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The jarring reality and artful beauty of photography

Perspective: The 'War/Photography' exhibition at the Annenberg and Jeff Wall's made-up scene in 'Dead Troops Talk' remind how news photos can meld interests that seem to be at odds.

April 20, 2013|By Geoff Dyer
  • U.S. Marines after an APC was hit by direct artillery fire. A shell landed in the turret of the vehicle, killing a Marine, in the battle for Dyala Bridge during the invasion of Iraq.
U.S. Marines after an APC was hit by direct artillery fire. A shell landed… (©Gary Knight / VII )

I wonder if the curators of the excellent "War/Photography" show at the Annenberg Space for Photography were tempted to include Jeff Wall's "Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol, Near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter, 1986)". It certainly made a strong impression on Susan Sontag, whose book "Regarding the Pain of Others" ends with a long discussion of a work she considers "exemplary in its thoughtfulness and power."

An image of a "made-up event," this huge photograph was constructed in Wall's studio. "The antithesis of a document," its effectiveness derives, in other words, from the fact that it is a fiction.

But what effect does this have, in turn, on combat photographs that are documents? Are they diminished or enhanced by comparison with Wall's mock-up?

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Consider, for example, Peter van Agtmael's well-known photograph of a line of U.S. troops sheltering from the downdraft of a helicopter in a rocky gray landscape in the province of Nuristan, Afghanistan, in 2007.

Its compositional resemblance to Wall's image suggests that the fictive can set a standard of artistic authenticity to which the real is obliged to aspire — and can still, accidentally, achieve. At the same time, its similarity to W. Eugene Smith's shot of Marines sheltering from an explosion on Iwo Jima in 1945 testifies to its place in the heroic tradition of documentary photography.

It reminds us, also, that what the late John Szarkowski, influential curator at the Museum of Modern Art, considered "photography's central sense of purpose and aesthetic — the precise and lucid description of significant fact" — remains intact, in a battered and shopworn (as opposed to Photoshopped) sort of way, despite the challenge of digital. George Bernard Shaw said that he would willingly exchange every painting of the crucified Christ for a single snapshot of him on the cross. "That," as Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths insisted, "is what photography has got going for it."

Or is this to miss an important point about Wall's work, namely its relationship not to photography as traditionally conceived — as a kind of visual stenography — but to the imaginative ambition and reach of history painting? Sontag describes Wall's intentions as "the imagining of war's horrors (he cites Goya as an inspiration), as in nineteenth-century history painting and other forms of history-as-spectacle."

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If Van Agtmael's photograph falls short of the epic scale of this ambition then we can turn to a picture taken by Gary Knight in Iraq in April 2003. The photograph is actually part of a sequence recording the battle for Diyala bridge. All of the pictures have the kind of immediacy we associate with photojournalism, from Robert Capa and Eugene W. Smith in World War II to Larry Burrows and Don McCullin in Vietnam. Taken together they make up a visual narrative of combat and its aftermath with which we have become wrenchingly familiar. At its heart, however, is a single photograph that contains the larger story of which it is part.

Born in Britain, co-founder of VII Photo Agency, Knight has provided a vivid account of the terrifying context in which the picture was made: "This was at the start of the invasion. We were at the Diyala bridge, which had to be taken by the Marines so they could get into Baghdad. They were the lead battalion, the ones who went on to pull down the statue of Saddam. The opposition were shelling us. It was terrifying — both the actual shelling, and the anticipation of it. It comes in waves so you can see it moving in your direction. One had exploded in the tank. If it had landed on top or a couple of feet over, I would have died."

The slight blurring of the leg and foot of the soldier walking across the scene shows that a relatively slow shutter speed was enough to capture everyone else with near-perfect clarity. This technical detail is important less for its own sake than the way it reflects something that James Salter writes about the Battle of Okinawa at the beginning of his new novel "All That Is." Everything, writes Salter, was happening at two speeds, "the desperate haste of action and also at a lesser speed, that of fate." Eliding the technical and the fictive, we can see what might be called the shutter speed of fate in Knight's picture.

In its dead center a soldier is pointing — directing our attention — to the corpse that everyone else, with the possible exception of the soldier advancing toward the camera on the extreme left, seems determined to ignore. Understandably: In situational terms he is the least important figure there; in every other way, he is the most important figure in the picture, its unavoidable focus.

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