go back Steve Mumford, Snipers on Haifa Street, 2004

Winslow Homer, The Army of the Potomac: A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty, 1862


Steve Mumford, Snipers on Haifa Street, 2004.

Winslow Homer, The Army of the Potomac: A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty, 1862.

Context and Comparison:
Mumford describes himself as a “combat artist,” a reportage painter in the tradition of Winslow Homer, who worked as a sketch artist and engraver for Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War. Mumford invokes Homer’s example often when he explains his project to interviewers, going so far as to call himself an artist of “a nineteenth-century model; that is, a narrative, realist artist who goes out and gathers his own material about his own experience” (personal communication, May 2, 2007). Does an artist of a nineteenth-century model have any business reporting the news from a combat zone today?

Homer was twenty-five when he first went to the front in 1861. Having apprenticed himself as a lithographer, he sketched scenes of camp life and made engravings from his drawings for publication. Initially, his work paralleled European history paintings—proud portraits of officers and flag-waving battlefield charges—but in the fall of 1862, he departed from that mode and made a few engravings that still strike many viewers today as journalistic. His picture above, Sharp-Shooter, shows a quite modern view of a man in combat, perched in a tree rather than standing face-to-face with his foe on a field. Face obscured and body postured to best serve his weapon, this figure can be viewed as both protector and menace. Homer saw the image as horrific, later writing that it “struck me as being as near murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army” (qtd. in Gopnik, 2005, p. 69). For Homer, watching sharpshooters in the trees evoked terror; it showed a surprising lack of humanity.

How far have we come since 1862? In Mumford’s drawing of a sniper in Baghdad, man acts as an extension of the rifle in similar ways. Now prone, his face just a single eyebrow and ear, this sniper conceals himself and waits, much like Homer’s subject, for the opportunity to fire on his target. While both drawings show the point of view of an embedded journalist, the up-close-privileged observer, we also see marked differences. Equipment has certainly changed—the flak jacket, camouflage, and Kevlar helmet suggest some evolution in American war fighting. And our angle of view communicates much: no longer looking up at the man in the tree, in Baghdad we are hunkered down with the sniper, behind him, in collusion. While Homer’s rifleman seems to have potential to turn his weapon on us, Mumford’s sniper seems more friendly, perhaps even vulnerable, from our viewing angle. This reflects what I see as a major change in American public perception of war technologies and tactics since Homer’s day. For me the single, surgical bullet of a sniper seems downright humane, even personal, compared to Hellfire missiles from unmanned aerial drones and the tank-busting, depleted uranium shells that will be irradiating Iraq’s soil for millennia.

These two images were made with similar approaches, according to Mumford, who has said of Homer’s engravings, “a lot of them have exactly the same quality that we’re describing, of field hospitals or the front line, and it really looks so much like PhotoShop it’s sort of startling” (personal communication, May 2, 2007). Here Mumford’s eagerness to connect himself to the pantheon of American artists seems strong, but he has a point. Both pictures above come at the end of a process of manipulation through various technologies. Homer’s process took the image from sketching or painting to etching, and then to print (Gopnik, 2005, p. 69). Mumford’s goes from ink drawing or painting to a digital photo of the work, and through Photoshop before making it to the web via satellite phone.

Photography is so efficient today, and has been for so long, that we tend to assume it provides the most reliable visual medium through which audiences can understand a news event. Mechanically produced pictures—of the still or motion variety—have been the standard for visual evidence since the early twentieth century. Mumford’s open manipulation of his visual evidence invites viewers to ask whether drawings are still useful as news images.

Theory for Analysis:
Some in the communication and rhetoric fields have been reconsidering the role of hand-made images in the classroom as pedagogical opportunities. Paul Messaris (1994) made the case that drawings mimic human vision and memory in ways we tend not to address in our study of images. He reminded his readers of the ways we are able to infer an object’s identity, speed, and orientation automatically, even if we are unable to see the whole object. Our minds take a small amount of information and fill in the gaps. Whenever we look around us, we impose outlines on our environment, deciding what is standing in front of another thing, from the little information our visual systems can infer. Messaris argued, “our ability to interpret such incomplete images as sketches and stick figures may be an extension of an everyday, real-life perceptual skill rather than something we have to learn with specific reference to pictorial conventions” (1994, p. 13). In other words, we may not need much training in figuring out what drawings depict, and this has consequences as we set pedagogical goals.

Messaris set up a strong contrast between the immediate way we interact with pictures and the practice it takes to learn languages in the classroom: “Unlike the conventions of written language or, for that matter, speech, pictorial conventions for the representation of objects and events are based on information-processing skills that a viewer can be assumed to possess even in the absence of any previous experience with pictures” (1994, p. 4). With that in mind, Messaris outlined “four propositions” to show the range of pedagogical benefits scholars tend to attribute to lessons in visual literacy. They may argue:

  1. Lessons in visual literacy are a prerequisite for comprehending visual media,
  2. Learning how to understand visual media develops cognitive skills useful elsewhere,
  3. Experience with visual media makes students more aware of how they are being manipulated by those media, and
  4. Awareness of how visual media are put together makes for more “informed aesthetic appreciation” (1994, p. 3).

Of this list of four, Messaris argued that teachers can expect students to improve in only the last two propositions: “awareness of manipulation” and “aesthetic appreciation” (1994, p. 3, 4). The other two, according to Messaris, are not realistically attainable in the classroom. Lessons in visual literacy are probably not a prerequisite for students’ ability to comprehend visual media, but students can learn much in the classroom about how people use images, honing their awareness that their attention is being manipulated by the producers of a product advertisement, a piece of propaganda, or even a picture without any clear rhetorical aim (1994, p. 9).

Thoughts for Class Discussion:
With this comparison I invite students to exercise what they already know about drawings—to tell me which parts of each drawing show what the sniper is doing and his relationship to the viewer—and then we apply that to a larger discussion about whether drawings have validity as visual evidence of a real event.

I begin by asking how these pictures are alike and how they are different. My descriptions of the drawings above come from my exploration of this question. Next, I ask students to note under what circumstances drawings are still useful to professionals today. Do students see the value in architectural drawings or composite sketches from descriptions by eyewitnesses? How are these situations alike or different from reporting on the event of a soldier taking aim with a rifle? Do Homer’s etchings present us with novel ways to think about the Civil War? Might that kind of effort be valuable today, or have we somehow moved beyond it?
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by Paul X. Rutz