Unreal Nature

December 30, 2009

[In] Versions

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:51 am

… [In the 1930s before WWII.] Some reporters argued that photographs should be denounced altogether, saying that “we’re on our way backward to a language of pictures, to the Stone Age of human intelligence [J. L. Brown, “Picture Magazines and Morons” 1938]. The work of photographers, said one British journalist, “is important and valuable but it is not journalism, and I am not prepared to receive them as journalist colleagues” [F.J. Higginbottom, “Work of News Photographers is Not Journalism” 1935].

This is from an essay, From the Image of Record to the Image of Memory: Holocaust Photography, Then and Now by Barbie Zelizer, a revised version of what first appeared in her 1998 book, Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory through the Camera’s Eye.

… So reporters in the press admitted photography but only in predetermined ways, as “fillers and story illustrations, but not a principal method of telling the news.” What was emphasized was photography’s role in providing a medium of record that catered to its referentiality, indexicality, and ability to reference a real-life object. What was undermined was the image’s cogency as a symbolic tool and its universality, generalizability, and ability to position a real-life referent within a larger interpretive scheme. That meant that journalists, in inviting photographers into their midst, emphasized the former over the latter. They welcomed photographs only so long as they figured they would help denote things happening in the real world, playing an indexical role in news rather than an interpretive one. It was assumed that photography could help bolster journalism’s authority for relaying the events or real life, supporting its aspirations toward objectivity and helping reporters become better journalists — or at least so went the refrain before the war.

Yet atrocity photos were produced through an inversion of that logic.

… [In many of the photos of Germany after the end of the war.] No identified place or date accompanied the photographs, there were no definitive details about the people being depicted, nor were there any credit lines. The images depicted generalized moments of suffering, but the relationship between the pictures and the accompanying text remained ambiguous.

This thrust away from the contingent details of what was being photographically depicted characterized most photographs of Nazi atrocities. Many photos lost their referentiality in face of their invocation as symbols, their connection chipped away as they became less definitive indices of a specific place or location and became more general reminders of the atrocities of Nazism. It was within the move from referentiality to universality that the pictures became particularly meaningful. Within a general story about the German war machinery it mattered little where in Germany a specific picture had been taken. What remained important was that the picture depicted life under the Nazis. Yet referentiality was what journalism was expecting photography to uphold, suggesting an inversion of what it was expected to do for journalism.

… Within days of the arrival of photographers in the [death] camps wire services were flooded with explicit and gruesome snapshots of horror the likes of which had never before been seen on the pages of the U.S. and British daily and weekly press.

The images did not often bear a definitive link to the stories they illustrated. One typical photograph was used alongside the official report compiled on the liberation of Buchenwald in April 1945. while the verbal report constituted one of the most detailed (and indexically powerful) narratives of the camps, presenting verbatim numbers, routines, death counts, and horrific procedures in considerable detail, the picture that accompanied it showed little more than three gaunt men and the caption offered little information. There was no date, no attribution, and little identification of the objects of the camera. The public viewed the image and knew little about who the men were, where the picture was taken, or who took it. Even at the time of the liberation a different degree of detailing was expected from images and words. Pictures were set up as universal accompaniments to the boldly indexical narratives at their side. Again, it was a reversal of the role expected of photography in news.

… captions often bore a mystical quality that left their relationship to the image unclear. One set of photos of a stack of human bodies, depicted alongside a crouching U.S. army major, appeared twice within a week in two separate U.S. publications, Newsweek and Time. The same stack of bodies was identified as being at two different camps: Buchenwald and Ohrdruf. On the level of referentiality — that is, an image’s ability to denote a specific action in a specific time and place — the caption specifying Buchenwald was wrong. Yet on the level of the image’s universality, that wrong information mattered little. At a more general level the image provided proof of the atrocities, even if they were labeled as being in the wrong place.

… symbolism was achieved through presentations that seemed to suggest that events depicted in the photographs could have taken place anywhere in the Third Reich and any time under its reign. … the photographs were invoked less as identifiable markers of specific activities and more as representative indices of general wartime circumstances. Images were pushed from fulfilling the role of referentiality to that of symbolism surrounding the war and the potential for human evil.

… Because standards for using photographs had not been sufficiently thought out, the press inadvertently allowed the photograph’s symbolic force to flourish over its referential dimensions. One final example illustrating the thrust away from referentiality can be found in Stars and Stripes (“The Pictures Don’t Lie” 1945). Intended as a rebuttal to lingering claims that atrocity photos had been faked or otherwise forged, the article tackled the authenticity of images. But the image it used to illustrate its claim was telling for its own lack of referential traits. The image that depicted the burned corpse of an unidentified laborer was uncaptioned and unattributed. Although the photograph, a depiction of a slave laborer, was in fact from the Signal Crops and had arrived over the wires complete with extensive documentation that said it had been taken in Leipzig, such documentation did not gain entry into the press, even in a piece on the authenticity of pictures.

… This rather hearty thrust toward using photographs as symbols rather than as tools of referential documentation suggests that photographs and photography entered newswork precisely along the least expected fault lines for doing so. The fact that photographs resonated as symbols not only as reportage but also as a mode of remembering suggests the need for a closer examination of the way in which they become co-opted in memory work.

-Julie

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