Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of the flag raising on Iwo Jima, possibly the most widely-reproduced war photograph. As a footnote, I must add that what is actually fake about the picture was still disputed during Rosenthal’s life. (For more on that, see linkage below.)  Sontag is quick to add that this was NOT a feature of Vietnam-era photographs, or of subsequent wars, opining that the ubiquity of  TV crews make it virtually impossible for the photographer to operate as a solitary chronicler, inventing dramatic news.

Soon she dives into the crux of the matter:

What is odd is not that so many of the iconic news photos of the past, including some of the best-remembered pictures from the Second World War, appear to have been staged. It is that we are surprised to learn that they were staged, and always disappointed. . . We want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love and of death. . .No sophisticated sense of what photography is or can be will ever weaken the satisfactions of picture of an unexpected event seized in mid-action by an alert photographer. 

Why should “fake takes” be any less evocative or important in the photographic lexicon? One might, convincingly argue that, before the advent of the camera, artists always took license with depiction of real events. Not normally on the scene at the moment of occurrance, painters created a synthesis of images to represent an event. Today, no one seriously believes that Théodore Géricault’s monumental canvas “The Raft of the Medusa” is the actual depiction of the survivors of the historic shipwreck. Further, in a contemporary world drowning in photographic images, one would argue without much opposition that image makers must resort to shock value to get the public’s attention. And shock value doesn’t always turn up under deadline. Thus, in some manner—whether through placement of elements or through the wizardry of Photoshop—it must be staged.

Despite mounting daily evidence to the contrary we persist in categorizing the camera as an instrument of veracity and dismissing outright those images that are fabricated creatively.

One thing seems certain to me—if photography is to mature as an artistic medium, it will need to convince us that embracing artistry doesn’t necessarily leave the truth behind.

Wider Connections

For more on the photography of war, see Venetian Red post “Into the Valley of Death
Susan Sontag—Regarding the Pain of Others
Joe Rosenthal’s version of the “Iwo Jima moment”

Into the Valley of Death

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Timothy O'Sullivan—Field where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg

Timothy O’Sullivan, “Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg,” 1863, albumen photograph bound into Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War (photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Some claim that the photographs attributed (and in many cases mis-attributed) to Matthew Brady are the reason the Civil War is more popular than the Revolutionary War in the American imagination. In fact, nearly 150 years later, the in situ portraits of weary-looking officers, the shots of battlefield formations, and the unvarnished records of the post-battle carnage still bring the immediacy of that war to us in a way that illustration techniques cannot.   Although many consider Brady to be the first “photo-journalist,” he wasn’t actually the first to photograph war. That distinction belongs to Roger Fenton (1819-1869), British chronicler of the Crimean War. During his short 11-year career as a photographer, Fenton photographed all kinds of subjects—portraits, landscapes, the monuments of ancient civilizations. However, it is the collection of 350 “salt-paper” photographs, taken during a brief 3-month period in and around the encampments at Balaklava, for which Fenton is best remembered.

Roger Fenton, Into the Shadow of the Valley of Death,1855, salt-paper photograph (courtesy Library of Congress). Note the cannonballs strewn in the road. This is one of two prints of the same scene—one with, one without cannonballs. Apparently, the one without was taken first. Fenton wouldn’t be the last war photographer to doctor a scene.

By the time Fenton arrived in camp in the spring of 1855, the infamous slaughter of the British cavalry brigades had already been immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his “The Charge of the Light Brigade” poem. Still, the Crimean conflict was in full swing and one imagines that Fenton had ample opportunity to record the action of battle and consequences wrought by the war. What kept him from reporting on this angle of the war?

Despite technical advances made in the wake of Louis Daguerre‘s introduction of his eponymous plate-process, by 1855, plein air photography was still no trivial matter. Transporting heavy equipment required large teams of porters. Fenton himself set sail to the Crimea with more than 30 crates of materials, as well as a portable tinker’s cart, which he used as a portable darkroom. Additionally, chemicals in the service of photography were fickle and could prove particularly ruinous in the wilderness.  (John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Grand Canyon expedition comes to mind.) Certainly Fenton would have had good technical reasons not to go out in the field. But Brady and others were using the same cumbersome equipment a half a decade later. Perhaps Brady was just a more fearless character, a man who had less qualms about the dangers of setting up shop on the battlefield. Popular legend has it that he got so close to the action at the First Battle of Bull Run he was almost captured. Even Brady, though, backed off the battlefield later in the war, sending assistants like Timothy O’Sullivan to do that more dangerous work.

Roger Fenton, Major Halford, 5th Dragoon Guards, 1855, salt-paper photograph (courtesy Library of Congress). A cavalryman not unlike those of the 4th Dragoon Guards, who met death during the infamous charge into “the Valley of Death.”

Gross military incompetence was a hallmark of the Crimean War. As a result, many thousands of soldiers died, perhaps unnecessarily. Additionally, it was the first war to make tactical use of trenches and blind artillery fire, and troops must have found themselves in horrific situations similar to those of WW1. Although the military deployed rifles with increased range, soldiers could still expect to find themselves in close conflict with the enemy. As tank technology was still to be invented, the cavalry was the primary arm of the forward thrust of military action. Fenton’s photographs depict war as if it were a gentlemanly, Victorian-era game; soldiers seem to be preparing for a dress parade.  One cavalryman after another with his steed strikes a contrived and noble pose, though surely even most experienced among them must have been struggling with mind-numbing terror, well aware that a fate similar to that of the “light brigades” might well await each of them.

It turns out that Fenton, as well as his subjects, was a pawn in the Great Game.  The photographer was sent to the Crimea by the British Government, anxious to shore up perceptions of the very unpopular war. He arrived at the military camps under the strictest of orders —”No dead bodies.”

Does the omission of the darker side of war make Fenton any less a war photographer?   Stay tuned.

Wider Connections

Roger Fenton at the Library of Congress

Charge of the Light Brigade

Crimean War

John Wesley Powell photographs

%d bloggers like this: