Pictorial representations of war have been with us as long as war itself, and for most of human history, they have been romantic, glorious, and, of course, favorable to the patron. The advent of photography and freedom of the press was to change the nature of images of war. For Americans, the story begins with a "daguerreotypist" named Mathew Brady. Brady had studied painting and design under Samuel F. B. Morse at New York University when Morse brought Louis Daguerre's method to America. He had become a successful portrait photographer when he received permission to photograph the Civil War and assembled a large number of camera operators and technicians for the task. It was this team, not Brady himself, who took most of the pictures that would earn Brady his place in history.

One of these, by William Gardner, illustrates the character of the new medium. The long exposure times necessary to get a picture precluded any type of "action shots" from the battlefield. The only subjects adaptable to the technical limitations of the camera were the corpses. The public, which had never been exposed in this way to the carnage of war, was repelled, and Brady could never realize financial success from the realistic images.

Two more Brady images demonstrate the ambivalent nature of a war between two sides of the same nation. His portraits of General Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln, taken before he assumed the Presidency, are executed with equal dignity and respect, although the men were battlefield enemies. Later images from later conflicts would draw sharper contrasts.

No ambivalence applied to the combatants in World War II. Depictions of Winston Churchill, the long-time leader of the Allied cause, displayed calm resolve and determination. Adolf Hitler, the Nazi dictator, was consistently portrayed as hysterical and dangerous, an implacable enemy who had to be destroyed.

Winston Churchill

Of course, depicting Hitler as a frightening madman was no more difficult than portraying Betty Grable as beautiful—and worth fighting for.

No discussion of World War II imagery would be complete without the mention of Bill Mauldin, whose drawings open and close this essay. Mauldin portrayed the fighting man not as a glorious crusader, but as the cold, wet, mud-spattered unfortunate that he was, as are all infantrymen. Mauldin's sense of irony and deep respect for the "dogface" served to reinforce the will of civilians at home and soldiers at the front, without sugar-coating the realities of war.

And, as many images show starkly the grit and gore of battle, few show the exuberance of victory as does "the kiss" of V-J Day, August 14, 1945. Taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life Magazine, this famous picture sparked a controversy of sorts-dozens of sailors and a few nurses have come forward claiming to be "the one in the picture." Thankfully, this wartime secret remains classified.

The graphic images of war are potent-and subject to interpretation. A well-known example is the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a street execution in Saigon on February 1, 1968, during the Tet offensive. The picture flashed around the world, ahead of any explanation or background.

Opponents of the Vietnam War quickly seized on it as a symbol of the cold brutality of America's South Vietnamese allies. But, by all accounts, including that of the photographer, Eddie Adams, the prisoner, a Viet Cong captain, had recently killed several South Vietnamese civilians and deserved his fate.

There is no such ambiguity in another Pulitzer-winning picture from Vietnam, by Nick Ut of the Associated Press. It is exactly what it appears to be-a frightened, burned 9-year-old girl running from her firebombed village. But there is more to the story. Kim Phuc Phan Thi spent more than a year in a Saigon hospital, thereafter studying in Cuba, marrying and eventually seeking political asylum in Canada.

She is now a peace activist, helping children victimized by war through work with UNESCO and her own Kim Phuc Phan Thi Foundation.

At this writing, the U. S. government has just released photos of flag-draped coffins arriving from Iraq. The triumphant images of smart bombs in action have, of course, been available for some time. The same can be said for the already notorious pictures of prisoners on leashes from Abu Ghraib.

History will judge this war and the images of it, as always. And it seems certain that we, the public, will see the images as we see the war, according to our own interpretation, for good or ill.

Originally presented as an Honors project in ENG 102, Dr. Kathryn VanSpanckeren, Professor

Back to 969 Home
Back to Web Samples