4. Trove Found at Naval Yard (On History, One)
Published: 17.02.2014
in the series François Brunet
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This week, as happens every so often, a post on the PhotoHistory list forwarded a press article relating the discovery of a “trove” of forgotten photographs — in this case, a collection of 150 glass slides showing scenes from the Spanish American War of 1898, “discovered” in Navy archives in Washington D.C. The article in the Mail Online is entitled “Ghosts of a forgotten war: Naval archivists discover trove of never before seen photographs from Spanish-American conflict of 1898”. Opening with a close-up shot of archivist David Colamaria as he is gazing at a glass slide of the Spanish Admiral, titled “Incredible find,” the article begins: “Archivists at the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington DC were going through a backlog of artifacts this week when they came across an unexpected treasure … ‘The plates were individually wrapped in tissue paper and include full captions and dates…,’ said Lisa Crunk, NHHC's photo archives branch head.” The description of the container follows, with the mention of a title and attribution (“etched on the cover”) to Douglas White, “war correspondent.” The article continues, “The archivists at NHHC did some digging and discovered that White was a reporter and photographer at the San Francisco Examiner, then owned by controversial publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst.”  Then follows an overview of the Spanish American War, its causes (especially the role of the “yellow press”) and consequences. The article is illustrated by a series of eleven pictures, clickable as a pop-up album, including ten photographs presumably from the “trove.” Each of the photograph comes with a full caption, presumably from NHHC, preceded by a short, catchy slogan (“hidden treasure,” “theater of war,” “victory,” “historic moment”…). The first of these pictures, captioned “U.S. soldiers manning a battle signal corps station,” is a strange image showing a group of men in a jungle-like environment, examining documents in front of a thatch-roofed built structure. The fourth one, captioned “Aftermath of carnage: This photo depicts damage to Fort San Antonio Abad in Manila caused by eight-inch shells from the U.S. Navy cruiser Olympia,” may remind one of Civil War views of ruins in the South.

As the reader may see from a link at the bottom of the Mail Online page, this article is based on a more sober press release by NHHC itself, entitled “Picture Perfect Find: The Spanish-American War in Glass”. The official statement begins, “Photographic archivists from the Naval History and Heritage Command rediscovered a donation Feb. 5 in their backlog that may not have been seen by the public for more than a century.” Note, here, “rediscovered” rather than “discovered”, “donation” rather than “trove,” “may not have been seen by the public” rather than “never before seen.” Lisa Crunk points out, “The images are an amazing find, though they were never really lost - they were simply waiting to be re-discovered." The naval archive takes this opportunity to publicize its plans for “digitization, cataloging and eventual exhibition” of its photo collection on the organization's website. A digital handout offers four of the “found” photographs, accompanied by the close-up shot of archivist David Colamaria as he is admiring the Spanish Admiral’s portrait, all downloadable in high resolution.

And this is where the reader with a critical turn of mind starts to wonder, and to notice a number of features about both the NHHC press release and the Mail Online article, which turn out to offer two, different and yet comparable, examples of contemporary usage of “historic” photographs.

The press release says very little about the war itself, except to quote Ms. Crunk as stating that “the collection is significant because the Navy played a central role in nearly every aspect of the Spanish-American war from logistics to diplomacy.” "The U.S. Navy's victories at Manila Bay and Santiago de Cuba, she adds, were pivotal events that turned the course of the war.” (The role of the Navy in this war is quite apparent in the choice of photographs released by NHHC for the press. It is also the topic, or the apparent topic, of Winslow Homer’s famous painting, Searchlight on Harbor Entrance: Santiago de Cuba (1901 ), as analyzed by Hélène Valance, see an abstract here. But the Navy is only briefly mentioned in the Mail Online article, which instead lays its emphasis on the influence of the yellow press, particularly William Randolph Hearst, in triggering the war and the popular passion about it, even reproducing an Examiner front page exalting “the spirit of war.” On this score, conversely, the NHHC release stops at noting that research about photographer Douglas White shows him linked to the Examiner, saying nothing about the “yellow press.”

This is, of course, a case of the official vs. the sensational, but also and more importantly a case of two different institutional mindsets appropriating the same story. The NHHC statement does not pronounce on the politics of war. It qualifies its own title (“picture perfect find”) by reminding readers that things lying in archival funds are never discovered but rather rediscovered. Yet it manages to mention the Navy’s eminent role in winning the war; and, in perfectly peaceable tactic, uses the find as a means of publicizing its continuing effort at improving the preservation and access of its collections.

The Mail Online article, by contrast, uses the habitual rhetorical tools of popular history, describing the find as a “treasure” and offering the photographs in a “windows into the past” mode that resembles what one finds anywhere between the 1911 Photographic History of the Civil War and Time-Life albums on, for instance, David Douglas Duncan’s coverage of the Korean War (“To Hell and Back”). The implicit suggestion is that there may well be many more such “troves” and “treasures” in government vaults in Washington and elsewhere, and that ours is a time of perpetually improving, through the wonders of the Internet and the vigilance of a hyper-informed press, the people’s accessibility to their national memories. Finally, as noted already, the English daily highlights the role of the (American) yellow press in “Fanning the flames of war,” as the title to the Examiner headline puts it. The Mail Online uses here the touch of reflexivity that has become one of the staples of contemporary journalistic commentary on the media; more importantly, it appropriates the “trove” as a press heritage rather than a naval or military one.

Now what is left out is just as important as what is set forth in either article. What is left out—doubtless in part for lack of credible information—is what we might call a history of the images. Neither text gives any details on the size, exact nature or process, of these slides—called here and there “glass plates,”—nor makes any suggestions on questions such as, why was this format (doubtless popular around 1900) chosen, for what purpose? what did the Navy hope to show, or preserve, with slides? who exactly made the “donation” now rediscovered? We also have to wonder about the phrase “war correspondent,” written on the box label—certainly not a common phrase in 1898, since it was precisely during the Spanish American War that this notion emerged in full, especially around the figure of Jimmy Hare, as Thierry Gervais has shown. The connection to the Examiner would certainly deserve further exploration, precisely with respect to competing coverage by American newspapers. Of course no one expects NHHC or the Mail Online to carry out such investigations overnight. But we are reminded here that if, as Robert Taft put it in his 1938 Photography and the American Scene, photographs “can be historical documents,” (p. 316), they are not historical documents by mere virtue of being photographs (on my recent research on Taft, see this post on the Kansas Memory blog). Photographs never really serve as documents without being “documented” (as Taft and Walter Benjamin knew very well; Nancy Newhall also put it quite nicely in 1940 in a letter to James Soby, quoted in Laetitia Barrère’s dissertation, p. 69, “to be documentary, [a photograph] must be documented”). Even more important, to be documentary, a photograph needs to be the object of a documentary inquiry.

And the history of these images does not stop at their original context of production and circulation. We might ask, for instance, why did it take over a century to “rediscover” these images? What is the constitution of the “backlog” at NHHC that the archivists are working their way through? Was this particular set of images never printed or otherwise reproduced? Or, to turn to the future, what will happen to them now that they have been “rediscovered”? Will their preservation benefit from light (not just physical exposure but public attention), and how will digitization and potential online distribution affect it? What will be the status, technical, archival, commercial, of their digital “ghosts”? And by the way, who will distribute the NHCC slides?

A reader on the PhotoHistory list who is an archivist at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor asked after the first post, “Why do the recently discovered Spanish-American War photos have Corbis watermarks on them?” A good question, though the observation is inexact.

Of the ten photographs reproduced by the Mail Online, five are identical to the ones “handed out” in the NHHC press release, including the portrait of archivist Colamaria. But four of those in the Mail, including the portrait, bear an ©AP imprint (which they don’t on the NHHC website), while the fifth one bears © U.S. Marine Corps. Going to AP’s website, I find that one of these at least, described as showing the burning of San Roque in February, 1899, is indeed available through AP’s commercial service, where it is sourced to the US Navy, with the comment, “AP PROVIDES ACCESS TO THIS PUBLICLY DISTRIBUTED HANDOUT PHOTO PROVIDED BY US NAVY.” This seems to suggest that NHHC, as is customary for many government collections, is at least temporarily subcontracting the distribution of (some of) these pictures to the agency.

But what about Corbis? Well, in the Mail article, the following five “historic” photographs, which come after the intervening uncredited facsimile of the Examiner’s front page, indeed bear the © Corbis imprint. Going to the Corbis website, we find a whole series “Spanish American War”, containing a large number of historical photographs (including several of the ones used by the newspaper), sourced as “historical” or, for some of them, “Bettmann” (from the Bettmann Archive, whose incorporation into Corbis has been studied by Estelle Blaschke in her dissertation) and seemingly unrelated to NHHC. This includes the last image of the Mail Online article, an interior view of the signing of the peace treaty in August, 1898, which corresponds to item BE038641 in the Corbis collection, titled “McKinley Watching Signing of Peace,” though the version in the newspaper includes a bottom margin with signatures. I have no means of checking at the moment whether the Bettmann/Corbis images, or some of them, may be matched by other items in the NHHC “trove”; but certainly one is surprised to see that half of the images reproduced in the Mail Online article, which we thought had “never been seen,” are available for sale on www.corbisimages.com. A trove is a trove is a trove…

19 comment(s)
Nils Plath
Posted 18.02.2014 at 10:18

On each image a price tag. As a surplus: commentaries and history, both of which constantly work their way into our present. Just as the images and comments transmitted from and to the archives and databanks perpetually perceived by us determine the actuality of our views on the images of the past. And so we find ourselves in the present of historic pictures in a permanent state of conflict. Each image depicting our own currency. –

I read your impressive reconstruction of your find (that is a what I call a trove!) and your close reading of the stories on findings surrounding the re-discovered images with great interest. What I discovered were many of the questions posed here already concerning the collective, the national, and memory work acted out with photographs. In your fascinating comments, I also found, concisely formulated, a number of biddings or propositions for contextualization our own points and perspectives in view of these subjects. The term "nostalgia" on my mind (a word among the may we owe to war, originally used to describe a medical condition, the homesickness or mal du pays of Swiss mercenaries in the plains of lowlands of France or Italy, first introduced in 1688 by the Swiss Johannes Hofer), I had started collecting some remarks leading once again further away from the concrete accounts by the photo historical gaze or pictorial discourse analysis. Mainly considering ideas about re-enactment (with the help of photographs) as well as some thoughts on the motifs currently omnipresent fascination of the media with World War One in the year of its centennial. with rarely seen images from the time. At that very moment an invitation popped up in my mail box. It was the announcement of a panel discussion taking place this week at Berlin's Academy of the Arts. On the topic: "The World as Image." Still pondering if the two nouns in the title should not have been better replaced with its plural forms, I continued to read on – just to see myself confronted with having to come to terms with the fact that your considerations on the photographs from the Spanish-American War of 1898 had to be taken as a far more complex matter than expected. Taken into account the backdrop of currents events and the picture politics at present. The invite reads as thus: "Cell phone pictures of massacres and war scenes put on the web alter our perception of political events radically. In her work on the Gulf War or on abstract films, Birgit Hein explores the relationships between the avant-garde and the political. Currently Birgit Hein has turned a hundred thirty of those cell phone videos found online into an 9-minute long "abstract" film depicting the civil war in Libya and Syria. What kind of material may we make use of? How and to what extent do these random images produce an impression of authenticity? And what do the pictures really show us? How do aesthetic issues and rules relate to political or moral contexts? Placing them in the tradition of experimental film making, these issues and more will be discussed with the guests of the evening." (see for infos on the lecture series, all in German only: http://www.schwindelderwirklichkeit.de/die-welt-als-bild/; for infos on Birgit Hein, one of the outstanding representatives of experimental filmmaking in Germany for the past forty years, see: http://additor.hbk-bs.de/bhein/)
For me it served as a reminder: Today's wars are made of moving images. After all, many of the photos which are then printed in newspapers and magazines or appear by means of the mood boards on the screens of our living room furniture and mobile devices are stills from sequences clipped out from the time-images of the wars from past and present. Each single one of the images is fighting for attention. Our present time consists of opinion wars in which the objective is to determine the one dominating image of the world by defending and attacking the pictures of the so-called others. Commentaries of the images and the ways they are being used attest to an on-going conflict over sovereignty and (national) identity. (Is it just a coincidence that the newspaper putting emphasis on the role of the Hearst papers in the the given conflict more than a century ago is a British one?) The true interpretation of sovereignty is the goal of the many conflicts. Since antiquity (take Homer's description of the shield of Achilles in book 18 of the Iliad), the battles fought over the course of history could be viewed as a continuous struggle over the power of images, and thus their ekphrasis. And in the end, only images will remain when (almost) all pictures (and bodies) gone, the reasons for the battles fought long fallen into oblivion. Something the present has to overlook when going to war, of course. Open words of a military: „"Frankly, our job is to win the war. Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment." Embedding journalists honorably served that end, said Long.“ (Lt. Col. Rick Long, the former head of media relations for the U.S. Marine Corps who managed the media boot camp in Quantico, Virginia, which prepared journalists for their war assignments.) Countered, from another point of view, on the same (web) page (http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2004/03/18_iraqmedia.shtml) with a general criticism on the use of images in times of war: by words of Barbie Zelizer, a professor at both the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication and the University of Pennsylvania: „During times of war, newspapers make much more extensive use of photographs, said Zelizer, publishing more photos than normal, giving them greater prominence, displaying them larger and using more color photos. One example: The New York Times more than doubled its usual number of photos during the war. (…) Using a slide projector, Zelizer displayed a portfolio of exquisitely composed photos that had appeared in the nation's newspapers, many of them stunning works of art. (…) How did the war images published by the media "function," asked Zelizer. Often, she said, they served patriotic and not journalistic purposes. The prevalence of these beautiful images provided a prism of patriotism and thus, she said, became tools of public consensus that facilitated U.S. military and political ends.“ Stated together, both viewpoints become intertwined and will finally form an infinite loop of critical commentaries. Commentaries on commentaries that affirm each other in their contrasts – and confirm through opposing stances on the issue each other's authority (purposeful propaganda vs. critical-enlightening reconnaissance). Every word is one too much, and yet there are never enough to break that circle.
Thus, instead of words of my own, some more second-hand citations, with underlinings making present some aspects I'd like to highlight. Taken from three texts offering a plethora of associations on the war of images and the conflicting ways photographs are being conveyed by the media as a way to rethink representations of a future to come (found in the way we make use of the pictures of the past). Three texts that came right to mind when reading your account.

1. „From 1947 to 1969, the 1352nd Photographic Group was based at an extensive motion picture and still photographic facility in Hollywood, California called the Lookout Mountain Air Force Station (http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/lookout-mountain-airforce-station). Lookout Mountain was thus in a position to draw on the world's best film technology and its largest relevant talent pool, while protecting top-secret classified military information in a dedicated, essentially clandestine complex. The Station was charged with photographing and filming all aspects of U.S. nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site and the offshore Pacific Proving grounds. (…) The Lokout Mountain cameramen generated vast amounts of visual documentation of each test, bringing their manned cameras as close as 4 miles to the point of detonation in Nevada (…). ONLY A SMALL FRACTION OF THE EXTENSIVE DOCUMENTATION OF NUCLEAR TESTS BY LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN AND THE ARMY SIGNAL CORPS CAN NOW BE FOUND IN PUBLICLY ACCESSIBLE U.S. GOVERNMENTAL ARCHIVES. It is not the purpose of this work (http://www.michaellight.net/suns-gallery) to try to locate that hidden mass of material, much of which may have been lost, deliberately destroyed, or remain classified. IN SOME WAYS, HOWEVER, THE ARCHIVE IMAGES THAT are available SPEAK MORE OF ABSENCE THAN OF PRESENCE. ONE CANNOT HELP BUT WONDER WHAT AS CITIZENS we STILL DO NOT KNOW ABOUT THE SUBJECT of nuclear weapons, not only in the sense of the surreal of the Cold War past, BUT IN TERMS OF THE HIDDEN weaponized nuclear PRESENT THAT WILL BE WITH US AS LONG AS WE KNOW TIME.“ (Michael Light, „A note on the Photographs,“ in: Michael Light: A 100 Suns, New York 2003, highlights mine, NP)

2. „„In his brilliant episode in the film FAR FROM VIETNAM (Loin de Vietnam, 1967), Godard reflects (when we hear his voice we see him sitting behind an idle movie camera) that it would be good if WE EACH made a Vietnam inside ourselves, especially if we cannot actually go there. (…) Godard's point – a variant of Che's maxime that, in order to crack the American hegemony, revolutionaries have the duty to create 'two, three, many Vietnams' – had seemd to me exactly right. What I'd been creating and enduring for the last four years was a Vietnam inside my head, unser my skin, in the pit of my stomach. But the Vietnam I'D BEEN THINKING ABOUT FOR YEARS was scarcely filled out at all. It was really only the mold into which the AMERICAN SEAL was cutting.“ (Susan Sontag. Trip to Hanoi New York 1968, p.18/19) A photograph from Vietnam; IT ALL BEGAN WITH THESE PHOTOS. THEY APPEARED from 1965 onward, first in the U.S., then in Sweden, France, and later here [in Berlin] too. THIS IMAGE AND THE IMAGES. The image [showing on G.I. who is about to to kick the head of a Vietnamese men on the ground with full force and to beat him with his rifle] is FROM A SERIES and is AT THE SAME TIME AN EXAMPLE OF A TYPE, A PRINT BELONGING TO A CLASS OF IMAGE such as those of the genres concentration camp photo, famine victim photo, or Socialism standing-in-line photo. THE TEXT BELOW THE PICTURE can be pro-American or pro-Vietnamese, but there ALWAY REMAINS THE SECOND TEXT: why so many pictures from one war?“ (Harun Farocki, Hund auf der Autobahn“ („Dog from the Freeway“), in: Filmkritik 1/1982, translated from the German by Laurent Faasch-Ibrahim, highlights mine, NP; for Farocki's current show, SERIOUS GAMES, at the Museum Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, see: http://www.smb.museum/en/museums-and-institutions/hamburger-bahnhof/exhibitions/ausstellung-detail.html?tx_smb_pi1[exhibitionUid]=1017 ,)

3. „It is thus our impression that we can no longer ask the question of the concept, of the history of the concept, and notably of the concept of the archive. NO LONGER, AT LEAST, IN A TEMPORAL OR HISTORICAL MODALITY DOMINATED BY THE PRESENT OR BY THE PAST. We no longer feel we have the right to ask questions whose form, grammar, and lexicon nonetheless seem so legitimate, sometimes so neutral. We no longer find assured meaning in questions such as these: do we already have at our disposition a concept of the archive? a concept of the archive which deserves this name? WHICH IS ONE AND WHOSE UNITY IS ASSURED? Have we ever been assured of the homogeneity, of the consistency, of the univocal relationship of any concept to a term or to such a word as "archive"? In their form and in their grammar, these questions are all turned toward the past: they ask if we already have at our disposal such a concept and if we have ever had any assurance in this regard. To have a concept at one's disposal, to have assurances with regard to it, this presupposes A CLOSED HERTIGAE AND THE GUARANTEE WHICH IS SEALED, in some sense, BY THIS HERITAGE. And the word and the notion of the archive seem at first, admittedly, to point toward the past, to refer to the signs of consigned memory, to recall faithfulness to tradition. If we have attempted to underline the past in these questions from the outset, it is also to indicate the direction of another problematic. As much as and more than a thing of the past, before such a thing, THE ARCHIVE SHOULD CALL INTO QUESTION THE COMING OF THE FUTURE. And if we still do not have a viable, unified, given concept of the archive, this is undoubtedly not because of a purely conceptual, theoretical, epistemological insuffi-ciency on the level of multiple and specific disciplines; it is perhaps not due to lack of sufficient elucidation in certain circumscribed domains: archaeology, documentography, bibliography, philology, historiography". (Jacques Derrida, „Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression“, in: Diacritics, vol. 25, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), p. 26 , translated from the French by Eric Prenowitz; all highlights mine, NP)

For the time being, this is all I will have to put as food for thought into the (virtual) realm of our conversation at this given moment. – "The truth is always concrete." That's an oft-quoted dictum by Lenin, on which Walter Benjamin left some remarks in his correspondence with Bert Brecht. I think the concrete reconstructions in your reading of images made present confirm the validity of this claim. That is, if one puts the word "truth" in quotation marks, of course, where ever this very notion of “truth” is being used to make claims regarding the one image of the one world (and yet without completely erasing the concept, thereby showing some resistance towards an all too easily underwriting of an expression widely attributed to the Californian politician Hiram Johnson from the teens of the 20th century: "The first casualty when war comes is truth".).

Jean Kempf
Posted 20.02.2014 at 17:33

There are quite a few issues in Brunet's and in Plath's posts that I'd
like to comment upon. I'll do it in short separate paragraphs. For once
I will not refer to many actual sites/links as my comments are more
about the substance than the illustration of the points. And I will
post my comments as separate answers (to make reading/responding

The present of the document
The central question raised by Brunet is what makes a document. As historians
know, "doing history" (as opposed, I guess, to making it) is about the
couple document-question: no document without a question, but no
question without a document ("to be documentary, a photograph needs to
be the object of a documentary inquiry"). In other words the adjectives
"historical" or "documentary" do not qualify inherent or even
perceived/subjective qualities of the qualified object (as color,
shape, order, etc.) but a relational one: such and such are documentary
because I use them as documents.
The "rediscovered" images in the collection of the NHHC evidence this
core principle in the best possible way and Brunet's comparison of the
two discourses of appropriation about the “trove” is enlightening. Each
"position" (the historical service of the US Naval service on the one
hand and a popular newspaper on the other) has its own agenda, of
course, but more importantly has its own conception of the images,
almost its own set of images.
So they each make the same object into two different documents and use
them as the foundation of two different discourses. Says Lisa Crunk :
“The images are an amazing find, though they were never really lost –
they were simply waiting to be re-discovered.” The statement
efficiently describes the difference between lost and found (although the ascribing of a
sort of conscience to the archive is debatable). For something to be
lost, it needs to be known in the first place. Letters we know were
written, or pictures we know were made, can be lost, not those things
that we don't know anything about.

Jean Kempf
Posted 20.02.2014 at 17:34

The future of the document
What matters in this world of internet access, is less the (treasure)
trove as its capacity to meet (a) question/s. It's another way of
saying that although everything can be at our fingertips, it doesn't
necessarily make sense. Thus fighting for “freedom" of access is
important but far from sufficient as Brunet asks ("what will happen to
them now that they have been “rediscovered”? Will their preservation
benefit from light (not just physical exposure but public attention),
and how will digitization and potential online distribution affect
This raises two questions: 1) the potential for such images to be
digitized and 2) the possibility for them to make sense for a potential
audience. This requires a combination of factors involving social
relevance AND the public or private resources to make the images
available. Indeed, the status and nature of the distribution channels
is paramount ("And by the way, who will distribute the NHCC slides?")
as costs are involved and will affect the very way these images can be
appropriated. If there are such things as "social networks" their
existence should be able to make these images relevant beyond their
mere exhibition.
Here legal issues are as crucial as economic ones. For images to be
able to truly "live" and not merely be seen as a soft background to our
daily lives, that is to say for us to engage with them, there must
exist a legal frame allowing it. This legal apparatus is even more
needed in the digital world, squeezed as it is between a wealth of
offer and a restrictive lawful usage. It concerns first and foremost
the necessity to implement a fair use exception to the standard
copyright laws for scholarly work (and in particular history). The
existence of a moral or financial control on the right of quotation —
actually for academics it's not a right, it's a duty — can be construed
as censorship, very often wielded by the most rabid supporters of free
market. But it extends to other rights, those called "Remix" which was
eloquently described
and analyzed by Larry Lessig
. (Just a personal quip here: as a
proponent of the academic exception I've talked to numerous
photographers and agencies, and the message does not come across
easily, mostly because of the difficult economic conditions of the
whole sector.)

Jean Kempf
Posted 20.02.2014 at 17:35

If the tenet of Hegelian dialectics ("the truth is always concrete")
means anything, it is that: only in the material conditions of
production is it possible to formulate statements that escape the
relativity of opinion. Which leads me to Nils Plath's development
answering Brunet's post. @Nils: I'm not quite sure I get your point
when you develop the notion of war images. (I'll speak of certain
statements you make on war and images further down.) The 3 excerpts you
quote all belong to the last (or is it latest?) phase of
post-structural skepticism or suspicion, ranging from conspiracy theory
(#1) to absolute relativism (#3). Are you saying that the history of
these images is just one among many possible histories (your first §?)
In which case I disagree: the number of histories is neither infinite
nor haphazard. It is actualized and concrete (as truth is). In other
words whether of not everything is possible is a moot point (I leave it
to metaphysics. History is not a predictive science but a retrospective
one). There are only a finite number of usages that get actualized and
that our "archeological stance" reconstructs.
But maybe I didn't understand you right, although I have the feeling
that is what you're saying, because you then come up with the word
"nostalgia". I'd like to do a post on that concept in photography but
suffice it to say at this point that the concept itself refers the use
of mental images to fathom the present and find it lacking/poorer. (I'm not
only nostalgic of something which used to be, I'm nostalgic because my
present is "less" than my past).

Jean Kempf
Posted 20.02.2014 at 17:35

@Nils again. Here I purposefully use the title of a recent photo
exhibit curated by Anne Tucker at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts

which traveled to various locations in the US (in a slightly reduced
form). Despite several limitations that I don't want to discuss here,
this exhibition did something long & badly needed: through its very
structure it tried to remind us that although photographs/images played
a major part in warfare, wars were first and foremost REAL for the
people fighting them or being in one way or another affected by them.
This is what any photographer who's done combat shoot will tell you:
"Until I arrived there I had no idea the whole thing was fucking real"
said to me recently one of the photographers I was interviewing on the
subject of war. So I have more than a little trouble agreeing with such
a sweeping statement as this: "the battles fought over the course of
history could be viewed as a continuous struggle over the power of
images, and thus their ekphrasis." Of course no one can even question
the struggle over representation (of which images are a part) in any
conflict, no one can even doubt that all groups and populations engaged
in warfare of one sort or another today know how to manipulate image
makers to their own profit. But the line is fine (and blurry) which
then separates us from Baudrillard's seductive but ultimately crazy
simulation (there are now testimonies from drone operators which
clearly contradict the much too easy notion of generalized video game).
But perhaps, I'm missing the point here (?).

PS: Oh, one more thing. Despite Zelizer's
statement of the contrary
(but again the source is not her own and
the quote might have been distorted by the journalist) my own
investigation finds not the slightest convincing statistical evidence
that "During times of war, newspapers make much more extensive use of
photographs . . . publishing more photos than normal." Such analysis is
in fact close to impossible to make since the world has been at war
since the massive capacity to print pictures in newspapers, at the turn
of the 20th century. I think that the possibility to hold a separate
discourse on war photography (separate from other types of subjects) is
highly problematic and well nigh impossible. What has made press/media
war photography so interesting is that perhaps it is not special at all
in its dissemination phase (it's making
is much more complex)

Bill Gleeson
Posted 21.02.2014 at 00:32

Have these images really been lying dormant for over a century in the archives waiting to be unearthed? The "glass-plate" image of the Spanish Admiral that David Colamaria is admiring comes from a San Francisco photo and motion picture supply shop that would appear to have been in business from the mid-1930s until the mid-1960s (I'd have to re-verify that). I wonder if Skinner (being a San Francisco concern) picked up some of the Hearst photos from the Examiner when newspapers periodically got rid of their photo morgues. The fact that this "lost" image from the Spanish-American War was more than likely on the market (I would suspect for use in schools to illustrate classes in American History) at least some 40 years after the Spanish-American War leaves me to imagine that the "trove" "re-discovered" has much to do with shoddy archival practices. Accession information?

François Brunet
Posted 21.02.2014 at 10:39

@ Nils. You raised several important points. Yes, moving images, and stills from them, rather than photographs, compose the bulk of today's war imagery. I wonder if this may have something to do - aside from other well known factors about amateur journalism — with the relative decline of war photography or rather of a sort of "classic" style of war photography. Wars as being fought over the power of images: big topic, and I wouldn't be able to pronounce on this quite so fast. Certainly the memories and histories of war tend to focus on images and their power, as in Iliad indeed. And certainly wars have been fought over interpretations. But the "world as image" theme, to me, sounds hollow, and more so now than perhaps in the 1960s or 1980s when Boorstin, Debord, or Baudrillard wrote about it; among other reasons, because so many images disappear, or rather never appear; when you write about images "perpetually perceived by us", or "so we find ourselves in the present of historic pictures in a permanent state of conflict", I think, as you do further in your point #1, about masses of archives not seen, not perceived, not present, both archives from the past and archives from present surveillance and weaponry mechanisms. I also think that, in the case of the NHHC "find'", as in many other similar cases, we have at present very little ground for understanding the pictures, their purpose, their historical status in short, beyond a vague notion of illustration or propaganda. Thierry Gervais, whose work I cited, tells me he has never heard of Douglas White. You may think this is pedestrian "picture history" but to me, if one is going to historicize an archival "find" of this kind, one has to go all the way; I will not be content with macro-contexts that merely expose and recycle our larger knowledge of world histories and our larger ideological frameworks about war, images, American this or that, etc. Yes, the truth is always concrete, and I am enough of an archivist to think, often, that archives will change the received truth. By which I also mean to respond to your quote of Derrida, an author that I have read often with great interest; no matter how much I may understand his point in "Archive Fever", and there is unquestionably an archive fever in our late Modern world, I greatly resist the notion of a "concept of the archive". The very use of the word archive in the singular, as a kind of essentializing concept, precisely, something that is often ascribed to Foucault in "Archéologie du savor", is highly problematic for me. Just as documents do not exist per se — without questions and also without some material conditions — archives do not exist, or not always, per se; things become archives in some material conditions; they are used as archives in some historical conditions; and they produce truths primarily by falsification, like every where else.

François Brunet
Posted 21.02.2014 at 10:46

@ Jean. I do wonder about this idea of newspapers publishing more photographs in times of war. There are, as you say, strong links between the rise of the modern illustrated press ca 1900 and war imaging, the Spanish American war being precisely a big case in point. But I tend to disagree with the statement that a separate discourse on war photography is impossible, even if I agree with your reasons. Perhaps it is impossible, but it is very real. One fact is, war imagery has been, for a long time now, the primary ground or exemplification resource for all sorts of historical and critical discourses about (visual) truth. Look at the series of 20th c journalistic "icons" and the inexhaustible controversies about — most of them are war images or war-related. And I must bow to the fact that today, most if not all of my doctoral students — and they are very bright people — choose to work primarily on war imagery and its problems. What a shift for me, since the 1970s, when it seemed (to me) that working on photography naturally led to working on landscape.

François Brunet
Posted 21.02.2014 at 11:32

PS about newspapers and war pictures. This debate, by the way, was already current in the 1930s. Robert Taft, at the end of his last and odd chapter on the pictorial press, largely outreached the nominal terminus of the book (1889) by engaging in a broad discussion of the 1930s press. Here he tackled the question of the “criticisms, disadvantages, and obvious abuses which have followed in the wake of half-tone and high-speed photography” (Photography and the American Scene, 447). As I have noted in my recent article in "American Art" (27.2, Summer 2013) on "Robert Taft, Historian of Photography as a Mass Medium", Taft's text "incorporated several (reassuring) quotations from Life’s chief editor, Henry R. Luce, as well as some opinions gleaned from a questionnaire about the prospects and threats of photographic illustration that Taft sent in early November 1937 to Luce and six other prominent magazine editors. Although Taft made little use of their answers in his text, his apparent goal was to settle mounting public debate about the evils of the illustrated press and mass communications." One such evil was the apparent propensity of the press to illustrate "war, individual murder and other crime, morbid and gruesome events.” Taft, however, defended “the ability of the photograph to picture and dramatize the normal life, thus making it news” (PAS, 448--49). He went so far as to place here "a plea for the 'arts of peace,' which he supported with another comforting quotation from Luce about the unexpected success of a Life story “on the growing of wheat” (rather than “the horrors of drought,” PAS, 450)." (my article, p. 30-31). This plea echoed Taft's call to his readers to search their attics in quest of their local, ordinary, all-American pasts. Whether it was successful is debatable — how could that be measured, by the way? Certainly it indicates that Zelizer's claim was already very much on the editorial agenda in 1938.

Bill Gleeson
Posted 21.02.2014 at 12:26

One of the interesting things about the NHHC announcement is that the primary image that is used to trumpet the find is a double portrait, or at least an occupational portrait, that of "The Curator" with the tools of his trade, namely the photographic image rescued from the archive to be placed in the context decided by the curator. It also shows how war photography had not quite recreated itself between the Civil War and the Spanish American War. At this point, if portraiture was not absolutely central to the way of thinking visually about the war, it was nevertheless a vital means of posing a formal construct about the conflict. It is important to remember that the wars of 1898, in addition to their "imperial" side, are about sectional reconciliation via the military and they also occur at a time of a renaissance of the photographic images from the Civil War through publications and traveling shows. It would make a certain amount of sense that the formal visual structures of the Civil War would have an impact on how the Spanish-American War would be visually delivered to the American public.

Bill Gleeson
Posted 21.02.2014 at 12:51

I forget to add....there are some of us who like to think that working on war photography leads quite naturally to working on landscape photography, war and landscape being inextricably intertwined.

François Brunet
Posted 21.02.2014 at 15:05

@ Bill Gleeson. Thank you for these developments, and the link of war to landscape… as well as the reminder of portraiture as a major genre of war imagery. "Shoddy archival practices": I leave that judgment to your responsibility, but then again the shoddiness largely depends on how one thinks of archives, as masses or as files.

Jean Kempf
Posted 23.02.2014 at 23:11

@François. You're raising — via Taft — a most important issue about "documentary" and press/magazine photography. ("Taft, however, defended “the ability of the photograph to picture and dramatize the normal life, thus making it news” (PAS, 448–49). He went so far as to place here “a plea for the ‘arts of peace,’...") Your quote of Taft proves that the issue was indeed on the agenda much before the first specific scholarly studies of documentary (probably William Stott in the 1970s?). Strangely enough I was just discussing this issue yesterday with a curator who was making the same remark, this time re:the War/Photography traveling exhibition by Anne Tucker. I answered her this:
- 1) documentary being mostly about praxis (changing society), it naturally leans towards the dis-ease, the dysfunctionning, the abnormal, but so does to a great extent journalism.
- 2) The other factor as the (20th) century went on was the growing suspicion towards the "nice", "normal" and "happy" as being merely propaganda: happy workers/families came to be seen — at least by some — as redolent of Nazi / Soviet / American imagery of "perfect" regimes.
BUT: I am under the impression that our (scholars's) view of this is heavily skewed. Most photographs produced are acutally about NORMAL LIFE (or non "negative" albeit dramatic events), even in the press : if you look at a standard issue of a magazine (Time for instance), or newspaper (I have in front of me the copy of today's NYT) the fact that war photo / negative imagery is predominent is just not true.
If you also look at local journalism which chronicles the trains arriving on time, or at family "albums" (or what's left of them) that's what you find: a chronicle of happy moments, not necessarily by the way ALL life, especially its sadder moments: you don't take pictures at a funeral unless it's someone famous. (I did make some pictures at my mother's funeral though, and of my mother after she died, and was once commissioned to take pictures at a friend's father's funeral but was quickly rebutted by the people attending who thought it was obscene.)

Now as to not being able to hold "a separate discourse on war photography", my ideas on this are pretty simple. If war photography has been the focus of interest of those 1) debating (editorially) the truth factor in photography 2) more generally (professionaly) developing a critical discourse about photography, it's because the subject of war and the conditions of production of images in war hyperconcentrate all issues making them in a sense more salient and pedagogical. A sort of acme of photography as it were. But they cannot constitute separate corpora.

François Brunet
Posted 24.02.2014 at 21:55

@Jean, a question. From your recent extensive survey of contemporary documentary photographers in NYC, would you say that "documentary" is still about praxis — changing the world today?
On war photography, yes, it hyper concentrates all the issues and therefore it is not, in that sense, a separate corpus but rather a synecdoche. But — some people never talk about anything else.

Jean Kempf
Posted 27.02.2014 at 19:43

@François. On documentary. To answer the question of whether today's documentary is still about praxis, I'd say most definitely yes. Granted contemporary photographers — who are more and more intellectually sophisticated — will say that they are very much aware that photography does not change the world, that they have learnt their lessons from their predecessors, etc. And yet when you talk to them about why they keep doing it — very often against incredible negative odds financial and otherwise — they will eventually all formulate a variation on the classic theme of witnessing. Well witnessing is not quite the same as agitprop, but in our day and age it seems to me its closest liberal equivalent. Most of the photographers I talked to had strong political opinions about the state of their country today and thus felt that it was their duty to "show" so that things "change" for the better. Tried and seasoned but still idealistic.

François Brunet
Posted 03.03.2014 at 15:54

Jean, I had overlooked this reply. It is interesting, because "from the outside" one would or at least I would have thought differently. Among other things it seems to me that the burden of changing the world has been, lately, associated more with music/performance events and of course social networks than with images per se. But then again your photographers are probably all working through social media. And I do see, among the Paris student population who inclines towards learning about photography, this "praxis" intent. That being said, there remains—besides the inroads of Visual Skepticism against any kind of faith-based practices—the looming question of privacy rights and how that displaces the "public" character of suffering or more generally existing in the social world, which in my opinion must inevitably transform the conditions of documentary. A topic for another blog perhaps.

Jean Kempf
Posted 27.02.2014 at 19:44

I discovered a very bizarre site thanks to a lecture organized by Aperture Foundation. It's a systematic analysis (via big data software) of images posted on social networks and particularly (in this instance) selfies. The results are rather crude for the time being, and certainly the questions they are able to (help us) answer are limited. But I thought it was worth a look.

Jean Kempf
Posted 03.03.2014 at 00:33

the link I mentionned did not seem to appear in my post. Here it is : http://selfiecity.net

François Brunet
Posted 03.03.2014 at 15:56

Again, thank you. I realize that my posts did not really address the selfie phenomenon, and that was because I felt it was very well exposed already, on this blog and elsewhere. But this site is interesting, in itself and in what it tells us about instant archiving, a trend that surely will develop in the near future...

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