Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Did Goya Dehumanise War?

Mrs Deane chipped in on the World Press Photo debate surrounding Samuel Aranda, the World Press Photo winner. In her first comment she suggested there wasn't anything new in the argument about alleged religious identities in the image and that perhaps we should move on. She's right on that, especially when the basis for much of the debate is rather too much like nasty scramble of category mistakes and mixed metaphors.

 In connection with the idea of old debates, I recently revisited these three pictures.

The  pictures above are  of Florence and Eliza Holder - and I revisit them about every week. They are in the Barnados Children's Home archive.  Taken in 1876, the first picture shows two loving sisters clad in clean but threadbare dresses, wearing shoes, arms around each other. This is how they arrived at Barnado's home, brought by their mother who could no longer afford to look after them properly. The second shows one of Barnado's publicity pictures, with Florence 'shown' as a  before picture.Her hair is unkempt hair, she has barefeet, she has no family and no love and to really nail the indignity her dress is rumpled suggesting she might be a child prostitute. It's a set up picture, Barnado's version of her "before" she came to his home. You can read more about these pictures on page 39 of Carol Mavor's Pleasures Taken.

The story of the pictures came out in court in 1877, so the debate of whether it was ethical to manipulate pictures and emotions, especially those of the mother who the picture suggests is both neglectful and morally lax, was apparent even then and no doubt before.

The picture below is by W.Willoughby Hooper and is of subjects in a Tamil famine in India. Hooper invited the people into his studio and photographed them before sending them on their way without even a crust of bread to make death less undignified.

One newspaper apparently reported (thank you Iconic Photos):

"People who still delude themselves with the idea that the famine, if it has any existence at all, has been greatly exaggerated, could see [the photos], and they would lay aside that notion for good … Their knowledge will enable them to testify that these photographs are not representations of exceptional cases of suffering, but are typical of the actual conditions of immense numbers of people in the Madras Presidency."

So it seems that a lot of the arguments that we still see go back to the 19th century at least. Perhaps people argued over Goya, saying that his depictions of war were shallow and dehumanising, perhaps Breughel the Younger's paintings were criticised for their exploitation of the peasant classes.Maybe we could go back even further to the time when gentle Neanderthals objecting to the artists of the Lascaux  cave painting, saying that they degraded the bulls and glamourised hunting.

I was reading a review on The Origins of Sex recently, a book that looks at sexuality from 1600 to 1800. It includes this quote from the book.

When a William Brown was caught with another man's hand down his breeches in 1726, he retorted, "I think there is no harm in making what use I please of my own body." By the end of that century, Britain had an astonishingly radical Free Love movement. Alas, just around the corner lurked the Victorians, and that was the end of that until the 20th century.

So the arguments go around and the come around, in all things as in photography. And in photography, they are all good arguments to go over, but maybe there should be some new discussions. I think that when Roland Barthes died, there was a regret that he never did his over-reaching semiotic encapsulation of all things photographic, that the chaos of the still image was never resolved into one unified system of philosophical understanding.  Photography is so complex that this is not possible, it is so fluid and flitting that it never seems to settle. But now there are so many images, so many more changes, it somehow seems like it is settling, that there is a looking back in a way that is not a 1980s style regurgitation of old forms but a consideration of old forms in a way that informs the present and the way we consume and view images on a daily basis. It's not coherent yet, perhaps because there are so many new ideas, both in practice and in theory, opening up. Exactly what these new ideas are I'm not quite sure yet, but that they are there I'm certain.

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