July 08, 2013

With Independence Day at our heels, the United States basks in reverence of the history of our 237 year old nation. As we watch firework displays and sing along to patriotic tunes, we remember not only the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, but also the fight it took to get there – and the fight that continues. The wars fought by our country are often remembered in history text book blurbs and photographs seen in archives and news headlines. These historic images (old and new) are imperative pieces of our history that have drastically evolved with the changing medium of photography.

In an article published by CBS news yesterday, the history of photojournalism is unraveled through the exploration of Civil War photography. Photography was still in its infancy at the time of the Civil War, only having existed for about 20 years. With unwieldy large format cameras and stacks of glass plate negatives, the earliest photojournalists set out to document the war and change the way Americans viewed the conflicts on the battlefield. Taking portraits of soldiers, emancipated slaves, and country leaders, this new method of recording events revolutionized the documentation of our history.

Soldiers at Arlington, 1861
Photo from Metropolitan Museum of Art

Photojournalists were able to record events before and after the battle, but not so much the height of the action. Limited by the long exposures required, it was necessary to have the subjects in the photos be still for a few seconds to capture the moment. Famous war photographers of the 1860s such as Alexander Gardner and Matthew Brady, made photographs that are today, still of utmost importance to our recorded past. It has also become apparent that they moved objects and bodies in the frames and manipulated the scenes, something that today is unacceptable and quite hard to do unnoticed.

“Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg”
Photo by Timothy H. O’Sullivan

Now, 150 years later, wars continue to rage and we continue to document them – only in a different, less cumbersome manner. Photojournalism and war photography has evolved to lengths unimaginable to history’s first photojournalists. From smaller format film, to color images and digital cameras, to mobile photography, the transformation of the medium of photography is only accelerating. Not only has the equipment changed, but also the way in which photographs are taken. We are able to get in closer to the action and get involved on the forefront of battle.

Iraq, 2005
Photo©Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Photographer, Michael Kamber has recently published a book “Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories From Iraq.” Featuring images from over 30 top photographers covering the Iraq War, including Ed Kashi (VII), the book is a compilation of previously unpublished pictures and firsthand accounts from photographers at the front-lines of war. Fighting back against censorship from military, news, and editor restrictions, the book strives to show the multi-faceted face of war. The intense and gruesome realities of war are depicted with wrenching images of bloodied victims and lifeless corpses. Kamber wanted to balance these hard, brutal photographs with other, less seen elements of war. He is quoted, “there’s a lot of downtime, a lot of boredom; there’s the vastness of the war machine – the fact that we were building military bases the size of small cities, then there’s the sweetness and everyday life of the Iraqi people.”

Iraq, 2003
Photo©2003_Ed Kashi/VII

As photography continues to advance, the way we document events will continue to be revolutionized. In only 150 short years the progress in photography has been incredible. Our history as we know it would not be the same without the haunting images of war or the brave photojournalists dedicated to capturing them. CBS quotes historian Rosenheim, “I think that we are, as a nation, only as good as our memory; and the facts of these photographs, their tradition, gives us something that we cannot forget.”

For more on war photography check out the book “Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories From Iraq” and see “The Civil War and American Art” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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