the photoshooter's journey from taking to making




A PICTURE, WHEN IT TRULY COMMUNICATES, isn’t worth a thousand words. The comforting cliché notwithstanding, a great picture goes beyond words, making its emotional and intellectual connection at a speed that no poet can compete with. The world’s most enduring images carry messages on a visceral network that operates outside the spoken or written word. It’s not better, but it most assuredly is unique.

Most Veteran’s Days are occasions of solemnity, and no amount of reverence or respect can begin to counterbalance the astonishing sacrifice that fewer and fewer of us make for more and more of us. As Lincoln said at Gettysburg, there’s a limit to what our words, even our most loving, well-intended words, can do to consecrate that sacrifice further.

But images can help, and have acted as a kind of mental shorthand since the first shutter click. And along with sad remembrance should come pictures of joy, of victory, of survival.

Of a sailor and a nurse.

Alfred Eisenstaedt, the legendary photojournalist best known for his decades at Life magazine, did, on V-J day in Times Square in 1945, what millions of scribes, wits both sharp and dull, couldn’t do. He produced a single photograph which captured the complete impact of an experience shared by millions, distilled down to one kiss. The subjects were strangers to him, and to this day, their faces largely remain a mystery to the world. “Eisie”, as his friends called him, recalled the moment:

In Times Square on V.J. Day I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight. Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, it didn’t make a difference. I was running ahead of him with my Leica, looking back over my shoulder, but none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse. If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture. If the sailor had worn a white uniform, the same. I took exactly four pictures. It was done within a few seconds.

Those few seconds have been frozen in time as one of the world’s most treasured memories, the streamlined depiction of all the pent-up emotions of war: all the longing, all the sacrifice, all the relief, all the giddy delight in just being young and alive. A happiness in having come through the storm. Eisie’s photo is more than just an instant of lucky reporting: it’s a toast, to life itself. That’s what all the fighting was about anyway, really. That’s what all of those men and women in uniform gave us, and still give us. And, for photographers the world over, it is also an enduring reminder from a master:

This, boys and girls, is how it’s done.”



Landing craft and tanks at Omaha beach during ...

Landing craft and tanks at Omaha beach during the D-Day landings, many of which had departed from Penarth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


THE SHEER WEIGHT OF THE NUMBERS attendant to the D-Day invasion, begun sixty-eight years ago today, beggars the imagination. And yet, faced with the even tougher task of weighing the unimaginable horror and slaughter played out on the beaches of Normandy, the ability to somehow quantify the cost in raw data is oddly comforting. It’s certainly easier than evaluating the loss to the world, in muscle and blood, of the largest military operation in recorded history. Some selected figures:

The players: one million Allies, seven hundred thousand German troops.

The hardware:  8.000 artillery pieces; 2,546 Allied bombers and 1,731 fighters, 820 German bombers and fighters; 3,500 towed gliders (100 glider pilots killed).

Lost materiel: 24 warships and 35 merchant ships sunk; 127 allied planes shot down.

The human cost of the initial invasion in gross numbers:  6,603  Americans, 2,700 British, 946 Canadians, and between 4,000 and 9.000 Germans;

And then there was the “before” killing and the “after” killing, with 12,000 airmen and 200 war planes lost in April and May 1944 in preparation for 6/4/44, and a general toll by the end of the Battle of Normandy of 425,000 Allies and Germans killed or wounded.

Today, in Normandy, spread across 77 separate cemeteries lie the remains of  77,866 Germans; 9,386 Americans; 17,769 British; 5,002 Canadians and 650 Poles.

 We no longer make war, shoulder-to-shoulder, as a nation, choosing instead to selectively outsource skills that were in unending supply across the face of the country just a few short decades ago. Where we were participants we are now spectators.
Something important has been lost.

Inside the cabin of a restored B-17, one of the workhorses of the air war over Normandy on the first wave of the D-Day Invasion. 1/125 sec., f/5, 250 ISO, 18mm.

The weight of that shared sacrifice washed over me in a mix of terror, pride, magic, amazement, and legend as I stood inside the restored cabin of a B-17 bomber earlier this year. The musty air just rearward of the cockpit was alive with echoes, as was the realization that I was privileged to examine this ancient airship in calm serenity because of the unflinching commitment of those who remained behind.
The blood on that beach redeemed us all, bought us time, ransomed us from a nightmare beyond understanding.
We need to earn that gift, and to continue to perfect the nation they willingly left behind.
To give us our chance.