War photography  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

War photography captures photographs of armed conflict and life in war-torn areas.

Although photographs can provide a more direct representation than paintings or drawings, they are sometimes manipulated, creating an image that is not objectively journalistic.

Enigmatic war photos are Valley of the Shadow of Death by Roger Fenton and The Falling Soldier by Robert Capa.




With the invention of photography in the 1830s, the possibility of capturing the events of war to enhance public awareness was first explored. Although ideally photographers would have liked to accurately record the rapid action of combat, the technical insufficiency of early photographic equipment in recording movement made this impossible. The daguerreotype, an early form of photography that generated a single image using a silver-coated copper plate, took a very long time for the image to develop and could not be processed immediately.

Since early photographers were not able to create images of moving targets, they recorded more sedentary aspects of war, such as fortifications, soldiers, and land before and after battle along with the re-creation of action scenes. Similar to battle photography, portrait images of soldiers were also often staged. In order to produce a photograph, the subject had to be perfectly still for a matter of minutes, so they were posed to be comfortable and minimize movement.

A number of daguerrotypes were taken of the occupation of Saltillo during the Mexican–American War, in 1847 by an unknown photographer, although not for the purpose of journalism.

The first known war photographer was John McCosh, a Surgeon in the Bengal Army. He produced a series of photographs documenting the Second Sikh War from 1848-1849. These consisted of pictures of army officers, including the British commander Sir Charles Napier and artillery emplacements and images of the destructive aftermath. The Hungarian-Romanian Carol Popp de Szathmàri took photos of various officers in 1853 and of war scenes near Olteniţa and Silistra in 1854, during the Crimean War. He personally offered some 200 pictures albums to Napoleon III of France and Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom in 1855.


The first official attempts at war photography were made by the British government at the start of the Crimean War. In 1854 Gilbert Elliott was commissioned to photograph views of the Russian fortifications along the coast of the Baltic Sea.

Roger Fenton was the first official war photographer and the first to attempt a systematic coverage of war for the benefit of the public. Hired by Thomas Agnew, he landed at Balaclava in 1854. His photographs were probably intended to offset the general aversion of the British people to the war's unpopularity, and to counteract the occasionally critical reporting of correspondent William Howard Russell of The Times. The photos were converted into woodblocks and published in the Illustrated London News. Due to the size and cumbersome nature of his photographic equipment, Fenton was limited in his choice of motifs. Because the photographic material of his time needed long exposures, he was only able to produce pictures of stationary objects, mostly posed pictures; he avoided making pictures of dead, injured or mutilated soldiers.

Fenton also photographed the landscape - his most famous image was of the area near to where the Charge of the Light Brigade took place. In letters home soldiers had called the original valley "The Valley of Death", so when in September 1855 Thomas Agnew put the picture on show as one of a series of eleven collectively titled Panorama of the Plateau of Sebastopol in Eleven Parts in a London exhibition, he took the troops' epithet, expanded it as The Valley of the Shadow of Death and assigned it to the piece.

Further development

Fenton left the Crimea in 1855, and was replaced by the partnership of James Robertson and Felice Beato. In contrast to Fenton's depiction of the dignified aspects of war, Beato and Robertson showed the destruction. They photographed the fall of Sevastopol in September 1855, producing about 60 images.

In February 1858, they arrived in Calcutta to document the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. During this time they produced possibly the first-ever photographic images of corpses. It is believed that for at least one of the photographs taken at the palace of Sikandar Bagh in Lucknow, the skeletal remains of Indian rebels were disinterred or rearranged to heighten the photograph's dramatic impact.

[[File:Felice_Beato_(British,_born_Italy)_-_(Interior_of_the_Angle_of_Taku_North_Fort_Immediately_After_Its_Capture_by_Storm)_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg|left|thumb|alt=The interior of an earthen and wooden fort with dead bodies scattered around it|Interior of Fort Taku immediately after their capture in 1860.]] In 1860 Beato left the partnership and documented the progress of the Anglo-French campaign during the Second Opium War. Teaming up with Charles Wirgman, a correspondent for the Illustrated London News, he accompanied the attack force travelling north to the Taku Forts. Beato's photographs of the Second Opium War were the first to document a military campaign as it unfolded, doing so through a sequence of dated and related images. His photographs of the Taku Forts formed a narrative recreation of the battle, showing the approach to the forts, the effects of bombardments on the exterior walls and fortifications, and finally the devastation within the forts, including the bodies of dead Chinese soldiers.

During the American Civil War (1861–65), Haley Sims and Alexander Gardner began recreating scenes of battle in order to overcome the limitations of early photography with regard to the recording of moving objects. Their reconfigured scenes were designed to intensify the visual and emotional effects of battle. Gardner and Mathew Brady rearranged bodies of dead soldiers during the Civil War in order to create a clear picture of the atrocities associated with battle. In Soldiers on the Battlefield (1862) Brady produced a controversial tableau of the dead within a desolate landscape. This work, along with Alexander Gardner’s 1863 work Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter were images which, when shown to the public, brought home the horrific reality of war.

Also during the American Civil War Confederate George Cook captured what is likely and sometimes believed to be the world's first photographs of actual combat, during the Union bombardment of Confederate fortifications near Charleston - his wet-plate photographs taken under fire show explosions and Union ships firing at southern positions.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878–80 was photographed by James Burke who traveled with the British forces. This was a commercial venture with the hope of selling albums of war photographs.

20th century

[[File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-B14584, Russland, PK-Bildberichter mit Kamera.jpg|thumb|upright|A Wehrmacht combat photographer on the Eastern Front, 1941.]] In the 20th century, photographers covered all the major conflicts, and many were killed as a consequence. One of the most famous was Robert Capa who covered the Spanish Civil War, the D-Day landings and the fall of Paris, and conflicts in the 1950s until his death by a landmine in Indochina in May 1954.

The famous photograph of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in 1945 was taken by photojournalist, Joe Rosenthal.

Unlike paintings, which presented a single illustration of a specific event, photography offered the opportunity for an extensive amount of imagery to enter circulation. The proliferation of the photographic images allowed the public to be well informed in the discourses of war. The advent of mass-reproduced images of war were not only used to inform the public but they served as imprints of the time and as historical recordings.

Mass-produced images did have consequences. Besides informing the public, the glut of images in distribution over-saturated the market, allowing viewers to develop the ability to disregard the immediate value and historical importance of certain photographs.

Profession today

Photographers who participate in this genre may find themselves placed in harm's way, and are sometimes killed trying to get their pictures out of the war arena.

Journalists and photographers are protected by international conventions of armed warfare, but history shows that they are often considered targets by warring groups — sometimes to show hatred of their opponents and other times to prevent the facts shown in the photographs from being known. War photography has become more dangerous with the advent of terrorism in armed conflict as some terrorists target journalists and photographers. In the Iraq War, 36 photographers and camera operators were abducted or killed during the conflict from 2003-2009

Several have even been killed by US fire; two Iraqi journalists working for Reuters were notably strafed by a helicopter during the July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike, yielding a scandal when Wikileaks published the video of the gun camera.

War photographers need not necessarily work near active fighting; instead they may document the aftermath of conflict. The German photographer Frauke Eigen created a photographic exhibition about war crimes in Kosovo which focused on the clothing and belongings of the victims of ethnic cleansing, rather than on their corpses. Eigen's photographs were taken during the exhumation of mass graves, and were later used as evidence by the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

Iconic images

See also


Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "War photography" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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