Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Two soldiers

Consider this photo by Peter van Agtmael from the current Iraq war:

When I first saw it (over at Conscientious) it got my attention for a little while. No doubt it is powerful. The injured soldier gazes off into space. Who knows what horrors are being remembered behind those eyes? We fill in the blank with our most violent ideas and the photo gains life. It's the perfect archetype of what we imagine a war photo should be. That's what bothers me about it.

The man looks delivered from central casting, or worse, Madame Tussauds. Just look up for a second, hold it,...a little to the left, good....Got it. War photo, check. I realize it may sound unbelievably inhumane to criticize a war casualty, and I don't mean any harm. It's just that this photo seems a bit plastic to me. More than plastic, the photo looks contemporary. It looks thought out and studied. Efficient. Illustrative. In short, it looks like much of today's successful fine art photography (concise roundup here of what is "hot").

Now compare the van Agtmael photo to this one, shot during the Veitnam war 35 years earlier:

Superficially the second photo is similar to the first. A soldier is looking away from the camera. The viewer must fill in the blanks. What is he thinking about? Is he going to the front lines? Is he going home? Is he injured? Is he in danger? Is he sad? Relieved? Alert? Sorry, can't answer any of these questions. I can only say that this soldier looks like a real person. He's not the one you'd order from casting and that is not the pose you'd shoot him in if you were trying to make an archetypal photo. Instead, this is a real pose shot by a real soldier of a real soldier. Both names are now lost to history. The snapshot was found by Binh Danh and included in his 2007 exhibit One Week's Dead shown at Lightwork gallery last Fall.

The Agtmael photo is real too, in a sense. The soldier is real, and presumably the situation is not staged. What's interesting is that in such a real situation, Agtmael (perhaps unconsciously?) composed a scene which looks as if it could be staged. I think this choice, especially constasted with a "real" snapshot from another war, says something about where photography is at now, and where it's likely heading: toward perfectionism, advertising, convenience, repeatability, etc. It's being drawn toward most global trends. In fact it could be the art form you'd order up from central casting to exemplify those trends.

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