Steve Mumford, Soldiers with Suspects, 2004

Steve Mumford, Untitled photograph, 2004

Steve Mumford, Soldiers with Suspects, 2004.

Steve Mumford, Untitled photograph, 2004.

Context and Comparison:
It may not be apparent to students at first glance, but these two pictures represent the same scene. Mumford took the photo while painting American troops detaining Iraqi men. Side by side, these images show wild departures from one another. In the painting, Mumford has chosen to leave out major objects of the scene—the building and its fences, the cars with open trunks, and most of the trees—to focus instead on four human figures. He strips down this busy scene to what he decided were its most important parts. The result is a landscape starkly divided by a horizon line, as if the four men occupy an exposed space, like the top of a hill, rather than a shaded Baghdad street.

A closer look reveals that Mumford must have painted this scene from an angle to the left of the position he occupied when he took the photo—or he simply moved the figures around, centering the cross-legged man and the clump of small trees near which he sits. The suspect in the foreground holds his head up in the painting, while his head hangs in the photo. In both pictures, we see faceless American troops standing near the men, but in the painting they are grouped in a symmetrical design. The troops’ verticality bookends the curved forms of the suspects. That the suspect in the foreground has his head raised and the soldier next to him appears to look directly at him may prompt viewers to sense a moment of tension that is absent in the photograph.

In detailing his motivation for going to Iraq, Mumford described his hope to paint human stories, focusing on the ways people, especially Americans, interact in war’s extreme situations: “It was important to me to go to a place where Americans were at war because I identify with those Americans. And I guess I feel like if I identify with them then the viewer is more likely to identify with them. That’s my interest. I mean, all the dilemmas of a human being in a war zone get very focused if you can identify somehow with the participants” (personal communication, August 17, 2007). Looking at this comparison in light of that statement, we can see Mumford making a case that his painterly choices show his identification with the figures in the situation in ways this photograph doesn’t. Is that possible?

Theory for Analysis:
Film theorist Noël Carroll (1996) argued that how one uses a medium—such as photography or painting—determines how successfully it can convey a feeling or provide useful evidence. For Carroll, photography does not by default provide more accurate pictures of the experience of an event than does painting.

Carroll asserted, “The arts are not systematic, designed with sharply variegated functions, as the medium-specificity thesis holds. Rather, they are an amalgamation of historically evolved media whose effects often overlap” (1996, p. 33). Fiction bleeds into non-fiction even in filmed documentaries for Carroll. He points to the ways documentary filmmakers often use music, voiceover, text, and other means to color an audience’s reception of a piece of raw footage. Editing changes things, Carroll argued, but even before that, cultural conventions, the equipment on hand, and myriad other factors contribute to the ways we use media. A corollary follows this theoretical position: any medium can be misused.

Thoughts for Class Discussion:
The main point I stress with this comparison is that no image can distill the whole action of an event. All media distort. Accurate reporting comes from learning how best to use our senses and the technologies at hand. Reporters must make images wisely.

In class discussion I ask whether Mumford is doing what he says he sets out to do. Does the painting get us to identify with the “dilemmas of a human being in a war zone” in ways the photograph does not? Some students inevitably will be more taken by this comparison than others. To those who do not see the value in the painting here, I ask whether the attempt is worthwhile. That is, if this particular act falls short for some viewers, does it nonetheless point to a potential method reporters might use to visually indicate a human subjectivity that a camera cannot?
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by Paul X. Rutz