An essay on war photography originally written by Geoff Dyer in response to the War | Photography Exhibition curated by Anne Wilkes Tucker at the Museum of Fine Art, Houston in November 2012. Dyer is writing a new book on photography called: See/Saw: Writing on Photography to be published by Canongate in the UK in late 2020 and by Graywolf in the US in 2021. This essay is published with kind permission of the author.
Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others concludes with a discussion of Jeff Wall’s huge photograph ‘Dead Troops Talk (A Vision after an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter, 1986)’. ‘Exemplary in its thoughtfulness and power’, this image of a ‘made-up event’ was constructed in Wall’s studio. ‘The antithesis of a document’, the picture’s effectiveness derives, in other words, from the fact that it is a fiction.
But what effect does this have, in turn, on combat photographs that are documents? Are they diminished or enhanced by comparison with Wall’s mock-up?
Consider, for example, Peter van Agtmael’s well-known photograph of a line of US troops sheltering from the downdraft of a helicopter in a rocky grey landscape in Nuristan, Afghanistan, in 2007.
Its compositional resemblance to Wall’s image suggests that the fictive can set a standard of artistic authenticity to which the real is obliged to aspire – and can still, accidentally, achieve. At the same time, its similarity to W. Eugene Smith’s shot of Marines sheltering from an explosion on Iwo Jima in 1945 testifies to its place in the heroic tradition of documentary photography.
It reminds us, also, that George Bernard Shaw’s appeal to photographic proof still holds good, in a battered and shop-worn (as opposed to photo-shopped) sort of way, despite the challenge of digital. Shaw said that he would willingly exchange every painting of the crucified Christ for a single snapshot of Him on the cross. ‘That,’ as Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths insisted, ‘is what photography has got going for it.’
Or is this to miss an important point about Wall’s work, namely its relationship not to photography as traditionally conceived – as a kind of visual stenography – but to the imaginative ambition and reach of history painting? Sontag herself describes Wall’s intentions as ‘the imagining of war’s horrors (he cites Goya as an inspiration), as in nineteenth-century history painting and other forms of history-as-spectacle.’
If van Agtmael’s photograph falls short of the epic scale of this ambition then we can turn to a picture taken by Gary Knight in Iraq in April, 2003. The photograph is actually part of a sequence recording the battle for Diyala Bridge. All of the pictures have the kind of immediacy we associate with photojournalism from Capa and Smith in the Second World War, to Larry Burrows and Don McCullin in Vietnam. Taken together they make up a visual narrative of combat and its aftermath with which we have become wrenchingly familiar. At its heart, however, is a single photograph that contains the larger story of which it is part.