Plzeňské sympozia

Vít Vlnas

Photography goes to war. Truth and lies in 19th century war photography

pp. 317–332 (Czech), Summary 330 (English), 331–332 (Deutsch)


This study is polemically based on several points made in the last great theoretical work on war photography (by Bernd Hüppauf, Fotografie im Krieg, Paderborn 2015). The origins of war photography in the 19th century are seen as the development of the image, which thanks to medialization and, of course, the necessary manipulation and instrumentalization, itself ultimately became a part of war. Of course, this process had been anticipated by other forms of depiction long before the invention of photography. Even on the shield of Achilles, described in Homer's Iliad, war appears as an organic state of human experience. This ''internal image'' of war anticipated an entire branch of the portrayal of armed conflicts as something that had its fixed order and meaning. It was not until the early modern age that this Homerian image of ''logical'' war was confronted by the opposite depiction of military conflict as an explosion of violence and the lowest animal instincts, in which life and death are not decided by fate, but by absurd and blind chance (e.g. Hans Ulrich Franck, Jacques Callot and Francisco Goya). War photography undoubtedly carries on from this second school, since the depiction of the aftermath of war through a camera lens led to a fundamental break in the public view of armed conflict and forever changed that ''internal image'' of war, which Europe had shared since ancient times. On the other hand, photography has long gone hand in hand with traditional image media based on established mental and aesthetic paradigms. The famous shots taken by photographers in the Crimean war deliberately entered into dialogue with contemporary works of painting, as they were ultimately addressed to the same public. It was not until the 1870 Franco-Prussian War that they first managed to photograph a ''real'' battle, as photography definitively lost the innocence and mystery which it had previously maintained while its language remained indirect and based on references. Images painted by light lost their last remnants of exclusivity and themselves became weapons. War photography came to be one of the most effective psychological weapons of the ensuing 20th century, although this transformation only took place again by promoting the visual conventions that match the recipients' expectations.

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