PRINT January 1986


The Indelible Image: Photographs of War—1846 to the Present

The Indelible Image: Photographs Of War-1846 To The Present, ed. Frances Fralin, with an essay by Jane Livingston (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., and Washington D.C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1985), 254 pages, 127 black and white photographs, 8 color plates.

Most photojournalism teeters on an edge between information and voyeurism; war photography, as the extreme case of photojournalism, raises, in the sharpest possible way, basic questions about the nature and purpose of “the news” and news photos: is this picture intended to provide information, to influence my behavior, or merely to titillate me? Who is showing (or telling) me this, and why? This book makes no attempt to deal with questions of this sort, and instead merely offers up a historical selection of great war photos as a subject of critical fascination and esthetic delectation. The implicit statement seems to be that while war may be hell, it sure is a fabulous photo opportunity.

Given the unwillingness to grapple with difficult ethical questions, Frances Fralin has nonetheless produced both in this book and the exhibition that it accompanies a good pictorial survey of war photography, from an 1846 daguerreotype of volunteers going off to fight in the Mexican-American War to color photographs of such current hot spots as Lebanon, Afghanistan, and El Salvador. The daring of the photographers in getting some of these shots is admirable; it’s interesting to trace the way the rhetoric of war photography has reflected changing public attitudes toward war itself (moving, for example, from a sense of war’s heroism to one of its futility), as well as the growing technical capabilities of the medium. Pairing war photos from various periods with their esthetic counterparts in art photography is a grisly but fascinating game. But in the end it all rings hollow. The photographs, stripped of the context of “the news” in which most of them originally appeared, are thus rendered even more fictitious, more archetypal, than they otherwise would be.

Charles Hagen