Archive for Regarding the Pain of Others

“My Senses Shook”—Lee Miller’s Dachau Photographs

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , on September 16, 2008 by Liz Hager


Lee Miller, Dead SS Guard in Canal, Dachau, Germany, 1945, silver gelatin print, 1945. © 2007 Lee Miller Archives.

Photographer Lee Miller (1907-1977) led many lives, all of which were on view in “The Art of Lee Miller” show at SF MOMA. (Regrettably it closed this past Sunday.)  Among the numerous fashion photographs and portraits were her sobering shots of war taken on the front lines: in London during the Blitz; in St.-Malo, France, during German bombing raids; in Hitler’s villa; and at newly-liberated Dachau.

Nowhere does Miller evidence poetic impulses more strongly than in the shots taken in Dachau. They are challenging images, for they evoke a wide range of responses not associated with most art—disgust, voyeurism, horror, outrage. That was Miller’s intention. In her letter to Vogue at the time, she alluded: “. . . I usually don’t take pictures of horrors. But don’t think that every town isn’t rich with them. I hope Vogue will feel they can publish these pictures.”

The anticipation of death fills us with fear; even in the abstract it is frightening to contemplate. And yet, as artists and viewers, we are endlessly drawn to images of death, the ultimate unknowable mystery of life. To compensate for the pain and finality associated with death, we often liken it to sleep, a soothing, beautiful, and less scary activity.

In her photo of the dead soldier above, Miller expertly plays on our complicated relationship with death. Rolled on its side with eyes closed, the corpse looks as if peacefully dreaming.  (Was this the state in which Miller found the body, or did she prod it along? See Fake Takes for more on the staging of war by photographers.) Moreover, the murky water acts like a shroud around the submerging body, reinforcing the death/dream metaphor.

The title abruptly pulls the viewer out of contemplative reverie—this is an SS guard at Dachau, after all. The leather coat provides a subtle clue as to the subject’s identity, but overall the image has no recognizable context without its title. With that, the image immediately assumes the mantle of catastrophic horror attached to one of darkest chapters in human history.

Certainly, the photograph is powerful because it trades on some of the most compelling symbols in the human psyche—sleep, dreaming, and death. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that this photograph would not have elicited such strong reactions, if the man in the canal had been a Russian bricklayer. It’s precisely because he is identified as an SS guard that we at once recoil and keep staring.

Life is a mass of contradictions.

There is one slight complication, however.  I had not been born by the time this photograph was taken. For me (and not doubt thousands of others who viewed the exhibition) this photograph does not reference my own singular memories, but a collective memory supplied to me through texts and photographs of the second World War.  I am not suggesting that the Holocaust did not happen. But this photograph causes me to wonder about the nature of an image that elicits emotions of events with which I have no direct experience. Are my emotions authentic?

Susan Sontag covers the nature of collective memory convincingly in her “Regarding the Pain of Others.”  Though she doesn’t cover Miller’s Dachau work, I think she would probably have agreed that the photographs provoke disturbing thoughts about the repugnant side of humanity, the role of beauty in recording horrific acts, and the often thin line between visual reporting and propaganda.

Finally, in this contemplation of death, the opening lines of Richard Eberhart’s poetic cycle of decay and regeneration, “The Groundhog” seemed especially appropriate:

In June, amid the golden fields,
I saw a groundhog lying dead.
Dead lay he; my senses shook,
And mind outshot our naked frailty.
There lowly in the vigorous summer
His form began its senseless change,
And made my senses waver dim
Seeing nature ferocious in him.

Wider Connections

Judith Thurman— profile of Lee Miller in The New Yorker. Abstract only available online.


Lee Miller Archives

Covering the war in France, excerpt from Lee Miller: A Life

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


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”

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