Steve Mumford, Sgt. Cliat knocked out, 2004

Robert Capa, Death of a Republican Soldier, 1936

Steve Mumford, Sgt. Cliat knocked out, 2004.

Robert Capa, Death of a Republican Soldier, 1936.

Context and Comparison:
Mumford has made many combat action paintings like the one above, using photos he took while accompanying troops on patrol in and around Baghdad from Spring 2003 until the end of 2004. The caption to this one, which depicts the inside of an M-113 Bradley Fighting Vehicle during a firefight with insurgents in Baquba, read simply, “Sgt. Cliat knocked out,” but the journal entry accompanying this image provides some crucial details: Just before the moment depicted here, Sgt. Cliat was hit by the concussion of a rocket propelled grenade (Mumford, "Retaking Baqubah"). He has no visible wounds, a familiar circumstance in news of the Iraq war, which has brought conditions such as traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other nonvisible trauma to greater public attention. We see Sgt. Cliat in the middle of what looks like a yell, while his fellow troops apparently continue firing at the enemy. We see no weapons, but the hatch, camouflage pattern, two spent cartridges hanging mid-air, and radio microphone on the figure in the center all help situate this image in the familiar territory: the view of an embedded reporter along for the ride, snapping photos, taking quick notes, living through part of the day in terror in order to come back to base and send the photos home via satellite in time for tomorrow’s front page.

The photo next to it, by Robert Capa, is one of history’s most iconic war images, an amazing action shot, capturing the moment a Spanish loyalist was killed while running down a hill on the attack in 1936. Here we see an eternal present-tense view of the demarcation between life and death. The photo is not a narrative, but it prompts viewers to impose a narrative on it: We see a mosaic of digital colors here, and we infer the twisted motion of a body on its way from one attitude to another, already leaving the rifle behind. The man was running with courage before this moment, and he will hit the ground afterward, dying or dead.

But the falling soldier may not be dying at all. In 1974, two former journalists published the first public contestation of the photo’s authenticity, declaring it came from a series of exercises staged for reporters (Brothers, 1997, p. 179). That opening salvo began a debate that rages to this day, most recently in a book by José Manuel Susperregui (Rother, 2009). His study used other photos from the same series as Capa’s falling soldier to match mountains in the background. Susperregui concluded that the photo must have been taken thirty-five miles from where Capa said it was taken, far from the front lines, and therefore it must be staged. Capa may not have willfully misled people, noted Cynthia Young, curator of the International Center for Photography. He may just have forgotten where and when he took the photo since he often didn’t add captions to his pictures (Rother, 2009).

In her 1997 study of the photo, Caroline Brothers cited several of Capa’s coworkers who swore Capa would never stage such a thing. This is far from convincing for Brothers, who examined other photos from the series and wrote, “To this author it appears highly likely that the Death of a Republican Soldier was in fact staged at least twice, by different soldiers, before a camera mounted on a tripod or held by a stationary photographer” (Brothers, 1997, p. 183). Contextual evidence led Brothers to a disappointing conclusion. This photo is not as much the result of amazing luck as others would like to believe. But how much should this study and speculation matter as we view this iconic depiction of death?

While the story behind the picture is amazing, we must remember that a main reason why it is famous comes from its compelling composition. Capa’s skill as a visual composer is clearly evident here: the citizen-soldier in his white shirt knocked backward as he charges the enemy on a clear day, his armament literally left behind him. This is a jarring, poignant opportunity for emotional connection, a sense that death can still be heroic in the age of aerial bombs and gas attacks. However, most often when we consider Capa’s photo, that emotional engagement with this falling figure gets lost in an argument about other things.

For example, The New York Times, in a 2009 editorial about the controversy, declared, “The beauty and pristine authority of [Capa’s] image would be horribly, tragically undermined if it turned out that this picture had somehow been staged by Capa . . . . And yet that accusation has become part of the photograph’s legacy” ("Falling Soldier," p. A26). The Times editors went on: “Faking any journalistic photograph would be terribly wrong. The truth of ‘Falling Soldier’ is especially important.” The swirl of debate around this photo’s veracity, while getting at core questions of journalistic ethics, takes us away from the actual emotional investment we might otherwise give it.

Theory for Analysis:
It’s hard to imagine a painting garnering this kind of attention—scholars poring over the connection not only between a picture and its referent but also between other pictures in the series, their referents, and other evidence to determine if the picture has “truth,” as the Times defines it. Photographs have a special burden in our culture since, the assumption goes, they are the product of a sample of light through a lens, rather than the recorded biases of an artist’s eye and hand. The fact that human hands do not meddle in fixing the image to the film make the standards for Capa the photographer different from those for Mumford the painter.

In Regarding the pain of others, Susan Sontag (2004) asserted, “The point of ‘The Death of a Republican Soldier’ is that it is a real moment, captured fortuitously; it loses all value should the falling soldier turn out to have been performing for Capa’s camera” (p. 55). Excellent composition is one thing, Sontag points out. The story that Capa was lucky or skilled enough to capture the moment as it happened gives his combat photograph an extra narrative layer that charges it with power. Without the assurance that this picture shows what its caption says, its power diminishes. But in all of this speculation we lose sight of larger issues about war, such as pain and courage, that this picture represents. People probably did die looking much like this during that war.

Different issues surround Mumford’s combat action images, as there is no promise that the Sgt. Cliat picture is a sample of the available light taken by a disinterested machine. By mixing his own colors and choosing where to put them, Mumford has defied our modern journalistic standards. However, unlike many of Mumford’s other paintings, Sgt. Cliat depends on photography’s ability to capture more visual detail and texture in a split-second shutter click than the human eye can do—and infinitely more than the human hand can draw. This is unfortunate because here Mumford puts aside an opportunity to invade the realm of the photographer with his brush. Combat action is seen today by most as a special showcase for the power of photography not only to capture information about the event with minimal exposure time to bombs and bullets but also to bring that event home to viewers, showing them the carnage and effort of our troops on the ground. We believe it is photography’s job to record, to create memories, but this can be a problem. As Sontag put it, “The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs. This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding, and remembering” (2004, p. 89). Photos promise to show us something real, and we usually take them at their word. That can be dangerous.

Most consumers of the news don’t see this danger. They believe photography far outstrips any other means for making pictures of the real world. According to thinkers like film theorist André Bazin (2005), a photo is the next best thing to being on the scene: “Besides, painting is, after all, an inferior way of making likenesses, an ersatz of the processes of reproduction. Only a photographic lens can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it something more than a mere approximation, a kind of decal or transfer” (p. 14). Like Sontag, here Bazin set forth the point of view of most consumers of the news today: Photos reflect the real. They are “likenesses” or “decals” of events, transferring the sight of objects onto paper or into digital pixels for eternal display. No other form of representation could hope to so clearly present the experience of war to a viewer.

Not everyone agrees with Bazin. Brothers ended her discussion of the Capa photo with the claim that it is Picasso’s Guernica, rather than Capa’s Republican, that has endured as the symbol of the Spanish Civil War in part because Capa’s photo has been “tarnished” by suspicion (1997, p. 200). From this perspective, Mumford’s picture of Sgt. Cliat cannot be tarnished because it makes no photographic promise.

Thoughts for Class Discussion:
Many issues surround this comparison, opening several productive paths. The main idea I stress here is that photos have special currency in our culture. We tend to assume they show real things. This comparison offers a nice opportunity to explore that assumption. The poignancy of Capa’s picture is marred by doubt about its veracity. No one doubts whether Mumford’s painting depicts something he actually witnessed, and yet knowing the painting came from a photo makes students want to see the photo to get a better idea of what the moment really looked like.

I may begin with questions such as these: Who is right—Bazin or Brothers? Is a photograph more true than a painting’s “mere approximation,” as Bazin claims above? Is a photo always the next best thing to the real object or event when we want to understand what happened? Or does Brothers have a point about the potential of painting to move past the arguments that surround certain photos?

Alternatively, I might frame the discussion this way: Why should Mumford be in combat if he cannot give his viewers a “decal” or “transfer” of the real? This invites students to ask how much “real” we get from Capa’s photo as opposed to Mumford’s painting. Does Mumford’s method somehow escape the pitfalls of Capa’s famous photo?

Another possible path for discussion here is the notion of nonvisible trauma, which has become such a fixture in this war. From that perspective alone, these two pictures may prompt useful classroom discussion. How, after all, does one visually communicate non-visible trauma?
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by Paul X. Rutz