What’s A Picture Really Worth?

I was writing about this photo today for a piece Kris and I are working on…

Frequently, the Mississippian in the foreground gets cropped from the picture in order to make the image more “viewer-friendly.” The corpse, dirty—perhaps bloody—is twisted at an awkward angle and sprawled across the ditch. Toward the center of the photo, another body lies in a heap, but it looks nearly indistinguishable from the blankets and bedrolls scattered around it, so it’s not nearly as uncomfortable to look at as the body in the foreground is.

With the body gone, this becomes a more generic photo of the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg and, as such, can serve multiple purposes. There is, after all, a lot of interesting detritus and debris to look at. The photo captures the desolation of war. The place it captures is iconic.

Most people who look at the photo don’t know that it was taken by Andrew J. Russell on May 3, 1863 following the Battle of Second Fredericksburg—not after the more famous Battle of (First) Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862. Most people who see the cropped version of the photo don’t even realize that a dead Mississippian has been cropped out. They see a story and think they know the story they’re seeing. For illustrative purposes, perhaps that’s enough.

But it always bothers me when we prefer the sanitized version of history over the messy version. It bothers me when we consider a body expendable in any way. That soldier from Mississippi had a mother somewhere…perhaps a wife…perhaps kids. To make him a casualty of our modern sense of aesthetics or comfort seems like a small-scale travesty. After all, I’m sure he’d have thought being dead wasn’t such a great idea, either—but he didn’t have a choice about it.

Russell and his fellow photographers were documenting history in all its ugliness. They were, as The New York Times famously said of the photos of Antietam’s dead, laying the war at our very footsteps. If it’s unpleasant to look at, even after 150 years, then perhaps that’s all the more reason to take a long, long look.

13 Responses to What’s A Picture Really Worth?

  1. Your readers might enjoy seeing an old post from my “Spotsylvania Civil War Blog”. I spent several months in 2004 determining the location of Russell’s camera and the bodies. The rebuilding of the stone wall helped to solidify this as well as the kind assistance of wet plate photographer Robert Szabo. Bob came out to the site and we were able to reproduce Russell’s image on the exact location, with the original process, 141 years and 7 months after Russell. To be honest with you, it was an eerie experience. Here is the link to my April 20010 post: http://spotsylvaniacw.blogspot.com/2010/04/sunken-road-and-captain-russells.html

  2. Yes, that soldier portrayed in the photo was a “person” just like the soldiers in Iraq and Afganistan who have been killed and found mutilated from bombs. No matter what photos have been shown about the horrors of war from the Civil War onward, we look at them curiously but never really learn the harsh reality of what they really portray–man’s inhumanity to man.

    1. I’m afraid that the distance of time objectifies those poor guys, too. And of course, the government controls who’s able to see the bodies of dead servicemen today, so even though we have more media than ever, there’s very little we get to actually SEE.

  3. An additional point I would suggest, since you mention the body closest to the camera being, “twisted at an awkward angle and sprawled across the ditch”, is that the body was in all likelihood, manipulated to make a more effective image, by the photographer or an assistant. The way I see the lower extremities suggests that he was originally lying in the ditch lengthwise, with his head pointing south, toward the Hall house. The body was probably covered with the white cloth that seems to wrap under his head and back. Someone took a peek under the covering, saw how grim he looked and pulled the upper body around, probably by grabbing the accounterment shoulder belt, thus creating the strange, twisted appearance. This would explain how and why the feet and lower legs point northward, while his upper body is propped up on the curved wall of the ditch..

    1. Wouldn’t be the first time, of course, that a body was repositioned to make a “better” picture. It’s interesting that today’s ethical standards would prohibit that kind of manipulation as being totally taboo from a journalistic point of view, but back then, the standards were a work in progress because the technology of photography was still so relatively new, not to mention its application as a journalistic/documentary tool.

  4. Your post reminded me of the controversy surrounding the famous raising of the Flag at Iwo Jima. Different war, same problems.

  5. One consideration I didn’t mention in the first post, because it’s a different kind of aesthetic issue, is the cracked upper-left corner. I suspect the photo gets cropped so much as a way to get rid of the “messy” corner. That begs the question, though, whether the documentary power of including the body should take precedence over the “artsier” aesthetic issue.

    Then there’s the necessity of cropping the photo so that it fits a specific size/space, such as an interpretive wayside sign….

  6. Should this image be used to interpret the December battle? Many visitors to Fredericksburg want to see how the terrain appeared before engulfed by urban sprawl. The best primary photos, especially of the approach to Marye’s Heights, were taken later in the war. Do you think a disclaimer is necessary in an informal setting? At the very least it is better than one of the “iconic” images of the Petersburg campaign, still appearing in books and exhibits, being in reality Bully Brooks’ division hunkered down at the Lower Crossing.

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