Staged war photos

by Chris Bertram on October 8, 2007

There have been quite a few blogospheric discussions about staged war photographs (Iraq, Lebanon) and whether it matters whether they were staged if they reveal the truth. Here’s something to check out when you have a bit of time …. Errol Morris has a blog, “Zoom”: at the New York Times devoted to photography. He has now published two parts of a three- (or four-) part essay concerning whether Roger Fenton, one of the earliest war photographers, staged a famous picture of cannonballs on a road in the Crimea, as alleged by Susan Sontag. In “part one”: , Morris gets the opinion of the curators and art historians on which of two Fenton pictures was taken first; in “part two”: he gets his compass out and his feet dirty by going to the Crimea and finding the exact stretch of road. In comments to part one, his own readers offer their solutions to the photographic puzzle. (via “FineBooks”: thanks to PdB.)



joel turnipseed 10.08.07 at 4:44 pm

The Morris posts (7,000 words a piece: longest blog posts ever?) are fantastic: can’t wait for the third. Also, if you haven’t been to his site yet, it’s a must see: a real wunderkammer.

I’m partly still spell-bound by the two Morris essays (quick: blog post as essay–invent new word for it), but also partly holding back until he finishes his third post until I say much about it (cheap excuse, I know).

Meantime, I noticed that Ken Burns used a great film trick from John Huston in his The War: cutting very nearly identical shots so that it looks like a soldier is disintegrated by an artillery blast. Now, in all actuality, if it was an 88 shell and it hit where you were running, it probably would come close to doing just that: but how many combat cameramen were around to capture this exact scene? I’m working on a post using the Huston scene–it’s amazing. Even though it’s fake, it’s one of the truest video representations of war.

Finally, in the “ambiguity of photos/film” department: anyone else here paying attention to the Haditha trials? Looks like the Marines are going to face reduced charges (though: negligent manslaughter is nothing to sneeze at), in part because of the difficulty of interpreting evidence (if you’ve forgotten: the whole trial came to light because of a video shot on the scene).


joel turnipseed 10.08.07 at 5:23 pm

I suppose it’s also important to note that Morris’s interest in the Fenton photographs was piqued by and is part of his long-time fascination with Abu Ghraib–a fascination that will culminate in next year’s documentary, “S.O.P.: Standard Operating Procedure.”


matt mckeon 10.08.07 at 7:08 pm

The Morris essay/blog posts are wonderful(new term; “blessays? Jesus no, scratch that.)

Morris makes an excellent point that “photo faking” is a common assumption, that often isn’t true. Alexander Gardner “enhanced” photos of Civil War dead by adding a prop musket to the corpse. But it has been stated that he actually tugged and dragged corpses about to improve a scene’s composition, something I think there is little evidence for at all.
“Flags of Our Fathers” dealt exhaustively with the Iwo Jima flag raising photo, and the persistent myth that somehow it was staged, and therefore less real.
It all goes back to photography’s dual roles as reality recorder and artistic endeavor.


libarbarian 10.08.07 at 7:16 pm

If you have to stage it, is it really the truth?


joel turnipseed 10.08.07 at 7:33 pm

Matt –

It should be pointed out, about Iwo Jima (and the Eastwood film did an OK job of it, but not great), that there was long resistance in recognizing that the famous photo was staged, and very little recognition given to the actual guys who raised it–the last of whom just recently died here in Minneapolis.


matt mckeon 10.08.07 at 8:53 pm

Any photographer “stages” a shot by choosing what to shoot and where to position himself. An excellent example would be Capa’s famous photo of the men landing on Omaha Beach. He waited in the back of the landing craft to compose a shot of the backs of the men advancing, with the beach and obstacles ahead.
He didn’t arrange the men in a certain way, he used his eye, his skill to capture a shot.
There is artistry, but most people wouldn’t consider the photo artificial in any sense.
The photographer who darkened OJ Simpson’s skin to make a more ominous shot in the famous magazine cover is adding something not there, so somehow we think its over the line.

joel turnipseed, I’m referring to the Bradley book, not the movie, and am not understanding your point. The marines on Iwo Jima were not raising the flag for a photograph, they were photographed raising a flag. Of course the flag was a public gesture, sure to be photographed, and of the several photos taken of both flag raising, the most “artistic” looking shot has survived in the public mind.


joel turnipseed 10.08.07 at 9:14 pm

Matt –

Haven’t read the Bradley book & don’t know to what extent he discusses the history/controversy surrounding the second flag raising. It’s true that Rosenthal didn’t stage the flag raising–but I think the second flag-raising was much more of a PR event than the initial one. It’s certainly true that the Marine Corps denied for years that there even was a first flag-raising–to the chagrin of Lindbergh, especially.

I’m not looking to trash Rosenthal, just to say: that iconic image was controversial from the start–in many of the ways that are being talked about here.


CG 10.08.07 at 9:27 pm

I can’t decide whether Morris’ posts are extremely interesting or incredibly boring. A little of both, I think.


matt mckeon 10.08.07 at 11:48 pm

Morris’s posts are fascinating and well worth the time.

The Bradley book makes the point that the truth is complicated, and it can be hard, but not impossible, to know a sequence of events. In no way do I think the photographs of the two flag raisings on Iwo Jima were “staged” with the implication of artificiality or falseness. The marines posed in front of the flag in a couple of the shots, the way people do, but the famous image was not even posed, but rather luck of Rosenthal’s part.


Bloix 10.09.07 at 2:35 am

I suspect that the notion that a staged photograph is immoral is an anachronism. Mid-19th century cameras were heavy, fragile and slow. Virtually all photos with people in them were posed and stop-action shots were impossible. The photos themselves were replacements for sketches and prints, which were always imaginative reconstructions by the artist. I suspect that the idea of photographic authenticity, which turns any alteration into a fake, is a product of a later period, in which faster film cameras made the snapshot possible, and with it the concept of the photo as a moment of reality, and not an artistic image.

A historian of photography would know the answer.


john m. 10.09.07 at 7:32 am

Handily there is is a word for “staged truth”: fiction.


Chris Bertram 10.09.07 at 7:40 am

Really John M? So a drama documentary is, straightforwardly and uncomplicatedly, a work of fiction? All the President’s Men is on a par, in that respect, with The West Wing? (If that were so, then there would never be an issue about how accurate the portrayal of person X by actor Y is.)


zdenek v 10.09.07 at 10:45 am

Matt : “An excellent example would be Capa’s famous photo of the men landing on Omaha Beach. He waited in the back of the landing craft to compose a shot of the backs of the men advancing, with the beach and obstacles ahead.”

This is a good point but there is difference between staging your example illustrates, and staging that is involved in photographs in which pretence plays a role( think of actors pretending to be soldiers landing on the same beach ).

Capa’s photograph is ‘authentic’ in a sense that it is transparent i.e. looking at such shots , one sees the actual event in the same way one sees things in a mirror or through a telescope( wee see the actual landing through the photograph as Ken Walton would say).

With a staged landing or a staged execution, things work differently : such photos are not photos of a beach landing or an execution any more than a photograph of an actor who looks like Tony Blair is a photo of Tony Blair.

That there is this deeper difference between staged and “authentic” photos is shown by the fact that staged photos are not counterfactually dependent on the images they represent whereas non staged photos are. That is to say had there been an explosion where Capa was pointing his camera his photo would show depict it. But this does not happen with staged photos.


abb1 10.10.07 at 9:34 am

Maybe it’s another one of those “I know it when I see it” things. The flag raising photo (any flag raising photo, in fact) is obviously propaganda, whether it was staged or not. The Crimea cannonballs photo is obviously genuine, because some of the cannonballs obviously stayed on the road, it seems highly unlikely that all of them would’ve bounced or rolled into the ditch.

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