3. Backwards and Forwards

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For many years I have been looking through the back issues of the 20th century’s illustrated press. Magazines, journals, newspapers. It is really impossible to write or teach the history of photography without doing this. The Sunday Times Magazine from March 24, 1968 carries, among other things, Don McCullin’s celebrated black and white images of soldiers in Vietnam – one throwing a grenade, another lying dead with his possessions spilling out.

Don McCullin, 'This is how it is', Sunday Times Magazine, March 28, 1968

Don McCullin, ‘This is how it is’, Sunday Times Magazine, March 28, 1968

Don McCullin, 'This is how it is', Sunday Times Magazine, March 28, 1968

Don McCullin, ‘This is how it is’, Sunday Times Magazine, March 28, 1968

Don McCullin, 'This is how it is', Sunday Times Magazine, March 28, 1968

Don McCullin, ‘This is how it is’, Sunday Times Magazine, March 28, 1968

It’s a stark if fairly conventional photo essay, although it’s always revelatory to see photojournalism in its original context rather than in coffee table books, hagiographic exhibitions and bad histories. It’s also interesting to see that McCullin wrote the accompanying text and that several of the images were shot and reproduced in colour.

However, a few pages further on in the same issue of the magazine there is a second, very different photo essay. Eve Arnold travelled to North Carolina to document a fake North Vietnamese village, constructed by the American military for training purposes.  New recruits were sent here before being shipped out to the war zone.  Arnold’s opening spread shows two young men who have been asked to attempt to camouflage themselves. In the fake hospital one smears his face with white cream and ties a pillowcase around his head. In the bushes outside another puts leaves in his hair and rubs grass into his cheeks. Two innocents, encouraged to enter a fantasy of Vietnam before they enter the real thing.

Eve Arnold, 'Vietnam, North Carolina' Sunday Times Magazine, March 28, 1968

Eve Arnold, ‘Vietnam, North Carolina’, Sunday Times Magazine, March 28, 1968

Eve Arnold, 'Vietnam, North Carolina' Sunday Times Magazine, March 28, 1968

Eve Arnold, ‘Vietnam, North Carolina’, Sunday Times Magazine, March 28, 1968

Eve Arnold, 'Vietnam, North Carolina', Sunday Times Magazine, March 28, 1968

Eve Arnold, ‘Vietnam, North Carolina’, Sunday Times Magazine, March 28, 1968

The contents page of the magazine pairs the photo essays by McCullin and Arnold under the heading “America in Vietnam, Vietnam in America”. Two photographers, two visual strategies, two incongruent but equally valid ways to represent the Vietnam war early in 1968. How smart of the editor. And how respectful of the intelligence of the readership!

Contents page, Sunday Times Magazine, March 28, 1968

Contents page, Sunday Times Magazine, March 28, 1968

McCullin’s pictures have been recycled endlessly while Arnold’s are forgotten, never reproduced subsequently. Why is this? McCullin’s pictures fit the narrow – and largely retrospective – idea of what photojournalism should have looked like and how it functioned.

In some respects we can see Arnold’s approach as a precedent for the more recent ‘conceptual turn’ in documentary photography (a horrible term I know). Think of Broomberg & Chanarin’s Chicago, their series of photographs of the fake Palestinian settlement built by the Israeli military for training; or An-My Lê’s documentation of US preparations in Californian deserts for war in the Gulf; or Sarah Pickering’s images of police and fire department training facilities.  But let’s not forget Arnold was doing this in a mainstream magazine, not the sandpit of art with its greater freedoms but far more limited audience.

In fact Arnold’s piece is not that exceptional. If we go back and look for ourselves at the illustrated press of the past we find it is far more diverse, experimental and speculative than the written histories seem to suggest. The whole of Life magazine is now online page by page, and it’s possible to see, for example, its complex and often brave coverage of the civil rights movement, and its experiments with staged photography. (Here you can see Gordon Parks illustrating moments from Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man in 1952, half a century before Jeff Wall had a go: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=g1YEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA9&dq=%22invisible+man%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=WLt_Ub-CE8mAONzPgJAP&ved=0CDgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22invisible%20man%22&f=false)

We should go back and see just how much intelligent work was done, and how contemporary it often feels. This way we might perhaps get the history of photography we really deserve. But why do we need one, you may ask, when the illustrated press has been eclipsed by the cultural and economic conditions that characterize the internet? Well, we would be able to see that many of the problems we face have arisen before.  Questions to do with the politics of representation, with image/text relations, questions of context and use, pictorial challenges and so forth. This in itself can be salutary and helpful. The discourse of photography has a habit of seeing its own present problems as unique, and its own moment as the most intellectually nuanced and radical. This failing leads it to underestimate continually the sophistication of its past, and to see itself as entirely separate from it. I am reminded of a suggestive and elegant reply Umberto Eco once made to the question about the merits of study:

We often have to explain to young people why study is useful. It’s pointless telling them that it’s for the sake of knowledge, if they don’t care about knowledge. Nor is there any point in telling them that an educated person gets through life better than an ignoramus, because they can always point to some genius who, from their standpoint, leads a wretched life. And so the only answer is that the exercise of knowledge creates relationships, continuity and emotional attachments. It introduces us to parents other than our biological ones. It allows us to live longer, because we don’t just remember our own life but also those of others. It creates an unbroken thread that runs from our adolescence (and sometimes from infancy) to the present day. And all this is very beautiful.

Umberto Eco, “It’s not what you know …” The Guardian, April 3, 2004

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6 Comments

  1. Joanna Fiduccia
    Posted 4. May 2013 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Dear David,

    Thank you for bringing this extraordinary pairing to the table! I’m left wondering if documentary photography—even in its “conceptual turn”—is the best description of Arnold’s work here. In very deliberate contrast to the thumbnail prints positioned like indexes in the corners of the spread, Arnold’s images seem to draw from the idiom of fashion photography. From the reduced, saturated palettes of the camouflaged pair, to the two men in army fatigues emerging from a pink mantle of smoke, or even the wounded soldiers in blue before the uninterrupted mauve gloaming, the aesthetic order of these images participates in the same kind of fantasy-construction as the fashion spread. Faced with the task of producing a symmetrical depiction in North Carolina of the war in Vietnam (even the layout of the introductory page is an inducement to read Arnold’s work as the mirror image of McCullin’s), Arnold responds by rejecting a photojournalistic aesthetic.

    The feature as a result juxtaposes the theatricality of the fashion shoot with the documentary exigencies of the war photograph. What follows is a striking reversal of the spectacle of war and an indictment of the preparation of teenagers for Vietnam in a camp whose glamour will do them little good in the jungle. Arnold’s photographs are only documentary so far as they formally echo (or record) the falsehoods of the training camp, as though its artifice could only be captured through equal artifice—and this, in turn, has as much to say about Arnold’s brilliance here as the aesthetic choices of McCullin, despite his series’ claim that “THIS IS HOW IT IS.”

    That lesson surely hits harder in wartime, when so much seems to depend on the documentary capacities of the photograph, but it also probably hit harder before structuralism, Photoshop, etc.. Which is why attending to a fuller history of photography is so important, as you suggest—to recognize not merely what’s been done before, but how its meaning transforms when done again today. After all, it’s a truism that history’s repetitions never have the same character, and any properly historical argument will have to reckon with that.

    • David Campany
      Posted 5. May 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Joanna.

      I take your point that Arnold’s piece may look like, or even quote from fashion. However I feel wary about defining photography’s different idioms formally (photojournalism ‘looks like’ this, fashion like that). I’m inclined to think that there is no such thing as a photojournalistic image, only a photojournalistic use of an image. The image itself, as recent photojournalistic (and fashion) practices show, can look like anything: a still life, a pack shot, a portrait, a landscape, an abstract image, a forensic image. It’s a question of use and in this sense photojournalism, fashion, and even art, are perhaps better seen as ends rather than means, functions rather than styles. If we look only for what we think photojournalism or fashion should look like we miss all the stuff that does not look like that. I think that’s how Eve Arnold’s piece slipped the net of history. Arnold rejects a photojournalistic aesthetic, and borrows from fashion perhaps, but does so in the name of a broader understanding of photojournalism. There is a place for such theatricality and artifice in photojournalism precisely because, as you say, the world contains theater and artifice.

      You’re right to say that ‘history’s repetitions never have the same character’ but I’m heartened that we’re having such a ‘contemporary’ sounding discussion about work made 45 years ago!

      David

  2. megan driscoll
    Posted 16. May 2013 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    It’s interesting to bring this post & comments to bear on the recent resurgence of the controversy over the 2013 World Press Photo winning image. All of the hand wringing over whether Hansen’s overlay of multiple images to achieve the correct brightness constitutes a “fake” or violates the image’s “integrity” seems to point to a lingering anxiety over photojournalism, and a sense that it is a special realm where the vaunted veracity of the photograph must be protected against the incursions of…what? Of course, overlaying negatives is a darkroom technique that predates computers (like most Photoshop tricks, actually), so it can’t really be a question of technology. And it hardly seems like there is truly a formal idiom, a photojournalistic “style,” at stake – looking at the Hansen photograph, I see Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson as much as any (supposedly) strictly documentarian war photography.

    So perhaps it is a question of, as you say David, a photojournalistic use of an image, which is apparently a role still hasn’t been untangled from the old questions of truth value and transparency that photography cannot shake, even through this “conceptual turn.”

    • David Campany
      Posted 17. May 2013 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

      Thnks Megan, that’s most interesting. I think the hand-wringing is to do less with veracity than with the ways in which the single image, stripped to a minimally journalistic text, forces a kind of formal aesthetic judgement, in place of an elaborated report or chronicle. It’s asking for trouble, and usually gets it, especially in the World Press Photo competition! It’s an institution that seems to thrive on its particular tautologies and oxymorons.

      I do think any assessment of photojournalism must be an assessment of images and accompanying words. To isolate an image from corroborating language and the nuance of related images only to then point out its evidentiary failure seems willfully absurd, although so often the critiques of photojournalism rest on such flimsy bases.

      There’s also a problem of context. I imagine the Eve Arnold piece as an intervention in representation of the Vietnam war at that point, its value not confined to its claim to historical record.

      David

  3. Christy Lange
    Posted 23. May 2013 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Hi David,

    Thinking about the juxtaposition of Don McCullin’s and Eve Arnold’s portrayals of war, and Joanna’s productive observation that Arnold’s photos seem to draw from the idiom of fashion photography, brought to mind for me a very present example that draws on a combination of these photographers’ two strategies for representing war. That is, Richard Mosse’s photographic series “Infra” (published by Aperture in 2011, and which has also morphed into a six-screen film installation called “The Enclave” for the Irish Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale).

    Mosse shot the images in “Infra” in the Democratic Republic of Congo, using outdated infrared film that was first developed by the US military in the 1940s. The effect of the infrared film is that it reacts with chlorophyll in plants, turning green plants to a lush bright pink, and thus helping the military distinguish the enemy hiding in the foliage. Mosse used the film to capture harrowing pictures of Congolese rebel groups and refugees alike, creating beautiful but jarring pink landscapes of a war zone. The circumstances and surroundings place Mosse in the position of the war photographer, but the means he chooses to represent those surroundings is metaphorical, even decorative at times (like Arnold’s dressed up figures), something we associate just as closely with art, even artifice.

    Looking at Mosse’s photographs can raise one’s ethical hackles – I found myself not knowing how to respond at first, as they can’t help but generate an inherent conflict between the displaced people and horrific events they represent and how those people and events are being represented by the photographer.

    When I asked Mosse why he chose to use an aesthetic and representational system so closely associated with metaphor and artifice, rather than to use ‘realism’ – the more ‘appropriate’ or ‘accepted’ means of representing tragedy, suffering or war – his response changed my view entirely. When you’re in a war zone, Mosse said, (something I obviously knew nothing of), it does seem unreal. War is dreamlike. So to use a system of representation once-removed from realism is not to do the scene an injustice, but rather to represent it as the photographer experienced it. It’s an insight I’ll never forget.

    - christy

    • David Campany
      Posted 26. May 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      Hi Christy.

      I think that ‘unreality’ is exactly what Arnold was alluding to. All the more extraordinary that she was doing it in the channels of journalism. More to the point the editor’s juxtaposition of her work with McCullin’s bypasses the current and rather false dichotomy between realism and artifice that seems to dominate art’s discussions of photojournalism.

      David

2 Trackbacks

  • [...] For many years I have been looking through the back issues of the 20thcentury’s illustrated press. Magazines, journals, newspapers. It is really impossible to write or teach the history of photography without doing this. TheSunday Times Magazine from March 24, 1968 carries, among other things, Don McCullin’s celebrated black and white images of soldiers in Vietnam – one throwing a grenade, another lying dead with his possessions spilling out.  [...]

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