This chapter opened by exploring this idea of why we look at the grotesque and what it means to the viewer. Sontag explained that there is a desire for the showing of pain in an artistic rendition of a historical event and specifically this can be seen in Christian story art. You will see a lot of blood, guts, pain, and sacrifice that is supposed to have a certain effect on the viewer, are you worthy? Sontag broke into this by describing Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas. It is almost like a test to be able to look at these gruesome paintings, what is the purpose of it, why do we have to look at it; we aren’t doctors learning from it. Sontag goes on to describe the type of horror and pain that is represented in these gruesome works. In Goya’s print, it was not telling the story of war, but instead, it is showing us a moment in time of the horror and atrocity that occurred in war and specifically what he saw.
Titian The Flaying of Marsyas 1570-76
The chapter then went on to war photography and how war photography began as a moral booster for the country that was fighting it either before to influences the public or during to sustain support. This became harder and harder to do and challenged the photographer to capture exactly what it is they want to express to the public at home. Roger Fenton on the Crimean War was supposed to do just that with special instructions not to photograph the war, but the death was so significant and apparent to him. “The Valley of Death” was his way of expressing death through the absence of dead bodies because the space he captures says enough. This was his way of showing the loss of life and the suffering that was going on behind the public’s back. He showed a battle scene with cannon balls and the past atmosphere of battle and death.
Roger Fenton The Valley of the Shadow of Death 1855
War photography shifted during the American civil war, as it became a more “freelance” action as photographers wanted to document the happenings. The Brady war pictures headed by Mathew Brady were the beginning of this new practice. Brady believed that there is a duty to capture the horrors of war, just like any realist painter. Over time it came so importantly for these photographers to capture the horror at the moment that they would stage the scene entirely using the carnage left behind from war. This finally changed in the Vietnam War when authenticity for the moment and horror became critical to the photographer and the audience.
The chapter overall gave us a background on war photography throughout history and why it was used. It is clear that it took a turn from the good to the bad and ugly, but that does not mean that war photography toady isn’t used to change the public’s opinion and help us pretend that everything is going to be all right. Plenty of rescue mission photography becomes famous because it proves that those fighting are doing something right morally. It is fascinating to see how art can be used as a tool for persuasion.
John Makely Iraq War Baltimore Sun