By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MOST POWERFUL ROLE THAT PHOTOGRAPHY CAN PLAY DURING WARTIME, or, in fact, in the midst of any human catastrophe, is to find the images that unify: symbolic pictures that show the world, quickly and clearly, what it’s like for certain people under the gun of history, and how their faces, their fears, belong to everyone. We seek and need photographs that connect us.
At any moment, many of us are more than half a planet away from some of the biggest conflicts of our time, and so our ability to directly bear witness is limited. However, we avidly follow the most inclusive of the pictures that emerge, looking for our own lives within the shock and horror etched on the faces of people we will likely never meet. In normal times, we focus, strangely, on how different we are from each other: in dire times, we realize how very much alike we really are.
Sculptors, painters and photographers seek the universal in their depiction of human suffering.
The statue “Athena’s Prayer”, sculpted by American southwestern artist James Muir, was dedicated in 2018 for a war memorial plaza in the Arizona town of Fountain Hills. The work was commissioned to give special honor to the increasing role of women in recent global conflicts in a space that mostly memorializes men who served in earlier American engagements. The young woman stands with her helmet in her arms, looking up to heaven in a mixture of wonder and reverence. Or at least that was the stated intention of the artist.
On my most recent visit to the plaza, with the Ukranian invasion the stuff of daily headlines, the statue’s facial features began, to me, to more closely suggest not a professional fighter, but a citizen-soldier, someone newly enlisted into an existential struggle for survival, not in some far-off battlefield, but in her own neighborhood. Instead of her upward gaze being an entreaty to Heaven, it seemed to me now to show her watching the skies for signs of fresh Hell, and so I shot her with a softened, almost ethereal look, wreathed in a dark vignette, her torso cropped away to emphasize just the essentials of her emotions. I wanted to make her into what we all seek in times of turmoil…..a universal image, a recognizable mask of the common fears of the common person.
After 9/11, the phrase “we are all New Yorkers now” found resonance in the popular vocabulary, and it has been repeatedly customized over the past twenty-some years to embrace other tragedies, so that “we are all” whoever we most pity or with whom we pledge solidarity at a given moment. And alongside that sentiment are the pictures, pictures that show us that all suffering, all love of country, all sacrifice wears the same human features. We cannot readily wrap our arms around those who suffer so far away from us. But, at least in our choice of pictorial proxies, we can wrap their hearts around our own.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“THE WORLD IS TOO MUCH WITH US“, goes the classic Wordsworth sonnet, which points out that, not only do we miss seeing much of that which is most essential in our lives, we may not even know what we don’t know. And, in the general realm of art, and specifically in the art of photography, what survives in our visual record is limited to what we believed was important…at the time.
Reality is constantly morphing, and try as we might to use our cameras to bear witness to The Big Stuff, we neglect the fact that much of which we regard as anecdotal, as the “little stuff”, might just be biggest of all in the long run. The decisions required by art in the midst of history are terrifying. What image to make? What event to record? What kind of case to make for ourselves, as agents of our time?
This year, 2017, marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the United States’ entry into what was then called The Great War. The term was grandiose, and dire, denoting a conflict that was, for the first time, truly global, a tsunami of slaughter so vast that it had been, heretofore, simply unimaginable. And yet, in time, the phrase was abandoned, because we had rendered it obsolete, by the obscene act of ordering up a sequel. And so we began to take the greatest mass murders of all time, and merely number them, as if they were nothing more than sequential lines on an endless horizon. And with these wars, for the first time, came pole-to-pole photographic coverage, an unprecedented, ubiquitous visual chronicle. Again, the questions: did we get it right? Did we make the pictures that needed to be made?
Who can know? The blood that soaks the battlefields also waters the grass that eventually covers them over. The din of death becomes the silence of lost detail. Photographs curl, tear, burn, vanish, become memories of memories. We hope some small part of our art becomes an actual legacy. And again, we ask: what did we miss? Whose stories did we neglect? Which evidence did we ignore? The world, always too much with us, forces us, now as then, to edit on the fly, hoping we can at least strive, against all odds, to be reliable narrators.
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.