By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHARPER MINDS THAN MINE WILL SPEND AN INFINITE AMOUNT OF EFFORT THIS WEEK CATALOGUING THE COSTS OF THE “GREAT WAR“, the world’s first truly global conflict, sparked by the trigger finger of a Serbian nationalist precisely one hundred years ago. These great doctors of thinkology will stack statistics like cordwood (or corpses) in an effort to quantify the losses in men, horses, nations and empires in the wake of the most horrific episode of the early 20th century.
Those figures will be, by turns, staggering/appalling/saddening/maddening. But in the tables of numbers that measure these losses and impacts, one tabulation can never be made: the immeasurable loss to the world of art, and, by extension, photography.
There can be no quantification of art’s impact in our lives, no number that expresses our loss at its winking out. Photography, not even a century old when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was dispatched to history, was pressed into service to document and measure the war and all its hellish impacts. But no one can know how many war photographers might have turned their lenses to beauty, had worldwide horror not arrested their attention. Likewise, no one can know how many Steichens, Adamses, or Bourke-Whites, clothed in doughboy uniforms, were heaped on the pyre as tribute to Mars and all his minions. Most importantly, we cannot know what their potential art, now forever amputated by tragedy, might have meant to millions seeking the solace of vision or the gasp of discovery.
Photography as an art was shaped by the Great War, as were its tools and techniques, from spy cameras to faster films. The war set up a symbiosis of horror between the irresistible message of that inferno and the unblinking eye of our art. We forever charged certain objects as emblems of that conflict, such that an angel now is either a winged Victory, an agent of vengeance, or a mourner for the dead, depending on the photographer’s aims. That giant step in the medium’s evolution matters, no less than the math that shows how many sheaves of wheat were burned on their way to hungry mouths.
Our sense of what constitutes tragedy as a visual message was fired in the damnable forge of the Great War, along with our ideals and beliefs. Nothing proves that art is a life force like an event which threatens to extinguish that life. One hundred years later, we seem not to have learned too much more about how to avoid tumbling into the abyss than we knew in 1914, but, perhaps, as photographers, we have trained our eye to bear better witness to the dice roll that is humanity.