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Blog Archive 12
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ARCHIVESTable of Contents
Current Blog Page
22. Feb 2018 - Dec 2018
21. Sept 2017 - Jan 2018
20. Mar 2017 - Aug 2017
19. Aug 2016 - Feb 2017
18. Aug 2015 - June 2016
17. Jan 2015 - June 2015
16. July 2014 - Dec 2014
15. Jan 2014 - June 2014
14. July 2013 - Dec 2013
13. Jan 2013 - June 2013
11. Jan 2012 - June 2012
10. July 2011 - Dec 2011
9. Jan 2011 - June 2011
8. July 2010 - Dec 2010
7. Jan 2010 - June 2010
6. July 2009 - Dec 2009
5. Jan 2009 - June 2009
4. July 2008 - Dec 2008
3. Jan 2008 - June 2008
2. July 2007 - Dec 2007
1. Aug 2006 - June 2007
To keep the blog page a reasonable length the articles found within will be archived approximately every six months. To access older content, click the links on the left side of this page.
Most of us are no strangers to disasters, whether be it from our recent experiences with Hurricane Sandy or some earlier event. My work as a photographer has taken me beyond the damage to my own home and out to the coast where many have suffered far worse than I have. While I have long worked in these communities, it now feels a bit voyeuristic to be looking at other people’s misery. In some cases where walls have been ripped away from homes leaving belongings exposed, this feeling turns quite literal. There is however an inescapable appeal here, something that draws me to it. I am certainly not alone in this. Sine the attack on New York in 2001, more than a million visitors have come down to ground zero, and it is not just to pay their respects to the dead. The site is like a magnet pulling people in from all over the world though few can probably fully articulate why they came. We even see this phenomenon in more commonplace road accidents where traffic is slowed due to rubbernecking. Some researchers believe this is an inherent human trait passed down through our genes. It is certainly visible in the animal world where from a safe distance a herd will carefully watch, one of its members unfortunate enough to be hunted down being eaten. It is clearly a survival mechanism meant to teach us to embrace more prudent behavior, but more often than not in the distorted artificial world we live in, it takes on other forms. Aristotle noted these tendencies toward morbid curiosity as far back as Poetics written in 335 BCE. In our contemporary world, dark tourism (Gruseltourismus) has even become fashionable.
Countless view-cards were made of towns across the country displaying achievements of civic pride, so why show these same places in disarray? The clear evidence that disaster imagery has great appeal resides in the myriad of postcards produced depicting it for at least the last hundred years. The tradition is obviously much longer for it had been the constant subject of news stories and popular prints during the 19th century. Publishers knew this type of sensationalism generated customers as it still does today. The darker side of human nature led to the production of numerous cards depicting lynching and the dead of war. Walter H. Horne’s real photo cards of executions published during the Mexican Revolution were his bestselling pieces. These types of events however do not fall into the realm of disaster postcards even though their motives are closely associated. Though they all provide historical documentation in an age when the news media had very little visual content, and both were often sold as souvenirs; disaster postcards, as defined here, are particular in their depiction of the destruction of property rather than of human beings.
While disaster postcards often superbly document events, they were for the most part produced for no other reason than to make money off of them. This means that market forces had a tremendous influence over output. Most were real photo cards because they could be turned out in a hurry and then hawked while the tragedy was still fresh in people’s minds. Photographers often pressed the spectators gathered around such events soliciting orders for cards and promising a prompt delivery. It was a lucrative business that helped financially support many photo studios. The price that could be charged for a card was often in relation to the magnitude of the destruction. Not all events were covered equally as the number of photographers in the country were not evenly dispersed. While photographers might travel to cover a major event that had national interest, other calamities were reserved for the local studio if there was one. As more individuals acquired cameras, we begin to see coverage of more obscure local events presented on homemade cards.
No other calamity destroys more buildings than Warfare. While a vast amount of this type of damage was depicted on postcards, especially during World War One, they do not fall into the category of disasters for these cards were primarily produced as propaganda. Cards of very similar appearance are those depicting large scale fires, a tragedy that often hit small towns and cities alike. Because of their traumatic nature coupled with long recovery periods they tended to stay in the public consciousness long enough for printed cards to be made and sold while there was still interest in them. The fire that consumed Baltimore’s downtown waterfront in 1904 was of significant magnitude, yet it did not seem to create much interest beyond the city limiting the number of cards that depict it. Few today even know that Baltimore had such a devastating fire.
In contrast similar events like the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 stirred interest around the world, and nearly every major postcard publisher tried to cash in on it. Many of the initial cards produced are of poor quality. This is in part due to their being printed by firms that were not normally in the postcard business but saw an opportunity in satisfying the public’s thirst for disaster imagery. Publishers such as Rotograph, well known for their quality work put out a series on the earthquake but they are by far the worst printed cards they ever produced. One can only speculate that they were not printed by their usual means in their haste to throw something out into the market while demand was at its height. Many local publishers also lost their factories, but even amidst disaster they recognized that the distribution of newsworthy imagery was a business opportunity that they could not pass up, and they did so by whatever means was available to them.
The scope of this disaster kept it in the public eye long enough to allow other publishers to print high quality cards depicting the ruins of the city. This it created an anomaly in that more printed cards were eventually published of this event than were captured on real photo cards. While earthquakes of similar magnitude had occurred elsewhere, it is the San Francisco quake that remains deeply etched in the national memory to this very day. This is no doubt in part attributable to the vast amount of disaster imagery dispersed over the years, largely through postcards. They did more than document a disaster, helped to create an American myth that in turn increased the demand for imagery.
It is sometimes difficult to understand why certain events are covered well and others are not. The 1907 fire at Old Orchard Beach in Maine got quite a bit of attention, but barely any cards were made depicting the 1947 fire that nearly destroyed Bar Harbor, another tourist town further up the coast. Could it be the time difference? By the 1940’s printed news coverage in visual form had shifted away from postcards and toward magazines. This was certainly a factor yet the devastating fire that burnt half of Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1908 is of the same early period but only generated a small amount of poorly printed cards. Even the fire that ran through Salem in 1914 received relatively slight attention despite it being one of the worst in the State’s history. The variance in demand for such cards is most likely the deciding factor but it cannot be the whole story. Postcards unfortunately defy proper statistical analysis due to the relatively small numbers that exist today. Just a few ardent collectors of a single local can dramatically alter the appearance of production.
Though specific events seem to have been covered unevenly, there is no shortage of disaster cards to be found. Demand was apparently so great that in some places publishers went out of their way to reproduce images of historic fires that took place long before the advent of the postcard. There was no reason to do this unless they thought a profit could be made. History may have been the excuse for publication but that is not what created the demand. In some cases it seems that there is an audience for tragedy itself unattached to any relatable event. The specifics become unimportant when voyeuristic tendencies take over.
Other publishers were not content depicting the stillness of drab sooty ruins. When there were no dramatic photographs to be had, they altered what they could find. Most printed and real photo cards that depict flames do so with the aid of a retoucher’s paint brush. This not only animated the undramatic, it also provided an excuse to brighten up the card with eye catching color, and in turn make more sales because of it. The primary goal among publishers was profit, not providing historical accuracy.
Old postcards capturing smaller fires that often consumed nothing more than a single structure were by far the most prevalent when taken as a whole. Such disasters hit every community at one time or another, and it was only a question of whether there was someone around to capture it on film. Most postcards of fires, real photo or not, depict nothing more than burnt out ruins. Photographers were not always handy in such situations though actual action shots taken during a blaze can sometimes be found. This is especially true of places like resorts where professionals and amateurs armed with cameras were in abundance.
Oil tank fires became a popular subject for disaster postcards because they were difficult if not impossible to extinguish and had to burn themselves out over time. This provided photographers with plenty of time to arrive on the scene as well generating numerous spectators who would be the best customers for these cards. So much of what is documented and remembered is just a matter of opportunity and timing. Even today many of the stories that make it to the six-o’clock news are determined by whether anyone has captured dramatic footage of it or not. If a picture is good it can become news regardless of its significance.
Train wrecks proved to be a very popular subject for cards, but there were conflicting factors governing the ability to produce them. Some wrecks occurred in highly populated areas including cities that were easily assessable to photographers. These well traveled routes also made them subject to faster cleanup as heavy equipment could be brought in sooner as well as the urgency to get train traffic flowing again. In rural or more desolate areas it would be far less likely for there to be a photo studio in the vicinity, but these wrecks were generally slower to clean up, which provided more time for a photographer to arrive.
It must also be remembered that although cameras were not yet commonplace in the early 20th century, they were already in the hands of many non-professionals with the ability to turn their pictures into postcards. A great many real photo disaster postcards were created by local folk who just happened to be nearby. Unlike commercial cards, these were rarely produced in number but passed out to family and friends. Like all real photo postcards made by individuals, the quantity produced can never be known, but they are guaranteed to always be the most rare. Many of these cards however have a major drawback; they usually are not inscribed with place or date. If lucky a modern day collector may find a hand written note on the backside giving details.
Shipwrecks have also been a subject for many disaster postcards and by far one of the more popular. This is attributable to the vast amount of coverage these events have had over the centuries in literature, painting, and song. They are often associated with a tragic romanticism to all but those who drown. This traditional cultural connection cannot be over emphasized for it heavily reinforces our attraction to all forms of tragedy. The display of pictorial forms of disaster has always been subject to changing attitudes as to what is socially acceptable.
Today it is deemed proper to observe these tragic events on news shows and in magazines, but it is somehow considered in bad taste to exploit on a postcard. The exception to this is the shipwreck because its romantic connotations still prevail. Despite the improvement of navigational aids the power of storms cannot always be compensated for, and of course human error continues to be a constant factor in disaster. Ships still come ashore and postcards of them are still made and sold.
Because of the romanticism associated with shipwrecks, we still tend to picture them in our minds as a ship crushed under a giant wave far out at sea or lodged up high on a lonely rocky shore. Many cards depict such events but in the 20th century maritime disasters were just as likely to occur in an urban setting. Ships that find themselves beached anywhere but in the most isolated areas of the world will draw large crowds, but along populated waterways these disasters can draw even bigger audiences and a generate a very high demand for souvenir cards.
Some of the most desirable disaster cards are those that capture temporal events of dramatic proportions. These can range from explosions to tornados that last but a short time thus providing a photographer with a limited window to exploit. Whenever the saying, right place, right time becomes determinate, you can be sure the image will be rare. Cards depicting the aftermath of such events are far more common. It is generally much easier, if far less dramatic; to photograph a disaster after it has occurred. In many cases such as most storms, it is close to impossible to get a good shot of it while it is raging. Likewise few photographers can predict where an explosion will occur.
Ice storms that coat everything in their path bringing down trees and wires are best photographed in the aftermath. Their power derives from an accumulation of weather conditions, not a single climatic moment. The visual effects from such a storm can be dramatic and were often captured on cards by lucky photographers who happened to be present, but even this moment can be fleeting.
Floods were another common subject for postcards due to their regular occurrence, severity, and duration. Many flooded towns and cities were captured on both real photo and printed cards as both photographers and publishers had plenty of time to complete their work. Of all types of disaster cards, these are probably the most numerous. The tendency of floods to disrupt transportation over a wide area may also account for their sporadic coverage. Even so there seems to be more at play here just as on cards depicting fires. While floods in the Ohio Valley seem to be generously covered, cards of the great Mississippi flood of 1928, which at the time was the largest on record, are practically nowhere to be found. Could there have been too small a market in a poor black rural region to make publishing cards of this disaster unprofitable. The great New England hurricane of 1938 struck an area where the postcard market was certainly large and strong, yet there are only sporadic cards that depict the damage outside of one poorly printed set by Tichnor Brothers. While postcards created a good record of the specific events they did capture, their absence also raises questions pertaining to the social and economic conditions of their time.
A winter’s alternative to the flood postcard is the ice gouge. When the ice atop a river flows at a slower rate than the water beneath it, it begins to build up until the pressure forces it up and beyond the riverbank. This can often be more devastating than a flood for ice has little give and will push away or crush all in its path. This is a rather extraordinary natural occurrence, which makes it surprising that there are so few postcards that depict it well. We are no longer as familiar with such occurrences today for in cities at least lining our waterways with high breakwaters has largely contained the problem.
Postcards depicting disasters were not only confined to the United States as their impedes seems primarily to derive from a human desire to view them rather than strictly from any cultural base. The same sort of fires, train wrecks, and storm damage found on American cards is also commonplace on their European counterparts. One of the most widely covered disasters was the great flood of Paris in 1910. The Seine had risen twenty-feet from harsh winter storms and infiltrated the city from its subway and sewer lines. Paris was already a well photographed city, and its best photographers came out in rising waters to work. They not only managed to captured the lonely desolation of a city stilled by flood, but contrasted this with animated shots of those residents trying to cope or to flee. Many outstanding postcards came out of this misfortune. There is a similarity here to the San Francisco earthquake in that both disasters generated many more postcards than similar events elsewhere. We might assume that this has to do with the international recognition of these places but the associated mythologies must also play a role. Where the mere mention of San Francisco still stirs connotations of earthquakes, no one thinks of floods when they hear Paris; most know nothing of the 1910 disaster.
Another side to disaster cards is found in those that try to put our sorrowful interpretations aside if favor of aesthetics. They are not meant to convey a sense of destruction but one of beauty. Disasters can transform the world we know too well into one that is otherwise unimaginable. Twisted beams and splintered wood can become abstractions with a playful or elegant form. The separation of meaning from form is a chief component of modern art. In this manner disasters can form vast sculptures beyond the ability of any one artist to produce. This is difficult to fathom if one is at the suffering end, but as we become ever more further removed from the context found on old postcards it makes it easier to view them in this abstract way. I do not think one can ever totally remove oneself from content, but that’s not the point. It is the complimentary aspects of both beauty and horror that become the most intriguing when bound together. It is a reminder that we tend to overlook the beauty in the simple things that surround us every day.
The day after Hurricane Sandy hit, a photographer posed his model on a street in New York City amidst the branches of a fallen tree resting atop a crushed car. There was a lot of outrage over this once it was brought to light even though the photographer was not contributing to anyone’s suffering. Our words of condemnation however rarely correspond to our own actions. People have been posing with wreckage and ruin for as long as photography has existed. Many of these people probably have no direct connection to the disaster other than they came to see it and want a memento as if they were at any other historical site or natural wonder. Sometimes the victims themselves can be found posing as is often found with train wrecks surrounded by crew and passengers alike. There are just too many of these images around to consider them an anomaly; their numbers express a true insight into human nature. In many ways disaster pulls us out of the false constructs most of us live with on a daily basis. It forces us to face reality and for some it makes them feel more connected to the real world. We can see a similar situation when veterans struggle to integrate back into society after returning from war. However nightmarish, there can be a cherished exhilaration in crisis that makes many want to savor it, and many have done so through postcards.
If disasters did not come with such a terrible price, we might want to experience them much more often. Picture postcards on the other hand provided a safe clean alternative when feeding the voyeuristic desire to consume destructive imagery. There are no charred remains pulled from burnt houses to contend with, no bloated bodies floating in rivers. We keep our hands clean and foul odors from our senses. These cards protect our wandering eyes from the more disturbing blood and gore that we cannot help but look at in real life. Those who have been traumatized by disaster cannot appreciate its depiction. Confrontations with such imagery by those suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder can lead to high anxiety, flashbacks, and the inability to cope. This to seems to be another physiological mechanism for handling stress in the natural world, but one that creates a new set of problems when living within a modern society.
Today our hunger for disaster is largely satiated by television where we can consume a countless number of fires and car crashes when larger tragedies are not at hand. We all know these presentations are dubious as news that does us little good, but broadcasters know that nothing boosts ratings more. They often condemn our morbid curiosity while using it at the same time to attract greater market share. Our biggest blockbuster movies display destruction on an unprecedented scale. Even our toys now come in the form of video games that invite the creation of carnage. Disasters are closely related to violence, which in men at least has been shown to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain by raising dopamine levels. These pastimes however are not symptoms of destructive tendencies as much as a desire to feel more alive, and perhaps more real. Technology may have allowed us to supplanted the postcard but it is cast in the same voyeuristic role.
Unbuilt New York
One of the rewards in collecting early postcards of New York City is to be able to witness the rapid and interesting changes in the urban landscape that the city has been experiencing since its earliest years. A visit to the New York section of any major bookstore will testify to this fascination with vanished New York. Another, somewhat related theme, however, has captured my imagination: that of unbuilt or unfinished New York. I’ve chosen to focus here on postcard representations of a well-known New York City landmark, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is an architectural gem that stands at 110th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. It is regarded as the largest cathedral and the fourth largest church in the world. The cornerstone of this Episcopalian house of worship was laid in 1892, and the original design was by architects George Heins and Christopher Grant Lafarge, who won out over 80 other competitors. Their plans called for a Romanesque-Byzantine design, characterized by thick walls, rounded arches and a generous use of tile work. In 1911, however, after the death of Heins, plans for the cathedral changed radically. The new architectural firm of Cram & Ferguson insisted on a French Gothic design. This meant a cruciform floor plan, higher ceilings signifying upward spiritual movement, and it allowed for more stained glass windows which could add light to the interior. Building in this second, Gothic style continued until December of 1942, when the attack on Pearl Harbor brought all construction to an abrupt halt.
What is interesting to me on the early postcard images of the church is that the cathedral is most often depicted in its final form as then envisioned with no indication that the building is not yet complete. We have then above, on a Detroit Photographic Co. card with undivided back and copyrighted 1903, a representation of St. John’s finished in the Romanesque-Byzantine style. The exact same depiction can be found later on Detroit phostint cards with divided backs with the only difference being in the background cloud formations. Again, there is no indication that the church is a work in progress and both sets of cards are simply captioned Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York.
An earlier Souvenir Card (Albertype) shows a romanticized view of the Hudson River, Amsterdam Avenue, and various landmarks, with St. John’s being the most prominent. The card is titled MOONLIGHT, and indeed the moon shines over the magnificent dome (never realized) of the Cathedral.
In a tribute to the actual construction being done on the church, a card dating from the 1920’s or 1930’s (judging from the unevenly cut white borders and lack of sharp focus) depicts the church in its present stage and includes a circular inset of the Cathedral when completed. The projected design now has two high Gothic steeples just forward from where the Romanesque-Byzantine dome had once been planned. Worthy of note, the verso of the card explains that the Cathedral is not yet constructed, and tells of its projected costs.
The Detroit phostint above pictures a finished Gothic Cathedral with the two soaring steeples shown in the previous card’s inset. Again there is no indication in the caption, The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York, that the viewer is only being provided with a future vision.
The following two cards, which could easily be mistaken for black and white photographs show a magnificent rendition of St. John’s in French Gothic design minus the two high steeples shown on the previous card. The first card directly below is postmarked 1947, and the second card below it, depicts a view of the west front, includes people on the church’s steps.
In 1971, Santiago Calatrava won a competition which would have meant another radical direction in the Cathedral’s architectural development. His proposal added a glass-enclosed biosphere to complete the church’s south arm, or transept. However, construction of St. John’s did not resume after the Second World War until 1979. By then, stonecutting skills had almost totally vanished in the United States, so an English master mason was hired who trained local youths from Harlem in the craftsmanship needed. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the Church decided to focus more on outreach to the community, and aside from work on the façade’s south bell tower, now half-completed, work has effectively come to a halt.
Though there are postcards of St. John’s that explicitly reveal that the pictured edifice is still under construction, it’s rather amazing that a large number hide the fact. One wonders at the disappointment tourists may have felt over the years when the reality of what they found at 110th Street didn’t match the picture postcard image they had reason to expect.
Meanwhile, it is anyone’s guest whether the Cathedral will ever be completed (the average time fame for building such an edifice historically has been one to three hundred years), or what style(s) it might further incorporate in addition to Romanesque-Byzantine and French Gothic. For now it lives up to its nickname, the Cathedral of St. John the Unfinished.
In 1866 the baseball manufacturer, Andrew Peck joined up with Irving Snyder to open New York’s first sporting goods store. Peck & Snyder’s Ann Street shop soon became the City’s leading retailer of baseball supplies. In 1869 they took advantage of the post Civil War printing boom by advertising their goods on the back of trade cards. To attract attention they tapped into the public’s growing fascination with baseball and chose to reproduce a team portrait of the Cincinnati Red Stockings. The card was issued with the players names printed across the front, but the advertising placed on the back varied.
This Peck & Snyber Red Stockings trade card was first published in 1869 and reprinted in 1870. (This is not an image of the NY Public Library’s card)
One of these Peck & Snyder cards with a black & white ad for their New York rink skate, recently turned up in Baltimore at Legendary Auctions where it stirred great interest despite its poor condition. It is a highly desirable find, not due to the ad on the back but the depiction of the first professional baseball team that was so instrumental in turning the sport into a national pastime through their endless promotion of the game. It is one of the earliest examples of what can be considered a baseball card, and perhaps one of the top ten sought out by collectors. It was expected to fetch somewhere between twenty and fifty-thousand dollars on the auction block, that is until the FBI got involved.
Just before the August auction Doug Allen of Legendary Auctions was approached by federal agents who suspected the card was stolen from the Spalding Collection housed at the main branch of the New York Public Library. On checking the back of the card he noticed abrasive scrapings as if someone had tried to remove something from it. When passed under ultra-violet light, remnants of the library’s ownership stamp showed up clearly along with their storage box number. The FBI was informed of the results, and the card was returned to the consignor who in turn gave it back to the library.
The consignor has not been charged with steeling the card as it was purchased for six-thousand dollars back in 2003 at Jackson’s International Auctions in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was the highest selling item in the Abe Samuels collection that was then being auctioned off by his estate. Abe Samuels was an early member of the Metropolitan Postcard Club and an avid collector. He was however someone always looking for a bargain and did not tend to buy better cards. It has been said that his favorite topic was damaged cards so he could get them on the cheap. Many of his best cards were actually acquired by his father who had a sharp eye for quality, and the two collections were merged after Abe’s death. He was a rather reclusive man, hoarding his cards away out of sight so few today have any real insights into his collecting habits.
Abe Samuels assembling installment cards, possibly of his own design, at a meeting of the Metropolitan Postcard Club on 8th Street. (from the New York Sunday News, March 10, 1968)
Too many unknowns remain to draw any conclusions, and it is difficult to believe that any further investigative work will shed more light on this matter. It is very easy for cards to enter our collections without much knowledge of their significance passing along as well. There are messages that go unread and strange markings that go unnoticed. Not being a collector of Baseball memorabilia, I might have just added this card to my box of trade cards and scrap had I acquired it. Odds are I would have just passed it up for a card in such poor condition is not normally even worth a few dollars to me.
If any of our readers have further information specifically relating to the theft or Abe Samuals’ acquisition of this card you may relate it to the Webmaster through the Contact page on this website.
The Dead of Antietam
On September 19th, 1862, the photographer Alexander Gardner and his assistant James F. Gibson arrived at the village of Sharpsburg in western Maryland situated between a bend in the Potomac River and the meandering Antietam Creek. The pastoral setting of rolling hills and farmland would have been a beautiful sight to behold on any other day, but today the air was fowl tainted by the strong smell of death. It was only two days earlier that the Army of the Potomac descended upon Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as it desperately tried to reassemble after being caught off guard while invading North. Lee had since retreated into the Shenandoah Valley with the Union army following in a lackluster pursuit. They left behind more than 23,700 dead, dying and wounded men; the largest number to fall in a single day of combat during the entire Civil War. Gardner ran a photo studio in Washington, DC for Matthew Brady, and had been documenting the war from its start. This however was the first time that any photographer arrived on a battlefield before the dead were carted off by family or placed in makeshift graves.
This photograph by Alexander Gardner shows an uncensored view of Confederate soldiers where they fell on the Antietam battlefield.
Though photographs of war had been taken in the Crimea during the 1850’s, photography reached new heights during the American Civil War. This had more to do with the enterprising character of those engaged in the activity than any advancement in technology for it remained a difficult business to conduct. Gardner had come to the battlefield with his black hooded wagon, which he used as a mobile darkroom. Within were hundreds of sheets of plate glass stored in heavy dustproof boxes, numerous bottles of chemicals, plus his bulky camera and tripod. The wet plate collodion process that was used at this time could capture great detail but it required the photo emulsion to be prepared within minutes of its use and exposed and developed while still wet. Every second of delay before exposure diminished the quality of the image. These plates remained highly vulnerable to damage and had to be dried with lamps and varnished before being stored. They required exposures of a minute or more so freezing a moment of action was out of the question. The recording of battles still had to be left up to sketch artists while photographers were left to capture the more quiet interludes.
In this photograph by Alexander Gardner, Confederate dead lay before Dunker Church on the Antietam battlefield. Are they perhaps a little too posed?
When the show entitled The Dead of Antietam opened at Brady’s Broadway gallery in New York that autumn, people found themselves both horrified and intrigued. Up till this point the public’s exposure to war imagery was largely limited to romanticized views of battle with neatly aligned rows of men charging their foes. Inevitably pictured were a few fallen men; it was war of course and such inclusion was necessary in order to emphasize the valor of all. Ever since the battle of Shiloh was fought in April of that same year, the actual cost of war had been seeping into the public consciousness. Nearly 24,000 men had fallen there on the banks of the Tennessee River in just two days of fighting; a loss of more American lives than the totality of casualties from all previous wars combined. It is however one thing to read about this and quite another to see it. In the October 20th issue of the New York Times a reviewer of the show made reference to newspaper casualty lists by stating, “Each of these little names that the printer struck off so lightly last night, whistling over his work, and that we speak with a clip of the tongue, represents a bleeding, mangled corpse. It is a thunderbolt that will crash into some brain - a dull, dead, remorseless weight that will fall upon some heart, straining it to breaking. There is nothing very terrible to us, however, in in the list, though our sensations might be different if the newspaper carrier left the names on the battle-field and the bodies at our doors instead.” Mathew Brady had come close to doing just that by placing 70 of the pictures that Gardner had taken up on walls of his gallery. Bloated horses torn apart by artillery lay on their back with the stubs of what were once legs reaching for the sky. Men lay about scattered in fields of stubble that once held corn taller than themselves. A sunken road chosen for a defensive line was now filled in with bodies. Laid out across the ground were long rows of corpses, all lined up for burial, faces already being blackened by the anonymity of death.
The spirit of this image of the Union Army charging past Dunker Church is a far cry from the actual aftermath pictured further above. It was originally published after the war in 1888 as a chromolithographic print by Louis Prang. It was reproduced in postcard form during the Civil War Centennial.
The significance of this exhibition was that it was meant to shock, and that it shocked because it was not presented in the format that people had come to expect. Up to this point the only sources for visual information were historical paintings, lithographic prints, and wood engravings that were reproduced in the few pictorial weeklies of that time. The images of war contained within were largely presented through the symbolism of a romantic style. They were not serendipitously made but the results of commissions to promote specific ideals. The depiction of history had always been considered painting’s highest form because it served the agenda of those in power. Historical knowledge was little more than a nuisance when composing a work of art for it was widely believed that facts should not get in the way of truth. If these works were to inspire, then the grisly details of torn bodies must not distract from valor, sacrifice, and the virtue of one’s cause. Photography would change all that. While photos could also be used to inspire virtue, its matter of fact format gives it the appearance of truth unblemished by the hand of man. This of course was no truer then than it is now for it even seems that Gardner moved bodies around to create better compositions. He too believed at least to an extent that facts should not distract from the truth he was offering us, and his audience had come to expect the same.
Even though the battle captured on this postcard was made in the Netherlands during the Second Boar War, the publisher was reluctant to depict the fallen bodies of his foes. It is typical of the heroic style that shows some bloodshed on the battlefield while leaving out the true carnage left behind.
At the time Gardner shot his battlefield photographs there was no such thing as a picture postcard, but changing attitudes that now favored this type of straight forward documentary style would remain in vogue into the years when cards made their first appearance. This trend was enhanced by a growing confidence in science and technology, which caused the arts in America to shy away from romanticism in favor of work with a more realistic temperament. Even so, few other wars in the late 19th century would actually be photographed. When images of war were finally depicted on postcards, most would come from foreign publishers steeped in a different tradition. Americans had looked upon professional soldiers with suspicion ever since home grown militias first confronted British troops. In contrast Europeans held their military traditions dating from the Middle-Ages in high esteem. Even so publishers on both sides of the Atlantic were generally loath to present soldiers in anything less than an honorable manner, and many truly believed that war brought out the best traits in man. When the Second Boar War of 1898 broke out, the difficulty in obtaining first hand reports from the southern end of Africa led most publishers to print political cartoons in their place. Cards that depicted the war zone either showed the typical romanticized battlefront as presented by artists or bland photo based scenes from behind the lines. This would become the general model for publishing military cards for years to come.
On this French postcard from 1900, Chinese Boxers batter in the head of a European civilian. It is meant to help legitimize the brutal retaliation that followed during the restoration of colonial rule.
Though only small numbers of cards were printed depicting the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, a good proportion tend to depict scenes of graphic violence. The intent of these cards does not seem to call into question the human cost of war as much as to represent the barbarity found in non-Western cultures. We see in these cards and those representing similar conflicts waged far from home that the enemy need not be shown any respect and their dead can be represented in any manner deemed fit without reproach. This model of course was not new; it has its origins in the much older tradition of displaying a dead enemy like a hunting trophy. This tradition would eventually carry over into photography where photos of racial lynching and executed criminals were casually produced as a way of demonstrating superiority and expressing contempt over others. While this type of imagery is no longer commonly found on postcards, the tradition remains alive and well as we have seen with recent news pictures of dead dictators and Marines pissing on the bodies of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
Most Japanese postcards depicting naval action during the Russo-Japanese War do so from afar, but on this card we see Commander Hirose honorably going down with his ship at Port Arthur while his crew desperately rows for safety.
In 1904 many nations began publishing cards of the Russo-Japanese War, but concentrated on political cartoons or naval warfare where death could be viewed from afar. The Japanese published the most numerous battle scenes on both land and sea where images of the dead were not shied away from, but always combined with acts of bravery as on their Western counterparts. Their own cultural military tradition of bushido (the way of the warrior) was so respected that it had even been written into law during feudal times. As it became more closely bound to nationalistic ideals, it was widely incorporated into postcards for use as propaganda. Tragedies such as the loss of a battleship could be turned around by presenting its captain honorably going down with his ship.
This real photo postcard of a dead Mexican by Walter H. Horne is typical of his work. He was not a trained photographer but he understood the public’s hunger for gruesome pictures.
Military cards had been printed in the United States since the Spanish American War of 1898, but they were few in number and most depicted little beyond warships. Though some depictions of war dead found their way onto real photo postcards from battles with the Philippine insurgency and various other incursions into foreign lands, they only made a sudden reappearance in real numbers with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. No one person is more responsible for this than Walter H. Horne. He had grown up in Hallowell, Maine where his family worked as tanners, but his ambitions were too high for this place. By 1905 he found a job in New York’s financial district, but he was soon compelled to leave for warmer climates after contracting Tuberculosis. He eventually found his way to El Paso, Texas just as the first skirmishes between Federales and insurgents broke out in Mexico. Though most of Horne’s experience seemed to have been in pool hustling, he did have a good sense for business. After purchasing a cheap camera he crossed the border and was soon producing real photo postcards of any action he crossed paths with. It took a few years for the conflict to gain momentum and he was forced to take portraits of U.S. soldiers stationed on the border just to make ends meet. Business improved when the United States attacked Veracruz in 1914 and he was eventually able set up the Mexican War Photo Postcard Company that had a peak turnout of 5,000 cards a day.
On this real photo postcard a U.S. sailor poses with some of the dead Mexicans shot down in the streets of Veracruz in 1914.
There were two major factors that led to Horne’s success. First he understood his market well and their fascination with death. The public did not want sanitized views, they wanted to see gore and that’s what he gave them. He made real photo postcards of those dying, hanged, lying dead, being cremated or just dumped and left to rot. Gaping wounds were not covered up but often highlighted for effect. These images were highly marketable because there were few other sources for war news at this time, and Horne also knew where to draw the line. Despite their gruesomeness his cards remained palatable to an American audience because all the dead were Mexicans. Few in the United States held respect for those living south of the border, and postcard titles often refer to them as bandits or greasers. Even when Horne arrived at Columbus, New Mexico after it was attacked by Poncho Villa, all his images were of dead or captured Villistas despite the number of American casualties. This dichotomy expressed by all publishers can be clearly seen on the postcards from Veracruz that show American sailors posing with dead Mexicans on the city’s streets while the only dead Americans to be found on cards show the highly respectful transfer of their remains in flag draped coffins back to the States.
Walter H. Horne bribed Mexican officials for exclusive rights to take this photograph of an execution in Juarez. His ability to capture the precise moment of death made this along with the other shots in the same series his best selling real photo postcards.
Horne also knew of the importance of personal contacts and bribes, which allowed him to obtain exclusive shots. This provided him with his bestselling series that of a triple execution in Juarez. As soon as the three men lay dead, he quickly began hawking his souvenir cards with the promise of a ten day delivery before the crowd of spectators dispersed. When the military forbid photographers to accompany punitive expeditions into Mexico, Horne managed to be sent unprocessed film from the warfront by an Army photographer, C. Tucker Beckett, that he had prior business dealings with; images he would pass off as his own. Censorship only hurt his competition as he already held stockpiles of images from prior years of shooting. Business was booming in 1916 as the military buildup on the Mexican border grew even larger, but events on the other side of the Atlantic would soon siphon troops away and with them his business. This work however had already lifted him out from poverty and he died a wealthy man.
While this French postcard entitled ACTES HEROIQUES clearly depicts a German soldier just shot dead, it is not meant to conjure up the brutality of war but to insure the viewer that it is the enemy that will suffer at the hands of our our brave troops.
When World War One erupted, postcard production was already in full force, at least among the initial belligerents if not in the United States. Despite wartime shortages a great many cards were still produced, but their content was greatly constrained by government censorship. This was expressed differently from country to country but officials everywhere had come to realize the impact that images have on swaying public opinion and they didn’t treat them lightly. In Italy, which has a long tradition of censorship, few realistic scenes of combat were produced in favor of those filled with allegory and symbolism. On French postcards, humor, romance, and political cartoons were emphasized. Scenes of combat that did exist were still largely expressed in terms of the older heroic model. British cards also emphasize the heroic but the spiritual as well. There are countless bodies of dead soldiers on Austrian and German postcards but mostly of the enemy. While their cards were also highly censored and oriented toward propaganda, there are some depicting the melancholia of life in the trenches that are untypical of any other nations. What all of these cards have in common is that they were mostly artist drawn. Even at this time publishers still preferred using the work of artists over photographers because the results could be more easily manipulated.
This real photo postcard from World War One depicts the simple grim reality of dead soldiers where they fell.
Publishers that wanted to create photo based postcards were confronted with a nearly impossible task. Official military photographers on both sides were strictly limited to where they could work and news correspondents were not allowed anywhere near the front lines. Officers were assigned to carefully watch over each one of them making sure they did not reference people, places, or facts. Most photo based cards ended up depicting empty ruins long after the fighting had passed. Some like Lucien Levy depicted battle scenes on postcards by carefully photo retouching participants into otherwise empty landscapes, but even these postcards failed to capture the passion of war. Despite this many cards depicting the dead were produced. They seem to have been initially created by independent civilian photographers who were present when the front lines caught up to them or when they were free to wander over hard fought ground when the battlefront moved elsewhere. These images capturing men ground into the earth are reminiscent of Gardner’s work, and a far cry from the artist rendered cards depicting the honorable burial of the dead.
This picture of decomposed bodies filling a trench was reproduced on numerous real photo and printed postcards, possibly due to the scarcity of such powerful images from the front. The dead are sometimes identified as French, at other times Germans.
It proved impossible to regulate photographs taken by civilians when so many in this part of the world owned their own cameras, and postcards could be made in anyone’s home. While a good many of these cards are titled, there is rarely any indication given to who made them as the punishment for unauthorized photography was death. Some images were smuggled into neutral Holland where they could be printed with impunity but their context often remained behind. This caused a number of these anonymous cards to be copied and reprinted with titles representing different events. Few were ever postmarked for obvious reasons, which make it impossible to distinguish those produced during the war from those made in postwar years. Troops serving on the frontline also faced restrictions as all fieldposted mail had to pass through censors. Some of the more creative in the German ranks got around this by creating pictorial montages. While written messages were carefully scrutinized, censors did not always know what to make of the images concocted on the reverse side, and sent them off for delivery with their cryptic criticisms of the war intact.
This staged scene on a real photo postcard depicts two German soldiers looting the body of a fallen Frenchman. The French produced more cards demonstrating enemy atrocities than any other nation in an effort to arouse hatred.
While it is possible to look at all war related postcards as a form of propaganda, there are those that were obviously designed explicitly for this purpose. A number of these cards show dead enemy soldiers, not as one element of a larger combat scene but as a point of focus. They are meant to assure the public that the enemy is paying a price for their trespass and the hardships they have created. Some of these cards also break the general rule of not depicting friendly dead. These dead however tend not to be of soldiers but of civilians. Whether they have died as innocent bystanders or as a result of atrocities, the goal of presenting them on cards was to demonstrate the enemy’s barbarity and raise the level of hatred. It weights much easier on one’s conscious to kill a culture hating bloodthirsty Hun, than a simple farmer or shopkeeper that was reluctantly conscripted into military service. Even so these cards had to walk a fine line for no one quite knew where the border between inspiring revenge and war weariness lay. Many such postcards were made but they were only a small percentage of total output.
The Dutch artist, Louis Raermaeker worked for the British War Propaganda Bureau where he produced many illustrations of brutal German atrocities that wound up on postcards such as this one. Though he personally visited the front lines, he admitted not to have actually seen any of the terrible events he depicted. It was reported that the Kaiser was so upset by these powerful pictures that he placed a bounty on Raemaeker’s head, but this story may have just been an effort in self promotion.
When the United States entered the war, President Wilson set up a propaganda ministry under George Creel known as the Committee on Public Information. Not only did they distribute posters, films, and false news stories, they saw to it that any descent against the war was criminalized. Censorship wasn’t always direct, but by establishing a threatening climate no one dared publish a postcard relating to the war that the Committee wouldn’t sign off on. Without the words Approved by Censor scrolled across them, cards containing military imagery stood the risk of being pulled from store racks. Censors were also accused of abusing their power by only approving of images from which they stood to receive financial gain. This approach limited nearly all military cards published in the States to only cover humor, romance, or basic training.
Some propaganda postcards clearly spelled out their message making sure that they did not leave any room open for interpretation of facts. This French postcard designed for the English speaking troops in France during World War one spells out a litany of German atrocities.
One of those leading these propaganda efforts was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Berneys. He held a fear of democracy believing the public to be irrational, dangerous and not to be relied upon. Guidance would need to be handed down to them as the “intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses was an important element in democratic society.” By the time the Committee was dissolved in August of 1919 he had given the Germans propaganda efforts such a bad name that he could no longer use the term propaganda himself. He then coined the term public relations to describe his own technique of engineering public consent, and would use it well on his next job for the tobacco industry convincing women to take up smoking.
This very unusual Austrian postcard from World War One depicts a sentry at the very moment he receives a fatal gunshot wound. It is meant to conjure up sympathy rather than repulsion. Images such as this one were sometimes used on cards sold to raise money for war related charities.
Many of the cards produced during World war One were done so by charities. The Red Cross is the most notable of these but other groups also published cards to raise aid for wounded soldiers, prisoners of war, or the widows and children of veterans. There was no single approach to subject matter though there are clear distinctions between nations. These cards ran the gamut between high propaganda and harsh reality. The Austrian Red Cross produced hundreds of cards depicting its nation’s troops in such consistent victory over Russians and Italians that you would never have guessed how much deadly battering they actually received. On the other hand they also produced a set of cards showing veterans farming or in shops trying to get by with missing limbs.
Most nations produced cards depicting a spiritual connection between soldiers at the front lines and their families back home. This was especially true in Great Britain during World War One where spiritualism remained a strong force within society. This card shows a wounded British soldier reaching out to a ghostly loved one.
Up until this time there was different much closer societal relationship with the dead than we have now. Death from illness most often took place in the home. The body of the deceased would be washed then dressed by the family, then put on display in bed for visiting mourners. These very personal encounters did not breed callousness toward death but rather attempts to escape its grim reality. The years of the American Civil War saw a dramatic upturn in the trend to describe the afterlife in more concrete terms. Notions of a homecoming with family and friends after death began to take on greater emphasis even among those holding weak religious convictions. Some have referred to this phenomena as the cult of death, and despite its origins in a much harsher rural life, its power resonates with us to this day. This was followed by an immense interest in spiritualism and disembodied souls, beliefs that remained strong through the First World War and are demonstrated on numerous postcards. The late 19th century also ushered in the placement of romantic statuary in cemeteries to help cope with the pain of loss, especially of children. For those who could not afford such extravagance, photographs were often taken of the deceased and passed along as mementoes. These types of remembrances could be found in nearly every family album of that time. It was not until the 1930’s that significant numbers of the dead would begin to be hidden away in hospitals and funeral homes, and it was not until the 1950’s that this more secular institutional approach became the norm.
This Continental sized postcard depicting a World War Two battle is typical of those printed in the Soviet Union after the war ended. Depictions of heroism and self sacrifice for the motherland was considered a timeless theme.
The emotional impact of documentary imagery seems to be in direct proportion to their remoteness, which grows with the passage of time. The exhibition of The Dead of Antietam had been shocking not only for its subject matter but for its immediacy. Visitors to the exhibition filed passed images of broken bodies, possibly of friends or family that were alive just a month earlier. The concept of an image as breaking news was a brand new paradigm as previous technology just didn’t allow for it. While photography opened up a new world of possibilities it did not begin to be seriously exploited until the 1930’s. Most of the historic paintings we’ve come to know of the American Civil War were not painted until ten or twenty years after the war ended, when the subject could be stomached again. Likewise of the hundreds of thousands of front line photographs taken during World War One, all but a few hundred censored images received public exposure through news agencies before the war was over. Even the publication of cards depicting the heroism of the Red Army in World War Two largely began in the 1950’s and did not cease until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The more these late arrivals are separated from the events they depict, the more susceptible they are to have contemporary values and agendas attached to them.
As photojournalism became more competitive it attracted better photographers and motivated them to do better quality work. This postcard published during the Spanish Civil War demonstrates how artistic tendencies replaced strict documentation.
While most postcards published during the Spanish Civil War were made for propaganda in the artist drawn poster style, advances in photography had at the same time ushered in a new age of photojournalism. The large format glass plates still in use throughout World War One were finally replaced with flexible higher speed film. This allowed photographers to abandon their passive role as observers confined to only capturing the aftermath of events; they could now become participants finally able to capture action. These types of action photographs now became the preferred method of representing war in the countless number of pictorial magazines then in circulation. Competition among these publications would motivate photojournalists not only to capture more sensationalist imagery for a thrill seeking public, but to create more inspired work as well.
Though the German PK took photographs on the front lines and sometimes in the heat of battle their shots seem to lack the passion needed to capture the reality of warfare. Despite their slice of life feeling and artistic quality they often remain cold to stay on message that Germany’s fighting force is powerful, efficient, and will get the job done.
At the beginning of World War Two only Germany had prepared itself to use photography to its full advantage. All those working in the news media were conscripted into the Propaganda Kompanien under Major General Hasso von Wedel, and when the first troops crossed into Poland, official PK photographers would be there with them. The PK would continue to provide quality images for postcards throughout the war. While these photo based cards often captured real frontline action, all were carefully orchestrated by the Propaganda Ministry following the traditional heroic model with no dead Germans to be seen. Most cards depicting combat were still produced by artists as in previous wars and for the same reasons, their content could be more easily manipulated. Their Japanese allies would produce many cards following the same model, while Italian cards were still often imbued with heavy amounts of symbolism.
The spirit of the artwork found on this German continental sized postcard from World War Two differs little from the German postcards published during the First World War. The Battle scene seems realistic enough but it focuses on acts of sacrifice and bravery rather than the horrors of war.
The Allies initially produced so few photos of quality that American magazines covering the war often published German photos for lack of choice. This would eventually change when all branches of the military were assigned photographers to document the war’s progress, but the actual distribution of these images still remained severely limited. During the twenty-one months that followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a ban on depicting dead bodies was put into effect. Publishers who had grown accustomed to providing the public with the latest news breaking photos lobbied hard for greater access. The ban was finally lifted in 1943 and a picture of three dead soldiers, half buried in a sandy beach at Buna, New Guinea appeared in the September 20th issue of Life magazine. This was soon followed by many more images of soldiers who had died in the assault on Tarawa that November. As expected reactions were mixed and they even caused some to call into question the human cost of making such attacks. President Roosevelt remained adamant on his decision to lift the ban. It had not been publishers that convinced him to change course but the journalist Robert Sherrod who had landed with the Marines at Tarawa. He argued that those doing the fighting wanted us back home to know of the sacrifices they were called to make that they could not just roll over the enemy, their work was very difficult, dangerous, and often deadly.
This real photo postcard depicts death more quietly than most yet its stark reality is conveyed.
Life was also becoming more dangerous for photographers and many were killed in action. Those at Tarawa moved forward into battle armed with nothing but a camera, often making themselves prime targets for enemy snipers as they exposed themselves to better capture the fighting. They were the first to record actual combat between U.S. Marines and Japanese Naval Infantry. These were no longer just still images; motion pictures were shot as well. The appeal of movies like The Marines at Tarawa, released in 1944, are not only significant for returning depictions of dead Americans to the public eye, they marked the true end of the postcard as a medium for distributing news. As in World War One, American postcards were once again confined to depict humorous and generic material, but this time more from changing market conditions than through censorship. This is not to say that governments stopped exerting strict control over what they allowed to be disseminated. Millions of photographs were taken between 1939 and 1945, more than during any other war, yet the vast majority of them have still never been publicly viewed.
In this official U.S. Navy postcard from World War Two troops quietly disembark onto a beach in New Guinea. Many such images were released for postcard production but few capture any real fighting and none show American dead. With so few images released to the public it is difficult to truly gage the scope and quality of the war photographs taken.
Photojournalism during World War Two revealed an inherent dilemma. Changing attitudes toward death in general had left us a society with a more fractured ways of looking at it. While some desperately wanted to reveal the truth of war, others, especially those isolated from its first hand horrors did not want to see it. No official policy could please everyone. In the wars that followed attitudes would remain relaxed. In Korea journalists were expected to edit themselves but relying on this method grew ever more problematic as definitions of patriotism no longer remained singular. This was especially true in Vietnam where access to the battlefield was completely left open to any photojournalist willing to take the risk of working there. The United States government fully expected this freedom to promote the justness of our cause throughout the world, but when journalistic ideals of providing the public with the truth clashed with government ambitions to bend the public’s will, the photographers involved were banned from working there again. This would re-ignite the debate over access to war zones, and such freedom would never be allowed again. Ever since, the work of all photographers has become suspect, and spinning the truth has become the rule.
This chrome postcard taken in Vietnam by Mike Roberts shows some of the military equipment used by American forces but it is completely devoid of passion. While photojournalists here had unprecedented freedom to shoot what they wanted, postcards were no longer a relevant medium for distributing their photographs and they rarely carried any overt meaning.
In Gardner’s day, bodies were sometimes rearranged to create better compositions, and scenes even occasionally staged. There were no ethics of pictorial journalism at this time; photos were modeled after their long standing counterparts in paint where the artist’s message was expected to be more important than representing facts. While news outlets have since created strict ethical guidelines as to what constitutes a news photograph, the old habit of not letting facts get in the way of the truth is hard to eliminate. This is evident in Vietnam when photographer Eddie Adams convinced Saigon’s police chief to move an execution outdoors so he could work in better light. The result was the famous Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a grimacing prisoner being shot in the head with a pistol. The event was real but the circumstances altered to supply a more powerful statement. In more recent years the work of a number of photojournalists has been discredited for their manipulation of news photos. The real trouble with this issue is we tend to forget that all photography is a manipulation that distorts reality. We cannot document without bias when we don’t all share same definition of truth. If war is nothing more than an extension of politics, which many claim it to be then all war photography may more aptly be considered political rhetoric.
This continental sized postcard has all the makings of a fine art image. For a moment its beauty distracts us from seeing that the long swirling curve is a streak of blood on an anonymous street in Sarajevo. We are no longer presented with a victim or with action but the violence remains intact.
While photojournalism has taken great strides in both quality and public acceptance, postcard publishers have rarely been able to take advantage of this due to market and political constraints. The few modern postcards that continue to capture images of war have been largely reduced to just another generic for a small niche audience. Warfare these days tends to be experienced from afar where missiles and bombs are now even dropped from unmanned drones, the dead nothing more than a faint grey blip if you are on the right side the a screen. Death of course is never remote when it is our turn to die. The only intimate images of death to be found are on the new continental cards produced over the past two decades or so that carry some of the great images of war captured by photojournalists over the past century. These images however are no longer presented as news but as works of art.
Modern continental cards from war zones today concentrate on picturing cold images of military equipment. Though this scene from the first Iraq War captures war from afar, the burning oil wells in the background give it a more violent character than most.
By the end of the American Civil War no one wanted the 3500 glass plates that Mathew Brady accumulated. The debt he incurred documenting the war would come to bankrupt him and he died in poverty. Eventually the work of both Brady and Gardner were taken into the Library of Congress for a pittance. While they clearly had captured important slices of history they had perhaps done their job too well. Governments cannot perpetuate war by telling the truth, and harsh realism does nothing to inspire romantic or patriotic notions. Those in power well know that the control of imagery is necessary to retain power, and reigning in the freedom inaugurated by photography has been a constant battle ever since. While government restrictions on photography continue, emphasis has grown on planting false news stories in the media despite the legal questions involved. This policy has clearly been in place ever since the public diplomacy program was set up under President Reagan to promote the wars we were then waging in Central America. Just this May, new efforts to repeal laws prohibiting domestic use of propaganda have passed in the House of Representatives.
The back of this card reads, “Rider and horse killed by bursting shell. Note large pool of blood.” It is a scene of anonymous violence captured serendipitously on an unknown street by an unknown photographer. While it was obviously shot long ago it has the immediacy of a snapshot taken by cellphone users today.
One Hundred and fifty years have passed since the Dead of Antietam was put on display, and while the manner in which photographers work is vastly different, attitudes toward photography seem to have changed very little. For many the revelation of the wrong truths has always been tantamount to treason, but in an age where every other person now owns a camera phone, images of the dead are flooding onto the Internet from everyplace there is conflict, captured by ordinary people and posted outside of anyone’s control. We may very well have something innate in us, some evolutionary imperative that causes an attraction to scenes of human carnage, but these same images have helped inspired us to question the need for war and not accept its horrors as inevitable. Perhaps that’s the real truth to be found in them.
Postcard of the Month
I had been looking through a number of uninspired vintage continental cards from Germany when a series published by Volkswagen caught my eye. They were all illustrated in that simple yet expressive style found on so many adds of the late 1940’s and 50’s. I contemplated buying each one of them but in the end made no selection that is until I came to the very last one. It did not address any of the issues I had come to closely associate with the car commercials that now flood the airwaves. There was no reference to performance, durability or gas millage. Neither mentioned were its safety record, awards won, or low terms of finance. The message was simple and universal; it spoke to the romance of owning an automobile.
I still remember as a young boy driving with my father to some secluded wood or even a public park so that he could wash his new Ford. What’s the point of cleaning a highly mobile device in a driveway next to your front door when all the world was within reach. It wasn’t that driving somewhere else had to be done, it was because it could be done. Like a galloping horse in its field; it is not going anywhere in particular, it is just being a horse and thats what horses do. When we reached a remote location deemed suitable we would pull over to the side of the road and park. While my father busied himself with his car I would wander about finding my own amusements. The time spent wasn’t nearly as romantically serene as pictured on this card but it still struck me enough to ingrain itself into my long term memory. When I saw this card I was immediately transported back, not to a place but to a set of experiences that I now miss.
I suppose I still have these moments even if the scenario is not quite the same. I don’t really want to say life was simpler back then, though in many ways it was. Part of the perceived romance of course comes from having been a child, and perhaps living in an age when we were all too childlike for our own good. I had long thought of it as a personal moment but it seems to be a largely shared one or it would never have been used on this card. Though I now live in the serious grown up world with constraints and responsibilities, I refuse to let it become my prison. I bought this card not out of nostalgia of a life past but to remind myself that time for such moments must always be put aside despite demands to be pulled elsewhere. This is part of what it is to be human.