Steve Mumford, Seedy teahouse, 2003

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Valencia, Spain, 1933

Steve Mumford, Seedy teahouse, 2003. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Valencia, Spain, 1933.

Context and Comparison:
During his first four trips to Iraq, which covered roughly the first two years of the war, Mumford was often not embedded with a military unit. He used the time to get involved with Iraqi civilians directly, either through the Iraqi art scene or just by wandering between business establishments. (However, Mumford said the threat of kidnapping made this last method too dangerous after 2004 (personal communication, May 2, 2007).) In a land where Americans have been seen alternately as objects of curiosity and threat, public painting proved to provide journalistic rewards for Mumford since it allowed him to develop pictures plainly and slowly before an Iraqi audience. With no darkroom or laptop necessary to produce the images, he found himself developing personal relationships with Iraqi men while painting them. (Women, the painter reminds us, are not allowed in tea houses.) This is not the experience of journalistic photographers, who may do quite well interacting with their subjects, but whose images nonetheless develop in relative secrecy, closed to the possibility that the chaos of the room will cause physical changes in the picture as it develops.

Mumford described the experience this way: “Every brushstroke is watched, and people have many questions. The Iraqi sense of personal space is very different from a westerner’s; here people crowd in so close they’re touching me, and men feel free to stab at the paper to point out someone I’ve drawn whom they know. If another onlooker blocks the view, however, he’ll be shouted at to get out of the way” (Mumford, "An Eyewitness"). Here the very space of the image gets physically altered by the people around the artist. Men poke at the picture, bump into Mumford’s hand as he draws, and chat with him as the picture grows. His effort is naked, and the picture itself develops from this interaction. This written account provides an intriguing way to consider Seedy teahouse above; to some extent, Iraqi men may have actually helped draw the picture of themselves. More than being objects of study, the men have presided over the lines we see here—the slack face to the left, the seated figures around the table at center, and the drooping ceiling fans above—scrutinizing Mumford’s process and judging the American himself.

As a painter, Mumford has said he feels more free to investigate the spaces and times in a war that don't include combat action, contrasting himself with journalists who normally feel compelled to rush to the scene of mayhem. He said, “Showing something that wasn’t directly the action, but some secondary eminence of the action, might be just as powerful as showing the action itself” (personal communication, August 17, 2007). Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson would agree. His photo above was taken during the political turmoil before Spain’s Civil War and has often been considered more artistic than journalistic thanks in part to its lack of overt references. The photo shows a child clothed in white, gazing up at the sky with a look of awe, or perhaps transcendence, bracing for what’s to come with knees bent and one hand absent-mindedly tracing a wall. That wall was a solid, useful object in 1933, but in the grains of this photo its chipped whitewash pattern becomes a two-dimensional surface of modern art, more like a painting by Jackson Pollock or Clifford Still than a practical object built to keep things warm and dry. It supports the mood of the image rather than a roof; it helps keep interpretation open rather than giving the viewer any direct clues to indicate what the child is doing. However, the critical commentary on the picture lets viewers in on the secret that the child has actually just thrown a ball into the air and is looking to catch it (Kimmelman, 2008). The photographer leaves out a key element of the action and with that choice creates a scene we might interpret as angelic.

Theory for Analysis:
Obliquely, Cartier-Bresson’s photo shows the power of war’s “secondary eminence” on a lone child, and it demonstrates that the line between painting and photography isn’t as clear as Mumford asserts above. But in principle, the famous photographer seems to agree with Mumford’s basic claim that photographers are “chained to capturing the decisive moment” (personal communication, August 17, 2007). After all, Cartier-Bresson coined that phrase as the summary of his philosophy for taking photos. In his book, The Decisive Moment, Cartier-Bresson (1952) advocated honing the ability to perceive, in a fraction of a second, the significant event along with “a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression” (p. 42). The decisive moment in the case of this photo is more a moment between moments, and therein lies its artistic power because the photographer chose to snap the split second when context is absent. Without context, the viewer gets the chance to invent his or her own story that will contain the evidence at hand. That is not a journalistic use for photography, in the traditional sense of journalism as telling a real-life story that includes all the relevant context known to the reporter. The photographer here seems less interested in producing journalism, per se, than an evocative image.

Though Cartier-Bresson was very much a proponent of photography, his writing on the potential reach of the medium conveyed pragmatism rather than romanticism: “Black-and-white photography is a deformation, that is to say, an abstraction” (1952, p. 35). Applying that quote to his photo above shows a photographer well aware that he has used his camera to create a work that abstracts from the experience of being personally on the scene, watching the child throw the ball, and not only because people see in color. (In fact, Cartier-Bresson believed the chemical approximations of color photography were even more problematic than the relatively straightforward gradations of luminance in black-and-white photos.) The light and shadows captured on film need support to be useful evidence. While Cartier-Bresson’s photo gives viewers some impression of what went on that day, it has also misled many viewers. To be good journalism it needs context.

Both of these pictures point us to the importance of writing in connection to journalistic images, and traditionally that context comes in captions, which explain when and where the event depicted took place, who is doing what in the picture, and why that picture is news. Ironically, some of the evocative power of Cartier-Bresson’s photo is lost for some viewers when they learn the child is throwing a ball, while the story surrounding Mumford’s loose lines seems to increase viewers’ interest in this picture of a teahouse.

Thoughts for Class Discussion:
As noted above, my interest in this comparison is twofold: One, how does the writing surrounding a journalistic picture affect it? Two, what makes a given picture a war image? Before telling students the critical context of these pictures, I show them Cartier-Bresson’s photo and its title, and I ask them to consider its journalistic value. What is the story in this scene? Then I do the same with Mumford’s teahouse picture, again just showing the title and date, and inviting students to discuss the visual evidence available.

Once we have our hypotheses noted, we go over the context of both photos, and this easily ties into my second main interest. I ask students whether it is important to their understanding of war to see pictures that don’t overtly look like war pictures. Why does the question of depicting war's non-combat situations matter? Are pictures that do not contain explicit military references or acts of violence evocative of war in special ways? What do pictures like this say about violence, trauma, and loss that combat pictures miss? Under what circumstances are these images superfluous?
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by Paul X. Rutz