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À mon chevet: Regarding the Pain of Others

book cover
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
If we admit as authentic only photographs that result from the photographer's having been nearby, shutter open, at just the right moment, few victory photographs will qualify. Take the action of planting a flag on a height as a battle is winding down. The famous photograph of the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945, turns out to be a "reconstruction" by an Associated Press photographer, Joe Rosenthal, of the morning flag-raising ceremony that followed the capture of Mount Suribachi, done later in the day and with a larger flag. The story behind an equally iconic victory photograph, taken on May 2, 1945, by the Soviet war photographer Yevgeny Khaldei, of Russian soldiers hoisting the Red flag atop the Reichstag as Berlin continues to burn, is that the exploit was staged for the camera.

The case of a much-reproduced upbeat photograph taken in London in 1940, during the Blitz, is more complicated, since the photographer, and therefore the circumstances of the picture-taking, are unknown. The picture shows, through a missing wall of the utterly ruined, roofless library of Holland House, three gentlemen standing in the rubble at some distance from one another before two walls of miraculously intact bookshelves. One gazes at the books; one hooks his finger on the spine of a book he is about to pull from the shelf; one, book in hand, is reading -- the elegantly composed tableau has to have been directed. It is pleasing to imagine that the picture is not the invention from scratch of a photographer on the prowl in Kensington after an air raid who, discovering the library of the great Jacobean mansion sheared open to view, had brought in three men to play the imperturbable browsers, but, rather, that the three gents were observed indulging their bookish appetites in the destroyed mansion and the photographer did little more than space them differently to make a more incisive picture. Either way, the photograph retains its period charm and authenticity as a celebration of a now vanished ideal of national fortitude and sangfroid. With time, many staged photographs turn back into historical evidence, albeit of an impure kind -- like most historical evidence.

-- Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, pp. 56-57
This passage comes at the end of the third chapter, at the conclusion of Sontag's dissection of the process of photographing wars and their victims. With history painting, the viewer assumes by the nature of the medium that the painter has composed an edited, even idealized version of history, but the photograph comes with the assumption that what is shown is as close to the truth as possible ("the clinical eye of the camera"). As Sontag shows, the truth is often quite different, as photographers, even those working in war zones, often do just as much composition and manipulation of their images. She traces this back to Roger Fenton, whose pictures of the Crimean War usually lead him to be regarded as the first war photographer, and to the Civil War photographs attributed to Mathew Brady (many of them were actually taken by his assistants, Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan). Both were not always allowed to take photographs of anything at all, and both were known to have composed the scenes of their photographs, going even so far in some cases as moving the bodies of the dead.

I have made far too many marks of passages in this pithy book to quote at Ionarts: I will not post them all, but you can expect a few more. This was Sontag at the top of her game. (Take a look at these thoughts on Susan Sontag's film criticism, too.)

1 comment:

Nicholas in DC said...

Indeed, very thought-provoking and insightful quotes from an excellent book. These particular posts are making me want to revisit and re-read the book. Also, see a related December 2002 New Yorker article entitled "Looking at War: Photography’s View of Devastation and Death" authored by Susan Sontag. Do a search for it on New Yorker's web site in case this link doesn't work. This book and the quotes being excerpted on this Blog are so timely for so many reasons!