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.
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.
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!
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