Images of War, War of images. The Invention of Pictorial Reportage in the course of the Crimean War
War is atrocious, and the horror of war has proven to be the most tenacious constant in human history. Empirically seen, we are in a constant state of war. Among other things, this fact presents problems to those responsible, to those who must make war – despite the known horrific results – publicly acceptable. In historical times, when wars were waged with technologically simple instruments and still celebrated by artists as the vital testing of one’s strength or a chivalrous exercise of virtue, it was above all the aesthetic attraction of colourful flags and galloping horses that served as an apologia of military force. During the First World War, at the latest, the development of weaponry made colourful uniforms a lethal risk on the battlefield. The uniforms were grey, the command posts disappeared underground, and instead of flags and uniforms, the fascination with jet steel and digital Star Wars mysticism from then on served to cover over the trail of blood.
In this roughly outlined timeframe, the Crimean War takes on an ambivalent position. One the one hand, technological innovations such as the railway, steam navigation, telegraphy, and chloroform were used for military purposes, on the other, the technological revolution of firearms had not yet taken place, so that the Crimean War occurred in a time in which war in general was highly accepted by the public and still characterized by gloriously colourful troop clashes. Ill. 1 shows a contemporaneous painting that without being very accurate in documentary terms gives a glimpse of the spectacular way in which war appeared. Other depictions prove that commanders still directed their armies (Ill. 2) from the literal commander’s hill via eye contact, and beyond all military effectiveness appreciated the advance of their regiments as a visually entertaining spectacle.
Ill. 2 + 3
Despite all “beauty”, the Crimean War, an obscure conflict carried out 160 years ago without German participation, left only few memories in educated Central Europeans. Therefore, let me briefly point out that Russia triggered the war by occupying the Bulgarian, North-Western region of the Ottoman Empire. England and France saw their colonial interests threatened, forged an alliance with the Turkish sultan and sent an expedition force to the Black Sea; Ill. 3 gives a rough outline of the geographical situation. The Tsar withdrew his troops in response, but the dynamics of war could no longer be halted. The Anglo-French army crossed over to Crimea with the aim of capturing the Russian military port of Sevastopol, to bomb the docks and then retreat from Crimea again, a territory which could not be held for a longer period of time. Everything was to be over in a matter of days. Despite spectacular victories in the initial battles, the allies became engaged in lengthy siege warfare. It then took two years and cost 300,000 lives until the allies’ limited objective of the war was achieved.
At this point, the close link between the war front and the home front must be highlighted as one of the most modern aspects of the Crimean War. Thanks to groundbreaking innovations in the transport and communications sector, nothing occurred in Crimea that did not immediately create a stir in London; and conversely, politics and the public opinion in London were no less decisive for the course of the war than the assaults on Sevastopol. A few decades earlier, during the Napoleonic campaigns, such close contact by mail would still have been impossible. The flow of information, particularly between the government and the army, was so dense and fast that the incompetent military leaders of the Crimean campaign – in anticipation of our modern-day experiences in Iraq and Vietnam – became the object of parliamentary investigating committees even while the war still raged on.
The inscription of the war front in the home front, by the way, took on the highly sensational form of big-city spectacles ranging from panorama paintings to pyrotechnical explosions. Historically seen, this show business can be traced back to the massive expansion of art consumption in the late 18th century. At the time, commercially-minded painters stopped doing small cabinet paintings for individual customers and began producing huge grandiose canvases, panoramas and dioramas which were enlivened by interludes with actors and could be viewed for hours against an admission fee. They functioned somewhat like a cinema. The Great Globe in London, for instance, displayed (Ill. 4) a huge relief model of the siege of Sebastopol that included original firearms and uniforms. Fashionably dressed ladies and gentlemen could intrepidly examine the terrain of the siege and authentic firearms taken from the enemy.
Ill. 4 + 5
In addition, theatrical battles were fought at night around almost life-size replicas of the bastions in Sevastopol in amusement parks such as Surrey and Cremorne Gardens. Using a bit of imagination, one can see what awaited the visitors in Surrey when looking at this newspaper illustration (Ill. 5). Many months before the actually event, the fall of Sevastopol was staged here as a permanent spectacle. Distinctions between the real and represented theatres of war were blurred, among others, by invalids from Crimea willing to act as themselves every night for a bit of change in the zoo of Surrey. In the end, the result was of epochal significance: While it was clear up until the 19th century that the historical event had precedence over its reproduction, gigantic representation apparatuses and the required capacities were now at hand to make history an epiphenomenon of the metropolitan spectacle. Printing presses and amphitheatres – more generally: the vehicles of cultural production and consumption – always ran at full steam and demanded to be fed before the actual historical events took place; and as soon as they did, they were enacted in prefabricated costumes on stage. In other words: the war that was actually waged was forced into a permanent aesthetic competition with the other wars that were long being performed on the stages of London and Paris.
The historical novelty of the close interlocking of battlefront and home front – which led to the immediate fall of the government in London following the military winter crisis in Crimea – can essentially be seen as the work of a new authority in communication, which had only played a marginal role in Napoleon’s times, namely, the bourgeois press, or to be more precise, press reportage. Newspapers had existed for a long time, but reportages of impartial journalists who were specially sent to the theatres of war began to be published for the first time in the daily papers during the campaign in Crimea. William Russell (Ill. 6) was the most skilful and famous reporter. He worked for the London Times and with his reports on the shockingly bad situation on the battlefield he brought the British government to a fall almost on his own. Weekly illustrated journals, on the other hand, had just been “invented” and immediately made the effort to offer their readers illustrated reports in the authentic and objective style of reportage. Ill. 7 shows a self-portrait of Durand-Brager, who worked for the Parisian “Illustration”. Up to the Crimean War, battlefields had been the domain of fighting troops and commanding generals, the latter always themselves reporting on their gloriously led war to the homeland – even Napoleon still wrote his own battle reports. Now, with the press reporters obliged to purely factual observation, a totally new profession took up its work, no longer only commemorating the events of the time in retrospect, but communicating them almost simultaneously in daily to weekly instalments to a broad public and portraying them as ongoing, still open events that could be influenced.
A sketch by Constantin Guys shows how illustrated reportage functioned and what it meant to his contemporaries (Ill. 8). It depicts General Canrobert, despite a wounded arm, coolly inspecting the battle of Inkerman on November 5, 1854. Postal delivery to London took two weeks, the ornamental realization of the wood engraving on the right (Ill. 9) in the “Illustrated London News” took a further week, but compared to the historical paintings of a Leonardo or Velázquez which lagged years and decades behind the event, we see an almost simultaneous illustrated document reflecting the enormous acceleration of history in the 19th century. The word “document” is deliberately chosen here. “Taken on the spot”, Guys wrote under his sketch, and when Baudelaire later saw it, the remark filled him with deep respect. Such professionally produced and attested picture authority had not existed until then. Viewers today will find Baudelaire’s emotional response strange, since we are used to deeming only photographs to be realistic. Photography already existed in Baudelaire’s times, but it still had numerous technical deficiencies. It was not an optical apparatus but the human eye that guaranteed the truth of the reportage illustrations to Baudelaire. It was the eye of a great virtuoso of observing the events of the day.
The cavalry officer Constantin Guys had become known in Paris for his accounts of the visual attractions of big-city life from the perspective of the flâneur. The brilliance of his quickly executed boulevard sketches prompted Baudelaire to celebrate him as the discoverer of “modern life” in an essay later dealing with the Impressionists – and indeed, Manet followed in Guys’ footsteps with paintings such as the “Concert in the Tuileries”. Two watercolours (Ill. 10, 11) clearly reveal Guys’ rapid style consisting in quickly capturing fleeting metropolitan scenes from a pointedly accidental, subjective perspective. In Nadar’s view, Guys discovered the snapshot even before photography. However, the nervous, spontaneous stroke keeps the scenes in an oscillating motion, which the time-arresting camera until today cannot reproduce. Guys keeps everything in motion, and the tireless flow of events is also the overarching metaphor with which he depicted big-city life.
The sketch shown in Ill. 11 was made in the streets of Istanbul in 1854 when Guys was on his way to Crimea to witness the war as a picture reporter for the “Illustrated London News”. He came upon a whole host of motifs behind the lines and along the supply routes (Ill. 12, 13), which he visualized in analogy to the hustle and bustle in the boulevards of Paris or Istanbul following the mentioned metaphor of inexhaustible flowing: At the bottom right, a column of captured Russians approaches us – a spectacle expertly appreciated by mounted officers who in this picture have replaced the Parisian flâneurs. At the top a fleet of supplies, which one sees approaching from the left and disappearing again in the right background – the beginning and the end of the procession is formed by an almost circular pattern of endless undulation and flowing. The subject is further pursued (Ill. 14) in the next sketch depicting the expulsion of the Greek population from the supply harbour of Balaklava. We again see a crowd at once approaching and already leaving again, without a recognizable destination. The procession comes and goes without lingering.
Guys inscribed himself precisely in the middle, at the turning point of ebb and flow, so to speak. He is the one on horseback addressed from out of the throng by a priest. This results in a double perspective – and that is significant. Guys lets us know that he has experienced the exodus in the crowd, but he draws his reportage picture from an elevated ideal perspective. One often finds this double perspective in his Crimea sketches – for example, in the encounter between the Turkish sultan and the British field marshal
(Ill. 15), again captured by Guys in an empirically inaccessible ideal view, but with the note that he himself observed the events from a totally different angle, for he is the man under the tree at the edge of the scene. So instead of the pointedly subjective-accidental, partial view, which characterized his Parisian sheets, Guys preferred to depict important Crimean subjects from an overarching total perspective that integrated different individual aspects, however, always indicating where he actually stood. This makes his reportage illustration publicly relevant, documentary reports enriched with additional observations, which he made afterwards or was given an account of by other eyewitnesses. Guys, then, does not define historical objectivity in a narrow positivistic way as that which he empirically registered as an eyewitness on site; instead – in anticipation of present-day views – he presents it as a recognizable, synthetic construction that the viewer can reflect on. Guys had been an “historien des mœurs” in Paris, but he was flexible enough to redefine himself in Crimea as a producer of irrefutable, judicable picture documents, something that mattered to the English press. How clear this specific British reportage ethos was to him, was already revealed in 1847 when Guys intended to win over his French colleague Gavarni as an illustration reporter for the Illustrated London News and reminded him: “Always remember that this is not an art journal but a serious newspaper dedicated to the facts.”
However, Guys also made less carefully composed sketches that were created in the heat of the moment. They include, among others, this (Ill. 16) brilliant sheet depicting the attack of the English light cavalry against the impregnable Russian artillery positions, in which two thirds of the brigade was killed. It was a crazy operation based on misunderstandings and celebrated in England as the epitome of heroism. One can still discern the creases on the paper from being folded and sent to London, and one also sees the explanatory text and figure insertions meant to make it easer for the engraver in London to transfer the drawing to the relief plate – although the published engraving (bottom right) can only be understood as a coarse parody of the situation.
Shortly after this battle, it became clear that one could not reckon with a quick outcome of the war. Arrangements were made to spend the winter in the trenches surrounding Sevastopol, and serious efforts to conquer the city were postponed until the following spring. The reporting artists left Crimea to spend the eventless winter in Istanbul and thus missed the greatest sensation, or rather, greatest tragedy that the Crimean War was to bring about. For the British general staff proved to be unable to transport the amply available supplies of winter clothing and rations to the front, and expecting that this would be a war without wounds, no medical provisions were made. The result was the almost complete annihilation of the British army within just a few winter weeks – not by Russian fire but on account of hunger, typhus and death from exposure. After the picture reporters had left, only Russell’s written reports reached England, yet they were alarming enough for the “London Times” to demand the government to step down, which it did in late January.
During this critical phase, the “Illustrated London News” had to manage without illustrations from the front. Guys was ordered to return to Crimea immediately, but weeks passed before he received the order and it also took time to find room on a ship. So by the time his sketches were published in London, winter was almost over. Nevertheless, the “Illustrated London News” with an effective pictorial plea contributed to toppling the government
(Ill. 17). For in January, the first invalids returned to London from Crimea, and the portrait of a man with an amputated leg accompanied by an accusing text was published during the days of crisis. This exemplarily makes evident the potential of reportage that, in contrast to historical painting which on principle lags years behind, shows contemporaneous events to be ongoing and changeable. The armed battles on the front were compounded by media battles on the home front that turned out to be no less decisive. Where political rulers had once possessed a far-reaching monopoly on opinions and images, a pluralistic situation now evolved in which different social groups and interests could articulate themselves. A proof of this polyphony of opinions and images is, among others, the major journalistic offensive that Queen Victoria started against the critical bourgeois press in February by making perfectly staged visits to the war hospitals (Ill. 18), the patients of which later stated that now they knew what they had shed their blood for. The Queen’s intervention re-established in the public opinion a very patriotic view of affairs loyal to the government. The situation was temporarily saved for the war-waging aristocratic elite which had utterly failed on the battlefield.
With some delay, the drawings that Guys had made in the trenches also appeared in newspapers. Among them, views of everyday life in the trenches (Ill. 19), where the officers wore warm clothes and were characterized by self-confident body language, while the common soldiers froze in the corners. The ratio of losses between officers and lance corporals during battles in the field was 1 to 15, but 1 to 1,000 in trench warfare. Only common soldiers went hungry, froze and died. This is also addressed in the pictures (Ill. 20) of the pitiful emergency transports of English invalids from the front to the supply harbour of Balaklava, which in typical Guys-style form an endless stream – but this time a stream of suffering that shattered the audience at home and contributed to the British army being perfectly provided for the next winter. Here (Ill. 21) is a further sketch of the winter crisis. In this case, the contrasting marching lines of the officers and the other ranks also addresses a social contradiction. However, Guys did not visit the atrocious hospitals for the soldiers coming from Crimea, of which the largest and most murderous were located in a district of Istanbul easily accessible to him. Besides, the horror of these charnel-houses was beyond visual or verbal description. The “Illustrated London News” dealt with the topic in a single, purely fictive picture fabricated in London (Ill. 22), depicting Florence Nightingale with her legendary lamp during her visitation of invalids, of whom she, the most outstanding leader personality of the entire war, was able to save only very few.
Matters were different in the French army and press, although factually sound illustrated reportages flourished here as well, despite imperial censorship. The majority of these drawings were made by Henri
Durand-Brager for L’Illustration. As a marine officer, Durand-Brager’s full-time occupation consisted in reconnaissance. His numerous drawings of Russian coastal installations and positions around Sevastopol were meant for the military, but many were also passed on to the illustrated press along with additional accounts of life in the camps. So Durand-Brager was a true military expert, and none of the many artists who made their way to Crimea at the time were as familiar as he with the trenches and batteries (Ill. 23), which in the form of highly detailed wood engravings after his drawings filled many pages of L’Illustration. In terms of objectivity, there is little to be desired, yet as visual information on the complex reality of the war they prove to be surprisingly useless, especially compared with Guys. In the mass of details relating to the technicalities of the siege, to topography and chronology, decisive aspects of the socially, politically, and militarily complex phenomenon of the Crimean War are seldom to be found.
France was hardly familiar with British-style factual reportages at the time, and to preclude false expectations, Durand-Brager repeatedly pointed out that his illustrated reports had nothing to do with genre painting and did not intend to meet any artistic demands: “What I do belongs to the area of history and not fantasy,” he once wrote to the editors, “and based on the collected [picture] documents, the readers can precisely reconstruct the operations of the siege army.” Yet as proud as he was of the objectivity of his drawings, one can show, especially in regard to the second winter of the war in 1855/56, that they concealed more than they revealed.
Without further clashes, Sevastopol, conquered in September of 1855, only needed to be held until the foreseeable peace treaty was signed. Since the French army camped at close quarters in wet, unhygienic dugouts, this second winter turned out to be just as catastrophic for the French as the first winter was for the English army. Therefore, Durand-Brager would have had more than enough topics for Guys-style reportages on the horrific circumstances in the camps, but even if he considered reporting in a critical manner, censorship made it impossible. Otherwise, there were few important events to report on, and thus – paradoxically – predominantly warm-hearted, humorous contributions of his were published under the title “Types and Physiognomies of the Oriental Army” (Ill. 24). He had announced these genre accounts as early as March 1855 with the painterly frontispiece shown on the left, but the “prologue” dealing with amusing experiences on the ship voyage to the front is from the end of 1855, the same time when the large cholera and typhus epidemics spread in the French camp, to which L’Illustration dedicated not a single word or illustration. The series ends in 1857, after the peace treaty, with a series of illustrations on the topic of trench warfare.
In between one can find many typological studies, including the “enthusiast” to the left and the “critical raisonneur” to the right in Ill. 25.
The coincidence of epidemic disaster and amusing journalistic type studies may have been unplanned, but the basic affinity of censorship in the press and the genre of “physiognomy” is doubtless and possesses concrete historical roots: When Louis-Philippe abolished the freedom of the press shortly after it had been granted in 1830 and banned (illustrated) criticism of the government, political graphics had to switch to general genre-style criticism leading to the popular genre of “physiognomy”, which in the case of Daumier proved to have an impact in regard to social criticism, but was otherwise usually carried out in an affirmative and conciliatory fashion. Durand-Brager’s attitude becomes evident enough (Ill. 26) when looking at the many soldiers who do not die from exposure or get torn to pieces in the trenches but play boules or in the hail of bullets mourn at most over the loss of a bottle of wine. Here and there an ambulance episode is also shown
(Ill. 27) as well as one or two reverent death scenes. Yet there is no trace of the originally announced account to be given of the military hospitals, apart from the snug example on the bottom right – if these pictures existed at all, the editors held them back. Adhering to such good conduct, Durand-Brager’s sketches came close to the literary genre of the military novel that was promoted under Napoleon III. with the intention of improving the army’s reputation, which was damaged since Waterloo, and to court sympathy for the self-sacrificing and droll French soldiers.
With enough said on the illustrated reportage of the Crimean War period, I now continue with a few remarks on photography. The camera naturally claimed to capture the events more faithfully than any draughtsman, but it ultimately proved to be as easy to manipulate as when using a pencil or brush; it was additionally handicapped due to the fact that a method to tonally reproduce photos in print did not yet exist. As you can see in the example on the left, the illustrated papers only published linear reproductions of engravings until the end of the 19th century. Only at around 1900 was the autotype process advanced to such an extent that it enabled photographic-tonal reproductions in high-circulation newspapers – as the picture on the left from the First World War shows. Moreover, the exposure times were around ten seconds per photograph, so that movements could not be shot – but war consists of movement.
This entails that during the Crimean War the camera could not be used as an instrument of journalistic reportage. Roger Fenton, Queen Victoria’s personal photographer who in 1855 arrived in Crimea with a darkroom wagon unsuitable for war and a royal letter of recommendation, is said to have done the first photographic war reportage in history, but he pursued two highly traditional aims that had nothing to do with press. His first objective was to give a topographical overview of the theatre of war with his photos. He didn’t even reject decoratively adding cannonballs to suggest dangers that never existed (Ill. 28, 29), since Fenton came no closer to the trench system of Sevastopol than half a kilometre – he never entered the actual war zone where the shooting took place and soldiers died.
His second main project, commissioned by Queen Victoria, consisted in creating a portrait gallery of the general staff near Sevastopol that included (Ill. 30) Captain Burnaby, who had himself properly photographed with a servant, a Nubian cook and horses, and the Duke of Cambridge, who like so many others involved in the Crimean War had his photo taken only in London. In regard to the celebrated assault of the light cavalry, Fenton had nothing other to offer, compared with Guys’ spontaneous and dynamic sketch, than a static assembly of survivors. As the title says, the group of generals in Ill. 39 is the “War Council of the three Allied Chiefs of Command on the Morning of the (Successful) Conquest of the Mamelon Fortress”, an important Russian outwork. In this case, the camera does seem to possess the ability to synchronously and authentically capture a significant war event – but upon closer examination, historical certainty evaporates. There was indeed a meeting to prepare the attack on the Russian outwork, but it was held three days earlier and attended by 17 engineers and artillery officers. Fenton’s picture proves that the three commanders-in-chief came together exclusively, but it is known that this was 24 hours before the attack.
The manner in which the generals appear in the photo shows that they made themselves available to the photographer for a few minutes for medial purposes and were willing to play “council of war” under his direction.
So much for the highly acclaimed authenticity of historical photographs.
Other portraits by Fenton show that his visit to Crimea was never conceived as a reportage endeavour, but from the onset served the purposes of an art project. For the art dealer Agnew financed Fenton’s trip to Crimea only to come into the possession of portrait photos which the painter Thomas Barker then used to create a painting of the generals assembled outside Sevastopol (Ill. 32). The photos and the painting were sold without a profit worth mentioning – but the engraving after the painting was brought on the market in a large edition during the war years, and Andrew made the then enormous profit of 1,000 pounds sterling. The row of Fenton’s photos below were all integrated in Barker’s canvas. Hence, photography merely functioned here as a “maid of art”, as was said at the time. But art, or rather the once leading and highly respected genre of historical painting, was on the decline, since the painting’s sole purpose was to weave photographic picture data to a composition without a plot and otherwise used only a pretext for the production of cheap engravings marketed on a massive scale. The Crimean War was the biggest moment for press reportage in regard to drawing. Photography already played a subordinate role and was soon to outstrip drawing. Historical painting, on the other hand, was on the retreat and a short while later completely disappeared as a medium relating contemporary history.
This brings me to the end of my overview of the pictorial history of the Crimean War. It has become clear that the illustrated journals that emerged in the 1840s made the Crimean War the first armed conflict that was conveyed almost simultaneously to an urban mass audience; it can therefore be counted as the first “media war” in history. Finally, this leads to the question of which connections can be made from Crimea to the Gulf, as the scene of the most recent media wars. A few remarks need to be made particularly on the topic of highlighting or concealing. As mentioned,
Durand-Brager avoided the theme of death and wounds as far as he could, and there is also not a single dead or injured person among Fenton’s 360 Crimean photographs. In contrast, Guys directed great attention to the issue of caring for the wounded during the winter crisis, but what is otherwise to be found, here too, are merely stereotyped references to the human costs of war, e.g., in the partially shown illustration in which he portrays himself on the day after bloody fighting walking across the battlefield full of corpses (top). Apart from French censorship, unwritten rules of tactfulness, a matter of course for the paper-reading bourgeoisie, still prevailed and prevented the exploitation of war atrocities in pictures. But just eight years later, the American Civil War suddenly led to huge numbers of snapshots of soldiers not only killed in action but also terribly maimed. Among them is a picture from the series of photos depicting corpses, which Gardner und O’Sullivan took right after the fighting ended on the battlefield of Gettysburg. Once the burials had taken place and no more corpses were available, the photographers hurried home to lucratively market their “Bloody Harvest”
(the title of the picture). There was no room for tact here. The photographs were taken for an anonymous, metropolitan, mass audience that hardly had personal ties to the combatants and only sought to satisfy their unrestrained curiosity with the depictions of military violence.
In addition to censorship and concealment, voyeurism emerges as a further permanent memorial of modern war culture cultivated by the capitalistic illustrated press. If enough societal pressure existed, war victims were respectfully concealed; but where there was no such pressure, the way was open to sensationalistic exploitation. The latter tendency seems to be less predominant than generally presumed. The photos from the American Civil War were regarded as an epitome of “modernity” in their direct depictions of the violent destruction of the human body and are shocking until this day. But as the strict censorship commencing a short time later proves, the modernity lies not in exposing but in disguising violence. Brady’s and Gardner’s horrific Civil War photos can be considered an “accident” in an era that had not gained much experience with photographs and their potential in the media.
While the reproduction capacities in the 20th century have massively increased, total visualization has paradoxically led to an aestheticization and masking of violence through the gesture of displaying violence. Unvarnished, sensationalistic images of violence have been pushed more and more into regions of the media with a “low-brow” status. Among other things, it was the technological development of camera, printing and layout methods that freed war photography from the image rawly and clinically capturing shocking imagery, like that from Gettysburg in 1863. The easier it was to manipulate photographs with filters and lenses, and the more sophisticated their embedment in narrative patterns of reading became, the more photos mutated from frightening evidence to narrative fiction. A telling example of this is David Duncan’s Korea reportage from December 1950 (Ill. 33), when U.S. troops were on the retreat involving heavy losses across the Asian desert of snow. With a brilliant text and layout, LIFE Magazine turned it into a Christmas story imparting no information whatsoever on the problems and human costs of this crisis, but instead stirring the hearts of the population gathered round the Christmas tree and establishing loving family ties to the troops in the snow. In this case, the illustrated press gave up the once convincingly made claim to critical testimony and instead involved the audience in an exciting film drama. Guys gave us a winter reportage (Ill. 20), and Duncan now comes up with a winter fairy-tale.
A few years later, reports on Vietnam were already shaped by television which, however, unexpectedly made use of its filmic-narrative potential to incessantly bring on TV the unpopular Asian colonial war in a realistic and bloody way. The government did not succeed in controlling the TV station, whose enervating programmes again led to a kind of medial “accident”. Having learned from Vietnam, Pentagon then made all efforts to present the first Gulf War in the media without any blood at all. Journalistic reportage and fact-finding of all sorts were prevented. In shelters far from the front, reporters viewed the same meaningless Pentagon films of signal rockets at night that were broadcast to Saddam in Baghdad and Bush in Washington. In the video films that CBS and CNN compiled from their evening reports after the war, bloodshed was only seen in inserted clips from Vietnam that were meant to appropriately highlight Bush’s groundbreaking war without losses – for only 149 Americans were killed in action. The 100,000 killed Iraqis fell under the category of “enemy dead” and were thus of no consequence.
To counteract the mistrust of the Arab allies, the news in pictures of the second Gulf War were not kept as bloodless as twelve years earlier, but due to progress in the culture of digital image media it became possible to stage long phases of the second Gulf War as a kind of exciting video game for boys and others young at heart. What precisely applied to this video game is what was already said about show business during the Crimean War: On an electronic level, the Gulf War existed long before it began and it will continue long after it’s over; amidst the innumerable preludes and sequels possessing huge entertainment value, the horrendous war events themselves can no longer be found. When entering the search term “Gulf War” on the Internet today, numerous image hits are offered; some are serious, some are video games, but they are in fact interchangeable, because both pursue the perfidious strategy of turning war into bloodless techno entertainment.
Yet one must concede that, in the end, our astounding video culture does not function without slips either. If CDs with the notorious Abu Guraib photos could circulate for weeks without Rumsfeld or Bush having seen a copy, the thorough, total management of image news has evidently not yet succeeded. This would be a very optimistic forecast, if one wouldn’t have to shudder at the content of further medial accidents. Disguising violence is as unbearable as its exploitation. We have quite a lot to expect from both forms and have probably seen very little from the genre of war images until now.
When looking back from our digital phantom world to the times of reportages on the Crimean War, their graphic achievements still untouched by mechanical automatisms can be understood in a new way. Guys and his contemporaries were engaged in reportage as a project of personal observation, assimilation and communication, and – as we have seen – some of these reportages take on the form of direct interventions in a course of events presented in the press as open, unfinished and still changeable. It would be hard to find parallels in today’s airtight event and media management. Of course, the reporters of the 1850s were assisted by war events that, one the one hand, were technologically still so simply structured and easily accessible, and on the other – at least on the side of the British – to a large extent uncensored by the liberally educated generals, that individually responsible and critically reflecting witnessing could be practiced to a degree that today appears enviable.
This text is a revised version of Ulrich Keller's contribution to the Melton Prior Institute's conference ("The Importance of Drawing in the Early Media Wars") at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf on May 6, 2007. The author's excellent book on the Crimean War (The Ultimate Spectacle: A Visual History of the Crimean War, Amsterdam a.o.: Gordon & Breach, 2001) also contains an extensive bibliography.
Ulrich Keller teaches in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of California, Santa Barbara.