Category Archives: Blog

Capa’s Falling Soldier: Photography, Death, Monument

This is a revised version of my undergraduate dissertation, submitted in 2004 to the Surrey Institute of Art & Design (Farnham).

Abstract: 

An examination of the context and historiography of Robert Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier’ leads to discussion of the role of certain photographic images in mythologizing historical events and epochs. The famous image is discussed in relation to more general themes surrounding the representation of death within visual culture and explores the possibility of Capa’s photograph as an alternative ‘tomb of the unknown soldier’. The paper continues by exploring the role of photography within collective memory and proposes the photographic image as a suitable replacement for physical – generally state funded and commissioned – memorials.

Capa’s Falling Soldier: Photography, Death, Monument

Robert Capa’s most famous image, known as Death of a (or Dying) Loyalist Soldier or, The Falling Soldier is one of the most celebrated photographs ever made. It has worked its way into almost every book on war photography and secured its place within the canon of photographic imagery. The photograph depicts a Spanish Republican soldier dropping to the ground after having being shot directly through either the heart or the brain, in September 1936 – or so it is widely believed. It was perhaps the first picture ever to have been taken at the same moment as a bullet penetrated its victim and because of this, it is often referred to as the ‘moment of death’ picture. The dynamism of the photograph and the seemingly perfect timing of the photographic exposure has made it one of the earliest and finest examples of what we understand as high action combat photography. Capa cut his teeth as a war photographer during the Spanish Civil War, where he met and lived with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell and Martha Gellhorn. It was there too that he earned his reputation as ‘the greatest war-photographer in the World’, as was claimed by Picture Post in 1938. The Falling Soldier was essential to this accolade and the photograph marked the beginning of his prominence.[i] However, in 1975 it was suggested that the picture had in fact been ‘faked’. This has led to the image becoming the most debated specimen in the history of photojournalism.[ii] It has also stimulated debate over the ethics of photography and photojournalism, and has questioned the notion of the photograph as an unquestioned document of fact, and the cliché that the camera never lies.

The accusations against the veracity of the photograph have, however, often been flawed and research has been poorly executed. Phillip Knightley first published the claim in his book The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Mythmaker, from the Crimea to Vietnam in 1975. The claim was made by a reporter, O’Dowd Gallagher, who covered the Spanish Civil War for the London Daily Express. Gallagher claimed that he had been staying with Capa at a time when there had been little action to photograph, so Capa was detailed some troops to go and stage maneuvers to photograph in a nearby trench.[iii] However, as Richard Whelan points out, Gallagher covered the war from the Nationalist, Fascist perspective, and Capa’s reputation as a Jewish left-wing affiliate, he was an enemy of the Fascist insurgents, and would never have been able to report from behind the Nationalist lines.[iv] Furthermore, records show that Capa was never anywhere near San Sebastián, where Gallagher claimed that he and Capa had been staying and where the picture was made. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that Capa and Gallagher met before 1939.[v]

In Whelan’s biography of Robert Capa published in 1985, through careful research, he places the exact location and date of the moment in the photograph as at or near the village of Cerro Muriano on September 5th, 1936. In 1996, British journalist Rita Grosvenor published the claim by her subject, Mario Brotóns Jordá who claimed that the man in Capa’s photograph was Federico Borrell García. Brotóns published his research in his book Retazos de una época de inquietudes [Sketches of a Turbulent Era] (1995) and identified Federico Borrell by his distinctive leather cartridge cases, which apparently meant that he could only have belonged to the Alcoy militia regiment. Brotóns claimed to have delved in the Spanish Government archives which confirmed that only one man from the Alcoy militia had been killed on September 5th at Cerro Muriano; Federico Borrell. Brotóns then showed the photograph to Borrell’s surviving relatives who confirmed the identity of the falling soldier.[vi] However, as Alex Kershaw (Capa’s second biographer) rightly points out, it is odd that they managed to recognize Borrell (without being prompted), yet they never recognized him in the photograph before, despite the fact that the image has been reproduced dozens of times, all over the world.[vii] Kershaw also notes that Brotóns’s book omits notes and source references, and through his own research he could not find any reference to Federico Borrell at the Salamanca or the Ávila government archives where Brotóns claimed he found the revelatory references.[viii] In addition, the fact that Brotóns and Borrell both came from the same town of Alcoy is also quite a lucky coincidence.

*

The question of the ‘authenticity’ of documentary war photography is one that has spanned the history of the genre. The matter of to what extent the photographer should interact with his subject seems integral to the ‘good practice’ of the correspondent. War photographers have made slight adjustments to the composition of their images since the American Civil War. Alexander Gardner, a member of Mathew Brady’s collective, famously produced Death of a Rebel Sniper (also known as Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter) during the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. Gardner is said to have moved the body of the sniper to improve the composition of his picture. (Ian Jeffrey suggests that all of the elements within the picture may have been composed.[ix]) Don McCullin’s image of a dead North Vietnamese soldier with his possessions strewn out in front of him makes an excellent parallel: McCullin has been criticized for slightly re-arranging the dead man’s articles (which had already been sifted through and littered by American soldiers), because he wanted to improve the composition of his photograph, the key element being a photograph of the Vietnamese soldier’s sweetheart. However, he did not alter what was there, he just changed very slightly how it was there. McCullin quite rightly maintains that it is still a valid document of war – just as the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and the paintings of Otto Dix and Paul Nash are important documents of war.

But due to the realistic nature of the photographic image, a photograph instantly connotes that what is shown in the image is a true and precise record of that particular temporal instant. This assumption increases proportionally with the seriousness of the subject matter. We do not expect correspondents – individuals in whom we place a lot of trust and who therefore have a great responsibility – to exercise ‘artistic license’ with their coverage of the most cruel and bloody incidents across the world. Ironically, it is the most playful and frivolous of documentary photographers, such as Martin Parr who presents a vision so candid and humorous that the images seem impossibly ‘natural’. Yet Parr claims – and there is no reason to suggest otherwise – that he never stages his photographs.

However, it very difficult to come to terms with this complex notion of staging photographs. If a photographer makes an image using actors, perhaps some kind of studio, and directs their subjects, then that can clearly be considered as ‘staging’ a photograph. So it would seem that the relationship between the photographer and their subject is essential to how contrived, or staged an image is. Yet it is virtually impossible for the photographer to never interact with his subject matter, or intrude upon the natural (i.e. what would take place in their absence) course of events. As frequently as photographers may claim otherwise, they are never ‘just observers’; their presence – and indeed anyone’s presence – in any given location always has some kind of knock-on effect, even if only in the most microscopic and seemingly insignificant capacity. In relation to journalism, there have been many occasions where the capacity of the journalist – to communicate to the world – has literally influenced life and death situations. For example, in 2001 when the Northern Alliance et al deposed the Taliban from Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, on almost every news feature from teams of journalists that were following platoons of Northern Alliance soldiers and came across groups of or individual Taliban members, the reporter would claim something along the lines of: ‘this Taliban soldier would almost certainly have been killed, had it not been for our presence.’[x] I believe that it is the life saving – and indeed the life taking – capacity of the journalist, which holds the answer to the mystery of Capa and his Falling Soldier.

Capa made two public statements regarding the circumstances in which he took the Falling Soldier, which contradict one another. In the first, which was published in the New York World-Telegram on 1st September 1937, Capa said that he had spent several days with a soldier (whom he, surprisingly never remembered the name of) and on the fateful day in Cordoba, the two of them had been pinned down in a trench by insurgent machine-gun fire. The soldier was growing increasingly impatient and eventually decided to risk it and take his chances. As he climbed out of the trench, Capa raised his camera, and blindly made an exposure. Capa remained in the trench with the body for two hours until it was dark and safe to return to the refuge of the Republican lines.[xi] This account is quashed by the fact that there exists an image taken in precisely the same location as The Falling Soldier, of another soldier who has just been shot. However, the low camera angle, and the fact that the soldier had been standing flat-footed (not moving),[xii] is consistent with this description of events.

The second public announcement was in a radio interview for WNBC New York a decade later, when Capa was publicizing his biography Slightly Out of Focus (1947). Capa claimed that he had taken the photograph in an unspecified part of Andalusía, when he was with a group of about twenty untrained recruits. He said that they had been in a trench, firing at a machine-gun nest on a facing hill. Capa said that the soldiers were young and enthused, and as a result it would seem, were prepared to make desperate charges at the enemy. The soldiers fired for several minutes and then charged, and those that were fortunate enough retreated hastily back to the trench.[xiii] As Capa described:

‘…The fourth time I just kind of put my camera above my head and even didn’t look and clicked the picture when they moved over the trench.’[xiv]

However, if the soldiers had been moving towards the enemy – out of the front of the trench, down the hill – Capa would have to have been lower down the hill in order to have been in a position consistent with the camera angle. Unless he was in some other trench or a foxhole further down the hill, the machine-gun nest would have shot Capa instantly.

Any cynic would infer that the inconsistencies between these two accounts prove that Capa was concealing something, and in light of Gallagher’s accusation against the photograph, conclude that Capa probably did stage the photograph. However, I believe that Capa’s apparent guilt was not because he had staged the photograph that made him famous, but because he felt that he was in some capacity responsible for the Falling Soldier’s death.

In 1982, Life photographer Hansel Mieth, a contemporary of Capa’s, wrote to Whelan, describing an argument she once interrupted between Capa and her husband Otto, one evening in the late 1940s. Otto Mieth and Capa had been arguing about the photograph – not however, its veracity. Otto Mieth claimed that Capa had said that he and a group of soldiers had been ‘fooling around’ on that day. Although there had not been any enemy firing at the time, Capa felt guilty because he had caused the men to run down an exposed hill. Capa had been ‘a little ahead and to the side of them’ (this is consistent with the perspective of the photograph) and made an exposure at the same time as the enemy opened fire. Capa apparently told the same story to German photographer Gisèle Freund, claiming that he had killed the man in the picture.[xv]

*

The idea of Capa’s photograph as some kind of conspiracy theory is naturally quite seductive, and it is very difficult to enter a discourse on this image without being lured into the debate over its origin. However, to concentrate solely upon the fake/genuine argument is to overlook the true value of the photograph. Moreover, as Whelan concludes in his staunch defence of the photograph’s origin, ‘it is time to let both Capa and Borrell rest in peace’.[xvi] Furthermore, the debate over the veracity of the photograph is somewhat irrelevant, for three main reasons.

Firstly, in the illustrated magazines from the inception of the halftone process in 1882 which enabled photographs to be directly reproduced in the mass print media, to the late 1930s, photographs primarily functioned as illustrations for stories alone. This of course is not the case in the print media today. Piers Morgan published a staged photography of British Soldiers abusing an Iraqi prisoner in May 2004. When it was clear that the picture was contrived, Morgan made a vain attempt to absolve himself by claiming that the picture functioned as an ‘illustration’ of real events. That of course cost him his job. Yet during Capa’s time it was a very common practice to make images to order, for specific stories within a publication. Photographers took actors and props to locations and produced documentary-style pictures. Picture magazines were filled with a peculiar mix of highly contrived illustrations and un-staged, candid photography. They were precisely like modern television documentaries, containing interviews, archive footage and dramatic reconstructions. Therefore, if Capa’s photograph had been constructed, his actions would not have been contrary to the then day-to-day practice in photojournalism. Although he does not give specific examples, Kershaw claims that Capa did stage some action shots during the Spanish conflict, as did many photographers.[xvii] However, to lie about it would have been unethical for a correspondent, irrespective of the period.

Secondly, the integrity of virtually all news photographs are subjected to editors, layout artists and caption writers, and of course, the context within which the images appear. There is no record of any precise notes that accompanied Capa’s films which were couriered to Paris, so it is difficult to trace the exact nature of what he may or may not have instructed/suggested Vu magazine (the first publication to print The Falling Soldier) to mention about his picture. Indeed, when The Falling Soldier was published in an Italian magazine, the caption claimed that the photograph had in fact been taken near Cadiz.[xviii]

Finally, whether or not The Falling Soldier depicts a genuine moment is irrelevant because the photograph is still an original image that depicts a soldier who is falling, which has very obvious connotations towards the throes of death. (I refute Knightley’s suggestion that without a caption, the image would simply depict a soldier who is falling over.[xix]) As we have seen in the case of McCullin’s photograph, The Falling Soldier is the expression of an eyewitness, and therefore a valid document of the Spanish Civil War. The image was used to illustrate a story about the state of the loyalist Spanish army against the Nazi-sponsored, Fascist insurgents. Partly due to the image’s novelty – but mainly because of the composition of the soldier, whose posture demonstrates a classic death-like stance (which we shall discuss in due course) – Capa’s image has become an instant symbol for war; an icon for Man’s inhumanity towards Man, and (especially before the Second World War) ‘the most powerful symbol in the struggle against Fascism.’[xx] The genuine/fake argument over the photograph is only relevant in the context of Capa’s integrity as a war correspondent: Did Robert Capa really deserve the title of ‘the greatest war-photographer in the World’ in 1938, and possibly to date? Or is it the case that he was he a charlatan, whose most celebrated image was just as fabricated as his alias? However, we are not concerned with Capa’s biography; whether or not he lied does not detract from the fact that Capa’s contribution to combat photography shaped the nature of the genre more than any other single photographer, and The Falling Soldier probably more than any other single image.

It is time to indulge the popular discourse no further. Instead, we shall now treat Capa’s photograph on a pictorial, and on a philosophical level. We shall explore the reasons for the status of the image, and discuss where this locates the picture in our culture. Firstly, we must compare the different contexts for which Capa intended the images to be used: the illustrated press.

The Falling Soldier made its first appearance in the French periodical Vu on September 23 1936, eighteen days after it was taken. The first and most obvious observation one must make is the juxtaposition of what was to become the legendary image with a second, similar image.* This was also the case in the issue of Paris-Soir, June 28 1937.

It is almost as if the second image appeared by accident, since it has only been reproduced by Vu and Paris-Soir. But it has been of particular interest to those joining in the fake/genuine argument over The Falling Soldier: It has been suggested that the figure in the second image was in fact the same individual as in the first, but Borrell would have been a truly remarkable man had he been able to change his shirt between being hit by a bullet and dropping to the ground, dead. But the uniqueness of Capa’s most famous image is somewhat questioned when it emerges that there exists what can almost be called another version of it. Although it is nearly impossible to say with any certainty whether Capa was the first photographer to make an exposure of a man as he was hit by a bullet (and indeed Capa met with similar circumstances later on in his career[xxi]), the fact that he managed to photograph two, in the same spot within a very short space of one-another is rare indeed. The answer to whether this is testimony to Capa’s skill as a photographer or just tragic serendipity has long since gone to the grave. It is interesting to speculate as to why the layout artists and picture editors decided to print two such similar pictures, as the novelty of the photograph would have perhaps been enhanced by the existence of one image alone. Furthermore, the visual impact of the page layout – and thus the emotional impact of the story – would have been enhanced with only one image to illustrate the story.

The by-line at the top of the page in Vu – ‘comment ils sont tombés’ – is, like the historiography of the image, aptly ambiguous and worth attention. It can translate literally as; [this is] how they fell, or as a question; how did they fall? But as in the English verb to fall, ‘tomber’ is also a euphemism for death – for example, ceux qui sont tombés au champs d’honneur – and thus the caption can be translated rhetorically; Oh, how they have fallen! However, the text on the top of the adjacent page depicting the plight of Spanish refugees reads, ‘comment ils sont fui’ (how they fled). Therefore, it is safe to conclude that the caption above Capa’s pictures is supposed to be read as; this is how they fell [in their deaths].

The text at the bottom of the page is especially interesting in the way the image is presented:

Legs tense, chest to the wind, rifle in hand, they tear down the stubble-covered slope …Suddenly their flight is broken, a bullet whistles – a fratricidal bullet – and their blood is drunk by their native soil[xxii]

The rather unusual use of the word ‘fratricidal’[xxiii] is quite interesting. When the Falling Soldier was first published, the Spanish Civil War had only been raging for two months, and the general ideology of the war – from the point of view of the Republicans and foreign, anti-fascist sympathizers – was still highly socialistic and idealistic, with notions of brothers killing their brothers and sisters. However, as the killing continued relentlessly, and with the intervention of foreign armies (Soviet as well as Italian and German) it became obvious that the Spanish Civil War was something much more significant than just an internal civil war, but perhaps a prologue to a much broader European conflict. Notions such as ‘brothers and sisters’ began to disperse from the thoughts of the foreign onlookers.[xxiv] That at least partly explains why the most famous publication of the Falling Soldier appeared with a much less romantic caption.

Almost a year later, to mark the first anniversary of the war, Life published the picture above the headline:

Death in Spain: The Civil War has taken 500,000 lives in one year[xxv]

Below Capa’s image was:

Robert Capa’s camera catches a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head in [the] front of Cordoba[xxvi]

 

The rhetoric of this caption is very different to that employed by Vu. Firstly, it forms Capa’s image as a generic sign for all of the killing, and uses The Falling Soldier to represent each of the half-million deaths that the headline refers to. And the caption under the image uses subtler linguistic techniques – yet quite as dramatic as in Vu: It uses alliteration (…Capa’s camera captures…) to make a beguiling start to the sentence, and plays on the notion of catching the soldier as he is dropping to the ground: ‘Their’ photographer has salvaged something from this horrific, homicidal act. The reference to the specific context with which the image was made illustrates the novelty value of the picture and the detail of the location – which adds authority – instantly sets to impress the reader of the whole article. The tone of the rest of the feature is quite matter-of-fact: Along with four pages of stills from Ernest Hemingway’s documentary on the war in Spain, the article gives a brief history of the start of the conflict and a short explanation as to some of the causes of the social divide in the Spanish population. Overall, it remains objective throughout. It is a far cry from the crude spread in Vu which interrelates the death of Republican loyalist soldiers with innocent refugees, tugging desperately on the heartstrings.

*

 

Capa’s Falling Soldier is frequently referred to as one of, if not the best, specimen of war photography ever made. However, ‘best’ is a weak and subjective term that is unhelpful. It is impossible to define within a single photograph, all of the emotions and existential horrors of war. What Capa’s image does define – albeit highly romantically – is one aspect of war; that of a single combatant’s death. It is one man’s vision of another man falling back in the closing moment of his life. In the words of Capa’s contemporary and protégé, Martha Gellhorn, the picture reminds us that ‘war happens to people, one by one’.[xxvii]

It is intriguing to discuss the famous image of the Falling Soldier in contrast to the second image that appeared below it in Vu. Since the two images are so similar, and the figure in the second image is closer to the ground than the first, there is a very filmic quality to the spread: it appears as if the pictures are part of a time-lapse sequence that could be animated like a strip of cinematic celluloid. I would like to discuss both of these images, purely as visual representations of death. In Vivian Sobchack’s essay ‘Inscribing Ethical Space’,[xxviii] she presents ten different methods of representing death. Although Sobchack is referring to fictive cinema and documentary film, discussing these models of representation in relation to Capa’s Falling Soldiers, despite the fact that they are still frames, is just as possible, and equally valid – especially since nowadays, the distinction between the still and the moving image is becoming ever more shrouded. Moreover, in light of the filmic quality of the layouts in Vu and Paris-Soir, it seems even more appropriate to relate the images to Sobchack’s discourse.

Sobchack sets her argument against the maxim of death as a taboo in Western culture (particularly peaceful, ‘natural’ death which, before the Twentieth Century was commonplace in the Home):

‘Removing natural death from public spaces and discourses leaves only violent death in public sites and conversation…While natural death became more and more smothered in prudery, violent death has played an ever growing part in the fantasies offered to mass audiences.’[xxix]

She continues to stress that death’s exorbitance is essentially un-representable:

‘… death always so forcefully exceeds and subverts its indexical representation…’[xxx]

Sobchack’s first proposition is that of an ‘off-screen, out of sight’[xxxi] death which ‘lies over the threshold of visibility and representation’[xxxii]. This is personified in the image of the detective searching through the minute and abstract detail of an enlarged photograph. On the other hand there is the saturated, pornographic depiction of death, which is equally blurred in its final vision. Sobchack notes that in contemporary culture – perhaps informed by the institution of forensic science as represented by television and the cinema – death has become ‘technologized’.[xxxiii] There has emerged an obsession with the temporal instant of death – expressed laconically as the kill shot. She mentions Abraham Zapruder’s footage of JFK’s assassination and the presentation of that film as a ‘dissection of death into a series of “little steps” which “finally make it possible to know which step was the real death”’[xxxiv]. The irony is that when film and video footage is reduced in such a way, like enlarged, frozen CCTV footage, the images become more abstract and harder to identify. The aesthetic quality of Capa’s photograph – very slightly blurred – has been essential to its success. (Capa famously bragged that to get good action shots, all you had to do was make them slightly out of focus – hence the title of his memoirs.) Caroline Brothers asserts that the picture has a ‘teasing ambivalence’ to it and the tension of the image relies on the ‘reader’s constant alternation between what is depicted and what it seems to depict, [this] ensures the images ongoing fascination.’[xxxv]

The Zapruder footage makes an apt parallel to the presentation of Capa’s photographs in Vu. Here, the presence of the second image firmly contextualizes the first as a vision of a man as he is being shot. (Indeed, the diptych in Paris-Soir was captioned with ‘Hit!!!’ and ‘He falls!!!’[xxxvi]) Although the two figures are separate individuals, their different bodily postures, and the juxtaposition of the pictures clearly anchor the intended reading. As a representation of death in the context of the print media, this page layout appeared almost as a precursor to the first publication of the still frames of the Zapruder film in the week following Kennedy’s assassination (Life 29/11/1963, pp.24-27).

Key to several of Sobchack’s other propositions on the representations of death is the inorganic, unnatural prevention of action and motion:

‘…the visible cessation of the body’s intentional behavior…stands as the index of death.’[xxxvii]

This proposition presents another important explanation as to why the Falling Soldier is such an effective representation of death. Although the forensic expert that Richard Whelan consulted in 2000 suggests otherwise,[xxxviii] the luxurious text captioning the images in Vu – ‘…they tear down the stubble-covered slopes…Suddenly their flight is broken…’ – provides the before and after contextualization that a sequence of film would offer. According to Sobchack, what makes The Falling Soldier such an emotive image is not the visible pain and violence inflicted upon a man (because this is not at all present in the photograph). It is the connotation of the denoted image and text which shows a man whose physical progress has been untimely closed:

‘…the violent cessation of movement and animation in a lived-body subject visibly and spatially emphasizes the temporal contrast between animate and inanimate – between the living and the dead.’[xxxix]

Also, the static and unthreatening landscape in which Borrell is placed creates a strong contrast against the violent gesture that is marked upon it (aided with the caption ‘…their blood is drunk by their native soil’). (Brothers also notes that the cut stalks of grass in the picture have ‘reverberations drawn from age-old poetic conceits in which reaped harvests were a metaphor for death’[xl].) This helps to exaggerate the notion of an inorganic, unnatural, abrupt act.

This reading of Capa’s images overlaps with Sobchack’s fourth proposition:

‘The most effective cinematic [ergo photographic] representation of death in our present cinematic culture is inscribed on the lived-body in action that is abrupt.’[xli] [emphasis added]

Both of these propositions are displayed explicitly in Peter Weir’s movie Gallipoli (1991), a film in which the final frame is said to have been inspired, consciously or unconsciously, by Capa’s famous picture. At the very end of the film the protagonist, an Olympic-standard sprinter, is seen ‘psyching’ himself up in the same way that his father did preceding his every run. He is just about to go over the top of the trench to face his certain death. After the whistle is blown and he jumps out of the trench, the sounds of the shells and bullets are cut and we see him sprinting alone across a bleached-out, empty no-man’s-land accompanied by only the sound of his breathing and his racing feet. After a few moments the inevitable happens and a bullet penetrates the tension and the motion of the film freezes on a profile of the protagonist, with mouth and eyes gaping, body thrust backwards. Then the frame fades to black. The abrupt intervention of the protagonist’s physical momentum in conjunction with a freeze-frame – which in contrast to cinematic motion instantly connotes death and the passing of time – forms quite simple yet highly effective allegory. Compositionally, the final freeze-frame is not similar to Capa’s picture, but contextually, the two visions are. Before the final scene the film informs the viewer of the futility of the kind of warfare illustrated in Gallipoli – that of open charges against machine-gun posts. Reading the layout of Vu as it actually exists (as two similar images of two different dying soldiers) suggests the kind of systematic slaughter that mechanized warfare is responsible for, as was seen for the first time during the First World War.

This unfair abruptness of death is more evident in Capa’s second image. It is a more true-to-life representation of a soldier being shot than the famous image: The subject’s body is twisted awkwardly; legs splayed with the right arm snapped backwards over his shoulder. In comparison to Borrell, the soldier’s death displays the sort of violence and ‘bodily humiliation’[xlii] that we fear in relation to our own mortality. Borrell’s body on the other hand, displays the absolutely typical asymmetry of the body’s arms which is visible time and again throughout artistic depictions of death and the dead, such as Èdouard Manet’s The Dead Toreador (c. 1864). Although we are not questioning the fact that that is the manner in which Borrell fell back in his death, it is still a highly idealized and atypical vision of death. As an image of war, its inoffensive, in-explicit vision undermines the true meaning of violent death. As less dramatic as it is, as visually confusing as the subject’s body may be, I would have much preferred Capa’s second image to succeed the first in being re-published and hailed as one of the greatest war photographs ever made. There is, however, another important factor to consider in relation to the popularity of the photograph: replication.

In the same way that it is possible to see how the subject in Capa’s image may have inspired the ending of Gallipoli, the vision of the Falling Soldier’s death is very similar to Goya’s painting The Third of May 1808 (1814). This depiction of the executions of Spanish patriots following the revolt of the second of May, is an excellent parallel to Capa’s photograph. Although it is a painting and also precedes Capa’s era by a century, its journalistic title, and the pictorial illusion of eyewitness immediacy,[xliii] are very photographic elements that, informed by the genre of photojournalism, we cannot help but infer. However, more importantly, the two representations are extremely similar. Essentially, they both depict a single martyr, helpless against a foreign invader. In Goya’s image, the insurgents are the Napoleonic soldiers, and in Capa’s (although out of sight, of course) it is Franco’s fascists. The rigid composition of the Napoleonic soldiers is also considered as an assault on modernity and the French gift of Enlightenment. The diptych of the Falling Soldiers, also expresses a sentiment confronting technology, however, not the musket but the machine-gun. Both martyrs are wearing bright white shirts, which – as well as serving to single out the figures within the tableau – have strong Biblical connotations, and assist in the illusion of helplessness. (The outstretched arms of the Spaniard in Goya’s painting that are an echo of the crucifixion of Christ, is also mirrored by the posture of the girl in Nick Ut’s famous image, Children Fleeing an American Napalm Strike (1972).) Indeed, we cannot discuss Goya’s painting without mentioning Picasso’s Guernica (1937). Although this painting is not remotely similar to Capa’s photograph it was directly inspired by Goya’s painting, and it was Picasso’s reaction to the Spanish Civil War, particularly the massacre at Guernica, where the Luftwaffe bombed 1,600 civilians. Like Capa’s photograph, Guernica has become synonymous with the Spanish Civil War and perhaps the Twentieth Century’s most potent symbol of the agony of war.

This line of artistic replication is explained in part by Sobchack’s fifth proposition – that in order to prevent fracturing the cultural taboo of death, the representation must be made within certain indexical conventions.[xliv] This is perhaps the closest explanation as to how this news-photograph has undergone the cultural re-configuration from an ephemeral photographic representation into the category of art: It is not the originality of the composition of the photograph which has made it such a well remembered image, but its classicism. The composition of Borrell’s body, his white shirt, and the presentation of a helpless martyr’s struggle are in tune with our subliminal, idealized expectations of death. In addition, it must be noted that the image is in no way ugly or macabre. If we assume that Borrell was dead before he hit the ground, then as a photograph of a dead soldier from the Spanish Civil War, it is very tame in its explicitness, especially when compared to images of dead Italian soldiers by Ernest Hemingway that were published in Ken[xlv]. One of his images depicts quite graphically what appears to be a man’s head without a skull; the torn skin that just about still makes up a face draped over the ground like a discarded latex mask.

Sobchack also mentions in her fifth proposition the need to present the representation of the death with such a vision that the audience is made ethically justified in indulging in, on the one hand, the slightly fetishistic act of looking at a dead body, and on the other, the aestheticization of a human corps. In the case of The Falling Soldier, this was taken care of by the contexts in which Capa’s photograph appeared; in the print media as part of – what would be described in contemporary terms as – a ‘human interest’ story. Indeed, one which was politically challenging to the popular Western enemy, the fascists. However, the fact that the photograph had a certain novelty value must have helped this process of absolution enormously: It is ok to look at a man at the moment he died because Man’s technology has made it possible to do so. Particularly the caption from Life (“…Capa’s camera catches…”) distracts the viewer from an emotional response towards the dying man, and focuses it towards the marvel of the photographic apparatus.

It is easy to dismiss Sobchack’s notion of a taboo about death when pictures of corpses have been regularly published throughout Europe and the United States since it became possible to reproduce photographs accurately in the print media. Therefore, I do not connect Sobchack’s proposition to Capa’s pictures to illustrate how the editors justified publishing socially fragile material. But this does explain how Capa’s photograph has been able to be reprinted so many times and thus become so popular, and why it is heralded as one of the most successful photographs ever made.

*

In a recent essay, David Evans discusses Bertolt Brecht’s monograph Kriegsfibel (“War Primer”) in relation to the monument, and specifically refers to Brecht’s work as a ‘poor monument’.[xlvi] The phrase photo-epigram that Brecht coined with his work refers to the four-line prose that captioned each of the images in his collection, which were appropriated from the print media during the Second World War. Brecht borrowed the format of his work from textbooks designed for elementary schoolchildren; primer books which were used to teach children how to read.[xlvii] The meaning of the work was therefore intended to comment on the ambiguity of news photographs as produced by the capitalist system, and also educate the reader about modern warfare.[xlviii]

However, the nature of the text has made the work more synonymous with the monument, as originally asserted by Walter Benjamin in 1973. Benjamin makes the association with Brecht’s epigrams and Roman, lapidary inscriptions marked upon stone monuments that were laconic and intended to speak to future generations.[xlix] Benjamin reads Brecht’s captions as quick notes, scribbled down as a testimony:

‘…these words, whose poetic form implies that they are meant to survive the forthcoming end of the world, contain the gesture of a slogan scrawled in haste on a plank fence by a man being pursued.’[l]

 

Evans therefore describes War Primer as a ‘portable monument’.[li] Without taking the term ‘monument’ too much for granted, it is my hypothesis that it is possible to conceive Capa’s Falling Soldier as a monument that is just as culturally significant – if not more so – as the traditional stone or bronze-cast figurative and allegorical monuments that are littered across our landscapes.

Indeed, since photographs of a documentary nature – and particularly domestic photographs – are essentially concerned with the mnemonic, they too infringe upon the concept of the monument. And just as a statue of a famous figure stands upon a plinth, indexical of national self-importance, a portrait sits on a mantle piece as a symbol of family pride and achievement. However, there is an equally significant aspect to the monument – politics.

What sets the traditional monument apart from any sculpture, or indeed a two-dimensional image of an event or a historical figure, is its spatial existence. Monuments are designed for specific public sites – to be seen, and to have a very specific meaning inferred by all those who pass it – as ‘instruments of public instruction’.[lii] Sometimes, it is the act of the monument being raised within a physical location that is more significant than the thing that is actually being presented.*

In his book Public Monuments: Art in Political Bondage 1870-1997 (1998), Sergiusz Michalski notes the first contemporary European monument as being a tribute to Don Juan of Austria, and his triumph at the battle of Lepanto, that was erected in Messina, Sicily in 1572. Statues had been erected to military leaders many times before, but they had only been intended for private ownership. What was significant about this statue was that is was designed specifically for a civic space, to be presented to the ordinary citizens, and not exclusively to the aristocracy.[liii] The figurative monument has become a popular tradition, particularly in Western culture, erected when an individual proves to be of exceptional substance. They are celebrated and cast as an example to their fellow citizens of the day, and moreover, to citizens of the future.

Of course the most blatantly politicized of public sculpture is the victory monument. Saddam Hussein’s pair of victory arches which were opened in 1989 presents one of the most grotesque yet ashamedly comical of monuments. The arches were formed by casts of Saddam’s arms, forty times his size, holding giant sabers, intended to symbolize the legendary saber that defeated the Persian Sassanian empire by the Arab-Muslim army at the battle of Quadisiyya in 637 AD.[liv] The sabers were made from the smelted weapons of Iraqi ‘martyrs’ and the arches were set on plinths made of Iranian steel helmets – 10,000 in total. Although the arches are tasteless and horrendously profuse, I cannot help but admire this monument as a highly original piece of sculpture, appropriating the actual raw elements from the war, rather than simply just bronze or granite. Furthermore, the process that produced exact copies of Saddam’s arms, expressing every blemish and crack on his skin seems to be inherently photographic. It fits neatly into Susan Sontag’s model of the photograph:

‘… a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.’[lv]

But what is most significant about the arches is the fact that firstly, Iraq was not victorious over Iran, and secondly, the monument was commissioned in 1985, ‘several hundred thousand lives’[lvi] before the end of the Iran-Iraq war. But we do not need to discuss the way that history is soiled and distorted by totalitarian regimes. However, the symbolism of Saddam Hussein’s monument was just as considered and contrived as monuments erected by Western countries to those who died in battle.

After the First World War, there was a distinct lack of both political and military leaders worthy of individual recognition in the form of figurative monuments.[lvii] To idolize specific politicians and militarists in light of the millions of soldiers who died fighting in the war would quite simply have been vulgar. A gesture, or something more abstract and symbolic was required.

So in 1920, the remains of an unknown British soldier were exhumed from a battlefield in France and transported to London where they were buried in Westminster Abbey. (Precisely the same was done with the remains of an unknown French soldier, which were taken to Paris and buried next to the Arche de Triomphe de l’Etoile.) The act of returning the remains of an unknown individual – whose anonymity made him symbolic of all of the British casualties of the Great War – to his native soil, was a sound and admirable gesture. But to bury the remains in Westminster Abbey along side centuries of royalty and cultural nobility, and thus posthumously raise the status of a lowly individual soldier was somewhat unprecedented. And, I concur with Sergiusz Michalski; it was a gesture that was ‘certainly respectable’.[lviii]

However, Sir Edwin Lutyens’ Cenotaph, originally intended as a temporary structure, which was assembled outside Whitehall also in 1920,[lix] soon superseded the cultural significance of the grave in Westminster Abbey. Michalski puts this down to the location of the tomb, where it ‘became just another slab or sepulcher’.[lx] The Cenotaph, which although extremely obtrusive by contrast, was quite plain and perhaps frugal, yet was free from religious and meritocratic pretensions. Perhaps most important were the epitaphs upon the memorials: The text on the Cenotaph was laconic and poignant – ‘The Glorious Dead’. The inscription on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was a short story by contrast.[lxi] It is interesting that the inscription refers to a ‘warrior’, a title that has since been eroded and made as redundant as the actual sepulcher in the Abbey.

What was particularly novel about the Cenotaph was that it was the first object of collective, mass mourning. Michalski notes briefly the phenomenon of the hundreds of written messages that appeared around it exclusive of flowers or wreathes throughout the 1920s and ‘30s,[lxii] a kind of informal AIDS Memorial Quilt. (And it is of course the site for the annual laying of wreaths by the Head of State on Armistice Day.) Michalski makes a modest and fleeting comparison with this and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, which I find an intriguing observation.[lxiii] This spontaneous, almost desperate act now seems firmly rooted in our culture: It occurred of course around Manhattan after September 11th, on dustbins and post-boxes, forming ‘pavement shrines’[lxiv]. This same act is expressed near the beginning of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), when the protagonist, Jim, is wandering around an abandoned central London and finds the centre of Piccadilly Circus covered with last messages and photographs from the doomed and fleeing populace.

*

As we have already discussed, photographs and traditional monuments both operate in the service of memory, in the same way that a pencil and a pen are both tools for writing. However, the distinction between a photograph and a traditional monument becomes even more blurred when one takes into account monuments that are direct, three-dimensional interpretations of an existing photograph. This probably originated from the French Third Republic, where there was an accelerated program of monument building in order to glorify the Revolution.[lxv] What was unique about some of these monuments was that they were not simply statues of exceptional citizens, but they were often comprised of narrative dioramas, depicting a specific moment – ‘a bronzed snapshot’[lxvi] of what should be remembered as an historic scene. One such statue was Eugène Bouverie’s depiction of Camille Desmoulins leaping from his chair to inspire his fellow Parisians to storm the Bastille (1905).[lxvii] These vignettes offer the kind of pregnant or ‘decisive’ moment that is so much associated with the photographic image.

The first monument that was a direct copy of a single photograph was François Cogné’s bronze immortalization of Clemenceau (1932) which depicted him trudging through a storm whilst visiting the Champagne front in 1917.[lxviii] Without a doubt the most famous example of this process is Dr. Felix de Weldon’s United States Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Washington (1954). This is of course a direct interpretation of Joe Rosenthal’s photograph taken of Marines raising the American flag on the island of Iwo Jima at the end of one of the toughest battles of the Second World War. (However, it is interesting that the monument, when looking at it straight on with the inscriptions in view, shows the reverse angle to that of the photograph, thus making the faces of the soldiers visible, which detracts from the element in the photograph of anonymous, unknown soldiers.) Like Capa’s Falling Soldier, the veracity of Rosenthal’s photograph has faced scrutiny. Indeed the actual moment was blatantly a stage-managed affair.[lxix] However, the monument version – which like a painting is an interpretation, rather than a photograph where the viewer usually assumes its authority of pure fact – has never been subjected to such criticism, despite the object’s jingoistic nature. But the choice of the photograph as the source of the monument would seem an obvious one: Perhaps, given the fact that Rosenthal’s photograph became such a potent symbol of America’s victory in the Pacific (and perhaps, America’s symbol for their ultimate victory of the Second World War*), and has been reproduced so widely and in so many different contexts, to appropriate the photograph in some way was the only credible option. The image has been appropriated by so many different and unrelated organizations, that it is as if the pictorial elements within the photograph have been distilled, and all that is left is the purified vision of a flag being raised: Culturally speaking, it is in fact indexical of national solidarity rather than a picture depicting a specific historical event.

However, when a monument is little more than a direct copy of an individual photograph, why should the image itself not be considered the monument first and foremost? Rosenthal’s image is a fine example of a handful of the most famous photographs that are synonymous of a particular locus in history, which when looked at, instantly refer to it, and vice-versa (even though they are not always entirely historically accurate). Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936): the American depression, Robert Capa’s The Falling Soldier (1936): the Spanish Civil War, Eddie Adam’s Street Execution of a Vietcong Suspect (1968) and Nick Ut’s Napalm Attack (1972): the Vietnam War, and Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima: victory (in the Pacific). If I may be so bold as to make a prediction as to which (if any) photographic image will stand as testimony of America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, it will be the image of the cruciform hooded prisoner balancing on a box in Abu Grab.

Capa’s Falling Soldier is wholly deictic of the Spanish Civil War and the early struggle against fascism. Its popularity has ensured that it will continue to be recognized, published and discussed long into the future. This legacy means it will be as permanent as any solid, three-dimensional statue, probably more so.

But the politicized nature of Capa’s photograph makes it even more synonymous with the monument. Let us remember that the picture was originally published in the left-wing magazine Vu, who were known to select their correspondents by their political persuasion, rather than their journalistic competence. Capa was a whole-hearted supporter of the Republican cause, and he himself had had to evade the Nazis during his teenage years. He was even suspected of being a communist by the FBI who had a dossier on him. Indeed it was the fact that he sold his pictures to the French leftist magazine Regards, where other images from the same series as the Falling Soldier were published, that was the direct cause of their suspicions.[lxx] So we can be under no pretences that Capa was an objective, independent correspondent, neither were some of the magazines that published his pictures. So just as all traditional monuments are state-supported and controlled, Capa’s photographs were equally politically motivated, yet instead of supporting the more popular right-wing stance, he subverted it. If it were the case that he had staged his most famous photograph, that would have made it even more propagated, hence more politicized, and under the terms that we have already discussed, even more of a monument.

However, Capa’s photograph is not any unspecific monument, but I believe that it may be considered as a tomb to an unknown soldier. The fact that there is still something of a question mark over whether or not the image depicts Federico Borrell means that there is a strong element of anonymity to the dying soldier in the photograph. And we should not forget how the figure was used in Life; to act as a sign for all of the half-million killed in a year of combat, and furthermore, the article was a kind of tribute to the whole of the war.

The composition of the body is also very statuesque as well as painterly: Like a bronze figure standing on a plinth in some town centre, the figure in the photograph is equally polarized by the inconspicuous landscape behind it. Then there is the gesture of the outstretched arm, which although so typical of images of death, also seems to have the quality of someone in the process of making a radical speech or haranguing a group of people, which is so common in statues of political figures. It is as if Borrell (or whoever it really is) is making a final deathbed confession, or demanding some last request.

It is easy to become carried away with terminology, and as I have already stated, I do not wish to take the term ‘monument’ or ‘memorial’ too much for granted. So I should point out that Capa’s image is dissimilar to a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, particularly the Cenotaph, since its purpose was to exist as a site for collective, public mourning. An illustrated magazine on the other hand, although designed for a public, mass audience, is for personal, private consumption. However, there are indeed quite relevant parallels that may be drawn between the Cenotaph and The Falling Soldier. As we have already noted, the Cenotaph was originally designed as a temporary structure. Capa’s pictures were of course intended for the illustrated press – an ephemeral medium. The popularity of the Cenotaph was not foreseen, neither were the hundreds of scribbled private messages which spontaneously adorned it. Likewise, it is what Capa’s photograph has become – not its original function – which makes it deserving of its monumental status.

The cover of a 1936 edition of the German anti-fascist periodical Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) depicts a tribute to ‘Dem Unbekannten Genossen’ (“the unknown comrade”), the title obviously alluding to the building of monuments following the First World War.[lxxi] As well as providing an interesting illustration of this link between the press and the public monument, this somewhat uncharacteristic photomontage by John Heartfield is an excellent reminder that the golden age of the illustrated press coincided with the European-wide proliferation of monuments following the Great War.

The fact that we are referring to a photograph – something which is inherently reproducible and multiple – as a monument – something which is supposedly very much singular, and its status derives to a certain extent, from the fact that it is unique – I do not consider to be problematic, especially as a tomb to an unknown soldier, like a photographic image, there are multiple versions of it around the world; for example in Britain, Germany, Russia, Poland, America and even in Iraq. Indeed, across America there are many three-dimensional facsimiles of Rosenthal’s photograph, such as de Weldon’s original sculpture which has been at the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, Texas since 1982, the Iwo Jima Memorial Monument in Newington, Connecticut (1995) and the Pacific War Memorial in Hawaii (2002).

It is the multiplicity of the photographic image which makes photographs more efficient than traditional monuments in the service of preserving the memory of something or some one. Kracauer argued that the illustrated magazines of his period (the 1920s and ‘30s) in fact destroyed individual memory by reducing the world to the photographic image:

‘…the flood of photos sweeps away the dams of memory. The assault of the mass image is so powerful that it threatens to destroy the potentially existing awareness of crucial traits…The spatial continuum from the camera’s perspective dominates the spatial appearance of the perceived object; the resemblance between the image and the object effaces the contours of the object’s “history”.’[lxxii]

If Kracauer were making these assertions today, and was referring perhaps to the tele-visual image, I would quite concur with his discourse. However, considering the period when these ideas were first published, I find them difficult to accept, since the illustrated magazines were a brilliant means of education and communication for informing a relatively immobile world. Without up-to-date published photographs, events across the world, especially the atrocities, would have been rumour or hear’ say. However, Kracauer was not necessarily referring to the individual photographs in the magazines, but to the illustrated magazines as objects, which did indeed contain a vast range of material. By today’s standards, one could consider them as a hybrid of Hello!, National Geographic, The Spectator and FHM, with the amateur photographer as its target audience. I think Kracauer considered their unspecific and very generalising nature to be problematic: By juxtaposing anything that was popular and/or photogenic thus homogenised objects and events that did not necessarily have anything in common, bar the fact that their surface could be photographed.

However, assimilating so many different aspects of the world together in one space (the illustrated magazine) was perhaps a very democratising method of sorting out the important things from the banal: By placing images of things, relatively unselectively (by today’s standards), they fend for themselves and over time, vie for cultural significance. I have a little more faith in the educated public to be able to distinguish between what is socially relevant, and what is idle banter to fill columns. Of course writers, photographers and especially editors play an integral part in selecting what readers see and how they understand a story on a page. But no one decided as soon as Capa’s film containing the frame of The Falling Soldier was developed that it would (not could) become one of the most famous of all photographs: it happened quite naturally, and quite rightly. As Capa himself asserted in the second public description of The Falling Soldier, ‘the prize picture is born in the imagination of editors and [the] public who sees them.’[lxxiii]

Whether it is a natural human instinct, or the product of cultural conditioning, the fact remains that we cannot help but remember in terms of the language of the photographic image.[lxxiv] In relation to domestic photography, for example when there is a camera present at a particular occasion, after time only the instants when the photographs were taken will remain the most vivid within the memory. That is why Roland Barthes refers to photographs as ‘counter-memories’.[lxxv] Catherine Keenan notes that:

‘…every time we [look at our old photographs] we further the process whereby these photographic images themselves come to be implanted in memory, a process that is perhaps best summed up in the image of the family pouring over the photograph album.’[lxxvi]

The same is true of news images and other popular imagery. As we have already discussed, some photographs can become instant reference points for a particular epoch. But also with images such as Zapruder’s footage of Kennedy’s assassination, not only do they have the ability to suppress the memories of eyewitnesses of the event, but that footage has become the definitive history of those temporal moments.[lxxvii]

*

The fact is that the photographic image is superior to the sculptural monument, physically and mnemonically: The Cenotaph could be bulldozed to the ground without trace within a few minutes, but to destroy every copy of Capa’s Falling Soldier would be impossible. And mnemonically, individuals are remembered by their (photographic) image, not by a stone copy of it. As problematic as it may be for the Health & Safety officers of Hyde Park, and as aesthetically contentious as it has been proved to be by park users, Kathryn Gustafson’s water-feature dedicated to Princess Diana does at least present us with an alternative to an effigy, probably not even resembling the image of her traced onto anyone’s memory who picked up a newspaper or turned on their television set from 1981.

Robert Capa himself scorned the monuments and memorials of war.[lxxviii] But I do not wish to simply add my name to the long list of individuals who have indulged in a round of monument-bashing. Yet, as we have concluded how ideologically charged and politically stained the monument is, I certainly do not wish to offer any personal suggestions as to how its effectiveness may be improved. However, I also do not wish for the world to be seen and remembered exclusively through the photographic and tele-visual image. If this is the case then the surface of the outside world becomes nothing more than a tromp l’oeil. In re-examining the public monument, in relation to a more mobile and internationally aware society, it is clear that the traditional monument does not stand up to its original purpose as a site for reflection and remembrance. Furthermore, the monument must form a genuine connection between the past and the future. Photographic images can achieve this with such explicitness that the bonds of time are loosened in a way that no other medium is able to achieve: they are truly ‘clocks for seeing’[lxxix]. The death of The Falling Soldier is therefore just as vivid and thus relevant today as it was on the 5th of September 1937.

* It is often noted that the image was published by Regards, a leftist French publication and rival to Vu. Images that appear to have been taken on the same day as The Falling Soldier were published in Regards 24/9/1936, but I cannot confirm that The Falling Soldier was also published.

* Indeed, it is equally politically poignant when a monument is inverted; such as the Nazi victory parade under the Arche de Triomphe, and the pulling down of the statue of Saddam Hussein in the centre of Baghdad when the US invaded the capital, April 9 2003.

* The image is rivalled only by Jewgeni Chaldej’s photograph of the Hammer and Sickle being raised over the Richstag (1945). Ironically, Chaldej freely admitted that the photograph was completely contrived and that he was inspired by Rosenthal’s photograph. He even made the flag out of tablecloths. (Jeffrey, 1997, p.89)

FOOTNOTES

[i] Knightley, 2003, p.227

[ii] Kershaw, 2002, p.38

[iii] Knightley, 2003, p.230

[iv] Whelan, 2002, p.50

[v] ibid

[vi] ibid, p.52

[vii] Kershaw, 2002, p.45

[viii] ibid

[ix] Jeffrey, 1997, p.167

[x] see The Daily Mail, November 14 2001

[xi] Kershaw, 2002, pp. 39-40

[xii] Whelan consulted a forensic expert who concluded that the soldier had been standing ‘flat-footed…not in stride’ (Cpt. Robert L. Franks in Whelan, 2002, p.54)

[xiii] Kershaw, 2002, pp. 41-42

[xiv] Capa in Kershaw, 2002, p.42

[xv] Kershaw, 2002, pp.40-41

[xvi] ibid, p.55

[xvii] Kershaw, 2002

[xviii] Knightley, 2003, p.230. (Knightley says he was sent a copy of the magazine by Cornell Capa, however, he does not give references)

[xix] See Knightley, 2003, p.227

[xx] Lebeck, 2001, p.17

[xxi] Capa photographed another Republican soldier immediately after a shell exploded next to him (published in Picture Post, 3/12/1938), and he photographed an American Soldier immediately before and immediately after being shot in Germany, only hours after Armistice was declared (See Capa, 1999, p.229)

[xxii] Translated in Kershaw, 2002, p.44

[xxiii] meaning the murder of a sibling

[xxiv] Kershaw, 2002, p.63

[xxv] Life 12/7/1937, p.19

[xxvi] ibid

[xxvii] Gellhorn in Lee, 2003, 13

[xxviii] Vivian Sobchack: ‘Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions On Death, Representation, and Documentary’ Quarterly Review of Film Studies, Fall 1984

[xxix] ibid, p.285

[xxx] ibid, p.292

[xxxi] ibid, p.287

[xxxii] ibid

[xxxiii] ibid, p.284

[xxxiv] ibid [inverted commas is Ariès]

[xxxv] Brothers, 1997, p.179

[xxxvi] ibid, p. 242

[xxxvii] Sobchack, 1984, p.284

[xxxviii] Captain Robert L. Franks, chief homicide detective of the Memphis Police Department, concluded in September 2000 that Federico Borrell ‘had been standing flat footed when he was shot. He clearly was not in stride when he was shot’. Aperture No.166, Spring 2002, p.54

[xxxix] Sobchack, 1984, p.289

[xl] Brothers, 1997, p.179

[xli] Sobchack, 1984, p.289

[xlii] ibid

[xliii] Nash, 1998, p.39

[xliv] Sobchack, 1984, p.291

[xlv] Ken, Vol. 1, no.2 pp.69-71

[xlvi] Evans, 2003, pp. 8-9

[xlvii] ibid, p.8

[xlviii] ibid

[xlix] Benjamin, 1973, p. 65

[l] ibid p. 66

[li] Evans, 2003, p.9

[lii] Ossip Zadkine in Michalski, 1998, p.46

[liii] Michalski, 1998, p.8

[liv] al-Khalil, 1991, p.10

[lv] Sontag, 1977, p.154

[lvi] al-Khalil, 1991, p.10

[lvii] Michalski, 1998, p.77

[lviii] ibid p. 79

[lix] ibid

[lx] ibid

[lxi] The full inscription reads: Beneath this stone rests the body of a British Warrior brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the land and buried here on Armistice Day 11 Nov. 1920 in the presence of His Majesty King George V, his ministers of state, the chiefs of his forces and a vast concourse of the nation. Thus are commemorated the many multitudes who during the great war of 1914-1918 gave the most that man can give, life itself. For God, for King and Country, for the sacred cause of justice and the freedom of the World. They bury him among the kings because he had done good toward God and toward His house.

[lxii] Michalski, 1998, p. 78

[lxiii] ibid

[lxiv] Kennedy, 2003, p.272

[lxv] Michalski, 1998

[lxvi] ibid p.26

[lxvii] ibid

[lxviii] ibid p.77

[lxix] Jeffrey, 1997, p.391

[lxx] Kershaw, 2002, p.234

[lxxi] Evans, 1992, p.376

[lxxii] Kracauer, (republished) 1995, p.58

[lxxiii] Capa in Kershaw, 2002, p.41

[lxxiv] Keenan, 1998, p.60

[lxxv] Barthes, 1981, p.91

[lxxvi] Keenan, 1998, p.61

[lxxvii] Sturken, 1997, p.32

[lxxviii] John Morris in Kershaw, 2002, p.253

[lxxix] Barthes, 1982, p.15

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

BOOKS

 

ABIAN & ADAM: Images of War

(English ed. New English Library, 1985)

[First published, Hamburg: Stern-Buch, 1983]

BARTHES, Roland: Camera Lucida

(London: Jonathan Cape, 1982)

[Originally La Chambre Claire (Editions du Seuile, 1980)

 

BRECHT, Bertolt: War Primer

(Translated by Stefan S. Brecht, [third ed.] London: Libris, 1998)

[First published, Berlin: Eulenspiegel Verlag, 1955]

 

BROTHERS, Caroline: War and Photography

(London: Routledge, 1997)

CAPA, Robert: Slightly Out of Focus

(New York: Holt, 1947) [reprinted, New York: The Modern Library, 1999]

EVANS, David: John Heartfield: AIZ/VI, 1930-38

(New York: Kent Fine Art, 1992)

 

JEFFREY, Ian: The Photography Book

(London: Phaidon, 1997)

 

KERSHAW, Alex: Blood and Champagne: The Life and Times of Robert Capa

(London: Macmillan, 2002)

 

al-KHALIL, Samir: The Monument: Art, Vulgarity and Responsibility in Iraq

(London: André Duetsch Ltd, 1991)

 

KNIGHTLEY, Phillip: (In War, Truth is) The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq (London: André Deutsch, 2003)

[Originally published as The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker from the Crimea to Vietnam (London: André Deutsch, 1975)]

KRACAUER, Siegfried: The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays

Translated and edited by Thomas Y. Levin

(London: Harvard University Press, 1995)

[Originally Das Ornament der Masse (Suhrkamp Verlag, 1963)]

 

LEBECK, Robert & Dewitz, Bodo von: Kiosk: A History of Photojournalism

(Gottingen: Steidl, 2002)

MORRIS, John G: Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism

(University of Chicago Press, 1998)

MICHALSKI , Sergiusz: Public Monuments: Art in Political Bondage 1870-1997 (London: Reaktion, 1998)

MILLER, Russell: Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History

(London: Secker & Warburg, 1997)

NASH, Steven A: Picasso and the War Years 1937-1945

(London/New York: Thames & Hudson, 1998)

SONTAG, Susan: On Photography

(New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977)

STURKEN, Marita: Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the Aids Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering

(Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1997)

WEBSTER GOODWIN & BRONFEN (Ed.): Death and Representation

(Baltimore/London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993)

ESSAYS

 

BENJAMIN, Walter: ‘Commentaries on Poems by Brecht’ Understanding Brecht [second ed.] (London: NLB, 1973)

 

BULL, Stephen: ‘Documentary Photography in the Art Gallery’ Engage [14] Winter 2004, pp.14-21

 

CAMPANY, David: ‘Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on Problems of “Late Photography”’ Where is the Photograph? Ed. David Green

(Brighton/Maidstone: Photoforum/Photoworks, 2003)

 

EDWARDS, Paul: ‘Against the Photograph as Momento Mori

History of Photography Vol. 22, No. 4, Winter 1998, pp.380-384

 

EVANS, David: ‘Brecht’s War Primer: The “Photo Epigram” as Poor Monument’ Afterimage March/April 2003

HAMILTON, Robert: ‘Image and Context: The Production and Reproduction of The Execution of a Vietcong Suspect by Eddie Adams’

Vietnam Images: War and Representation, Ed. J. Walsh and J. Aulich

(The Macmillan Press, 1989)

KEENAN, Catherine: ‘On the Relationship between Personal Photographs and Individual Memory’

History of Photography Vol. 22, No.1, Spring 1998 pp.60-64

 

KENNEDY, Liam: ‘Framing September 11: Photography After the Fall’

History of Photography Vol. 27, No. 3, Autumn 2003, pp.272-283

 

LEE, Hermione: ‘One of the Chaps’ [a review of Caroline Moorehead’s biography of Martha Gellhorn]

G2, 1/11/2003, p.13

MELLOR, David: ‘Death in the Making: Representing the Spanish Civil War’

No Pasaran! Photographs and Posters of the Spanish Civil War

(Bristol: Arnolfini, 1986) pp.25-31

 

MUSIL, Robert: ‘Monuments’

Posthumous Papers of a Living Author (London: Penguin, 1995) pp.61-64

SERT, LEGER & GIEDION: ‘Nine Points on Monumentality’

Harvard Architecture Review Vol. 4, Spring 1984, pp.62-63

 

SOBCHACK , Vivian: ‘Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions On Death, Representation and Documentary’ Quarterly Review of Film Studies

Fall 1984, pp.283-300

SQUIRES, Carol: ‘Capa is Cleared: A Framed Photo is Proven Authentic’ American Photo May/June 1998, pp.18-20

 

USSELMANN, Rainer: ‘18. Oktober 1977: Gerhard Richter’s Work of Mourning and Its New Audience’ Art Journal Spring 2002, pp.

 

WALL, Jeff: ‘Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art’ Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965 – 1975

Ed. Goldstein and Rorimer (Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1995) pp.247-267

WHELAN, Richard: ‘Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier: A Detective Story’

Aperture No.166, Spring 2002, pp. 48-55

FILMS

 

28 Days Later (2002) Dir. Danny BOYLE

(United Kingdom: 20th Century Fox)

 

Gallipoli (1991) Dir. Peter WEIR

(Australia: Paramount)

J.F.K. (1991) Dir. Oliver STONE

(USA: Warner Bros.)

 

Gimme Shelter (1970) Dir. MAYSALES, MAYSLES & ZWERIN

(U.S.A. : Maysles Films Inc.)

OFF-AIR RECORDINGS

 

The Private Life of a Masterpiece: Goya’s ‘The Third of May 1808’

BBC2, 26 January 2004

 

The Magnum Story: Decisive Moments

BBC2, 29 October1989

 

Advertisements

“Incomming…!”: The New Language of Photography?

Photography writers and critics are often chastised  – not always without good reason – for using unnecessarily complicated language. David Hurn concludes his invaluable book On Being a Photographer with one such scathing (and amusing) attack. I’ve been intrigued recently by the more vernacular language around photography. In On Photography, Sontag writes about how adverts for cameras (in the 1970s, I guess) wrote about these machines as if they were ray guns from outer space. She also writes about how out on safari, the camera has replaced the trophy hunter’s rifle; film instead of cartridges being loaded into the magazines… [1]

There are plenty of military / armament terms that overlap with photography. Somebody asked me once; “what are you packing these days”. Instinctively I told him what camera I had, but I wish I’d replied with something like: “Hmm let me see – I usually travel with my AK-, but I like to keep a vintage Browning in my pocket, and I never go anywhere without a few ninja stars, just in case.”

I recently discovered that ‘bracketing’ actually describes the process in artillery of finding a range by firing shells deliberately longer and shorter of a target, or something like that. The term ‘bombardment’ has become the great cliché to describe the ineffable stream of images that seep into our daily lives. Whilst it’s true that sometimes we can’t escape photographic imagery, it’s a fantastically exaggerated expression, which anyone who has actually experienced being under shellfire I’m certain would take an exception to. (I’m happy to say I’m not one of those people.) But the way in which we use words to describe things matters and according to Freud and his writing on the uncanny, they can reveal the true meaning of something and how it relates to our unconscious [2]. In which case, I’d like to examine what the implications might be of the phrases uttered by Cheryl Cole (nee. Tweedy) in the recent campaign by L’Oreal for their latest foundation product.

This ad is a good example of the kind of imagery that we are supposedly “bombarded” with: the kind of imagery that simultaneously manages to make women feel insecure about their appearance and enslave the weaker-minded male of the species. Personally I think men and women are smarter than that, however, the language used here is troubling. The connection that is made between the quality of ones skin and its representative image: “pixel perfect your skin…” (which could be a synonym for “Photoshop your skin”) sounds pretty creepy; blurring the distinction between the digital pixel and the organic. This phrase seems at odds with ideas of outer and inner beauty that cosmetic giants like L’Oreal presumably wish to be associated with.

Whilst most of us are more than happy to have a zit or a stray nostril hair airbrushed from the odd portrait, this solution sounds a bit like a kind of ‘app’ that might be overlaid on oneself like some odious smartphone special effect filter. Cole leaves us with “look photo ready from every angle” which perhaps is meant to be an aspirational command. (“You can look as good as a singer/model/game show hostess / whatever like me with this slap on your mug.”) Perhaps the phrase and the ad ironically summarises the myth of beauty / glamour / celebrity photography: “photo ready” – ready to be photographed – prepared and moulded for the camera and its monocular, Albertian perspectival point-of-view.

This week saw the Oxford English Dictionary editors nominate the word ‘selfie’ as their ‘word of the year’ [3]. Whilst it is a little tragic that something as narcissistic as the selfie is so ubiquitous that it has transcended the cult and entered mainstream verbal currency, it underscores what a diverse and relevant field of study photography is. Perhaps the rise of the selfie, and the phrases used in the L’Oreal ad, point to a new direction for the vernacular language of photography. How long will it be until photography is no longer discussed with terms that relate to guns, hunting and killing, but the self, sex and appearance?

 

[1] SONTAG S. (1977) On Photography. New York: Fararr, Straus & Giroux. Pp.12 – 15.

[2] Sigmund Freud [1919] (2003) The Uncanny. London: Penguin Books. pp.123 – 162

[3] http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/press-releases/oxford-dictionaries-word-of-the-year-2013/ (last accessed 23.11.13)

Where’s the Colour in Black and White?

This blog was commissioned by the Open College of the Arts and can be seen in context here

One Sunday afternoon around the time I was first getting into photography, I took set of black and white 10” x 8” black and white photographs, which I had laboriously printed in the darkroom at a community arts space, to show off to my grandparents. I was proud with what I had achieved, although I’m sure the tonal contrast was flat, they were covered with specks of dust, and by now I’m sure the prints are brown and stink of hypo because I didn’t wash them properly. So, when my grandpa looked at them and was clearly at a loss as to what an appropriate response should be, I was disappointed. “Don’t you like them?” I said. His response stumped me as abruptly as my pictures had appeared to disarm him: “Well…” he replied “…they’re ok; but there’s no colour in them!”

I don’t remember what exchanges took place after that; needless to say I had no idea whatsoever of how to make sense of this observation. It was an archetypical philistine remark, yet somehow it was kind of profound. Clearly the monochrome image was not enough for him; simply the bare bones of a picture, that needed some fleshy colour.

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Couleurs de L’Ombre
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Couleurs de L’Ombre

 I wish I could say that my grandpa’s desire for colour imagery over black and white put him amongst the progressive documentary photographers like Shore, Eggleston, Reas, Graham, Parr, Fox, etc. etc. and reflected the shifting attitudes amongst art institutions which have resulted in the superiority (in terms of popularity) of colour photography as the aesthetic mode of choice for both contemporary fine art and documentary practitioners. But sadly not. However, I think his position reflects a vox populi (not that colour = arty, because monochrome still wins that contest); that colour = more understanding.  Production companies and broadcasters have delighted us with recently discovered and re-mastered historic colour moving image footage; marketing them in such a way that the material offers a re-imagining of a historical narrative. The Second World War, and the Nazis are old favourites. See Channel 4’s series Hitler’s Rise: The Colour Films and LIFE’s feature here. I have to admit I have fallen for this kind of mystification. Recently, looking through the US Library of Congress photo archive, I must say that I found exploring the collection of colour photos from the Farm Security Administration did somehow put a different light on my understanding of a chapter of history that I did not know had been documented with colour film.

Chopping cotton on rented land near White Plains, Greene County, Ga. 1941
Jack Delano: Chopping cotton on rented land near White Plains, Greene County, Ga. 1941. Courtesy of the US Library of Congress

What colour adds – or perhaps detracts – from monochrome (and vice versa) has perhaps, thanks to a passing remark from a bumphled relative, been on my mind for the about 15 years. But having said that, I wasn’t particular excited with the theme of this year’s Rencontres – ‘Arles in Black’ [and white] – which addressed the significance or importance, or perhaps even the relevance, of black and white photography today. Aren’t there more pressing questions for such an important event? One of the concerns I had was that such a theme would lead to an extensive ‘dusting-off’ of older (but hardly newly discovered) bodies of work and shoehorning them uncomfortably into a contemporary context. Not all of my pre-conceptions materialised in my experience of the festival. I think one body of work that highlighted the subversive potential of monochrome was Paulo Nozolino’s photographs, which gave a sense of the industrialization of lavender cultivation in Provence, questioning the picturesque myth with which we are all so familiar.

Paulo Nozolino
Paulo Nozolino

Gallerists and publishers are keen to play upon the novelty of colour when announcing the discovery of unknown colour works, or the ‘first’ colour works by a photographer who previously has been know only for their black and white pictures. It’s as if they are trying to grasp at something like the moment when Bob Dylan emerged on stage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 with a buzzing Stratocaster. (Sadly I’m plagiarising this analogy, but I can’t recall from whom. Any answers of the true author would be gratefully received.) Tony Ray Jones’s recent American Colour: 1962 – 1965 is a classic example of this. (In William Eggleston’s Before Colour we can see this process in reverse.) If I appear cynical, it’s not a problem I have with the actual photographs (far from it), but a desire for a greater understanding of kind of mythologizing.

There felt like such an effort with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s project Couleurs de L’Ombre [Colours of the Shade] that was installed at the Église Saint-Blaise. Similar to Dylan’s die hard folk fans, although I didn’t find myself chanting ‘Judas’, I did kind of mutter it; not because he had transgressed to the ‘dark side’ of colour photography, but because of the highly problematic and conflicting ideologies that this installation presented.

 

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Couleurs de L’Ombre
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Couleurs de L’Ombre

 

 

Interview with the Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan

Originally published on WeAreOCA

In the process of working on the new Photography Level 3 professional practice module, I contacted the Guardian and Observer’s correspondent on photography, Sean O’Hagan, to ask him about how came to make a living out of writing about photography and the changes that have taken place within such a role in recent years. We felt that Sean’s response was generous and that it was worth sharing with everyone. Enjoy…

JA: How did you become the Guardian and the Observer’s photography correspondent and critic?

SO: I worked in the music press (NME) back in the 1980s and then for The Face and Arena magazines. I started writing freelance for the ‘grown-up’ newspapers – The Guardian, mainly –  after the success of my feature on The Birth of the New Lad in Arena  in 1993. When I worked at NME, I became friendly with some of their photographers because you often went on trips to America with them to cover bands. I was always jealous of them because they got paid more than me and their job seemed much easier. (They still do and it still is!) My best friend is Steve Pyke, a portrait photographer, and I worked with him and Kevin Cummins a lot back then. I became interested in photography after buying a book by Josef Koudelka in the 1980s and seeing his portrait of a man in handcuffs on a hill in Romania. Just an intriguing and mysterious photograph that haunted me. I was also familiar with great photojournalism – Don McCullin especially. I started writing about photography in the early noughties because no one else was doing it in the mainstream press and it seemed so vibrant a scene here and abroad. It just grew from there and then the Guardian asked me to do a regular online column. I still prefer interviews, though.
JA:  How do you go about choosing work and topics to write about?
SO: A lot of time is spent looking at new stuff – online stuff , pdfs of new books, websites I like, and checking out what publishers are releasing. A lot of time is spent in independent bookshops. That’s where you can really check the pulse of contemporary photography. The book is the thing. It’s how most people absorb photography. You can go to a bookshop and be blown away by something new that is an art object in itself and never even think of seeing the same work in a show. I think photography is unique in that way. I go to openings and events and book launches. There is always more stuff than I can process, sadly. Plus, I am writing for a different audience than say an art magazine, so there is an extra  degree of selection involved. A lot of time is spent trawling though emails…hundreds of emails. But, I divide my time between photography, other interview-based journalism with artists, writers etc and trying to finish a book. It’s a constant juggling match.  A lot of time is still spent convincing editors that a book or show is worth reviewing, especially with new work. Photography is still the poor relation to painting, theatre, and even dance, for Gawd’s sake! It does get to me….I do feel I am on a mission.
JA: What are the best things about your job?
SO: I’m doing what I want – writing about something I love. Discovering new work that is exiting. I’ve always followed my enthusiasms. Plus the photography community in Britain is still relatively small and, despite the egos, there is still a felling that we are all in it together.
JA: Do you think that writers and critics like yourself influence the way photography is is consumed by audiences?
SO: Not sure really. You’d have to ask the readers. If you read the online comments, you’d give up writing full stop, but I get some positive feed back as well. I know I have engendered fierce debate about certain things: The Deutsche Borse Prize, the curator-led domination of conceptual work, that kind of thing. And my feature on The Ruins of Detroit book by Marchand and Meffre (Jan ’11) had an extraordinary online response. Most viewed after Wiki- Leaks. It struck some kind of chord, but that kind of thing is the exception. I think Britain lagged behind America and France in taking photography – especially contemporary photography – seriously, but now it is catching up fast. A lot of people still like photography to be black and white, literally and metaphorically. I hope I have contributed a little bit to changing that perception. But it has been a battle. I remember when I got William Eggelston’s Red Ceiling on the cover of the Observer magazine. That was a huge victory for me – three decades after he took the photograph!  A lot of people were baffled, though, but they needed to be!
JA:  Photographers usually voice the extent to which their jobs have changed over the past decade. How has your role changed over the past decade? 
SO: Dramatically. I remember going to the Arles Rencontres Festival in France for the first time in 2004, when Martin Parr was the curator. I arrived on Wednesday afternoon into this vast hub of photography and I had to turn around a 1200 word feature by the Friday morning. Now, I think that was such a luxury. These days, I go to Arles and I have to blog daily and do the review and network (there is talk of also making short films and audio pieces.)  But still, it’s kind of exciting.
One thing I would say is the whole thrust of the media is towards fast response and I am quite a reflective writer, so that’s been a challenge. I HATE having to respond so quickly to something. I need time to think things though, but that is how it is now. That’s why I have insisted that every second online piece is a column rather than a blog. More measured, more thoughtful. Photography demands thought,  close attention. All good art does. Also, I’m glad photography is vibrant right now, but I wish there weren’t so many festivals and prizes. It’s getting a bit ridiculous.
JA: How important is it for students to be able to write about their practice?
SO: A student in Belfast asked me that last year. Plaintively. In fact, he said, could you give a talk about how we could write about our work? I thought that was revealing. They need practical help on this sort of thing. I think a lot of visual people find it difficult to make their ideas concise. I’ve also noticed a lot of pseudo-conceptual blather at degree shows and when I did degree show selections for Source magazine and the Photographers Gallery. Paragraphs of ill-digested theory and really mundane or derivative photographs. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but I sometimes think there is a bit if a crisis in the teaching of photography. I really think po-mo [post modern] theory should be held back to post-graduate stage. Learn to take or make good pictures first, then you can theorise all you like. And read Robert Adams: Beauty in Photography or Along Some Rivers. (A lot of photographers are great writers – Adams, Arbus, Shore…) Or read Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language. It’s full of practical tips on how to write concisely and directly. It’s important. Or, if you are really no good at it, get someone else to do it.
JA: What advice would you give to students who want to make a living from writing about photography or the visual arts more generally?
SO: Learn how to write – see Orwell’s essay, mentioned above. You have to decode often difficult or oblique – even preposterous – ideas from time to time for your readers. You can’t do that by being dense, oblique or preposterous in your writing. Think about where you are going to write and tailor your style accordingly. Read great essayists. Joan Didion’s essays remain my single most important source of inspiration. They changed how I thought about writing and made me think that non-fiction could be as powerful as fiction and that observation and deep looking and listening is everything. I still think that. Find your own personal Didion!  But, yes, it’s harder now to make a living in the digital world and there are so many people taking photographs. I think writing is kind of instinctive, too, like photography, but then you work at it and hone it down. Look at good online writing about photography. Joel Colberg’s blog, Conscientious, is good and Elizabeth Avedon. You have to work hard, though, and somehow find a voice in this overcrowded world. It’s a vocation. Good luck!

 

Read Sean O’Hagan’s blog on the Guardian website here 

 

How Contemporary is the Royal Photographic Society?

This article was published in Source magazine, no. 61, Winter 2009/10, pp. 6 – 7

In 1989, the Royal Photographic Society established a special interest ‘Contemporary Group’ to bring the society up to date and accommodate members with a more progressive view of photography. Twenty years on, what is the place of the Contemporary Group (CG) in the RPS, and the relevance of the Society itself today?

The RPS has survived for over 150 years and currently has a membership of around 10,000. It describes its role as ‘to promote the Art and Science of Photography’, however the interpretation of this definition has always been disputed. In the 1890s the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring, who felt that the Society was too preoccupied with technical developments, broke away to promote photography as an art form. Ironically, shortly after this split, the Society adopted the Linked Ring’s pictorialist aesthetics and today they still define the typical style of the majority of its members.

In the late 1980s the RPS recognised that a group should be established for photography as a medium for contemporary fine art practice. This was partly the result of articles criticising the Society written by Paul Hill, who was on the Arts Council’s photography sub-committee at the time. Edward Bowman was the architect of the Contemporary Group and suggested Paul Hill become the Group’s first chairman. Bowman is highly critical of the RPS at that period: ‘The Council of the RPS completely ignored the all the revolutionary changes both in photographic practice and in the visual arts generally. I had hoped that such a group might stimulate them into trying some new approaches to photographic work and so guide them into mainstream photography as it is practiced outside the RPS corral.’

Much of the Society’s appeal and activity centres on its Distinctions system. Paul Hill describes the Distinctions as the Society’s main selling point, as it gives their members something to aim for with their work. Stuart Blake, the current RPS Director General admits that the Distinctions are not a formal qualification but give an indication to the level of a member’s technical and visual ability. He says that applications for Distinctions continue to be high, adding that they ‘give members a feel-good factor’.

In 1989, the CG felt that the structure of the RPS needed modernising, and several attempts were made to do so. One such effort was Paul Hill’s suggestion that Photography BA graduates should be awarded with Associate Distinction status automatically, without the submission of a portfolio of work. Hill hoped that this would persuade younger photographers to get involved in the RPS, and make them feel that their contribution was valued; ‘I hoped that this would also persuade lecturers and others that the RPS wanted to regain its position as a “learned society”. Sadly I do not think the amateurs, who are the majority, quite got what we were trying to do.’ However, the RPS Council did eventually adopt this policy.

The way that Edward Bowman and Paul Hill structured the CG was radical compared to other specialist interest groups. For example, Bowman proposed that members should define the parameters of how their work should be assessed in a 300 word text. In addition to this the CG Distinction Panels were held as open meetings rather than behind closed doors. According to Bowman, the meetings were ‘…used as a teaching opportunity. We were easily able to satisfy the failed candidates as to why their submissions were rejected and also to explain to them how to go about improving their work.’ The Visual Art group (originally called the Pictorial group) tried open meetings, but when one or two went unfavourably for applicants and the meetings ended in uproar, the Council declared that all future Fellowship Distinction meetings should be held privately’.

Paul Hill describes one of the key objectives of the CG and its lasting legacy as encouraging members to think about producing a body of work; rather than dealing with the singular, ‘easel art’ image, which typified the pictorial approach; and asking what members were trying to say, rather than what they were trying to show. This really defines how the ideology of CG differs from the other groups within the RPS, most significantly the Visual Arts group. Visual Arts is the third most poplar specialist interest group in the RPS, Nature is the second largest and the Digital Imaging has the greatest number of members.

Today, the Contemporary Group is still very active. The group held a symposium at Cheltenham in May 2009 entitled The Brilliance of Photography, whose keynote speaker was Gerry Badger (author of the book of the TV series The Genius of Photography). Barry Senior, then RPS President commented; ‘this is the type of event that the RPS should put on’. A similar event, called Spirit of the Age, will be held in May at Birmingham City University. Several practitioners have been booked, including Brian Griffin, Joy Gregory, Tom Hunter, Helen Sear and Simon Roberts.

Although Barry Senior’s approving nod towards the CG’s symposium would suggest the contrary, the echelons of power in the RPS Council have been a thorn in the side of the CG’s attempts to progress the Society. Several prominent members of the CG described their dismay when the RPS Council declared that the distinctions panel could not make any changes to their assessment criteria without the permission of a new, higher panel. This was following changes to the CG’s distinctions criteria which accommodated books or installations as a form of submission. This particular measure caused one long-serving member of the CG’s Distinction panel, Virginia Khuri, to step down. At the same time, the Council declared that a new panel would be formed to consider all Fellowship Distinctions. In Edward Bowman’s words ‘this uber panel, consisting of all the chairpersons of all the Distinctions panels, felt that they had sufficient judgment and knowledge to pass opinions on the other specialised panels. In effect it was the usual canard presumably… they knew what they liked.’ This was the final straw for Bowman, who resigned from the Society.

Relations between the Contemporary Group and the RPS Council today do not seem to be as volatile. Chris Morris, the current chairman of the CG describes only two sorts of responses towards the Group from other members; ‘those who are unclear about what we represent and would like to know more, and those who do understand and are supportive, even if the CG does not represent their particular interests.’ Rosemary Wilman, the current President of the Society speaks highly of the CG. Referring to the forthcoming event in May, Wilman said ‘quality events are exactly what the Society wants to present… I am very much looking forward to attending.’

The RPS has clearly modernised since the 1980s and it is likely that some of this is owed to the influence of the Contemporary Group, not only upon technicalities of the Society’s procedures, but more importantly towards its definition of ‘contemporary’ photography. Last year the Society gave its highest award for the art of photography, the Centenary Medal, to Martin Parr. Some will regard the Award as overdue, considering Parr has been part of the art establishment for well over a decade. For others this shows that at the highest level, the Society has an awareness of contemporary practitioners. This year, chiming with another marker of the ‘contemporary’ in photography, the Deutsche Börse Prize, Honorary Fellowships were awarded to, among others, Jem Southem and Paul Graham.

“A” question about contemporary photography…!

I received an e-mail last night asking me a question and thought that actually the exchange  might make a good blog post…(hope you don’t mind, Chris!)

Hi Jesse,

I have just read your article on ‘How Contemporary is the Royal Photographic Society’. I have a question for you that is causing some debate on the RPS Contemporary Facebook group.

The RPS appears to believe that to be ‘contemporary’ a photograph has to be part of a ‘body of work’. I am but an amateur, but have searched the web and seem to be unable to find this definition anywhere except from the RPS and in particular ‘Brian Steptoe’s’ article and definition.

I am trying to understand what ‘contemporary photography’ is and if a photograph needs to be part of ‘body of work’ to be defined as contemporary photography. As far as I can see this is not the case.

The importance to me of this question is to understand what contemporary photography is. If it is not a ‘body of work’ which is defined as in taking an ‘A’ panel or fellowship then I believe that the RPS needs to make it clear that it is their definition not a true one. Not that this is a problem, but I don’t like it, if I, nor others are being hoodwinked into a definition that is incorrect.

If you have the time I would appreciate hearing your view on the matter.

Best regards

Chris M Grew, Wiltshire

And my reply. Sorry if it’s a bit verbose…

Hi Chris,

Thank you for your e-mail which I have been giving some thought to over the past 24 hours.
I am pleased that the article I put together in 2009 is causing some discussion.
I teach photography quite a bit, and the question of creating photographs that form part of a ‘body of work’ is important for several reasons. On an aesthetic level, it is important to be able to visualize and put together a coherent set of images, so that they might ‘sit’ together comfortably in whatever context a student might want to make them for, e.g. a contemporary art space like a public gallery, or a set of images for a commercial project like a hotel brochure or whatever. Doing this effectively shows that students understand the visual language of photography and how it can form narratives and communicate meaning. Understanding how two images ‘work’ together too is important.
Generally speaking, when my students are working on projects, there are issues that orbit around the subjects they are exploring. A set of photographs, rather than just one, which might make some kind of ‘statement’ might be useful to a certain extent (e.g. Peter Kennard’s reworking of Constable’s ‘Haywain’) but generally speaking, one can say more, or address the multiple facets of the issues around the subject with an expanded set of photographs.
Lastly (these are not definitive reasons, but just what I can think of at present and have the time to address!), if a student shows me a set of photographs (4, 6, 10…whatever) that all clearly address the ideas that the student might have verbalised to me, then I’m going to be pretty convinced that their skills are developing in the right direction.
Now, obviously I am talking about the context of education, which has digressed a little from your original questions. But I think these are the reasons why the RPS Contemporary Group panel might feel the way they do, when it comes to assessing submissions, which is effectively the position I am often in as an assessor within Higher Education. I must stress that I have nothing to do with the RPS and can’t speak on anyones behalf. But as I understand it, RPS distinctions at higher levels are awarded for bodies of work, rather than ‘portfolio’ type submissions, which are by definition the opposite of a single body of work. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Simon Roberts for instance was awarded Fellowship status for his work We English.
Sets of images are common feature of contemporary photography: most practitioners work around certain themes or have specialist interests of a sort and their projects are exhibited in galleries and exhibitions. Go to any ‘contemporary’ SOLO exhibition and the work will be subdivided into different sets, projects or even just arranged chronologically. But there are plenty of exceptions to this. But usually – take Kennard’s ‘Haywain with Cruise Missiles‘ for example – the piece will be identifiable with an individual practitioner and it will be part of their ‘oeuvre’.
So my straight answer is: ‘no’ – a photograph does not need to be part of a set to be considered ‘contemporary’, but in most instances, it will be, and I can see how the RPS Contemporary Group encourages its members to work in such a way, and I support this approach.
‘Contemporary Photography’ also stands up to ‘Pictorial Photography’, which is really about vision on a much simpler level. In my article I quote Paul Hill describing the tradition in pictorialism, for ..’easel art’, which implies two things: firstly, that the thing might need to be appealing to look at (which much contemporary photography – in itself – is not) and secondly; that the thing is meant to stand alone, without the company of other photographs.
In terms of my own definition, contemporary photography is about using the medium to explore themes, ideas and things, and not just about making photographs that are aesthetically progressive. Also, the actual photographs can be subordinate to the ideas around the work. If for instance, if I go to a gallery and the work on display makes me really think and talk about the subject matter it’s representing, rather than how the photographer is making the work, then I think it’s doing its job properly. This kind of brings me back to my original comment to you: I am not just pleased that someone is bothering to read my article, but the fact that you are showing willing to debate the nature of photography is evidently ‘contemporary’ in itself. Long may this continue…
All the best,
Jesse
For an interesting essay on collections of photographs, read David Campany’s essay ‘Almost the same thing: some thoughts on the collector-photographer’ the catalogue for the Tate’s exhibition: Cruel and tender: the real in the twentieth-century photograph (2003) Edited by  Dexter, Emma andWeski, Thomas, (eds.) London: Tate Publishing