Assignment 7 – Photography

Due 8 March 2010 at 2pm via bSpace

Newhall writes (p. 71): “Gardner’s dead sharpshooter, his long rifle gleaming by his side, is not imagined. This man lived; this is the spot where he fell; this is how he looked in death. There lies the great psychological difference between photography and the other graphic arts; this is the quality that photography can impart more strongly than any other picture making….The camera records what is focussed upon the ground glass. If we had been there, we would have seen it so.”

Since the first war photographers in the Crimea in 1855, writers have said that photography would change our perception of war by forcing us to confront the undeniable realities of warfare. (“If we had been there, we would have seen it so.”) Does this claim seem justified? Discuss, with reference to the three iconic war photographs below.

Alexander Gardner, home of a rebel sharpshooter, Gettysburg, PA 1863
Eddie Adams, general killing Viet Cong prisoner, Vietnam, 1968
Robert Capa, “Death of  a Loyalist Militiaman,” Spain 1937


As Beaumont Newhall explains in “The History of Photography,” photographs are important in society for their ability to depict the truth and to capture emotions. Photographs play an important role in war and battle because descriptions from the government always glorify war to boost national morale while photographs show hidden realities of war. Alexander Gardner’s photographs of the Civil War let Americans truly witness and mourn the casualties of a long, tiring war[1]. Robert Capa’s photograph of the dying Loyalist allowed people to feel the same effect with the Spanish Civil War. The loyalist dressed in everyday clothing falls to a fascist bullet, representing for many the fall of democracies across the world to totalitarian regimes. During the Vietnam War the government censored any images of the war to keep public support. When Eddie Adams famous photograph of the Viet Cong prisoner was published, Americans realized how violent and dirty the war was and quickly changed their positions of support. Through these 3 photographs the public did not receive the usual glorified stories of nationalism and was able to truly grasp the emotions and destructiveness of warfare, However, these photographs have all been criticized for their particular framing and manipulation of the scenes, Many believed Gardner moved the rifle of the sharpshooter to make a more powerful statement and man believed he picked up the body and place it to this spot[2]. Capa was also criticized for staging the entire scene[3]. Eddie Adams is quoted for claiming the S. Vietnamese guard was actually an American Hero that died without American knowing anything about him[4]. Although these controversies have not been completely proven, their existence shows how a photograph can recreate and manipulate realities in the same way an artist can in the graphic arts.
[1] Cornell University Library. “Gettysburg.” 2002
[2] ibid.
[3] Whelan, Richard. “Proving that Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” is Genuine: A Detective Story” 2002.
[4] Life Magazine. “100 photographs the changed the world” 2003

Confrontation is meant to expose the ignored or forgotten aspects of reality that may threaten individual awareness and reaction; unfortunately, confrontational tactics are not always met with their intended responses or even reach their intended audience. As early photographers capitalized on the new-founded technological superiority of their trade, in relation to the “subjectively diluted” representations of painters, art as an operation of authenticity became another falsely standardized ideal. The argument that suggests the medium of painting to be entirely constructed and staged, and therefore dismissed as a legitimate portrayal of reality, unable to evoke the same confrontational goals as the photograph, grossly trivializes the fact that photography is also subject to the intentions of the photographer with each meticulous adjustment (or distortion) of the inclusive and exclusive frame. Both paintings and photographed stills are contextually limited. Thus, the notion that war photography would “force us to confront the undeniable realities of warfare” because it captures a fragment of a moment in time, naively assumes that its viewers will be more sensitive to this particular interpretation of destruction, bringing about the death of distant concerns and disassociation with injustice by attaching a single descriptive line of text (“home of a rebel sharpshooter,” “death of a loyalist militiaman,” “general killing Viet Cong prisoner”) to an isolated image. However provocative an image, whether drawn, sculpted, or photographed, aims to highlight universal experiences and elicit an infinite range of desired reactions, but authentic confrontation is hardly accessible to those who are not directly affected by the represented issues.      -Erica

Newhall’s claim about photography is not justified by these three photos because there is no context for the photos, and they instead, show that photography, with its ability to portray instant emotions, can be misperceiving. This is especially the case for Eddie Adam’s photo, because neither the caption nor the photo give reasons for why the general is killing the prisoner, although Adams explains in an interview that the general was a man named General Loan who was beloved by the Southern Vietnamese and was fighting for the construction of hospitals, showing that, unlike popular ideology of the Southern Vietnamese, he was fighting for his way of life and his country (Goldberg). However, the photograph has been circulated much more than its context, and people all over the world, but especially in America, were merely having their biases about the war in Vietnam confirmed. The other two photos have also been found to have been staged for research has indicated that Alexander  arrived days after the battle at Gettysburg and the musket, in such conspicuous view, would already have been taken away by souvenir hunters (Leggat) while Robert Capa’s photo was staged for it was shot among other, very obviously staged photos of soldiers pretending to be in combat (Hilton). These photos indicate that the photos may capture what is going on at one exact moment, but the emotions an audience draws from such an image are not always accurate if there is no way the photo can explain or reason the motives of the photographer or the subject(s) being photographed.  -Elisa
Goldberg, Thomas. There Are Tears in My Eyes. National Review. Posted: 8/26/1999
Leggat, Robert. Posted: 2001
Hilton, Isabel. The Photograph Never Lies. But Photographers Can and Do. Posted: 9/27/2008

Early photography truly demonstrated what was outside the camera. Photographs of early war scenes were brutal demonstrations of death and destruction. However, they were not brutal enough to create a society completely against warfare. Generation after generation has photographs of war; they have access to the photographs of the current generation and photographs of the past. Yet there is still war, even though the brutality is recognized. It seems the unique ability of the society to recognize the atrocities of war yet push them aside. The pictures shown are from 3 separate eras of war. The brutality is the same, but the buzz around the photographs is different. As photography progressed, staging photos and doctoring photos has now become something that is easy to do. The photograph just captures one instant, so why not act for that instant to get a point across. Allegations of staging hovered around the second photo from Spain 1. Aside from doctoring, photos that look brutal can demonstrate man’s inhumanity to man, yet fail to demonstrate the political situation. The third photo from Vietnam shows the actions of a person that Americans supported killing an American enemy 2. Therefore the photo can lose its power because people do not know what they are seeing. There are undeniable atrocities that these photographs do demonstrate, however they are not utter truth in themselves; we now need context and prompting to understand the thousand words that the picture is worth.  Photography is a form of information that can speak just as inaccurately as any prose or painting. Like any form of war information preceding it, we now rely on the verity of the source just as much as the information itself. -Anne

I have to dissent with the assumption that photographs carry “an authentic stamp which no other kind of picture could convey” (Newhall, 67). I also disagree that photography by itself would change our perception of war.
O. W. Holmes (in Newhall, 71) points out that “[t]he very things which an artist would leave out, or render imperfectly, the photograph takes infinite care with, and so renders its illusions perfect.” Although I do believe that the realistic impact of a photo is high, other kinds of graphic art (such as painting) are definitely more successful in depicting and conveying emotions. I consider photographs to be quite passive, while a painting deeply involves the viewer and force him to think about what he is looking at, to reflect and to find hide meanings and deeper interpretations.
In addition, I do not believe that “[i]f we had been there, we would have seen it so” (71). A picture is static, it is a fragment of a lifetime, it is two-dimensional only, and it only involves the sense of sight. For all of these reasons, I believe that in front of a picture (unless it concerns ourselves or our lives) we always experience a sense of detachment and distance. This happens especially when we do not have a context or a frame of reference. For example, I have never seen any of these pictures (the assignment’s pictures) before; therefore, although I can feel empathy with the scenes they portray, they do not provoke the same feelings of shock and devastation that they would have caused me if I were there. A video, which involves more senses other than just sight, or a detailed war story told by a grandparent, would be definitely more effective than a picture. -Marco

The power of photography, and the iconic images of warfare that it can seer into the imagination of the public, does change the dynamics of the domestic view of war. But this impact must be weighed against photography’s inability to document what occurs beyond the frame of the print; like any medium, photography is just as subject the viewer’s perspective and to market forces. And, in the end, humans with motives of their own are taking the photos.
As Beaumont Newhall observes the photograph marked an unprecedented change in the coverage of war. Though in its infancy still unable to capture motion or images of battle,  it was capable of transmitting the human aftermath in a way that had previously been unimaginable.
But in the years to come, other questions would emerge about this virtual experience. As has been noted in the last decades, the image of the murder of a Viet Cong prisoner became an iconic image of the new paradigm of US warfare–moral confusion and discomfiting violence. But the context of the murder, as told by Adams later told an even murkier tale. The man being executed had just killed two the General’s men, one of them who had been at home with his wife and children [National Review Online, August 26, 1999].
Indeed, the viewer of a war photograph assumes not only that the story accurately expresses the context of the moment in time, he/she also assumes that the photographer has honestly captured it. As Philip Knightley recounts in “The First Casualty”, a fellow correspondent, O.D. Gallagher, claims that Capa staged the photograph. Later, Gallagher claims, Capa joked about how realistic the photograph looked: “if you want to get a good action shot, they mustn’t be in true focus” [The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley]. -Omar

My gut instinct was to trust the Gardner image most, remembering that Brady’s civil war photographs were taken as undeniable fact in my high school history class. If anything, though, it appears that all three iconic images deserve skepticism. Photographs can be manipulated; they are the work of individual artists. Furthermore, photographs cannot reveal context. This reality is truer today with the digital picture, so easily captured, altered, deleted. It is tempting to rely upon the scientific reality of photography- light etches an image in glass or pixel- and forget about the artistic origins and reality of photography.
Newhall describes that the quest for photography arose out of an amateur’s desire to be an artist. (31) This origin reveals why there would be widespread acceptance of staging among early photographers- portraits are staged, photographs are framed in an artistic decision to tell a story. Newhall also mentions “tinting”- only one of the many tools for altering the truth of photographs during developing.
Photographic context is equally important, a picture is only a second frozen in time. The story of Adam’s photograph reveals this difficulty. His picture portrays a seemingly bloodless killing of a Vietcong prisoner. Yet that prisoner had actually just killed several Americans, and the General was justified and perhaps honor-bound to retaliate. A photograph disguises the complexity of reality.
All doubt aside, photographs are powerful tools for conveying fact. Even as works of art, staged or framed without descriptive context, they stand as powerful testimony. Whether Gardner’s sharpshooter was moved or Capa’s militiaman staged, there is no denying that those wars were brutal and that death is real.  I see nothing wrong with bringing this reality to the public through the “scientific” artistic medium of our age. It is more important and difficult to ensure that photography represents reality in its context. -Nikola

Photography of warfare has indeed changed the general public’s perceptions of war. The three photographs provided depict men just prior to death (Eddie Adams’ photograph), as they are dying (Robert Capa’s photograph), and after death (Alexander Gardner’s photograph). These scenes are ones in which we might never give thought, let alone imagine, but given these pictures we are forced to. I unfortunately cannot recall a time when war photography was unavailable to me, but I imagine when photography was a relatively new technology, the first pictures of war must have served as a wake-up call to a very harsh reality. Even today with constant video feeds of the U.S.’s ongoing war efforts we sometimes forget our troops are even fighting. These three photographs are so powerful because of what exactly they depict, Eddie Adams’ photograph gives us insight to the amount of fear one must face knowing they are about to be murdered, Robert Capa’s photograph forces us to confront death as it is happening, and Alexander Gardner’s photograph shows us what becomes of a soldier after death, there is no reward for his service or bravery, this photograph may be the only thing he has to show for it. “Subjects can be misrepresented, distorted, faked. We now know it, and even delight in it occasionally, but the knowledge still cannot shake our implicit faith in the truth of a photographic record” (Newhall pg. 71). It is for this reason alone that photographs of war have had such a profound effect on the general public’s perception of warfare, in essence these pictures bring the war home. -Aaron
Photography has absolutely changed our perception of war. Photography makes the war more real, for those who are not directly involved. Previously only soldiers had to look death in the face, but “home of a rebel shooter” brought tese “undeniable realities of warfare” back to the household. The perception created by photography can be wielded as a very powerful weapon indeed. Eddie Adams, photographer of the general killing Viet Cong prisoner, was quoted in Times: “The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera” ( An issue with this newfound perception of war is that context is generally lacking. It is easy to be outraged by the photo of the general if you take it at face value. But, perhaps that outrage is misdirected if you consider that this Viet Cong had just killed some American soldiers. Another issue is using photography to purposefully create a perception, instead of representing the reality. For example, “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman” was perceived as occurring in the heat of battle, when in fact the soldier had been posing for a photograph when he was shot (Hilton, The Guardian, 9/27/08). Photography has definitely changed our perception of war, but whether for better or of worse, remains an issue.  -Zachary T.

Photography certainly affects the way people perceive war by conveying visually the violence created by war. However, because people seem to believe what they see in photos and also more prone to accept the veracity of a story if there is an accompanying picture, there is much opportunity for misrepresentation of events in the use of photographs. The claim that photography forces the public to “confront the undeniable realities of warfare” may be true or not true for any particular incident but, in general, fails to account for a myriad of issues inherent in photojournalism.
Neither a single photograph nor a series of them is guaranteed to show the full picture (pun intended) of any real world event that takes place within a complex network (or perhaps “amalgam” is more appropriateim) of social, political, cultural, and even physical factors. For nearly every photograph, the audience must fill in the blanks for themselves, relying on their inherently biased judgement. For example, Capa’s “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman” seems to impart the tragedy of war, manifest in the image of a man falling to his death just after being shot during the Spanish Civil War. However, what the audience might not know is that there is controversy over the event’s authenticity (was it staged?). The audience also might not exactly who shot who and why. Furthermore, how one reacts to a photo depicting war also depends on their political predisposition—do they sympathize with the Republicans or with the Fascists?
The same can be said about Adams’ photo of a Vietnam general killing a Viet Cong prisoner. Surely, the image of a man, face grimacing, capped at point blank strikes the deepest psychological chords but we are not told whether his execution was just. Perhaps photos are most honest when they are taken after the heat of the moment, such as of Gardner’s rebel sharpshooter, when the dust settles and all we see are the remains of what was once alive and ended in violence. -Yi

Since the advent of war photography in the Crimean War, photography has indeed changed our perception of war and its undeniable realities. Newhall writes that “to a public used to the conventional fantasies of romantic battle painters, these [Crimean War] photographs seemed dull,” yet, the public recognized the stark reality of the photos. It had previously been impossible for the average civilian to visually witness war, unless the civilian had been dragged into the war itself. Furthermore, romantic depictions of war often focused on heroes, generals, and leaders in the midst of grand battle scenes, but the photographs of ravaged battlefields and corpses were something never seen before. Gardner’s photograph of the home of a rebel sharpshooter, as Oliver Wendell Holmes says in the Newhall reading, renders perfectly those things which the romantic artist would leave out. Robert Capa’s picture, “The Falling Soldier,” is also another example of a photograph focusing on a regular soldier’s unromantic death. These scenes of death are taken as they really were.
Newhall’s reading covers some of the technological advancements in photography, and how war photographers start taking greater and greater risks for the sake of capturing authentic warfare. This influenced a stronger disillusionment with some wars by the public; perhaps most notably, in the Vietnam War. The media’s crucial role in anti-war activism was strongly influenced by war photography; photos like Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize winning photo of the a Viet Cong prisoner’s execution on a Saigon street brutally underlined the mindlessly violent nature of the war to the American public, and fueled a new perception of the war opposite to what the government had been telling. -Charlie

I completely agree with the idea that war photography changed the way we think about war by allowing the general public to confront the scenes of conflict. The invention and technological progress of photography eventually allowed photographers to perfectly demonstrate what they were seeing to the general public. Now to say that photographs are always showing the truth is a stretch. For example, “home of a rebel sharpshooter” by Alexander Gardner is widely known to be doctored in the sense that Gardner added the rifle and repositioned the body to make for a better photograph. Similarly, Robert Capa’s “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman” is another picture that may not be completely truthful. Unlike Gardner’s photo, there is controversy over whether or not this is a real or staged photograph. Photos like these show how the photographer have and can doctor the truth to depict war in whatever manner they please. With this in mind, I think that it still supports the fact that photography changed the way we perceive war. It is very easy to look over something as harsh a war when one has never had to see it face to face. Photos like Eddie Adams’ “general killing Viet Cong prisoner,” well known to be an un-doctored photo of a man seconds before his death, demonstrates how photography can bring the terrible images of realtime war to the general public. In conclusion, war photography opened the eyes of the general public to the harsh reality of war, but like everything these days, one much always question the truthfulness of the media. -Eric

Comments are Closed on this Post.