Can War Photography Be Beautiful?

David Shields’s book on the moral complications of aesthetic enjoyment

Photo: Kevin Dooley

Imagine you’re reading the front page of the New York Times (in paper) some May morning in 2008. A story, below the fold, about a new world record in swimming catches your eye — or, rather, the accompanying photograph does. A swimmer’s head, shoulders, and arms are shown in profile, crashing through blue pool water. You trace the contours of his musculature and his swim cap; you note the perfect timing of the moment, the frozen white froth of splash around him. A band of yellow pool floats frames the bottom of the image; a line of red floats stretches behind his midsection; two blue lines recede further back. The swimmer almost seems to be emblazoned on a flag, amid these horizontal stripes of color. The photo is quite beautiful.

Flipping the page over, you see another photograph. A man with an olive complexion lies dead on a broad pile of rubble. There is deep red blood on his mouth and wrist, and a bright yellow blanket partially draped over one leg. Cradling him is another man, shirtless, his face buried in the dead man’s chest. At mid-ground, two green-fatigued soldiers observe the scene. The four main figures form a pyramidal shape, which is bisected by a long felled rod, bringing a nice symmetry to the image. The blood, and the blanket, and the deep blue of the mourner’s jeans pop off the page, and set these front-most figures apart from the bland grays and browns of the background. This photo is also quite beautiful.

A photograph always has dual citizenship: as a piece of documentation of the physical world, on the one hand, and as a visual object with aesthetic traits on the other. Even the most functional photo — a mug shot, say — can be appreciated for its framing, its colors, the look in the eye of the person it captures. Likewise, even the most abstract pure-art photos are documentary, too — a piece of the real world is reflected in them, post-production modification notwithstanding. Viewing a photo, then, is always both an informational experience, and one with the potential for pleasure.

Finding aesthetic enjoyment in the wet body of Michael Phelps on the front page of the Times in May 2008 poses little in the way of moral quandaries. It’s when the subject matter is something horrific, something tragic, something with actual human cost — a Georgian man killed by a Russian airstrike, being hopelessly gripped by his grieving relative — that finding beauty in an image, even taking pleasure in it, becomes troublesome.

The latest book from bestselling author and ever-polarizing cultural agitator David Shields is called War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict. It is an anti-Times polemic of very few words; the coffee-table critique consists largely of 53 arresting, full-color war photographs culled from the near-thousand that have been published on the front page of the paper from the period 2001 (the invasion of Afghanistan) to 2013. Shields — turning his sights to the journalistic establishment from his usual foe, the literary establishment — argues in a short introduction that, by publishing these photos, the Times has “glorified war through an unrelenting parade of beautiful images whose function is to sanctify the accompanying descriptions of battle, death, destruction, and displacement.” He divided the photos among ten chapters based around “certain visual tropes” that he found repeated as he browsed the archive: chapter titles include “Pieta,” “God,” and “Movie.” (Shields teaches creative writing at the University of Washington, my alma mater; I worked as his research assistant and have kept in touch with him.)

Shields put the book together after years of reading the paper of record every morning, going from being “entranced” by the frequently stunning war photography, to feeling “a mixture of rapture, bafflement, and repulsion.” “The Times’ photographic aesthetic,” as he terms it, is one of “epic grandeur,” reminiscent of the Iliad: heroic, sumptuous, and all in service of perpetuating a nationalistic “program.” “The Times uses its front-page war photographs to convey that a chaotic world is ultimately under control, encased within amber. In so doing, the paper of record promotes its institutional power as protector/curator of death-dealing democracy.”

The photos in the book do seem to support Shields’s rather skeptical assessment of the Times­. In the chapter titled “Nature,” one photo shows an American soldier meditatively pacing through a field of luminous pink poppies. Another soldier, in chapter “Father,” sits cross-legged and tenderly holds a small child wrapped in a tattered, bloodstained pink sweater. Even the corpses in the “Death” chapter seem at peace, dirt covering their skin in soft, glowing patinas of yellow.

Aside from the chapter headings and a few accompanying epigrams, there is no text on these pages. The gesture works because, stripped of the authoritative textual scaffolding of Page A1, we must look at the pictures for what they are, purely unto themselves: thoroughly aesthetic, painstakingly composed, and undeniably beautiful. But at the end of this silent, exquisite conflict-safari one arrives at a startling afterword by art critic Dave Hickey. Actually, Hickey says, the problem is not that the Times is beautifying war. The problem is that they’re trying to beautify war, and failing. Badly.

The central deception of the Times’ photographic aesthetic, writes Hickey, is that it is so heavily influenced by the visual conventions of the “Western pictorial tradition” that it is no longer representative of messy reality. “The photos in this book have grown old and familiar,” he writes. “They are no longer ‘lifelike,’ but rather ‘picture-like.’ The dense pictorial references preempt any hint of verisimilar-punch.” If the photos don’t shock us, it isn’t just because they’re beautiful; it’s because they look more like Baroque paintings than photographic exposures of an actually existing world full of actually existing war. While it was the seductive resplendence of the photos that bothered Shields, Hickey — like a good art critic — is too distracted by the overly obvious, derivative compositions to even be seduced.

For instance: One particularly “nicely balanced picture” — in which Uday Hussein’s smashed grand piano lies in rubble as two American soldiers climb an ornate spiral staircase in the background — is, says Hickey, “available in a hundred variations at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” (Not by accident, this photo is found in the chapter titled “Painting.”) Elsewhere, you can find “a Rodin of two kneeling marines in a flat field.” Looking further, he says:

There is a field of flowers cropped to look like a neo “field painting.” There are three soldiers in silver light firing off shoulder-fired weapons — echoing Warhol’s Elvis paintings. There is a photograph taken in a fabric market with vertical panels of designed fabric — a flat, Robert Rauschenberg rip-off. There are two shell casings photographed from above that evoke Jasper Johns beer cans. There is a Dennis Hopper photograph of a beach, shot from the waterline with an empty chair and water bottle in the center and a line of palms and low buildings in the background. It could be Santa Monica, where I grew up.

Nowhere does Hickey call these photos “beautiful.” Rather, he refers to them as “Beaux Arts pantomimes”; “corporate folk art”; “Connecticut-living-room trash.”

The force of Shields’ decision to group the photos by “trope” is now felt in its full power: looking back through the book after reading Hickey’s essay, the tropes are all that’s left. If these were real people at some point, we can now see only generic characters; if these photos are movie stills, they’re all from bad movies. Even the image of the dead Georgian man is now suffused with a mass-manufactured sentimentality. The formal properties of the photograph — the angle, the framing, etc. — transform a tragedy into a cheesy Hollywood death scene. We wonder what the dead man’s poorly written last words were. We discover, finally, that it’s not that the Times has made war beautiful. It’s that it’s made it kitsch.

Shields’s inclusion of Hickey’s short, essential argument should have posed a major question for the book’s many critics, most of whom charged it with oversimplifying the project of war photography. Multiple reviewers have pointed out that war is not just violence, but is also filled with the kind of benign, dreamy moments chronicled in the book: soldiers playing baseball, or visiting Times Square, or getting a pat on the head from George W. Bush. “An accurate version of the totality of war has to show its many faces,” wrote Bryan Schatz in Mother Jones. “In truth, war may not be beautiful,” said Jordan G. Teicher in The New Republic, “but not every moment in a war zone is horrifying either.” True enough. Yet these critiques rest on the belief that Shields is simply calling for more horror — for war porn. They also understand the book to be addressing only the content of these photographs, and not their form. Both notions are wrong.

But then what is the book really saying? Is it that, as Shields suggests in his title and introduction, that the Times, as part of a tacit program of sanitizing state aggression abroad, is glamorizing war through its beautification? Or is it what Hickey writes — that the Times photos are actually aesthetic failures, morally dubious not because they beautify war but because they make it look so absurdly, surreally tacky?

The answer, of course, can only be some version of “both.” I was curious what Shields was going to say about all this at the book’s launch event in New York last November, particularly when an audience member inevitably asked the question no reviewer of the book has failed to ask: what should New York Times photographs look like, if not this? Despite being obvious, the question is crucial, particularly given the dense ambiguity the Shields-Hickey conundrum churns up. Shields responded by saying that providing this alternative was not the project of the book. However, he offered, “there is a much more hard-won aestheticism that the Times, in my view, could struggle with in a more muscular way.”

This desire for a “hard-won aestheticism,” whatever that might mean, seemed to me to be the hidden core of War Is Beautiful — the synthesis of Shield’s introduction, Hickey’s afterword, and the collection of photos itself. Seeking some clarification, I reached Shields via Skype to ask if he could explain what he meant by that phrase.

“I think the book happily embodies that contradiction,” Shields said. “On the one hand, I’m saying these pictures are too, too beautiful. On the other hand, I’m saying they’re not beautiful enough. But I think about the Picasso line: ‘the enemy of great art is good taste.’ That seems to me a terribly useful way of seeing it, in the sense that these pictures are really exquisitely, repellently tasteful.”

The idea of “taste” is actually much more germane here than “beauty”; commitment to “good taste,” meaning acceptable taste, is what directly produces the Connecticut living-room trash Hickey rails against. In fact, Shields said, “beauty” is precisely what these photos fail to capture. “I think people want to try and get me into a position of saying that somehow I’m against beauty,” he said. “It’s not as if I want to say that King Lear isn’t about violence and beautifully so, or Picasso’s Guernica isn’t about violence and beautifully so. I think people want to place me as a kind of Plato trying to banish the poets from the Republic — I don’t want any beauty, I don’t want any art. That’s not my position.” He continued:

It’s basically the Keats line: truth is beauty, beauty is truth, there’s nothing more to say. And to me, great art is incredibly beautiful, and the way it’s beautiful is it’s shot through with incredible truth-telling. This might be terribly old fashioned. But to me, the way the Times errs is that they have a really surface beauty, and it’s not truly beautiful because there’s no wrenching truth-telling beneath it. These might be very old fashioned, almost universalist terms, but that’s kind of the way that I see it. These pictures are falsely beautiful, like plastic flowers. They’d be more beautiful in the true sense of great art or great journalism, poetic journalism, if they aspired to tell more human truths.

“I think I’m making a relatively coherent case,” he concluded. “It’s, war is, quote, beautiful.”

Shields also finally answered the question of what war photography should look like. He named two photos he thinks achieved truth-telling beauty: the two most iconic images from the Vietnam War, by Nick Ut and Eddie Adams. “Those pictures are, to me, stunningly beautiful,” he said. “They accomplish journalistic art.” It’s not that they’re just more violent, or less carefully composed, than the photos in War Is Beautiful: it’s that they manage, according to Shields, to be more beautiful, despite — or, rather, because of — a deeper commitment to truth, in all its often-gory vividness. One can debate Shields’ assessments here. Hickey would probably make the point from the perspective of formal composition, of perspective and symmetry. But, looking at the Vietnam photos side-by-side with those in War Is Beautiful, one can’t help but be struck by a profound difference, one not merely reducible to different eras and different styles. It feels as though something is accessed in the Vietnam photos that just isn’t in the Times photos. It feels like the difference between good and bad art.

Beauty — or, at least, “beauty” — can sanitize and sanctify. But in its most rigorous, piercing, brutally head-on form, it can also force us to see. The false beauty of the Times photos attracts our gaze, seduces our sensibilities, even gives us a tingle of transient pleasure. But it does not do what truly beautiful war photography does: puncture us pitilessly with the immediacy of the real. Shields’ title is, finally, not ironic. War is, or can be, beautiful. And it is to be relentlessly looked at until it’s over.

Joseph Henry Staten lives in New York via Seattle. He’s written for Noisey, the Stranger, and elsewhere. He’s on Twitter.