Of News and Pictures, Then and Now

For a number of years I’ve offered a spring semester academic course (as opposed to a studio one; the distinction being, chiefly, writing versus making). I’ve alternated between an introductory course in (primarily) American visual culture and a more research-focused seminar. 

Two years ago I offered a seminar–Readings in Postwar American Visual Culture 1945-1965. The students that time out produced some lively and fascinating research projects, formatted as online exhibitions. They’re accessible here.

This semester, we're pursuing a hybrid approach. Visual Journalism and Reportage Drawing is a part-academic, part studio experience about which there will be more to say. We're exploring new course material in alignment with my own recent research (both creative and historical) in visual journalism, and particularly reportage drawing. The course follows a seminar from 2012 [the year in which this post originally appeared] called Drawing Conclusions: Illustration, Visual Journalism, and the History of the Press.

At that time we read some standard press histories to provide context. The visual aspects of newspapering tend to be associated with sales, not information.

Michael Schudson characterizes increasingly visual practices in the pages of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World as self-advertisement. “Self-advertisement...is anything about newspaper layout and newspaper policy, outside of basic news gathering, which is designed to attract the eye and the small change of readers.” Schudson goes on to offer that “one of the most important developments of self-advertising...was the use of illustrations.” (Discovering the News; a Social History of American Newspapers, 1978.)

Such analyses suggest a somewhat Puritan attitude about the use of images. The primacy of text is a given; the use of images could be justified as salesmanship, but not as an aid to understanding, excepting immigrants with poor English. It might be suggested that visual coherency and complementarity of elements (or “layout” and well-crafted text & image relationships) affect sales because they result in greater understanding and retention, but that’s another discussion.

For present purposes, I’m interested in how pictures and diagrammatic materials aid in journalistic understanding. At the top of this post, a memorable image of the Costa Concordia, an ill-captained cruise ship that foundered on rocks just offshore in Italy on January 13, 2012. Here's a case in which words would fail to convey the incongruity of the scene: a massive ship tipped ludicrously on its side in shallow water, a maritime drunken uncle. It would be funny but for the loss of life. Seventeen people have been confirmed dead.

In both courses we considered the Civil War battle of Antietam (September 1862) as a case study, drawing on contemporaneous illustrated accounts in Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, as well as the epochal photographs shot by Alexander Gardner after the battle. Epochal, because they presented images of soldiers’ corpses, capturing the aftermath of battle: a litter of carnage. (As with everything, the new is framed by limitation. Gardner photographed corpses because that’s the only aspect of battle he could have shot with the equipment of the era: the apparatus was bulky, and shutter speeds were interminable. Dead men don’t move. Although the photographers occasionally moved them, for compositional purposes.)

There are useful notes on the Antietam National Battlefield website concerning Gardner’s photographs, especially the use of stereoscopic techniques, used to produce a 3-D image when seen through a viewing device. And the Atlantic, which is publishing a special Civil War anniversary issue, presents about 20 stereoscopic images on its site here. If you click on the images they shift from one exposure to the other, creating a crazy miniature animation.

Above, Timothy O’Sullivan photograph of Alfred Waud, the Harper’s illustrator (who was present at Antietam) at Gettysburg in July 1863. Specifically, Waud is sitting on a rock in Devil’s Den, a particularly ghastly spot on the second day of the battle. This is a red-blue anaglyph version of the stereoscopic pair of exposures.

The ANB site does a solid though abbreviated job of presenting its material, but this sentence, concerning Gardner's work, appears without qualification: “It wasn’t until September of 1862 that the first true images of war were produced. Antietam was the first battle to depict the grim and bloody truth of civil war.”

The first true images of war. Yes, or no? Discuss.

I have been thinking of this in the context of a classical author who would object to such a conclusion. Plato’s Republic famously seeks to define the contours of the well-ordered state. Book X addresses the role of painters and poets in such a state. The news is not good for “the creatives”; they're tossed out. Painters are defined as imitators of appearances. Plato uses the example of a bed, which exists as an ideal form, a divine bedness beyond the particulars of any one bed. A carpenter fashions a particular bed, which is once removed from the ideal bed. The painter makes an image of the carpenter’s bed, now twice removed from the ideal. The painter, argues Plato, knows zip about beds. What he does know are parlor tricks, deceptions; he is several steps removed from the truth.

But the painter’s ignorance is only part of the problem. The painter and his cousin the poet do not rely on sober judgment and reason. Rather, they play to the emotions.

Concerning the poet, Plato writes:

And now we may fairly take him and place him by the side of the painter, for he is like him in two ways: first, inasmuch as his creations have an inferior degree of truth–in this, I say, he is like him; and he is also like him in being concerned with an inferior part of the soul; and therefore we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered State, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small–he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth.

These ideas are 1) deeply significant in western intellectual history, and 2) to blame for countless dopey allegorical paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries, thanks to neoclassicism. There’s much too much to cover here. But Plato raises good questions, especially for our relatively delimited discussion subject of the visual journalism of war. We can argue persuasively that there are no “ideal” soldiers; only particular soldiers die: somebody’s son or brother or father (or daughter or sister or mother, nowadays). But Plato, reviewing Gardner’s Antietam photographs of Civil War dead, might argue: This is a true image of war? A vast conflict is waged for complex reasons. Won’t the “true” image seek to show causes and effects on a macro scale? Isn’t the presentation of horrible casualties simply an appeal to feelings, and a denial of reason?

Meanwhile, history and technology have sped along undeterred. The era of the photojournalist and the filmmaker followed the heyday of the "special artist" (as people like Waud were known). Video and television came next. The consumer-grade camera enabled surreptitious eyewitness video, most significantly in the Rodney King beating (March 3, 1991) broadcast on television after the fact, leading to rioting in South Central Los Angeles. Today’s handheld cameras and smartphones have democratized reporting yet again, and the distribution mechanism of broadband internet and social media have enabled nearly instantaneous worldwide distribution.

Which brings me to a contemporary echo of Gardner’s Antietam pictures. Several years ago, dramatic protests broke out Iran following the announcement of widely distrusted presidential election results. Opposition rallies began on June 13, 2009 and continued through the end of that month. People around the world tracked the events on Twitter, which was used to spread word of violence and arrests. Seemingly rattled at first, the regime deployed Basij paramilitary units to suppress the protests.

On June 20, a Basij gunman claimed the life of a young woman named Neda Agha-Soltan. (Editorial note: Witnesses assigned blame to the Basij, the motorcycle-riding paramilitary rowdies allied with the regime. A militiaman was pulled off a motorcycle and accused by the crowd after Soltan's killing. The Iranian government hotly contested this version of events. Harassment has followed witnesses and Neda Agha-Soltan's gravesite and headstone have been vandalized. January 2015.

An eyewitness wrote:

At 19:05 June 20th Place: Karekar Ave., at the corner crossing Khosravi St. and Salehi st. A young woman who was standing aside with her father [note: he turned out to be her music teacher] watching the protests was shot by a basij member hiding on the rooftop of a civilian house... I am a doctor, so I rushed to try to save her. But the impact of the gunshot was so fierce that the bullet had blasted inside the victim's chest, and she died in less than 2 minutes. The protests were going on about 1 kilometers away in the main street and some of the protesting crowd were running from tear gas used among them, towards Salehi St.

We know about this event because it was videotaped by at least three people. Along with millions of other people, I saw the video that very day. At the time I wished I hadn’t. As the doctor reports, she bleeds to death very rapidly. Neda’s death galvanized the Green Movement instantly, and the regime was quick to isolate her family as a countermeasure.

Above is a still from the longest of the three videos capturing her death. You can view this clip here, if you decide to. But be warned: it’s extremely upsetting.

The martyrdom of Neda Agha-Soltan may, like the dead of Antietam, resonate in global media history. It may someday matter in the unfolding national narrative of Iran. 

But what does a 40-second video clip of a dying individual on the fringes of an event tell us about complex political phenomena? Doesn't the symbolic urge–the rush to make meaning out of grievous happenstance–threaten to overcome the merely factual? And is it possible that viewers' outrage simply justifies participation in a pornography of violence? Finally, shouldn't we bring each of those questions to Gardner's photographs, 150 years after the fact?


Photo credit unavailable (I tried),  Costa Concordia , a ship capsized off the coast of Italy on January, 13, 2012. 32 people were confirmed dead. Its captain, Francesco Schettino, was charged with manslaughter; as of January 2015 the case is wending its way through the Italian courts. 

Photo credit unavailable (I tried), Costa Concordia, a ship capsized off the coast of Italy on January, 13, 2012. 32 people were confirmed dead. Its captain, Francesco Schettino, was charged with manslaughter; as of January 2015 the case is wending its way through the Italian courts. 

Alfred Waud, Battle of Antietam, engraving in Harper's Weekly, October 11, 1862. The battle took place on September 17.  

Timothy O'Sullivan, Stereophotograph of Alfred Waud in Devil's Den at Gettysburg, 1863. 

Alexander Gardner, Confederate Soldiers as they fell by Burnside Bridge, photograph at Antietam battlefield, September 1863. 

Kleophrades Painter, Sack of Troy Hydria. 5th century BCE. This image and the two below it show the defeat of the Trojans at the hands of the Greeks: the end of Homer's Iliad. 

King Priam, bleeding and weakly covering his head, awaits the death blow that's coming from Neoptolemos, son of Achilles. Astyanax–son of Hector–is already dead, is draped across Priam's lap. 

Ajax, left, comes for Cassandra, who is holding onto the Palladion, sort of a cigar-store-Indian sculpture of Athena.  

Ajax, left, comes for Cassandra, who is holding onto the Palladion, sort of a cigar-store-Indian sculpture of Athena.  

George Holliday, still image from video footage of the Rodney King beating, on March 3, 1991. Los Angeles, California. Holliday sent his footage to news station KTLA, and outrage resulted. An early example of citizen journalism, made possible by a technological innovation: the consumer grade camcorder.

Alexander Gardner, Federal Buried, Confederate Unburied, photograph at Antietam battlefield, September 1863.

Still from video footage of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan in Tehran, Iran, on June 13, 2009.