Spring 2013: Kelsey Abstract

Lucky Shot: Photography, Chance, and War
Robin Kelsey
Shirley Carter Burden Professor of Photography
Department of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University

With respect to photography, modernity has wanted to have its cake and eat it too. Modern people and institutions have asked photography to provide insight into realities beyond direct perception, to convey faithfully the nature of events that are distant, past, or ephemeral. At the same time, modernity in practice has never been neutral about the insights it wants photography to deliver. It has asked photography to display a world of beauty, elegance, and wonder, to record reality as a picture that happens to coincide with its ideals. In short, modernity has wanted from photography the disinterested credibility of automatism and the discrimination traditionally associated with art.

To satisfy these contradictory desires, photography has relied heavily on chance. From the earliest days of the technology, photographers have remarked on the difficulty of predicting how a photograph taken under particular circumstances would look. A cloud passing before the sun, a dog running across a street, a sitter sneezing: such unexpected events could ruin (or make) a good picture. As faster processes and lighter cameras were developed, the role of chance intensified. By the end of the nineteenth century, one could no longer confidently assert that a photographer using a handheld camera loaded with fast film and photographing bodies in motion could even be said to “see” what he or she was photographing. As the great Victorian photographer Peter Henry Emerson noted, most any photographer could “fluke” a “masterpiece.” Through photography, chance became a crucial cog in a great engine of modern belief.

Although chance has played a vital role in the reconciliation of modern desires for a photography of both fact and fantasy, that role has been a source of discomfort. To acknowledge the reliance on luck would be to concede the gap between the bulk of photographic facts and corresponding ideals. To give chance its due would call into question how much the captivating features of great photographs could be credited either to the wondrous nature of the world before the camera or to the perspicacity of the photographer behind it. From the early days of Kodak onward, recognition of chance’s role in photography has been suppressed by various means, including Henri Cartier-Bresson fanciful and wildly popular explanation for how the photographer can heroically compose a picture in a fraction of a second to record a “decisive moment” in the world. In a more prosaic fashion, the very winnowing process by which quality photographs have been separated from the chaff of banal or flawed images has systematically suppressed the evidence of contingency. For every photograph celebrated in the pages of Life, hundreds if not thousands of photographs were relegated to the obscurity of cabinets, drawers, and trash bins. This process has muffled recognition of the stochastic operation of photography and thus reinforced the seemingly natural bond between the exceptional photograph and modern reality. Predicated on this suppression, photography has been haunted by the possibility that much of its precious insight into the world is an effect of blind luck.

This talk will address the acute tensions surrounding photography and chance during the Second World War. War intensifies the burden of photography at both ends. Great curiosity emerges about the gritty realities of battle, while the need to imagine those realities as conforming to an ideal moral order presses with equal intensity. The weapon-like qualities of photography – its pointing, its shooting, its automatic rapidity – threaten to make it complicit in war’s wanton aggression and indifference. Because the mass media, empowered by the new wirephoto service established by the Associated Press, photographically represented World War II as no previous war had been, these tensions grew particularly strong. By attending to both the stochastic apparatus of photojournalism that emerged during the war years and to contemporaneous accounts of photography and chance, we can gain new insight into modernity and its representations.

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