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

Steve Mumford, A young Iraqi girl with a bullet wound in her chest, 2007

Larry Burrows, South of the DMZ, 1966

Steve Mumford, A young Iraqi girl with a bullet wound in her chest, 2007.

Larry Burrows, South of the DMZ, 1966.

Context and Comparison:
After a three-year absence, Mumford returned to Baghdad, this time choosing not to go out on patrol with troops or hang out in tea houses with Iraqi civilians. (Moving about alone on the streets of Baghdad had become prohibitive with extremely high rates of kidnapping and murder.) Instead, he chose to plant himself in the 28th Combat Support Hospital, a nodal point in the Green Zone where the results of combat action came to him. Recalling his time in the hospital, Mumford said he noticed similar journalistic habits between himself and photographers, but he contrasted his work habits with those of the newspaper writers, who tended to step into the Emergency Room, watch for a while, and leave sooner rather than later (personal communication, May 2, 2007). When the unexpected happened, a writer might be able to hear about it and quote someone, but “there’s something about essentially a visual means of communication, whether it’s painting or photography, where you have to be ready and open to that, and you have to sort of be there for the duration” (personal communication, May 2, 2007). While Mumford is expressing a connection to photographers, his sense for how to depict what it is to "be there for the duration" of the event shows some major departures from a photographic way of presenting a scene, as the comparison above shows.

Brown mud dominates the photo above by Larry Burrows, taken at a forward aid station in Vietnam. The two wounded men, one black and one white, regard each other with eyes locked on the other for a moment, their legs and arms braced against the slippery surface. This angular environment helps charge this photo with cues for unsteady, halting motion. The marines’ sightlines and arms extend on a common slope from top left to bottom right, and one marine behind them has turned to jump or run away, his whole body angled in roughly that same direction, while the sole of his boot appears blurry.

Although there are parallels between this photo and the painting by Mumford—such as the hints of red representing blood and the concerned attention of the figures surrounding the wounded—the painting represents motion in quite a different way. In the painting, a group of people are moving and manipulating a wounded girl’s body, and rather than showing motion in terms of angles and blur, this picture shows her body in two different positions. When working in the hospital, Mumford said, “I’m going to be making decisions of what the end result will be that may not reflect at all how things started out. . . . It may be a gestalt of everything that went on during the period” (personal communication, May 2, 2007). Piece by piece, Mumford uses a long duration to assemble these figures using lines of ink, and when the medical personnel turn the patient over, the artist starts a new version of the body on the same page. This painting shows a collection of moments, rather than a frozen split-second.

In one two-dimensional picture, we see several types of evidence that lay bare the duration of this event and the corresponding duration of the painting act in unusual ways. The picture offers a sense of a patient who, though she appears unconscious, was not lying still as medical personnel took care of her. It shows a naked Iraqi civilian shot by accident, and in plain writing it tells us so, along with the date, in the lower right corner. In these and other ways, this painting presents a picture of war medicine different from what we normally see in newspapers.

Given his words of affinity with photographers, it seems strange that Mumford’s hospital pictures have perhaps the least to do with journalistic photography as any he has published from Baghdad so far. However, it may be that what he says about visual communication is true, that all modes of it share some essential practical affinities that other approaches to storytelling can do without, and that makes this comparison all the more interesting.

Theory for Analysis:
For psychologist Merlin Donald (2001), the memories people use to situate ourselves in the world come from a sensitivity to events that happen over a span of time much longer than a split-second, and too much effort has been spent considering human memory in terms of small spans of time. He argued, “We have no good theoretical models of such a powerful storage system. It falls outside the reach of our common memory theories, most of which have been based on how people memorize lists of words” (p. 51). But, Donald noted, people often remember extremely complex activities over a long span of time as one event. A walk to work, an hour-long conversation, or even a surgery “usually coheres in memory as a single unified episode” (2001, p. 49). Donald sees a study of artistic practice as the best way to point out new theoretical directions for a study of memory. People have profound abilities to sense and depict events without knowing exactly how we do these things, and artists have spent lifetimes honing these abilities to feel their way into such depictions.

Donald gets support from other psychologists, such as James J. Gibson (1979), who preferred the term “paths” of attention rather than points of view since, when on the scene, we never stop completely cold to watch something from a fixed point (p. 197). Using Gibson’s work as a jumping-off point, film theorist Joseph Anderson (1996) wrote, “the geometric information available to my eyes is correlated with the precise movement of my head (and presumably my eyes and body), without any effort or awareness on my part” (p. 71). In the heat of the act of drawing, Mumford may not be aware he is moving with his subjects, choosing to record one limb position while rejecting others, but he does it. Photography lives in fixed points. It takes an artist working around established forms to find ways to represent a whole surgery as one gestalt of the paths of attention he made.

The painting above shows evidence of an artist experimenting with how to show several minutes of surgery—one event, in Donald’s terms—in a single picture. This is an attempt to communicate through tactile, if unclear, perception, on-the-scene and embodied, and the result is a stack of images that coheres in a non-photographic way. It is an experiment in representation that mainstream journalism has learned to disdain.

Thoughts for Class Discussion:
This comparison prompts me to look for other ways to introduce recording or note-taking to my students. W. J. T. Mitchell (2005) declared that his aim in the classroom is “to overcome the veil of familiarity and self-evidence that surrounds the experience of seeing, and to turn it into a problem for analysis” (p. 337). His favorite method for achieving this aim is a sort of “show and tell” exercise, which asks each member of the class to act as though he or she has just been given eyes for the first time. To do this, students must offer presentations that assume the rest of the room has no notion of visual culture. All descriptions based on line, color, and other visual forms are taboo, as are references to photos, paintings, mirrors, facial expressions, and any other distinctly visual way of sensing the world (2005, p. 353).

Modifying Mitchell’s exercise offers an interesting way to feel our way into a discussion of the two pictures above. I might pick two students, one to look at the Burrows photo and another to look at Mumford’s painting. They imagine themselves in their respective scenes and then must answer questions from the rest of the class, leading us with non-visual language toward an idea of the events these pictures depict, including the duration in which these events took place. I ask the class to take notes about what is happening in these scenes. The notes privilege embodied sensations based on touch, hearing, and motion. Concepts like slippery, rainy, or sterile come across in terms familiar to us as beings who negotiate them daily but in terms largely unfamiliar to us as news consumers. Later we reveal the pictures to the class and discuss them using the sensory and theoretical language developed in the question-and-answer session. Having to negotiate a ban on visual communication, as Mitchell proposes, students begin to see how entrenched we are in our terms and methods for discussing representations of events.
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by Paul X. Rutz