This 4×6 monochrome print exhibits some tropes of amateur technique. The sky is non-existent, blown out completely to white without detail. The buildings that occupy about one-third of the picture space are extremely bright, and also blown out in many places. The cobblestone road in the foreground is largely without detail as well. Thus here is a picture where well over half the frame is almost pure white where it should not be. A professional making this print to print in her own darkroom would probably have exposed for the buildings/street, and probably used a mask of some sort to bring the sky back under control while “printing up” the shadowy figures to achieve a more consistent light throughout the picture.
The only two oblique lines in the picture are those formed by the curbstones and the rail tracks, both calling attention to the lower middle third of the frame where there are five human figures and three automobiles of some sort. Otherwise the composition is largely horizontal, emphasized by the landscape orientation of the frame. The highest point of contrast in the picture is a negative space surrounding the figure in the foreground about one-third of the way into the frame from the bottom and one-third from the right, but the figure itself is actually the smallest in size within the frame. The corners of the frame are largely uninhabited but in the upper right of the frame the corner is truncated by what appears to be a French flag. The picture is heavily weighted toward the lower right corner which is occupied by three figures: a male figure walking away from the camera, a female figure walking toward the camera, and what appears to be another male figure cut almost perfectly in half by the frame border. The first man is the largest human figure in the whole picture. The female figure is the only one whose face is really visible in the picture.
The only word I can discern in the picture — Pouteau — together with the hats of the figures seems to confirm the location of this image is somewhere in France. The three loosely grouped figures to the right of center, however, appear to be wearing service dress blue uniforms and “Dixie Cup” caps that would indicate United States Navy enlisted men.
The verso side of the photograph is perhaps more mysterious than the recto.
The print bears multiple stamps. One, marked Regal Magic Eye Enlargement, Feb 26 1945, Aemex 310, Quincy 69 Mass.” The single line “Velox” stamp all across paper suggests that picture is genuine and that the date is likely correct. Along with a quotidian lab stamp “190C” whose significance is lost on me, there is another printed stamp that reads “Passed by US Army Examiner, 26382” over which is written the words in cursive “For personal use only, not for publication” and signed by what looks to me like “ML Rupe, CNO.”
So what is this a picture of, exactly?
The figures are too small for this image to belong to the category of “portraiture.” But the landscape, such as it is, has received little to no attention from the photographer. The cobblestones and buildings and sky are so washed out/blown out that they are almost as abstract as a constructivist painting. I can discern thirteen human figures in the picture, roughly in four groups that bear no relation to each other spatially or thematically. The most remarkable feature is the group of three sailors, who wear white hats while everyone else’s hats in the picture are dark. I cannot tell if they are walking away from the two men just left of center or not, but everyone else seems oblivious to them. Throughout the picture there is a quiet emptiness: rhythms are regular (like the arrangement of windows and stones), dynamic lines are nonexistent, and spaces are filled with a light that bleaches all character and detail so that all that remains is figures suspended in space, barely held down by the overall composition.
The stamps on the verso of the picture offer both clues and mysteries. As accurately as I can tell this is a picture of somewhere in France, either in late 1944 or early 1945. This would therefore be an image of France after the Liberation of Paris in August of 1944.
But it was not printed in France. It was printed by Regal Magic Eye Enlargement, PO Box 310 Quincy, Massachusetts 02169 (to modernize it slightly for post-1962 ZIP coding).
I’ll start with a quotation from Marvin Heiferman’s essay “Now is Then: The Thrill and Fate of Snapshots.”
As a result, snapshots actually contradict all that their name has come to imply — a quick and objective overview of a situation. Snapshots, even the most seemingly spontaneous and informal, are premeditated and fussed over. When a snapshot is about to be made, all parties prepare for what’s about to happen; concentration, self-consciousness, and desire heighten. Photographers previsualize the outcome and then position themselves in front of what they hope to capture. Subjects — with a sense of what is expected of them and how they want to be seen — pose.
Heiferman opens his essay by talking about how sophisticated, elaborate and dense snapshots are then talks about how they are spontaneous and therefore thoughtful and then how they are posed. The logic implies spontaneity = sophistication, and elaborate previsualization and posing = also sophistication. Furthermore in the spontaneous “snapshots” that Heiferman spends so much time talking about there is, by definition, very little previsualization possible, undermining the other branch of that argument.
It’s not just him. One can read the same sort of specious rhetoric in other books on anonymous photography.
Among other reasons, I dislike the phrase “snapshot photography” especially for this lack of clarity. I accept “vernacular photography” despite certain reservations. But “snapshot” has an easily identifiable problem. No one really knows what a “snapshot” is. Pick up any one of the books on “snapshots” you can find and note that everyone of them contains a mixture of posed and unposed portraits, human and inanimate subjects, clearly professional and clearly novice technique. Unfortunately for writers like Heiferman this lack of definition destroys their attempts at argument. To the extent that definitions of snapshot are nonexistent or inadequate, writers have simply made up ad hoc statements to prove their pet hypotheses: the photograph as cultural evidence, sociology, accidental art, connoisseurship — you name it, the photograph will absorb it.
Using the anonymous photograph from above, for instance, would Heiferman claim that “all parties have prepared for what’s about to happen”? Doubtful. Not one of the human figures seems remotely interested in the presence of the camera, if they are even aware of it, and the buildings and cobblestones assuredly couldn’t care less about human machinations. This picture is about as close to unposed as it can get. Equally absurd is the suggestion that this picture was “previsualized.” I daresay any photographer previsualizing this scene would have previsualized a proper exposure for the highlights.
I’ve heard and read variations on Heiferman’s bold, broad statements ever since Susan Sontag’s On Photography came out. And all of those variations, like this one, remain pure speculation — speculation which rarely if ever actually refers to the factual basis of any photograph. Heiferman also assumes that “snapshots” in the analog are different from “snapshots” made digitally. He doesn’t bother to prove this, merely states it as fact. I am convinced he has no proof. The uses to me seem virtually identical, as do the techniques. Ask a contemporary user of a cellphone camera how often they “previsualize” an outcome and one is likely to be met with blank stares, just as surely as your uncle boring you with his vacation slides would be dumbfounded if you asked whether or not he saw those images in his mind’s eye before they came back from the lab. If there is anything different it is the fact of the physical print itself, yet writers like Sontag and Heiferman rarely refer to the physicality of a print before launching into their exhortations. They are so keen to prove that photographs offer a glimpse into industrial capitalist reality that they cannot be bothered with the evidence of pictures themselves.
For a moment, let me assume that this picture above is “evidence” and a glimpse of “reality.” The immediate question I would have to answer would be: whose?
This particular picture has two handwritten phrases on it: “For personal use only” and “Not for publication.” Usually, however, when I see these words on the verso side of a photograph they are part of an official stamp that looks like this:
This stamp indicates that a photograph, or letter has been read by the United States Office of Censorship, or in this case the censor’s office for the European Theater of Operations. All amateur film by US military personnel had to be developed under clear censorship guidelines. Film was to be processed exclusively in territories controlled by the US Army, under direct military supervision, and marked “Confidential” until they were approved by the Theater Censor. After the Theater Censor approved the film, it was then subject to further censorship by the unit command and base censors if the film traveled by post.
This wasn’t simply for pictures taken by soldiers. Every photograph mailed by post in the country had to pass through the same filters, and even more filters if the letter were international. At their strictest, the US Office of Censorship even forbade discussion of the weather or evidence thereof.
In short, every picture taken by Americans from 1942-1945 went through a strict regimen of filtration and selection of which the photographer was largely unaware and could not control. To suggest then that such pictures are “evidence” of anything except what the US Army wished to be known is a tenuous suggestion at best. And they are even farther away from “reality” than they are from “evidence.”
To return to my unanswered question, “So what is this a picture of, exactly?” I offer a tentative answer. I think this is a picture of a France without German soldiers. A France where American GIs can walk around in the streets, unremarked. An unoccupied France that didn’t exist a year before this picture was printed. Even the US Army (and Navy) would approve of this. There are other mysteries in this photograph, to be sure. For instance, why was this printed in the United States rather than in Europe? Was it a GI on leave who printed it? Was it sent back to Quincy by the Army itself because someone was already going there? Probably no one alive knows.
There’s an old artistic judgment handed down on high from Charles Blanc. Et si la photographie est une invention merveilleuse, sans être un art, c’est justement parce que dans son indifférence elle montre tout et n’exprime rien. It’s often quoted as “photography describes everything and explains nothing” but I translate it as photography shows everything and expresses nothing. Which is to say, photography has no words or emotions (expressions) of its own. Blanc meant it to consign photography to the oblivion of science and solve the “Is it art? question for good, but his statement simply makes things more complicated. He assumes that because the camera is “indifferent” that its user is therefore indifferent, too. “Where there is no choice there is no art,” he says. Yet any given class of high school photography students will prove to you that the same camera focused on the same nominal subject matter produces different photographs in different hands, precisely because its users are not indifferent and are exercising choice.
Every photographer exercises choice anytime she presses the shutter button. But it’s a long, long way from saying that because a photographer exercises a certain level of choice that his work is therefore rich, complex, and architectonic in its planning or meaning as Heiferman does when he writes pure bunkum like “Amateur photographers do not take pictures like professionals, but the pictures they produce are often no less dense and multifaceted.” Often? Hardly.
Writing about anonymous photography like this is all too common. It’s the flipside of Charles Blanc’s dismissal of photography. If photography isn’t art — and only a truly passionate visionary would argue that anonymous photographs all tend toward something called “art” — well, then it must be valuable because it’s an “artifact” or “evidence” or cultural proof or feminine recordkeeping or expressions of the world of simulacrum or whatever else. It stems from a desire for photographs to be anything other than what they are.
In my more cynical moods I often think that all of the tommyrot written in the last decade about anonymous photography stems from a combination of cultural boredom and the desire to gentrify even the most banal art, to prepare it as “serious” art for the wealthy epicurean palate and therefore as worthy of being collected by museums and written about in Artforum. In truth, anonymous photographs are worth studying because they are photographs.
Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net