Aftermath photography

This posting is inspired by the course notes, pp28-30 and David Company’s 2003 essay ‘Safety in Numbness’ (online at Campany 2017). Campany starts with Joel Meyerowitz’s photography of ‘Ground Zero’ in the aftermath of the September 2001 attack on, and collapse of, the World Trade Centre to comment on what what he calls ‘Late Photography’.

Actually, it is at one further remove; Campany comments on a Channel 4 video report on Meyerowitz photographing (as official photographer with exclusive access) the aftermath and clear-up of the event.  Meyerowitz spent 9 months at Ground Zero photographing with an 8×10 view camera and many of his images are surprisingly beautiful, which Campany appears to regard as a problem as it decontextualises the document from the event.

I disagree with Campany. As an occasional view camera user myself I know that this type of photography brings about a considered and close relationship between the photographer and the scene, in a way that ‘spray and pray’ with a DSLR simply cannot manage. A considered and reverential approach is entirely appropriate to this subject and the scale of the tragedy.

Of course, there were the news photographs and video of the events as they unfolded, including the second impact captured on live TV,as was the collapse of both towers but that was all too raw to assimilate. The immediate images and Meyerowitz’s aftermath images serve two different purposes; a point which I will return to.

Campany discusses the history of news images which, for him, occurs in three phases up to the time of his writing. I believe there is a fourth phase, post-2003.

The early history is exemplified by Fenton’s Crimean War and Brady’s American Civil war images. As noted in the course notes, these do not show the fighting itself but the prelude (staged portraits and groups) and the aftermath; see Fenton’s ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ and Brady’s ‘The Dead of Antietam’ as examples. The reason is simple practicality; before 1871, both photographers would have been using wet collodion plates and the middle of a battlefield is no place for a darkroom cart.

We enter Campany’s second phase with the advent of dry plates, then celluloid film and, more particularly the Leica and its 35mm cousins. With portable cameras, photographers such as Robert Capa and Nick Ut were able to take photographs in the middle of the action. Distribution was not immediate as photographs had to be transported physically to the newsroom and newspapers had to be transported to the point of sale. Still photographs were, therefore, ‘immediate enough’.

The third phase starts with the spread of television to the point that it took over as the primary news medium, coupled with electronic and satellite communication allowing news (especially images) to travel from camera to viewer in minutes. This picks up Company’s second thread – the relationship between still and moving images. Newspapers require still images; television works best with moving images. Campany sees the moving image as more immediate, and stills more contemplative and suited to aftermath. My take on this is that a moving image says, “This is happening now” while a still says “This has happened”.

There is a clear parallel between the two periods of aftermath photography in the Paul Seawright image, ‘Valley’ shown in the course notes. The similarity with Roger Fenton’s valley is obvious.

Safety in Numbness was written in 2003 when digital cameras were in their infancy, the internet was still a toy for academics and computer hobbyists, and the cameraphone had not been invented. Since that time, I believe a fourth period in photojournalism is occurring fuelled by the rise of social media and citizen journalism. Images of unfolding news stories, particularly disasters and terrorist attacks, can be around the world on Twitter or Facebook before the conventional media networks can mobilise. This has an upside in immediacy but a downside in compromising objectivity and in the out-and-out ‘fake news’ currently being debated. Although both still and moving images can be transmitted in this way, bandwidth considerations mean that stills are currently preferred.

Returning to Meyerowitz’s aftermath still images of Grand Zero, compared with the video images of broadcast media as the attacks, fire and collapse occurred, I am reminded of Susan Sontag’s comparison of moving and still images (1979,18), ‘Television is a stream of under selected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.’ The viewer can decide the order of viewing and spend as much time as he/she needs with each image. The aftermath image and Sontag’s concept of memento mori appear ideally suited to each other.

References

Campany, D. (2017). Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’. [online] David Campany. Available at: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ [Accessed 9 Mar. 2017].

Sontag, S. (1979). On photography. London, United Kingdom: Penguin, [1979].

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