The Vanishing Pictures: David Shield’s War is Beautiful

War is horrible and we all can agree on that, yet we find ourselves in conflict after conflict after conflict in an never-ending trail of horror since the end of the second world war. Although it may now have caught up with us, and the attempt of the west to keep it off its on soil may have ended with the attacks in 2001 and now with the the attacks in Paris, the rest of the world has seen an endless parade of blood and gore. Yet the peace-movement has found its end with the demise of the Soviet Union – since then, our perception of war has changed. That already started in the early eighties: War photographers like Don McCullin, were put out of business, when governments that went into war tightened their grip on the media and newspapers were more and more tuned to be a good environment for advertising

David Shields has analyzed the war pictures of the New York Times and comes to surprising and shocking conclusions: The way that newspapers report on wars has changed dramatically:

“In my analysis very few, if any, front page A1 pictures since October of 1997 have conveyed anything of the horror, the cost, the consequence of war. To me as many as 700 of those photographs I analysed can be read as beautified and sanctified, glamourised and glorified war.”

You can read the whole interview with him on L’Oeil de la Photographie. And if you ever dare to look into Christoph Bangert’s “War Porn”, you get an idea which pictures are left out of our tabloids: When Francois Hollande now openly speaks about “War”, it becomes obvious, that the propaganda war that brought us here had already started years ago.

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The Trap


Bochum, Januar 1982

Photography cannot find alternatives to depiction, as could the other fine arts. It is in the physical nature of the medium to depict things. In order to participate in the kind of reflexivity made mandatory for modernist art, photography can put into play only its own necessary condition of being a depiction-which-constitues-an-object.

— Jeff Wall, from “Marks of Indifference

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There Are Too Many Images


Heidelberg, September 2015

There are too many images. Too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art anymore. Maybe it never was.

— Robert Frank, in an article in Vanity Fair 2008

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Interesting Or Beautiful

A sunset: 78%, a landscape: 76%, a little girl playing with a cat: 56%, a woman breast-feeding: 54%, a folk dance: 46%, a weaver at work: 39%, a famous monument: 27%, a first communion: 26%, a snake: 20%, a rope 16%, a metal frame: 15%, cabbages: 12%, a butcher’s stall: 9%… a car accident: 1%

— Pierre Bourdieu, “The Social Definition Of Photography” in: Photography, A Middle Brow Art(1965:Stanford:Stanford University Press. 1990), p.91

Pierre Bourdieu asked a group of Survey Respondents to consider certain photographs and give each a percentage score based on how “interesting or beautiful” it appeared to be.


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The Gary Winogrand Problem, continued


This actually is the only question worth discussing: Why take a picture instead of not taking a picture and let it wash down the drain of all things forgotten? This mixture of apathy and the almost maniacal drive to take pictures that left Winogrand with 2000 undeveloped rolls of film and nearly 300.000 unedited photos: Trying to turn yourself into a recording-device? Into a machine? And does that show an appreciation or a neglect of the world? The act of shooting is what’s important, not the outcome…


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The Garry Winogrand Problem


Modern photography, by reason of unceasing technical advance, is eminently capable of producing a mindless accumulation of automatic images, whose meaning at best is peripheral and uncertain, whose tenor at worst is dumbly exploitative and reactionary. Photographers all too frequently make pictures so conceptually casual and brainlessly superficial that their minimal meaning is exhausted at a glance. A great deal of film is wasted by even the best photographers, and almost criminally squandered by the bad and the mediocre.

— from “I Don’t Give a Rap About Gasoline Stations”, via American Suburb X 


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Paris, April 2015

Paris, April 2015

Photography, with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret. It is through this photography that we first discover the existence of the optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.

— Walter Benjamin

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