By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS STRIVE TO GIVE DIRECT TESTIMONY to life’s key moments, to minimize the distance between event and reporter. The most arresting photographs benefit from this straight line-of-sight from what we witness to how we record it. Other times, however, we are forced to depict things indirectly, making pictures not of things, but of the impact of those things.
One example of this occurs in wartime. It’s impossible, in many cases, to directly make an image of all those who are lost in a battle, but many eloquent photographs have been made of the way those dead are remembered, by photographing lists of names inscribed on a memorial, or by capturing a ritual during which those names are recited. Since society records the damage of wars or disasters in a variety of clerical or statistical ways, such tabulations, for photographers, stand in visually for the actual event.
Our latest global “war”, in which even the immediate families of the dead are barred from witnessing their loved ones’ final moments, a time in which thousands of us seem to just vaporize into abstraction, has made a new, horrific addition to a very old instrument of death’s grammar: the newspaper obituary. In recent months, the virus has begun to be specifically listed as a cause of death in the stately columns of the New York Times, a revision which signals the importance of change in how slowly the Old Gray Lady adjusts to it. There now, on the page, along with the Parkinson’s diseases and the cancers and the sanitized descriptions of those who “passed peacefully” are the dread new words, now officially inducted into the vocabulary of grief.
And so, in the age of COVID-19, our cameras are stalled at arm’s length, unable to be true eyewitnesses, forced, by circumstances, to be eyewitnesses, once removed. We make pictures of pictures, images of lists, views of rosters.
It’s not enough. But for now, it will have to do.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT THE TIME OF THIS WRITING, November 2018, the world is pausing, all too briefly, to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the armistice between Germany and the Allied powers, the first halting step toward ending what our forebears called The Great War. Such was the scope and scale of butchery in that conflict that more than a few prophets of the time predicted that no such savagery could ever be repeated. So much for mankind’s ability to forecast, or even to learn from, its own folly.
The war was the first armed conflict to be photographed exhaustively both in still and moving images, producing a ponderous archive that, even with the losses of a full century, provides a common legacy of memory that is beyond price. Another such photographic archive is more emotionally immediate, in the snapshots, taken in the field and sent home to mothers and sweethearts, snapped at reunions, shared at funerals. And the third legacy, for photographers, is chronicling the various public works created to honor the fallen. Memorials. Mausoleums. Arches. Dedications. Grave sites. Statues. Every remembrance becomes a kind of history in its own right, with its own origin stories, artists, controversies, legends. We make images of war, create photos of those swept up in them, and take pictorial memorials of….other memorials.
Some of the tributes for one war become casualties of another: others may last long enough to be re-thought or re-purposes. Even more find their story blurred or obliterated, with plaques marking battles that have fallen out of popular memory. One of the things obliterated by all the bombs is context.
Perhaps Lincoln was right: we may not be able to hallow the ground that heroes trod, for all our noble intentions and grand words. It is only in our corrective action that we guarantee that the sacrifices of the few become, please God, the wisdom of the many.
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.