Steve Mumford, Sgt. Jose Lopez at gate, 2004

Steve Mumford, Untitled photograph, 2004

Steve Mumford, Sgt. Jose Lopez at gate, 2004.

Steve Mumford, Untitled photograph, 2004.

Context and Comparison:
In these two pictures we see a photograph and a painting Mumford made of the same scene. With the short title offered in Mumford’s online Baghdad Journal, we get the bare essentials. Here we have an American soldier with a Hispanic name, leaning on a wall next to a gate in Iraq. What he is thinking and why he leans there are up to the viewer to decide with the help of the images.

Students will likely notice immediate differences between the two pictures. The strokes from top left to bottom right in the painting introduce an angular influence not available in the photo—a sense of speed, power, and change not visible via the camera. Next to the verticality of the photograph, the painting appears more angular in general; for example, Lopez’s lean into the wall appears more pronounced. Is this a mistake from the artist’s hand, or did Mumford see something the camera did not? Mumford’s painting also takes the motorcycle—its handle and mirror evident in the foreground of the photo—and puts it in motion, down the path in the painting’s background.

The painting also shows more trees, more obvious barbed wire, and more clear tracks in the dirt. Iraq is a darker, harsher place in the artist’s rendering, with dark clouds looming overhead. We can presume Mumford wanted to show these things, even if he never verbalized that to himself. He chose to leave out myriad details that this color photo presents, such as the texture on the wall, which give other cues to a viewer for intuiting Spc. Lopez’s situation and state of mind, and instead expended his painterly energy on diagonal slashes and dark clouds.

Theory for Analysis:
Unlike the figures in still pictures, our bodies are always in motion. Our hearts beat, our lungs expand, and our senses are constantly searching. According to physiologist Alain Berthoz (2000), how we sense the world around us is quite complicated, in large part because “the brain does not process sensory cues independently” (p. 5). His studies show that not only are our five senses intertwined as our brains sort out sensory cues—with sound informing sight, for example—but other sensations also come into play. Berthoz proposed the idea that we actually have eight or nine senses, not just five. When we experience an event, our sense of movement (kinaesthesia) and our sense of where our body parts are in relation to each other (proprioception) play important roles (2000, pp. 25-27). Our experience of an event is a full-body one, always in motion, and our memory of it is similarly complicated. Seeing the image of Spc. Lopez arrested, without the full-body sensory cues to go along with the sight of him, means our idea of what he experienced is handicapped. We lack the chance to look around the scene, smell it, hear it, and feel the elements of the weather for ourselves. No image can give us the full experience of being there.

In Camera lucida, his well-known meditation on photography, Roland Barthes (1981) posited that a consideration of time should replace that of the object when we consider the utility of a photograph as a record of an event (p. 89). No human eyes ever saw this soldier in exactly the way Mumford’s camera focused and froze the image, but when faced with this photo, a viewer would have trouble denying that the soldier was there in front of the camera at the time the shutter snapped. Barthes argued that we have learned to rely on this evidence and allow it to bend our experience of recalling, and so we must employ absolutely different standards of evidence between these two modes of image making. For Barthes, the perceptual details evident in the painting cannot compete with the evidence the photo can produce that Spc. Lopez really was there.

However, that does not mean photos act the way our minds act when we witness an event. Again, Barthes: “Not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory . . . but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory” (1981, p. 91). Barthes pointed out here how malleable our recollections can be. Faced with the unchanging, authoritative presence of a photo, we cannot help it as our memories adjust to the evidence on paper (or in pixels) before our eyes. The memory of the event itself gets “blocked,” as he puts it. The same thing must, of course, happen when we view a painting, but Barthes doesn’t offer painting that kind of power.

Thoughts for Class Discussion:
To help students reconcile these competing pictures, I invite them to engage with Barthes’s claim about photos as counter-memories. Students often have their own anecdotes about how photos affect the way they recall their childhoods. Regarding the comparison above, I ask them to take away the painting and imagine how that scene would be reified in Mumford’s mind by the photo. Without the painting, would Mumford remember certain details of this scene that are different from the photograph? Might looking at the photo, with its excellent ability to represent other details, replace his memory of the motion of that day with those details? I ask them to imagine how a painting done exclusively from this photo might look different from the painting shown here.

I also believe it’s important to focus on what Mumford’s choices of lines represent for different viewers. What are those angular strokes in the painting? What is Mumford trying to show that the camera fails to register? For me, the strokes signify wind, perhaps blowing dust or rain. The camera fails to register any of this angular action this time, and for me this painting’s special power happens in that realization.


Home | Back to Top | References
by Paul X. Rutz