Archive for war photography

The Milagro of the Mexican Suitcase

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on April 30, 2009 by Liz Hager


Robert Capa’s “Mexican” Suitcase.  photo © Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Gerda Taro, Air Raid Victim in the Morgue, Valencia, 1937.

Randy Kennedy’s article today in the NY Times was a reminder that life is an unpredictable, yet often miraculous, affair.

Against all rightful odds, some 3,500 negatives, shot by war photographers Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour (Chim) and packed inside a flimsy cardboard boxes, survived a a cloak-and-dagger wartime journey. The suitcase of boxes passed through many hands in at least three countries and eventually landed in the possession of a Mexican general.  Sometime in the mid-90s Mexico City filmmaker Benjamin Tarver happened to see exhibit of Spanish Civil War pictures and connected them to the contents of the suitcase he had inherited from his aunt (depending on which account is accurate, either the widow or a close friend of the General). Tarver then wrote to a Queens College (CUNY) professor, an expert on the Spanish Civil War, to ask whether the college could help him catalog and exhibit the prints. The professor in turn contacted the curators at the International Center of Photography. After some years of negotiation with Tarver, ICP was able to retrieve the suitcase, which arrived on its doorstep last year. Miraculously the negatives were in good shape.

Curators at ICP are already heralding the contents of the suitcase as the “holy grail” of Capa’s oeuvre. Almost all the film is of the Spanish Civil War, shot in the years between May 1936 and Spring 1939. It represents an unprecedented cache of Capa’s reporting of that war, thousands of photographs that were previously thought lost forever. The images will add immeasurably to our understanding of both the war and this photographer’s unique talent. Further, over time even known Capa negatives and records have been separated and dispersed over many locations (or lost altogether), so the pictures in the suitcase should help scholars to add more accurate dates and notations to photographs already out there.

More astounding, the suitcase has yielded new photographs of Chim battle scenes, a genre for which the photographer was not previously known.

Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and Soldier, Córdoba Front, Spain,” 1936.

The biggest miracle of the suitcase, however, might prove be the trove of shots credited to Gerda Taro. Why? Scholars have long known that Taro published her pictures under the Capa name, but it has been nearly impossible to determine true attribution of the body of collaborative work for which Capa has received most of the credit. Until recently, Taro was best-known in the public eye for her romance with Capa. The negatives in the suitcase could change that.

Capa’s enormous success as a war photographer (he went on to photograph WW2, the second Sino-Japanese War, the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflic and the French action in Indochina) overshadows the nature of the collaboration between Capa and Taro during the Spanish Civil War.  It’s all too easy to forget Taro’s place in history:  she was the first woman to report on war from the front lines and a pioneer in establishing the now standard-method of shooting war from within its ranks. Unlike previous photographers, Roger Fenton for example, who typically positioned themselves on the sidelines and reported on the preparations or aftermath of battle, Capa and Taro jumped right into the action. They were passionate about the Republican cause and lived, marched, and went into battle with the troops.  At the time, Taro’s photos were published widely by the French leftist press; later some eventually made it into Life. Still more were undoubtedly published as “Caro”s.

Taro spared her viewers little. Along with shots of troops—in training, at rest, in action—were shots of the casualties of war, including civilians. As a body of work, they serve as a record of the action, the camaraderie, the boredom, and the brutality of war. Overall, they show us, as Susan Sontag observes ” This what war does. And that, that is what it does, too. War tears, rends. War rips open, eviscerates. War scorches. War dismembers. War ruins.”  (Regarding the Pain of Others, p.8)

Taro, born Gerta Pohorylle, was raised  Stuttgart and Leipzig.  She met photographer André Friedmann (born Endre Ernő Friedmann), a Hungarian photographer, in 1935 on the French island of Sainte Marguerite. Sometime in the spring of 1936 collaboratively they invented the American-sounding (i.e. Frank Capra) photographer Robert Capa (also “shark” in Hungarian), endowing the character with ability and prior credentials. The Garbo-Gerda Taro was also born.

Alas, Taro’s career was all-too brief.  In July 1937 she traveled with another photographer to a battle site located between Villanueva de la Cañada and Brunete, near Segovia. (The battle was immortalized by Ernest Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls.)  There, on the 25th, one day before her return to Paris, she found herself in the midst of a panicked retreat and jumped on the sideboard of a moving car to get away. It was hit by a Loyalist tank.  Taro died early the next morning in a field hospital. She was just days shy of her 27th birthday.

One hopes the Mexican suitcase will shed new light on the scope and scale of Taro’s work. One wishes that it will widely re-establish her rightful legacy in the pantheon of war photographers.

Wider Connections

Irme Schaber, Taro’s biographer  (Schaber’s portion begins at 3:20)

Trish Ziff—“The Mexican Suitcase”

Randy Kennedy—“The Capa Cache”

Gerda Taro: The Blonde of Brunete

Taro photographs in the suitcase

NY Times Taro slideshow

The Unpredictability of Life: Annie Leibovitz’s Sarajevo Bicycle

Posted in Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on January 16, 2009 by Liz Hager


Annie Leibovitz, Bloody Bicycle, Sarajevo 1993

Annie Leibovitz, Bloody Bicycle, (Sarajevo, 1993), Kodak T-Max P3200 (©1993 Annie Leibovitz)

Though she is best known to the general public for her glossy “celebrity” portraits, Annie Leibovitz began her photographic career in the gritty tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, that is to say, wandering around “looking for stories.”  The unpredictability that characterizes photojournalism is a thread that runs through all of Leibovitz’ work, even those staged portraits.

In 1990,while reviewing images for a retrospective of her work, the photographer realized a pressing need to get back to “reportage.”

I was developing my own style of setting up formal portraits and theatrical scenes at the time, but I didn’t consider those conceptual portraits to be journalism. Portrait photography was liberating. I felt free to play with the genre.  Photojournalism—reportage—was about being an observer. About seeing what was happening in front of you and photographing it. You didn’t tamper with it. For my generation of photographers the rules were very clear. That’s why so much is still written about whether Robert Capa did or did not stage the picture of the falling soldier during the Spanish Civil War and why Roger Fenton moved the cannonballs for the picture of the battlefield in the Valley of the Shadow of Death during the Crimean War. What they did matters…

In the summer of 1993, Leibovitz found an opportunity through Susan Sontag to go to Sarajevo. The city had been under siege for over a year; Serbs had been shelling the city from many points along its ring of mountains. Basic amenities—food, water, shelter—were minimal. Necessities, such as medicine, were scarce. Life in the city was extremely dangerous. People tried to go about their daily lives. Snipers were shooting at random.  “Death was random,” remarks Leibovitz.

. . . Jeffrey Smith of Contact Press Images had helped me get in touch with someone who rented armored cars to news organizations. That’s how I met Hasan Gluhić. Hasan was my driver and guide. He got me everywhere. Hasan was with me the day I went to the apartment of a woman who had just won a beauty pageant. She had been crowned Miss Besieged Sarajevo. There was some irony intended, I think. Miss Besieged Sarajevo lived in a high-rise development on the western edge of the city where there was a lot of shelling. A mortar came down in front of our car as we drove through her neighborhood. It hit a teenage boy on a bike and ripped a big hole in his back. We put him in the car and rushed him to the hospital, but he died on the way. . .

. . . The concerns I had before I went to Sarajevo about what kinds of pictures I would take were erased simply by being there. There wasn’t time to worry about whether I was taking a portrait or some other kind of picture. Things happened too fast. You could only respond to them.

—all quoted texts from Annie Leibovitz, At Work, pp. 102-110 (Random House)

Put its difficult subject matter aside for a moment and notice that Bloody Bicycle is actually a graceful, well-composed still life. While serving up images of war, it’s a good trick for a photographer to play to an audience’s aesthetic sensibilities. (Do pictures of war need to be nasty for us to feel, to get the point?)  The arc of the blood smear echos the shape of the bicycle wheels;  the hurried brushstroke of blood counters the stationary mass of the bicycle. In some ways, by shooting in black and white, Leibovitz must have wanted to suspend our preconceptions about war, at least for a moment. No shocking red blood. Despite these strong pictorial components, the most powerful element in Bloody Bicycle is the unseen presence. The absent rider is the shocking reminder that the circumstances of death are the ultimate unpredictability of life.


American Masters: Life Through a Lens

Lee Miller’s Dachau photographs

Bridge Coaker: The New Photojournalism

Into the Valley of Death

Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others

Your Holiday Gift Has Arrived

Posted in Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , on December 21, 2008 by Liz Hager


Lightning bolts appear above and around the Chaiten volcano as seen from Chana, some 30 kms (19 miles) north of the volcano, as it began its first eruption in thousands of years, in southern Chile May 2, 2008. Cases of electrical storms breaking out directly above erupting volcanoes are well documented, although scientists differ on what causes them.


Alan Taylor of the Boston Globe has culled an exquisite group of 187 images from the tens of thousands taken by photojournalists during 2008. These photographs will provoke laughter, anger, tears, wonderment, and outrage. Be forewarned—some of the war photographs are difficult to look at. Look we must, however for these photographs provide a stellar means of grasping the eternal paradox of being human.  There is not one photograph in this collection that isn’t beautiful and poignant in its own way; as an ensemble they function much like a contemporary update of the seminal and enormously popular Family of Man collection, first mounted as an exhibition in 1955 by photographer Edward Steichen.  



Pakistani men try to rescue a donkey buried during an earthquake in Ziarat, about 130 kilometers (81 miles) south of Quetta, Pakistan on October 30th, 2008. Rescue workers searched through the rubble of villages destroyed by a powerful earthquake in southwestern Pakistan that killed at least 215 people. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti/FILE)


Muslim women attend prayers on the eve of the first day of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan at a mosque in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia on August 31, 2008. (REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas)


The hand of a dead body lies on the ground amongst the rubble of the earthquake ravaged town May 15, 2008 in Beichuan, Sichuan province, China. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)


A bull sarcophagus in which a member of the Ubud royal family was cremated burns during the funeral ceremony Tuesday July 15, 2008 in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Ed Wray)


2008 The Year in Photos: Part 1

2008 The Year in Photos: Part 2

2008 The Year in Photos:Part 3

2008 The Year in Photos: Greek Riots

family-of-man  Family of Man catalog

“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”

Into the Valley of Death

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

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