Friday, August 17, 2012

War Pigs (One Picture Is Worth A Thousand Megabytes)

Morning Shipmates - this week has flown by and I was only aware of its passing by the movements of Mog's shadow as he snoozed on the deck, like a big fluffy cat-shaped sundial.
He's fair knackered and glad to be back in that happy ship's cat land where every scrap is a feast and every ship's mouse is now a friend.
Mr.Sheephouse vanished for a large portion of the week, only to appear again on Wednesday speedily propelling his rowboat in our direction like there was no tomorrow.
He climbed aboard in a fluster of cape and swearing, wig threatening to take off, muttering something about deadlines and committment and has posted the below for your delectation.
Personally I think he couldn't be arsed and is making up excuses . . .
But such is the life of a gentleman photographer.
Anyway, enough o' this bilge, the tide's on the turn, so hoist the main sail . . off we go


You know, having just watched the closing ceremony of the Olympics, I was taken by how many athletes were filming the whole thing, and I found myself questioning the relevance of photographs.
Is there any point in a single image when everything is captured for digital replay 24/7?
Is it possible to sum up such a momentous occasion with maybe one or two simple photographs?
There were virtually no cameras - it was all either the ubiquitous communication soap bar (iPhone) or a video camera. It's funny, the more I think about it, camera manufacturers seem to be painting themselves into narrower and narrower corners. What's the point in a compact camera these days?
Anyway, as we sat there enjoying the moment with a few glasses of wine, an image popped into my head and lodged there. 
It is a quiet image, but somehow it sums up another similarly momentous occasion, namely the Second World War.
It was made by one of my favourite photographers - Mr.W.Eugene Smith.

Calling For Help - Okinawa 1945

Eugene's images of the closing days of World War II in the Pacific are stunning in their power and relative calm. There are many I could have chosen, but this is the one that popped into my head and inspired this FB, so it is the one I shall use.
To my mind, it seemed to encompass everything one could be feeling being stuck in a crater under heavy fire.
It is known that Eugene did 'set up' photographs and that is quite possibly the case with this, but that doesn't lessen the power. Look at the camera angle. He is above them slightly. He would be more exposed to the incoming fire, but then he could well have been. 
The more I read about Mr.Smith the more I realise that he cared little for his own safety. 
It could well be a snatched shot from a small disctance with a mild telephoto, or a wide angle close-up with him propped against the side of the crater. However he did it, it works.
Would these fleeting looks even have been acknowledged if they had been filmed?
He has used his eye and his skill to single out one small slice of time and render it to permanence.


When I started thinking about wartime photography, a number of other images also came into my head - each succinct and to a point. Moments in time that could have been nearly meaningless if they had been film footage, but which have stood the test of time in their power.
You see, that is the difference between a photographer and a film maker.
The photographer uses his talents to highlight those moments in life which pass all too fleetingly, and hammer them home (if he or she is good enough) into iconic images.
Hopefully they are of a quality that the more you look and think about them, the more they sum up things in ways that the daily parade of sorrow that passes over our TV screens never could.


The next photograph is by Larry Burrows who lost his life in the Vietnam War.
An English photographer, his influence is actually far greater than many people realise.
He is best known for his colour images of the conflict, which often resemble those enormous set-piece battle paintings found in many museums and art galleries, it is well worth searching out his images - they are bloody and sorrowful and epic and strangely compelling.
My chosen image comes from his essay for LIFE magazine:
'One Ride With Yankee Papa 13' 
It manages to say in a few pages what a team of film crews never could with thousands of feet of film or thousands of Terabytes of storage.
It tells the story of  Lance Cpl. James C. Farley and a mission into enemy territory. 
It starts out with a briefing, continues with Farley having happy times on some downtime a couple of days before and then proceeds rapidly into the thick and bloody hopelessness of battle.
It ends with the picture of Farley below.
You simply could never film it.

In a supply shack, hands covering his face, an exhausted, worn James Farley gives way to grief.

You can see the complete sequence here:
Again another extraordinary LIFE photo essay.


Another incredible photographer who can say more with one image than you could in a lifetime is Don McCullin, a man blessed with the luck of nine cats. Really. Saved from shrapnel by his Nikon (honest) he has endured probably more conflicts than any other war photographer and still remains alive.
These days his beautifully powerful and quiet landscapes are a complete anathema to the images he is best known for.
The photograph below just says it all.
All the grief and pain.
All the sorrow.
It won him many accolades and ensured he was shipped all over the world to cover conflict.
I personally find the woman's expression just wrenching.

Grieving woman with young boy, Cyprus

It was made during the Cypriot war of 1964.
These days it is hard to imagine now how such a beautiful country, where people go for peace and quiet and relaxation, could have been such a place of pain and death.
It is an awe-inspiring photograph for its sheer humanity in the face of inhumanity.
Just look at that boy and the old lady on the left and especially the woman with child behind.
This is the true story of war.
There is an excellent article on Mr.McCullin here:


My final image this week was made by the incredible photographer Lee Miller, who worked (amongst other things in a life of great photography) in that almost unknown field of women war photographers.
Of all the images here, it is the most serene and surreal and yet also I feel the saddest.
It was made at the liberation of Dachau.
Yes, the man was an SS guard at Dachau.
We have no idea whether he was kind or cruel.
He was someone's son though.
Maybe someone's lover.
Someone's Father.
Just following orders?
Or too terrified of the consequences of disobeying?

Dead SS Guard in Canal, Dachau, Germany

The sadness of wasted lives and the futility of war literally seeps out of this photograph.
It seems to matter not whether he was a vehement follower, or a hapless soul caught up in something beyond himself.
He is a dead human being. 
But the brutality of his death, and indeed the horror found at the liberation of Dachau seem to have been transformed by the water. 
All there is, is the world. 
Our shadow plays, though shocking and bloody, terrifying and inhumane are just scree on the glacier of time.
To my mind, this photograph shows that man can transcend war and man can be transformed if he were of a mind to be.
But man never will.
It has taken a woman's touch to show us this in a photograph.
Lee Miller was a remarkable photographer. 
You can find many of her wartime images at her archive:


And th-th-th-that's all folks.
I hope is hasn't brought your weekend down too much.
Making statements like this is a dying art. 
You'll soon be connected to your news feed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with no moments free to sit and quietly contemplate a single moment of time, singled out, treated with respect and placed in front of you so that you can reflect and think.
After the (trying and dull [I'm sure they were]) word-fest-FBs of recent weeks, I am going to leave this one here.
It is relatively word-free and hopefully the power of these images that need no description will wend their awful way into your consciousness.
Don't you think it is sad to think that there are men and women and children; troops and civilians; refugees, innocents and the bloody-handed, undergoing these same feelings of grief and terror and pain and sorrow as I write this.
Stay dry mateys.
If you indeed are lucky enough, thank God you live in a country where the play of the greed of mankind has hopefully burnt itself out.
As usual, God bless and thanks for reading.


  1. Another interesting read sir....many thanks

  2. Great writing, Phil. It seems to me that whether by accident or design we live in a world where there is ever less time to think deeply about anything. My son even takes his phone into the shower so that he can listen to music. I do some of my best thinking (such as it is) in the zen-like atmosphere of a shower so I feel he's missing out. Maybe people don't want time to sit and think about things nowadays? On a different and more upbeat note, I have a 1951 copy of The Leica Manual which you can borrow if you like so that you'll know how to power up the IIIf when it arrives. It was in the shed for a while so it's a bit dusty and smelly but there's useful info in it.