What a Painter of "Historical Narrative" Can Show Us about War Photography

Steve Mumford, Paladins at FOB Gabe, 2004

Steve Mumford, Untitled photograph, 2004

Steve Mumford, Paladins at FOB Gabe, 2004.

Steve Mumford, Untitled photograph, 2004.

Context and Comparison:
In this side-by-side comparison of two pictures of the same scene, we see the big barrels of Paladin artillery on a Forward Operating Base in Baquba, Iraq. The M109A6 Paladin is a self-propelled howitzer, a 155mm cannon mounted on a tank-like vehicle that houses the gun’s crew of four. These vehicles can move at up to 35 miles per hour, but here the big guns sit quietly in the sun, with no human figures visible. The long shadows in the photograph suggest to me a sort of junkyard quality, as if these machines have been abandoned and have not yet rusted where they sit. The drab, almost monochrome, of the land and the vehicles contrasts against the blue sky in the photo, as if the armored vehicles, the plants, and the sand are more alike than not, standing in united opposition to the sky.

Mumford’s painting prompts me to see the scene differently. His decision to leave so much white in the picture and his light watercolor washes leave the scene looking brighter to me, more like middle-of-the-day heat beating down on these machines than the mellow evening sun. Shadows along the Paladin’s barrel in the foreground also make me see high noon in the painting, especially in contrast to the parabolic shadows creeping down the barrel in the photo. Perhaps these pictures were made at different times of day.

In contrast to the photo, which provides a strong horizon somewhat broken by the Paladin’s barrel, the painting provides no simple division between land and sky. Here, the difference in viewing angle, lower and to the left, makes the objects of study jut into the sky. And Mumford’s other choices—the wider color palate and changing texture of his lines between plants, guns, rocks, and concrete barriers—make the objects in this scene stand out from one another. The camouflage of the photo hardly appears in the bright objects of the painting. Vehicles, plants, and rocks each get their own identity the way Mumford has painted them. The plants lean to the right as if blown by the wind, and the center Paladin’s barrel droops and seems to glow as if the gun feels tired from physical labor, wilting in the desert heat. To me, it resembles a tired animal.

Theory for Analysis:
“Resemblance is the result of perception, not its mainspring,” argued phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1964, p. 171). For him, resemblance is not a set of inherent qualities between objects that drives our perception. Rather, it takes a person perceiving, taking in sensory cues from the environment, to decide what resembles something else. A person on the scene perceiving senses different things from a camera, which takes a sample of the available light and fixes that sample to film (or these days matches that sample to a digital algorithm). This comparison gives us a chance to interrogate the photograph in new ways.

Mumford seems to have seen past the camouflage in ways his camera did not, and he has chosen to paint this scene in a way that makes the objects pop out rather than blend in with one another. Merleau-Ponty believed this makes sense because people see in movement. “The visible world and the world of my motor projects are each total parts of the same Being,” he asserted (1964, p. 162). There is no seeing for Merleau-Ponty without moving, and we can see evidence of that in differences between Mumford’s painting and his photograph above. On two levels, the painting shows traces of Mumford’s “motor projects.” First, it shows that he looked in such a way as to clearly see the Paladins’ outlines. His eyes searched, and he moved his head slightly to discover the demarcation between objects—and then, on the second level, he used his hands to delineate these discoveries.

Understanding that all renderings of the physical world result in approximation frees artists to use design elements to emphasize what they decide is most important. For Merleau-Ponty, the painter’s tools—color and line—are approximations of what a painter sees, but they are also powerful tools. Painters must choose how to use them with the knowledge that they cannot reproduce the actual experience of seeing a scene. However, photographs have their own drawbacks, as Merleau-Ponty pointed out in terms coined by the sculptor Auguste Rodin: “The photograph keeps open the instants which the onrush of time closes up forthwith; it destroys the overtaking, the overlapping, the ‘metamorphosis’ [Rodin] of time” (1964, p. 186). Mumford’s painting shows his concentration on the way objects “overtake” and “overlap” each other, and his use of color here communicates a clarity between objects that we miss if we rely solely on the photograph. Color helps demarcate time’s “metamorphosis,” in this case the act of moving slightly to look around objects. With this painting Mumford uses an intuitive color palette that takes away the camouflage so effective in the photo to better show the shapes that were obvious to him as an on-scene viewer.

Thoughts for Class Discussion:
The key point in this comparison, for me, is that both of these pictures resemble the scene in their own ways, and I invite students to study the two based on that premise. Students immediately see how the photo resembles the original rocks, sky, and vehicles. Its repetition of desert colors is more in line with what they know of military camouflage, and there is, of course, more detail in the photo.

It takes a discussion about what a person must have felt standing on the Iraqi sand to tease out how the painting offers a useful sense of the scene that the photograph leaves out. When we turn toward terms of emotion, students often say they sense more emotion in the painting, and we spend a lot of time teasing out why that might be. I ask what design elements make the painting feel more alive.

Later, I might invite students to look at someone on the other side of the room and take some notes on what they see. To do so, they normally have to move to see around each other, and here I may bring in some of Merleau-Ponty’s words to give us some terminology—resemblance versus perception, overtaking, overlapping, “metamorphosis of time”—to help verbalize the sense of continuity we experience if we stack several views of a person or object into a whole.
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by Paul X. Rutz