Photography, War and the Military in
James Robertson and Roger Fenton of Great Britain began the systematic photography of war with their work in the Crimea (1854–55) and at the British staging grounds at Constantinople. Having an eye to commercial sale as well as period sensitivities, they photographed no dead bodies, concentrating instead on soldier groups, officers' portraits, and both close and panoramic views of camps and battle sites. Some photographs, published in periodicals as engravings, fueled a rancorous public debate over army conditions and an inefficient London administration.
In 1854, The Practical Mechanics Journal asserted that cameras could ensure “undeniably accurate representation of the realities of war and its contingent scenery, its struggles, its failures and triumphs.” The art debate of the day, in general, was between photographic accuracy and painterly license, yet the statement also foreshadowed the ongoing debate over the objective versus subjective depiction of war and its emotions.
By the outbreak of the Civil War, photography was fully established as an art form and documentary record. Images, both negative and positive, existed on paper, glass, and metal in many variants, and while not yet a do‐it‐yourself process, original photographs were within the financial reach of many Americans. They could be printed in books and newspapers only as some form of line engraving until the invention of the halftone printing plate in the 1880s, but thousands of original prints were for sale by dealers. Mathew B. Brady, one of the most astute and successful prewar photographers, was already offering his Gallery of Illustrious Americans, including military heroes. In the two decades of photography thus far, the technological curve had risen steeply and quickly, so that images were sharp and clear and workmanship careful even where composition was often unsophisticated. Family portraits could be proudly displayed; they had special meaning in an era of strong family values and high mortality, especially of children. Indeed, some photographers advertised a specialty in pictures of the recently deceased.
Many citizens had limited visual access to their vast country, and a high curiosity, coupled with patriotism, values, and sentimentality, made for a strong market in war‐related imagery. Civil War photographers were of three types. A few practiced their craft while in uniform, such as Andrew Russell, who enlisted in a New York regiment in 1862 and became a photographer of installations, architecture, and battlefield landscapes for the U.S. Military Railroads. His work, lost for years amid that of Brady, only regained its proper identity in the 1980s.
A second group consisted of camp photographers, professionals either unknown or with limited name recognition, who toured camps on pass to do soldier portraits to send home. Tolerated for their contribution to entertainment and troop morale, they produced an immense quantity of work, often in the form of cartes‐de‐visite. These were taken as a series of single negatives on a glass plate coated with wet collodion, printed on paper, and cut apart into rectangular pictures modeled on the calling cards of the day (not unlike modern sports cards). The format was so popular it became the vehicle for mass‐producing collectible images of generals and politicians.
Mathew Brady was the best known of the prominent commercial photographers who added war scenes to their formal print catalogues. Among others were Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'sullivan, who worked for Brady before becoming independent in 1863. These men worked on battlefields and in dangerous situations, yet their bulky equipment limited them. Slow exposure times and the absence of movable shutters precluded photography of infantry assaults and cavalry charges in favor of more static scenes. The photographers were not at all squeamish about dead bodies, and some of the best known death studies were compositionally enhanced rather than depicted as found. This fact, however, seems never to have diminished the attraction of pictures like Gardner's “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter” from Gettysburg. Civil War work was popular for a time but interest soon waned, and Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War, published in 1866, was a commercial failure. The modern photo historian William Frassanito has identified hundreds of Civil War images and rephotographed the identical scenes as they look at present.
Major improvements in photographic equipment between 1865 and 1930 brought only limited improvements in the depiction of war and military subjects. Civil War photographers working in the West posed soldier groups in routine surroundings. Edward S. Curtis did outstanding portraits of Indian warriors. The short‐lived Spanish‐American War produced much that was reminiscent of the Civil War, as well as two new categories. Marching soldiers now actually marched, but the charge up San Juan Hill was still beyond the limits of clarity. And the availability of small hand cameras—the famous Kodak box—led to snapshots by troops in the field and especially by mischievous sailors prowling the decks. World War I, lengthy, grim, and brutal though it was for soldiers and civilians alike, did not produce a long roster of well‐known photographers or a group of memorable individual images. The official work is simply that; the journalistic work was highly controlled; and much of the whole is anonymous, repetitive, and lacking in dimension. Just before the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (1935), Alfred Eisenstaedt, using the new photo essay concept, did a noteworthy series on the harshness of life there, and from the Spanish Civil War (1936) came American photojournalist Robert Capa's remarkable but oft‐doubted “Moment of Death.”
By any standard, the photographic legacy of World War II is enormous in quantity and importance. In the most photographed war in history, through countless millions of images, photographers brought the use of photography for combat‐related purposes to the highest level yet. The interpretation of aerial and reconnaissance images became a vital specialty within high‐level command staffs. Of American wars, more World War II imagery circulates in the collectible fine art photography market than from any other conflict. Not only is this work highly evocative and expressive but it also exhibits the meticulousness of style, composition, and craftsmanship that typified the fine art photography of the 1930s and 1940s. Established artists like Eisenstaedt, Margaret Bourke‐White, Dorothea Lange, Horace Bristol, Lou Stoumen, Peter Stackpole, Carl Mydans, and many others produced significant war‐related work. They succeeded because they were able to combine fine art and documentary styles in a single vision.
Volunteers and draftees alike who had basic photographic knowledge often found themselves in assignments where they could use their skills. The U.S. Navy had a separate rating for photographers; the army and Marines grouped them with other technical personnel. Their work became commingled with that of countless others and identified upon publication only as “official” photography. Anonymity oft repeated equals fame of sorts, as in the familiar image of the destroyer USS Shaw exploding at Pearl Harbor, taken by an unknown navy photographer.
In 1942, the well‐known New York photographer Edward Steichen, a reserve officer and World War I veteran, at age sixty‐three was recommissioned in the navy and authorized to recruit a team of men to receive commissions and photograph the Pacific War. The group, which included Fenno Jacobs, Wayne Miller, Horace Bristol, Victor Jorgensen, Charles Kerlee, Bruce Gallagher, and Paul Dorsey, made the war personal and immediate by concentrating on the enlisted men and junior officers they met while deployed with carrier task forces or on captured islands. Steichen supervised the processing, printing, and media release of the pictures, which were vital links binding war front to home front.
Many photojournalists served with American forces as civilians but were subject to military censorship. World War II was America's most heavily censored war, at least until its final year. The popular newsreel theaters showed live action footage, but the first photograph showing dead American troops where they fell— George Strock's picture of three soldiers on the beach at Buna, New Guinea—did not appear until September 1943. There had been earlier photos showing blanket‐covered bodies and flag‐draped caskets. Life published the Strock photo with a careful editorial to prepare Americans for the shock, fearing a negative effect on morale. The caution was unnecessary. Americans accepted the photo and those to follow.
Home front activities to support the war effort not only utilized official photos supplied by the Office of War Information and other agencies but also produced a variety of published images. War bond drives required advertising and posters, which in turn led to photo contests. One in 1943 invited citizens to submit snapshots on the theme “The American Boy Under Japanese Rule.” This kind of informal imagery at home had its counterpart in war zones. As the war progressed, personal cameras were more and more numerous, especially among American troops in Europe after D‐Day. In the visual imagery of the war are thousands of snapshots of buddies, prostitutes, townspeople, bombed cities, and landscapes. At the opposite end of the scale are the great well‐known compositions, usually by professionals, such as Joe Rosenthal's picture of the second flag‐raising by the Marine Corps on Iwo Jima; Alfred Eisenstaedt's picture of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V‐J Day; and W. Eugene Smith's image of a soldier carrying a small baby found under a rock on Saipan.
The aftermath of the war remained in the public eye for a long time. One of Steichen's crew was among the first cameramen to see the devastation of Hiroshima. Margaret Bourke‐White accompanied American troops who liberated concentration camps. One after another, photo essays depicting the conduct of life amid physical and economic ruin appeared in news magazines.
Korea—in a war that Americans tolerated but did not support as enthusiastically as World War II—came across visually as bloody, freezing, and endless, with little of traditional glory and much of individual suffering for American Marines and soldiers. The Vietnam War, brought live into homes every night both as jungle fighting and urban rioting, offers the best modern example of how blurred and indistinct are the various categories of war scenes, first defined for the Crimean conflict by The Practical Mechanics Journal. The visual record became not merely documentation of what was happening but advocacy for what ought to happen. A tight composition of the sweat‐streaked face of a teenage Marine, if perhaps a study in courage, also got captioned “Bring Him Home” by war protestors. What may have happened ten minutes before the frame, and in fact defined the frame, is lost in projection of the future. The increasing political complexity of late twentieth‐century warfare has a profound effect on its visual record.
Two other realities are also at work. The nightly news emphasis on violence and death at home inures the viewer to scenes of distant combat, even by Americans in brushfire wars. And the virtual disappearance of the uniform from city streets and depots as a consequence of the Vietnam War has created a distance, both visual and real, from the American people. The boy next door of World War II is now, along with so many other photographic subjects, a part of history.
[See also Culture, War, and the Military; Film, War and the Military in; Illustration, War and the Military in.]
Margaret Bourke‐White , They Called It “Purple Heart Valley”: A Combat Chronicle of the War in Italy, 1944.
Frank Freidel , The Splendid Little War, 1958.
Roy Meredith , Mr. Lincoln's Camera Man: Mathew B. Brady, 1976.
Jorge Lewinski , The Camera at War: War Photography from 1848 to the Present Day, 1978.
Christopher Phillips , Steichen at War, 1981.
Alan Trachtenberg , Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans, 1989.
Peter Maslowski , Armed with Cameras: The American Military Photographers of World War II, 1993.
George H. Roeder, Jr. , The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War Two, 1993.
Ken Conner and and Debra Heimerdinger , Horace Bristol: An American View, 1996.
James E. Sefton
"Photography, War and the Military in." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/photography-war-and-military
"Photography, War and the Military in." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/photography-war-and-military
Pearl Lang, 1922–, American dancer and choreographer, b. Chicago. Lang was a soloist with Martha Graham's company (1942–52) before forming her own company in 1952. As a dancer and choreographer she was noted for her range of dramatic expression in such works as Rites (1953) and Falls the Shadow Between (1957). Lang appeared in Broadway musicals, including Carousel and Finian's Rainbow. She taught at the Yale Univ. School of Drama and the Juilliard School of Music.
"Lang, Pearl." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lang-pearl
"Lang, Pearl." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lang-pearl