31 May 2007

Eliciting Poignancy

On Memorial Day The New York Times included this picture by John Moore in a slide show prompted by the holiday. In The Times, the photo carried this caption: "Mary McHugh visited the grave of her fiancé, Sgt. James J. Regan, who was killed in Iraq in February. He is buried in the new Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery for those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan." This is an edited version of the text you find if you track down the photograph in the "editorial" category at Getty Images. There the accompanying text reads:

"War Dead Honored On Memorial Day Weekend

ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 27: Mary McHugh mourns her dead fiance Sgt. James Regan at "Section 60" of the Arlington National Cemetery May 27, 2007. Regan, an American Special Forces soldier, was killed by an IED explosion in Iraq in February of this year, and this was the first time McHugh had visited the grave since the funeral. Section 60, the newest portion of the vast national cemetery on the outskirts of Washington D.C, contains hundreds of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Family members of slain American soldiers have flown in from across the country for Memorial Day. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)"

I find this photograph incredibly poignant and said so in a post - "Grief" - I wrote two days ago. It turns out, though that not just the caption is edited here. The image is too. And I want to think about how the photographer and editors crafted the particular version of the photograph that appeared in The Times. I do so not to call into question Mary McHugh's tragic loss or her deep, abiding sadness, but because I think it is important to understand how this image works to convey some part of that reality.

As The Times presents it, the photograph offers the impression of an isolated moment of sorrow, of a young woman bereft and alone among vast numbers of the dead, among whom is her fiancé. And, for Ms. McHugh this may well have been the case; she may well have been oblivious to any and everything that might have been transpiring around her. She very likely was subsumed in grief. How did John Moore and editors at The Times elicit that situation?

Consider the two photographs of Mary McHugh that John Moore has uploaded onto the Getty Images site (from which I've lifted them). Both carry the same running title:

"War Dead Honored on Memorial Day Weekend" - Image #74345338

"War Dead Honored on Memorial Day Weekend" - Image #74345339

Judging by the consecutive image numbers, Moore apparently took the top picture first, then walked past, behind Ms. McHugh, shifting perspective for the lower one. This move not only highlighted her position perpendicular to the row of grave stones, but allowed Moore to focus solely on Ms. McHugh, excluding nearly all the other grieving individuals and groups who populate the first image. Even so, Ms. McHugh is still not quite alone. Someone, presumably the Photo Editors at The Times, has cropped the photograph, removing what I estimate to be the top 20% of its original height and, in the process, eliminating still other visitors to the cemetery and reducing the distracting vastness of the scene.

Viewing the final image in The Times creates the sensation of witnessing, perhaps of intruding on or interrupting an intensely intimate moment. No doubt the moment captured in the photograph was intensely intimate for Ms. McHugh. No doubt too, the photograph conveys something of that. But it does so only through the judgements and choices of the photographer and his editors. The poignancy here was not "found." It was elicited, evoked, drawn out, and offered to us.

[All images in this post © John Moore/Getty Images]

P.S.: It turns out that James Regan left three sisters behind, so my comparison to the Nachtwey image in my earlier post was not far off base. It turns out also that he was a star lacrosse player and, by all accounts, a terrific young man. This is among the many corners I've walked around lately only to collide with my own son Jeff. It surely makes me want to hug August and Doug all the more.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your kindness to the Times is exemplary, but the fact is that, even in the newspaper of record, there is virtually nothing that is not propaganda.

31 May, 2007 10:54  
Blogger Stan B. said...

Perhaps I'm splitting hairs here, but I think the poignancy is there, though marred by competing visual stimuli- not so much the man in the corner background, as that very distracting balloon. It's almost festive appearance in the full frame view is effectively reduced in the cropped version. Shooting in B&W would have eliminated the balloon's loud, distracting color- as well as the sensuality of the woman's exposed body, in effective contrast to the photo's more solemn theme.

I have no problem with the cropped version in the newspaper, common sense dictates she was not the only mourner there on Memorial Day. Nachtwey was more fortunate in his composition, but then, he usually is.

31 May, 2007 12:42  
Blogger drew said...

The published photo certainly elicits a very specific response. But what your new post makes me think about most is the outtake or alternative shot, the first photo Moore framed and took. Here we're reminded that Memorial Day is a social holiday, not only for picnics and celebrations, but also for the shared mourning of military families, many of whom the unabridged caption informs us gathered at Arlington this last Monday to visit the graves of their loved ones.

That first photo Moore took offers a window into this other side of Memorial Day: lone mourners lost in their own thoughts, small groups gathered together to remember, and still other individuals moving back and forth between the cemetery and the world beyond (and unseen, of course, the photogrpaher himself). This window is less insistent than the one the Times offered on their webpage; but I find it no less moving, and in the end I think it stands as an even more revealing document of our times.

31 May, 2007 13:51  
Blogger drew said...

Having just written the above post, I came upon a link to a story in an Olympia, WA daily about memorial services at Washington state's Fort Lewis military base. It seems that Fort Lewis, and a number of other bases, are having to put an end to individual memorial services for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article quotes an explanatory memo written by the acting commanding general of Fort Lewis: “As much as we would like to think otherwise, I am afraid that with the number of soldiers we now have in harm’s way, our losses will preclude us from continuing to do individual memorial ceremonies.” Instead, a single memorial will be held each month to honor those soldiers killed since the last service. It strikes me that this article offers even more general context to the specific points you've raised about John Moore's Memorial Day photographs.

You can find the article here:


31 May, 2007 14:19  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

George - Everything? I guess I am not quite that skeptical. I agree that their slide show on Memorial Day allows us to avoid looking at returning caskets or mmutilated corpses (military or civilian)or wasted souls who "survive" the war. Nor does it show us much about the picnics and so forth that take up most of our attention most of the weekend.

Stan - Perhaps I ought to have said the photogrpaher and editors "distilled" the poingancy. The 'noise' in the initial pictures (including the garrish celophane balloons) made it difficult to find let alone see it. I am not criticizing the picture per se, I just wanted to call attention to the work that went into presenting it.

Drew - I agree that Memorial Day ought to be more focused on our shared loss. But it seems to me that the mourners at least as Moore depicts them here are engaing the day serially, not as a group. They are attending to the individual graves of individual loved ones (compare, for instance, visitors to the Viet Nam memorial).

Thanks for the comments!

31 May, 2007 17:02  
Blogger Unknown said...

There are a lot of assumptions here, and so I wanted to add some perspective. I don't know if Moore is a Getty photog, a NY times staffer, a freelancer or how he contributes, and that is important here. You assume the frames are sequential because of the Getty numbering, however, you cannot assume that as the Getty number may or may not have anything to do with the actual frame numbering. So to try to "reconstruct" what happened is tenuous at best. There could have been many minutes between frames, and many frames not uploaded to the Getty site inbetween. As I say, it depends on who got the feed initially, Getty, or the Times.

It also applies to your discussion of cropping, you are assuming that the NYT did the cropping, which may or may not be the case, for example, if NYT got the upload first they may have gotten a cropped version from the photorapher, or indeed it was another frame, or any combination. Getty then got the uncropped frame. Or NYT may have called the photog and asked permission to crop the photo, this happens often, especially when something as substantial as this happens. You have no way of knowing.

Bottom line, I believe in any case that the photog probably sanctions this cropping. It would be unusual if he did not, considering how sensitive a subject this is. Pictures are not cropped willy nilly.

The bottom bottom line is that cameras don't make pictures, photographers do. Just because i press the button does not mean I "endorse" the result more or less. In other words, a picture is a picture only if I say it is, which is how I think a lot of photographers see it. To say that the uncropped frame is more honest or correct or attach any value to it other than what a combination of metal and plastic saw at a particular moment is to misunderstand what a photograph is. You may feel that the cropping changed the meaning of the picture, and that is true, but it is only your opinion of what the picture means and is that you are pointing to. I don't believe that this example points to the way that the media manipulates any more than it points to the ways that our own perceptions of things manipulate our understanding of things. Without commentary of the photographer and the editor, who often work together, the point is hardly made.

Finally, the title, "eliciting poignancy" is tendentious to me. I don't believe anyone could look at any combination or crop of this image and not get the emotional impact of it and the moment they are privileged to witness. I believe that the photographer would want to convey the most direct and emotionally honest rendering of what he saw, and to that end, the cropping out of elements is at his disposal, just as is his choice of lens. There could have been a situation where he did not want to approach too closely, and was underlensed at the time, and knew he would be cropping later. The photograph is the artists statement, not the cameras statement unless that is your methodology.

01 June, 2007 22:09  
Blogger Unknown said...


"The poignacy here was not "found." It was elicited, evoked, drawn out, and offered to us."

Found is better?

01 June, 2007 22:45  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks for the comment. You raise good, properly skeptical questions. Moore is a Getty Photographer. So it is likely that my reconstruction is fairly accurate. It surely is plausible.

I simply don't agree with you that all of the images are equally powerful. If so, why the cropping? Why the shift in perspective? (even if it is not temporal as you suhggest, why choose one view over the other?) Why not just snap a picture and leave the woman to her grief?

I never claimed that the editors cropped without consultation. But the distracting details were not removed by accident. It does not matter who did the editing, someone did. And to say the image was "manipulated" should not necessarily be taken as perjorative. I think the notion of "objectiveity," "emotional conneciton," "truth" and so forth in all this are way too under analyzed. But THAT is a bg topic. The photographer and the editors at The Times have a goal or an aim ... basically I wanted just to highlight how they might've pursued it.

As for your lens spsculation, all three images seem the same on that dimension. My bet? He did pretty much what I suggest, using exactly the same camera and lens. There is no evidence to the contrary.

Finally, when a photographer and press outlet publish a pictire without comment (other than the very brief caption, as here)it seems unfair to insist that we need comments from the photographer/editors before making judgements. I wish there were more text in almost every instance. But having offered none the principles invite just the sort of discussion we've had here.

Thanks again!

01 June, 2007 22:55  
Blogger Unknown said...

Again, just because the Getty database is sequential does not mean Moore uploaded sequential images. Bandwidth is limited by time on deadline. You can debate ad nauseam whether or not the crop makes it "better" but the idea that there is an "original" which is somehow more accurate or truthful is specious. Case in point. I use a rangefinder. The viewfinder shows me crop lines but I generally get more than I see in the crop. so I am on assignment at this event and I "see" more or less what was printed. When I get back and download the images, there are the so called extraneous elements. I crop them out. So what have I done?

All of this is speculation you see, and we only have what is printed, what is in the Getty is like my negatives in my file drawer. It's like seeing how you make sausage...

thanks for responding.

01 June, 2007 23:39  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

What you've done is define what is central and what is extraneous, what is there and what is not. You've made choices and judgements just like Moore. Do I know for certain what happened? Of course not. But the picture printed in The Times is the suasage and I'm offering a tale of how I bet it was made.

I was not saying there was an "original" that is somehoe better or more authentic. I was saying - quite plausibly, despite your skepticism - that it seems like Moore took one picture first and another second. That doesn't make either the "authentic" or "original" one. I think those notions are out of place in this discussion - and in discussion of photography more generally, but I've already said that.

Thanks for the convesation!

02 June, 2007 01:37  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I assume the Richard Prince effect.

Images of images.

Or like the charade of "reality shows", everyone thinks they are on TV even the photographers.

Journalists tend to frame themselves as the priestly class and just like clerics ply their trade on the thin veneer of faith and super human ownership of the truth.

02 June, 2007 06:18  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Someone, presumably the Photo Editors at The Times, has cropped the photograph, removing what I estimate to be the top 20% of its original height and, in the process, eliminating still other visitors to the cemetary and reducing the distracting vastness of the scene."

Eliminating other visitors? In the original top 20% of the picture? Come on, serious now, DO YOU REALLY EXPECT VISITORS AT A CEMETERY SITTING IN THE TREES? Ridiculous.

02 October, 2007 07:03  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

really, I have no problem with the cropping of the photo. What if he'd shot it that way?

What if the camera had a different crop. Why are we so stuck in the mind set that what the camera crop is is correct. The camera crop does not see what your eye would see.

He didn't go in and add or take anything away that was there, just showed less of the scene.

Sure, does it tell a different story and have more power cropped, yes... and well done. I say more power to them for this crop.

It would have been another boring picture without it.

23 June, 2008 23:57  

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