Waves of Photography and War

The old saying, “Seeing is believing,” lies at the heart of photography, as photography is often seen as the primary medium for capturing objective truth (Snyder 2014). The establishment of the National Press Photographers Association in 1946 and their Code of Ethics reinforces the theoretical truth of these images. However, within a complex system, photographs can be manipulated in a number of ways from moving bodies in the pre-NPPA days to the contemporary utilization of Photoshop. Whether these images are fabricated or truthful, they still hold power to ellicit reactions from the viewer—inspiration, awe, horror (Henry 2005).  Advancement in photographic technology, specifically the increasing complexity of the components that make up a camera, may not necessarily provide truer images of war. However, the intricacies of cameras throughout time allow for more accessible and high resolution photographs, unless barred by limits on dissemination.

Battle of Gettysburg Battle of Gettysburg

During the American Civil War, wet-plate cameras were the prevalent means of photography. Unwieldy wet-plate equipment had to be transported in a portable darkroom, the idea of prominent portrait photographer Matthew Brady, in order for photographers to capture images of battles (“Photography and the Civil War”; Manning and Wyatt, Vol. I, 2011). Taking a photograph using the wet-plate method was a lengthy process. Subjects of wet-plate photographs were still scenes or posed people due to the camera’s failure to reproduce movement (Snyder 2014). As a result, no battle photographs of the Civil War exist. Iconic photographs of the Civil War depict the aftermath of battle, such as “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter” and “A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep” (Manning and Wyatt, Vol. I, 2011).

During the Civil War, Matthew Brady employed a group of photographers to travel with the Union army and record the war. Amongst these photographers was Alexander Gardner who released a collection of the photographs in a book titled Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War. It was not until the 1960s that scholars realized there was anything wrong with these photographs. Frederic Ray, art director for Civil War Times magazine, noted that the same body was used in two photographs with different settings. The photographs “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter” and “A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep” depicted the same deceased soldier in two different locations nearly forty yards apart. The body was moved, presumably, to create a better picture and produce a visceral response. Wet-plate photography limited the types of photographs that could be taken and afforded Civil War photographers opportunity to take artistic license in their depictions of the war while operating under the assumption that photographs are truthful depictions of information (Snyder 2014).

In 1888, the first handheld camera was put on the market. The Kodak camera utilized negative paper that produced low quality images (Lindsay 2000; “Milestones”). Photographers covering the Spanish-American War such as William Dinwiddie did not use the Kodak and opted for the traditional wet-plate camera in order to create professional photographs. Although the equipment remained essentially the same as during the Civil War, darkrooms moved from wagons to yachts of newspaper owners. However, developing wet-plate images in tropical climates was difficult. Many photographs of the Spanish-American War are actually reenactments or reproductions of battle action. Many photographs of Naval exploits were photographs of model ships floating in a tank of water. In addition to photographs, films of the Spanish-American War exist, making it the first filmed conflict, as well as valiant paintings of Rough Riders and other romantic scenes, which occupy the historical record (Manning and Wyatt, Vol. I, 2011). Although not used during the Spanish-American War, the Kodak camera paved the way for other handheld cameras.

The Vest Pocket Kodak Camera is inextricably linked to the First World War. Because it was able to fold down due to the implementation of lazy tongs, soldiers could carry and conceal the camera in their pockets. Although having a camera at the front was a court-martial offense, soldiers made records of the war. Most of these pictures are candid shots of destroyed buildings, civilians, and soldiers enjoying leisure-time. Because soldiers took most of the pictures, few action shots of World War I exist. Artists rendered drawings of the Battle of Belleau Wood, depicting glorious war, but little photographs of battle can be found in the context of mass media. Additionally, few professional photographs were granted access to frontlines, again hindering the photographic record available to the public. World War I photographs would eventually come to life in stereoscopic collections (Pritchard 2014; Mendelson and Kitch 2011). 


World War II was much more photographed by professional photographers than World War I. Robert Capa, a photographer who gained prestige while covering the Spanish Civil War, used a Contax camera. These cameras were easy to operate, had innovative lenses, and were durable. Shutter speeds ranging from 1/25 to 1/1000 of a second allowed for the capture of movement unlike the wet-plate process. Capa, present during the first wave of D-Day landings at Omaha Beach, used a Contax to photograph intense, feverish battle as seen in photographs like “The Face in the Surf” as well as over 100 other pictures. Similar Leica and Speed Graphic cameras were used by Capa’s contemporaries such as Pulitzer Prize winning AP photographer Joe Rosenthal for “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” (Pritchard 2014). With professional photographers and their equipment, candid photographs of fighting and conflict were finally taken and disseminated to the public. 

Perhaps one of the most widely photographed and received conflicts was the Vietnam War. Associated Press photographers made names for themselves with myriad images. Nick Ut’s “The Terror of War” haunts the public memory and won a Pulitzer Prize. Horst Faas, Larry Burrows, Malcolm Browne, and Eddie Adams also gained renown for depicting the horrors of the war in Vietnam through the camera lens. At the time, the AP camera of choice was the Leica (“Shooting Vietnam”). Leicaflex cameras were resilient enough to whether the harsh conditions and provided shutter speeds of up to 1/2000 of a second—an important factor in the taking of “Saigon Execution” (Pasi 2014). Eddie Adams was able to capture the moment a bullet from General Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s gun entered Viet Cong Nguyen Van Lem’s brain. Adams said of the experience, “They walked him down to the street corner. We were taking pictures. He turned out to be a Viet Cong lieutenant. And out of nowhere came this guy who we didn’t know. I was about five feet away and he pulled out his pistol” (“Saigon Execution”). This photograph of the brutality of war also won a Pulitzer Prize.

American Forces Deployed to Vietnam

Further innovations, such as the development of color film in 1936, lead to a different type of photograph during the Vietnam War (“Milestones”). Bright red blood can be seen in Larry Burrow’s “Reaching Out,” creating a new level of horror and understanding of the conditions of war for the civilian. The Vietnam War was a seminal moment in war photography featuring quality equipment, professional photographers, and publications willing to disseminate the photographs.

The near-instant transmission of photographs of President George H.W. Bush’s inauguration in January 1989 opened the world of photojournalism to new possibilities. Future events and conflicts could be covered in a faster, more connected way. The first DSLR, the Kodak Nikon DCS 100, became commercially available in 1991, the same year as the first Gulf War. Accessible telephone lines or satellite links made sending photographs over the wire in a matter of seconds possible for photographers such as Ken Jarecke, David C. Turnley, Peter Turnley, and Greg English. Connection between war correspondents and publications increased in the beginnings of digital photography (Pritchard 2014). 

Canon EOS 5D Mark III

In 2009, Kodak announced it would stop producing Kodachrome film, solidifying the digital camera’s dominance in the photography world (“Milestones”). The introduction of more affordable and higher resolution DSLRs, such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, allowed the camera to be put into more hands (Pritchard 2014). Photojournalists covering the War on Terror brought telephones, satellites, and laptops in addition to their digital cameras (Henry 2005). Photographs, such as Luis Sinco’s “Marlboro Marine,” were able to travel through this new equipment and reach the public through traditional media as well as the Internet. Sinco’s “Marlboro Marine” is an iconic photograph of the early Iraq War, due in part to its poignancy as well as its reproduction on the Internet.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III

Technological advancements in photography also have a downside. In addition to capturing more detailed photographs, advancements, such as photo editing software, also allow these photographs to be manipulated in a realistic way. Some Photoshop jobs are done so well that the viewer is unaware that the photograph has been edited. This raises the question: How is an audience able to discern the difference between what is true and what is manipulated (Henry 2005)?

Photographs in magazine spreads are often Photoshopped to make the subject more attractive. The audience and the system generally seem to accept this fact. There is a different precedence for truth in the context of news photojournalism, especially journalism that covers war. In 2003, Los Angeles Times photographer Brian Walski was fired after revealing that his front-page photograph was actually a combination of two separate photographs (Henry 2005). Although the two photographs were taken seconds apart, the deception was great enough to result in Walski’s termination. The standards set by the NPPA in the 1940s likens Walski’s Photoshopping to Gardner’s repositioning of a dead body. Both are manipulations and deviations from the camera's ability to tell truths within the system of the war narrative.

Wet-Plate Camera

Not every photograph from the War on Terror is captured on a digital camera due to the mere fact that they are available. During a tour in Afghanistan, Sgt. Ed Drew brought along a tintype camera and recorded portraits and other photographs of his fellow soldiers. These photographs are reminiscent of many Civil War photographs featuring soldiers posed around cannons and other similar scenes ("Afghanistan Photos Get Civil War-Era Treatment"). Just because advanced photographic technologies are available does not guarantee that a photographer will use them, as is the case with Sgt. Drew and William Dinwiddie. This use of old media complicates the relationship between war and photographic technologies, which undermines a sense of technological determinism in war photography.

Images have the power to inspire, awe, inform, and infuriate. War images have deeply rooted these feelings in the public’s mind, and technological advances in cameras have aided in this perception. The complicated combination of parts within the camera allow for photographs to be taken and later presented to the public. Photographers like Nick Ut and Horst Faas brought the horror of Vietnam into the civilian’s home through their cameras. However, images also have the power to deceive from completely faked scenes such as those of war ships during the Spanish-American War to Photoshop in the War on Terror within the complex system that is creating a visual story of war. Considering the ability to manipulate photographs, the question of whether or not an established visual war narrative is trustworthy looms large, further complicated by the dissemination and censorship of wartime images (Henry 2005).

Waves of Photography and War