30 November 2007

Gruesome Smiles

Nazi officers and female auxiliaries (Helferinnen) run down
a wooden bridge in Solahutte. The man on the right carries
an accordion. Karl Hoecker is pictured in the center. The
original caption reads: "Rain coming from a bright sky."
(Unites States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

In The Nation this week is a long review by Susie Linfield of a set of four exhibitions at the ICP [1 2 3 4] that all revolve around photographs of the Spanish Civil War. I have posted on Linfield, whose writings I generally admire several times before. And Linfield has written on one of her themes here - Robert Capa - before. What strikes me about this essay is this set of observations prompted in part not just by the exhibitions at ICP, but by a set of photographs (newly discovered photographs of SS Troops at leisure near Auschwitz) that The New York Times published earlier in the fall. Here is Linfield:
“A smile is the strangest thing. In the right context it can illuminate the world, suggest kindness or joy, invite us into intimacy. But in the wrong setting, or on the wrong faces, it seems creepy, malevolent, even disgusting: a sign of moral corruption.

These thoughts were prompted by a visit, in October, to the four interconnected Spanish Civil War shows at the International Center of Photography in New York City (on view through January 6) and by a series of photographs that The New York Times had published the previous month...

The Times photos were full of laughter too. In one, a gleeful group of young, uniformed women and a few men - one of whom plays an accordion - surge across a wooden bridge as they try to escape a rainstorm. In another, a group of well-coiffed, pretty young women, all wearing dark pleated skirts and neat white blouses, sit on the ledge of a deck as they eat blueberries and smile for the camera. Anyone who claims we can no longer be shocked by photographs is wrong; for these banal pictures - part of a newly discovered trove of snapshots taken by an anonymous SS officer in the summer of 1944 - depict a group of Auschwitz guards relaxing and at play. (As Jean Hatzfeld showed in Machete Season, his book of interviews with Rwandan genocidaires, torture and murder are hard work.) The Auschwitz employees look healthy, strong, confident and cheerful: horror is the word for this.

All of which is to say: in looking at photographs, especially those that document the political crises of our time, context is (almost) everything. A smile can welcome a new world or announce its annihilation.”
I had noticed The Times story and slide show when it appeard but was not sure what to write at the time. I think Linfield succintly captures the deeply gruesome scenes the photographs convey.



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