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By David Levy


The Montréal Review, January 2012


"Death of a Soldier, Iraq, 24 March, 2000" © David Leeson/The Dallas Morning News (Houston Museum)


I am the man, I suffer'd, I was there..

I am the mashed fireman with breast-bone broken,

Tumbling walls buried me in their debris.

Walt Whitman from "Song of Myself", Leaves of Grass,

1871-1873 text, E.P.Dutton, 1912.


THE Museum of Fine Arts Houston's exhibition  WAR/ PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath includes a photo of a dead man's lower limbs, stocking feet in loafers, the shot chopped off just above the ankles. The corpse is lying on a patch of dark sand somewhere. David Leeson, the photographer: "By the time I made this photograph in 2003, during the invasion of Iraq, I was no stranger to conflict. I'd seen unspeakable things from wars. I never asked to go to war. I never enjoyed being there. I went because it was a duty to speak the truth with fairness and accuracy. There were a lot of Iraqi soldiers lying across the desert. I think everybody knows that war means that people die. And in this case, it's more than just a photograph of death. It tells a story, with the rocks embedded in the empty heel and his awkward pose in death, it reminded me of so many battlegrounds for hundreds of years. It's been my every effort to do the best I could as a photojournalist, to tell those truths as best I possibly could and in the most difficult circumstances." (1)

We are not told whose limbs these were. The photographer likely had no idea of the fellow's identity. The trousers seem military. Do the loafers mean the dead man might not have been an Iraqi combatant? 

One would not in the general run of things have had access to the photographer's account of how the photo came to be or what it meant to him. Words are required to make sense of photos like these, words that come close to rendering the images themselves redundant.


Photojournalism began with the development of a method for the mass dissemination of the photographic image. There was initially no publication of photographs in the press. Daguerreotypes, direct positives fixed on a silver-coated copper plate, could not be mass produced and were only seen at formal exhibitions. Which may have encouraged the first photographers to think of themselves as doing what painters did, which is to say producing artsy one-offs. There was a time when Americans got their notions of the realities of battle from woodcuts. 

When the technology that made possible the publication of half-tone photographs became available it was not immediately embraced by the press barons. Fearing their readers would dismiss the half-tone as a cheap substitute for the hand-drawn item, they held back. Five days after the Maine explosion in Havana Harbour on 15 February, 1898 what were called the first published photos of the disaster appeared in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. But they were in fact drawings based on photos, a practice that he started at the World in 1883.

One of the earliest practical half-tone demonstrations, called a leggotype, dated from 1869, almost a full generation earlier. The inventors, William Leggo and George Desbarats, launched The New York Graphic which printed the first half-tone in 1880. By 1897, half-tones printed on speed presses appeared in The New York Tribune. In 1891, there were upwards of 1000 artists in America producing 10,000 news drawings each week, most copied from photographs. It was a practice that continued for almost 25 years after the introduction of the half-tone. Some publications, among them   The New York Times Illustrated Magazine did provide a generous amount of photographic material with their war reports, but only on Sunday. (2)      


Watercolourists were at work on war scenes before and after the cameras. Charles Bell produced a series, watercolours of wounds sustained by soldiers at the Battle of Waterloo, 1815. Among them Bell's gruesome "Sabre wound to abdomen, Peltier, Belgian Hospital 2 July." There were WW1 surgical watercolour portraits of men with parts of their faces blown off. Gordon Rushmer's The Burning of Gornji Vakuf, Bosnia, 1997 looks nothing like of a war calamity. (3)


Photographers sought out battlefields beginning with the Mexican war in 1846, and subsequent conflicts in India, China and Europe. The original war shutterbugs faced challenges painters could ignore: "Once he left his studio, it was impossible for the photographer to copy the painter's schemata. He could not stage-manage the battle like Uccello or Velasquez, bringing together elements which had been separate in space and time, nor could he rearrange the parts of his picture to construct a design that pleased him better." (4) Though, as it has been observed, there were many attempts to do that.

John McCosh (also MacCosh), a British army surgeon, used a paper negative calotype process to record images during the Second Sikh War, 1848-1849 and the Second Burma War, 1852-53. The photographs included views of the city of Calcutta, captured artillery pieces, pagodas, monasteries and palaces. Most were portraits of officers, their wives and families, servants, natives and troops, British and Indian. It was thought that his knowledge of clinical medicine contributed to his familiarity with chemicals and was of significant assistance in his photographic career. McCosh regarded himself as an artist and paid great painterly attention to his subjects. (5)

Of fellow Englishmen going off to war McCosh wrote:

"From east and west, from south and north,

Each county sends its squadrons forth,

Their weapons all of precious worth

Their uniforms all various.

Their bushy beards all trimmed with care,

Their bearing of the do and dare,

Their music rich in olden air,

Their ensigns multifarious."

They might, in other words, be on their way to nothing more precarious than a rugby match. Reports from the 1882 British invasion of Egypt told a different story, as is evident in lines of verse McCosh paraphrased from Egyptian dispatches containing verbal images of the sort he couldn't or wouldn't photograph: "And many an armless, legless, headless man /Lay stiff and cold beneath some hostile scan..And pariah dogs prowled round and on the dead/Their empty stomachs filled and lapped their gore/Of the Ferhingha visitors in dread/lately in their long-boats come ashore." (6)

Nineteenth century war photography was a witness at a distance from the live action. The photographers were limited by technology and opportunity, not to say stated and unstated rules of decorum, to images of buildings, landscapes, posed scenes of men in uniform, material debris. As for opportunity, Herbert Baldwin, who covered the Balkan War of 1912, offered his colleagues this advice: ".the side to be on is the one which loses the battle as retreat gives better opportunity for authentic pictures while attack always leaves the photographer stranded." (7) Even after new cameras made it possible to get a lot closer to the action photographers wisely kept their distance.

There were numerous photographs on view in France taken during the 1871 Commune. They included numbers of fakes showing Paris burning or the execution of Communards that were "identical in style with the painting of the day. scenes posed by actors or made up photographically by montage or double exposure." (8)

To photograph Crimean War scenes for a commercial publisher, Roger Fenton, a lawyer, amateur painter and photographer of the British royal family, arrived in Sebastopol in March 1855 with two assistants, five cameras, hundreds of glass plates, a van to do double duty as a mobile darkroom, and a letter of introduction from Prince Albert. (9)

Fenton's camera equipment made it impossible for him to record actual artillery exchanges. In any event, his interests were elsewhere, formed by the tradition of military painters who represented battlefields from the vantage point of their patrons: "Cultivated by generals, Fenton ruled supreme among colonels and captains. His correspondence is nearly devoid of references to the 40,000 men fighting in the trenches." (10) Fenton's photographic portraits of the men running the war were the raw material for a lucrative engraving trade: ".the camera made its first appearance on a major battlefield not as a revolutionary reportage tool.but in the subservient role of a 'handmaiden of art'.(11) The painterly focus of Fenton's work was on army personalities, some of the photographs in fact done in London, and on battlefields long after combatants had departed, if they were able: "We search in vain for any reference to death and injury." His one photo of a wounded man was posed: "Fenton never worked in the trenches when the battle raged.never stepped into any of the hospital tents which dotted the camps." (12)

As far as the British generals were concerned warfare was simply another activity in the life of a gentleman: "As the soldiers were marched into the trenches, the supervising officers would ride... the horse was the principle signifier of social division in the British army." (13)

Said a young woman in a letter to her soldier fiancé in the Crimea: "I send you, dear Alfred, a complete photographic apparatus which will amuse you doubtlessly in your moments of leisure, and if you could send me home, dear, a good view of a nice battle, I should feel extremely obliged. P.S. If you could take the view, dear, just in the moment of victory, I should like it all the better." (14)

The issue of photographic invention in Crimea war scenes was addressed by Susan Sontag. Referring to one of Fenton's better known photographs, "The Valley of the Shadow of Death" Sontag alleged that in the second of two photos of the scene, Fenton had attempted to pump up the drama of his on-site presence: "After reaching the much shelled valley approaching Sebastopol in his horse-drawn darkroom, Fenton made two exposures from the same tripod position: in the first version of the celebrated photo he was to call "The Valley of the Shadow of Death".the cannonballs are thick on the ground to the left of the road, but before taking the second picture - the one that is always reproduced - he oversaw the scattering of the cannonballs on the road itself." (15)

Intrigued, the filmmaker Errol Morris decided to investigate the Sontag claim. Following a visit to the site he offered this conclusion: "Did Fenton pose or re-enact the second picture.in the Valley of the Shadow of Death and if he did, did he intend to deceive the prospective viewer? Had he previously seen cannonballs on the road and re-enacted what he had seen in an effort to deceive us into believing it wasn't a re-enactment? I believe in all likelihood Fenton posed the second picture, but I don't believe he intended to deceive anyone. He made no effort to destroy or hide the glass-plated negative of the first picture." (16)

Might this simply have been the solution to a technical obstacle?

".to take a picture in those days, you had to leave the lens open for quite a while; how long, exactly, is a matter of some debate, but it was long enough that any photo with people in it was necessarily staged, if only because subjects had to stay still for an unnaturally protracted period of time. Fenton also did a number of still lifes, which were of course carefully arranged ..The idea of 'candid photography' simply didn't exist, and it stands to reason that what he was doing was closer, at least in his mind, today, Gericault's  Raft of the Medusa than it was to Robert Capa." (17)

More recently questions have been raised about the authenticity of Capa's The Falling Soldier. (18) 

 The cameras of the Matthew Brady organization's Civil War photographers Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan like those of John McCosh and Roger Fenton were unable to capture on-site battle action. There is a photograph described as "Hanging of rebels in American Civil War, 1864", attributed to Alexander Gardner; "Dead boy in the road at Fredericksburg. 1863" was the work of Timothy Sullivan. (19) In the Civil War photographs of Gardner and O'Sullivan some of the corpses were re-arranged for "suitable" aesthetic effect. The dead are plain to see in O'Sullivan's "Field Where General Reynolds Fell" and Gardner's "A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July 1863" also marketed in 3-D stereograph format to enhance the impression. (20)

Hindered by an inability to record actual combat, corpses in uniform were one solution to the chore of gathering war scenes. The Civil War created a market for fake photos and engravings of bearded men in caskets, arms folded and at peace, each purportedly the body of Abraham Lincoln. (21) In any event, the nineteenth-century camera did not possess much of a reputation as incorruptible instrument of documentary truth. But that seemed to suddenly change. The photograph soon came to be regarded as an authorless statement void of a subjective point of view: "Civil War photographs were designed to reassure the audience that there had been no narrative or authorial intervention on the part of the picture maker. There is an uncanny sameness to the look of most of the photographs. Nearly all were made straight-on, without any tilting of the camera. Nearly all were made at a respectable or even great distance from the subject. The depth of field - the range of apparent maximum sharpness - is great; all planes are rendered in sharp delineation. The photographs de-emphasize the picture maker's function as a narrator who directs attention to particular aspects of the scene. These views are supposed to belong to every man, to make the viewer believe, 'This is what I would have seen if I had been there.' " (22)

William Frassanito found that a Civil War photo of four dead confederate troops Matthew Brady alleged he took had apparently been arranged; he subsequently discovered a photo that showed the four very much alive, and "in the act of loading and firing their rifles". (23)             

American correspondents in Cuba in 1898 to cover the Spanish-American war arrived with still cameras as did some of the troops. All were faced with problems resulting from conditions in a tropical environment: "The damp humid climate often ruined the plates, and negatives had to be dried with alcohol to prevent the gelatin from sagging..It was still not possible to take action shots, as James Burton found out when photographing the Battle of San Juan: "Almost before I realized what had happened I found myself, for the first time in my life, under fire, right up in front, on the firing line of the 7th Regiment..I found it impossible to make actual "battle scenes", for many reasons - the distance at which the fighting is conducted, the area which is covered, but chiefly the long grass and thickly wooded country." (24)

Embedding oneself in the midst of the action carried a certain danger with no guarantee of a successful pictorial payoff.

Within a few days of the sinking of the Maine in Havana harbour, Jimmie Hare arrived in Cuba on assignment for Collier's Weekly with two small cameras for "rapid picture taking". Much of Hare's previous experience involved photographing sporting events, trying to catch the action at the right moment. That did him little good in Cuba. The new fast cameras and life-and-death risks yielded Hare only conventional impressions: stills of an American battery in action, a captured blockhouse, six infantrymen carrying a wounded comrade in a makeshift stretcher, the corpse of a naval officer. (25)

Stephen Crane described a Spanish-American War situation he and Hare found themselves in during the battle of San Juan Hill: "The modern bullet is a fairy-flying bird. It rakes the air with its hot spitting song at distances which, as a usual thing, places the whole landscape in the danger-zone. There was no direction from which they did not come. A chart of their courses over one's head would have resembled a spider's web. My friend Jimmie, the photographer, mounted to the firing- line with me, and we gallivanted as much as we dared..It was Jimmie's first action, and as we cautiously were making our way to the right of the lines, the crash of Spanish fire became uproarious, and the air simply whistled. I heard a quavering voice near my shoulder, and, turning, I beheld Jimmie - Jimmie - with a face bloodless, white as paper. He looked at me with eyes opened extremely wide. "Say", he said, "this is pretty hot, ain't it?" (26)

The photographs of Jimmie Hare and others were described as possessing a "vivid fidelity no drawing can equal." (27)

What one mostly sees in Spanish American War photographs are images of troops disembarking, troops on the march, mess lines, a confused scene at a dock, a gun position, a horse-drawn ambulance, a flag raising ceremony.

There are other aspects of the war the photographs do not reveal: "Generally the American government had made inadequate preparation for the war in Cuba. The troops were still in their heavy uniforms, rations were inadequate and medical arrangements poor..The guns seen in an attack photo were obsolete.. such was our backwardness in military science that the whole Army was ignorant of the tremendous advance in Field Artillery that in 1898 was an accomplished fact." (28) Apparently, America, not for the last time, went to war with the military it had, not the one it might have wanted to have.

War, said William Frassanito, can be "a dangerously easy thing to glorify. Vivid accounts of battles and campaigns frequently make war seem exciting, even attractive as a vicarious adventure, especially for those far removed from the actual sights, smells, and pain of a freshly scarred battlefield."

For those more directly involved, much of the experience of war may resist photography: ".long stretches of painful boredom punctuated by brief moments of extreme fear." 29

Photos of war scenes posed or otherwise enhanced may not be the unconscionable corruptions of an otherwise pure documentary process. There remains an underlying, generally unstated, perhaps naïve assumption that to guard its purity the process needs to avoid all forms of tampering, that a camera's presence at a photographed scene should be an altogether unplanned one. An image however produced is a human vision, not a xerox of reality but a statement about it. Today's photoshop images are less the violation of an authentic visual process than the polemical character of the camera declaring its true self. 


Immediacy and authenticity are the sought after war photographer's battlefield prizes, a pornographic sharing of an intimacy with some terrible occurrence via the witness effect i.e. the impression of an empirical presence, a view from a definite point in time perhaps in a perilous place at an angle that may startle but will otherwise offer little    information about the scene or the war deciders.

The focus of HBO's Witness series is photographers at work in Juarez, Libya, South Sudan, Rio. These days with competitive pressure from bloggers and tweeting citizen photojournalists, the photographer may feel pressed to ignore danger and go for more, to sacrifice context and safety for the witness effect.

In 1960, Peter Watkins produced a 16mm film called THE FORGOTTEN FACES. A re-enactment of Soviet military operations in the streets of Budapest in 1956, it was in fact shot in Canterbury, England with a drama group, as Watkins explained to me, four years before Gillo Pontecorvo's THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS: ".by the time I came to make THE FORGOTTEN FACES I was consciously trying to recreate an event and I was very consciously trying to strip away what I defined even then as being the artifice of the traditional theatrical cinema.the artifices of make-up, theatrical lighting, theatrical actors, theatrical camera technique, the atrical dialogue, theatrical script..When I made CULLODEN(1964) for the BBC, I was very conscious of eye contact with the lens and out-of focus foreground and people moving in front of the camera. All that came out of photographs, especially those very, very strong photographs taken in the streets of Budapest and published in Paris Match and  Life. I studied hundreds of photographs to try to recapture the feel in film." (30)

CULLODEN is a unique work of cinema art as is THE WAR GAME, a film Watkins completed the following year employing the same technique. But as he himself recognized that authentic look was not very difficult to reproduce. Inadvertently perhaps he outlined the recipe. Way back when, Stan Brakhage observed something similar about  cinéma vérité's shaky camera aesthetic, that it was easy to fake.


Photographs can provide a record of what has transpired. Such records may be of indeterminate persuasiveness. On April 4, 1945, the United States army captured the Ohrdruf concentration camp outside the town of Gotha in south central Germany. General Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, ordered civilian and military camera units to visit the camp and record their observations, for the record. Sadly, these and other widely disseminated images of Nazi death camp victims have been dismissed as propaganda by Holocaust deniers, the thing Ike feared.



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