April 8, 2009

War + Photo Journalism

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Life magazine’s inaugural issue was published on Nov. 23, 1936, just four months after the start of the Spanish Civil War. For the first few weeks of its existence, the pages Life dedicated to the war in Spain were astoundingly few, especially relative to the coverage domestic and other foreign affairs received. As Life boomed and the war raged on, the magazine claimed to present a balanced account of the conflict but in reality — notably in photography — favored the fascist Nationalist forces.
So said Sally Stein, the 2009 Findley lecturer who spoke yesterday to a full Lewis Auditorium. In Close-Ups From Afar: The Still-Contested Framings of the Spanish Civil War, 1936 – Stein argued that Life magazine in the 1930’s actually promoted a right-wing reactionary viewpoint using photography and, equally importantly, page layouts as its argument and rhetoric. She compared Life to Photo History, a short-lived periodical with a left wing, pro-Spanish Republican mindset, and connected both publications by way of their common photographer, Robert Capa. Contemporary audiences perhaps best know Capa’s career as a photojournalist by his 1936 photograph “Falling (Loyalist) Soldier”, which also merited plenty of Stein’s attention.
Information about Robert Capa dominated so much of the lecture that it sometimes seemed more like his biography than an examination of the role of the image in communicating political ideals and shaping public opinion. His role in Life’s photographic coverage of the Spanish Civil War is almost unbelievable because of his personal populist sympathies compared to Life’s right-wing, white and Catholic demographic. Though Life’s conservative alignment seems like an unbelievable fact in itself, Stein proved it with a number of images from relevant pages. She used these spreads to draw connections between Life’s portrayal of contemporary Argentina (praised for its Catholicism and large European-born population, many of whom volunteered for the fascists in Spain), the king of England’s affair with an American divorcee (condemned by both the Archbishop and Life magazine, indicating their preference for traditional monarchy over “modern love”) and the conflict in Spain.
Stein’s carefully timed presentation of her evidence — the “layout” of her lecture — was quite convincing and culminated in the claim that Life ultimately “rationalized united fascist aggression” against the Spanish Republic. This statement seems preposterous, but Stein’s selection of images certainly defended it. One of the most astonishing items in her arsenal was a Life spread of three photographs: the first of an American fighter pilot captured in Spain, then one of his glamorous and sultry wife and a third of the Spanish rebel General Franco with his own wife. The pilot’s wife sent Franco her glamour shot along with a plea to spare her husband’s life. When Franco did, Life proudly reported that Franco was “a man too,” one who could be charmed just like an average man who wasn’t leading a bloody rebellion.
The remainder of Close-Ups from Afar was dedicated to Capa’s iconic photograph, “Falling (Loyalist) Soldier.” Several of Capa’s peers, as well as scholars across the decades, have contended that Capa posed the photograph. One woman in particular, Hansel Mieth, reported that it was taken following several staged shoots. Capa publicly denied these claims until his death.
This debate speaks to two major issues in photojournalism: can a photographer be an observer and an observer only? What is the worth of a “faked” documentary photograph? Stein argued emphatically against the notion of photographer as lens and not participant, and offered several different answers to the legitimacy question without making a definitive claim on the matter herself.
The ambiguity in the photograph is the image’s defining formal element and is consequently responsible for much of the dialogue about it. The discussion about the photo, however, largely sticks to its circumstances and overlooks its qualities. Is the outstretched arm in forward or backwards motion? Is it stopped? Is it raised in triumph or tensely making its last upward movement? Here, Stein compared it with the oft-cited but incorrect raised arm of the “Laocoön.” Or, like Goya’s protagonist in his “Executions of May 3, 1808”, is the arm raised in despair? Perhaps the varied and interesting questions “Falling Soldier’s” reputation raises make it worth tarnishing. Stein’s lecture on the photograph’s history in the larger context of media representation of the Spanish Civil War did raise these questions, but left the viewer to address them himself. Like every issue presented by photojournalism and other media, it was certainly “spun” but still left open to interpretation.