A photograph has a magic about it, numerous powers, and endless uses. Photographs are highly malleable when captioned and linked to literary thoughts and news facts. Enter The New York Times – a paper acknowledged worldwide and, as the “newspaper of record”. The Times seems to want to maintain certain neutrality and desire to highlight international coverage. If there’s a burning building, or a firefight in the Middle East, a border dispute, or civilians dying, you can bet there’s a photographer there or, at the very least, someone with a cellphone. David Shields has positioned his book, War Is Beautiful, to question how photography is used at The New York Times. In his own words, “I was entranced by war photographs. My attraction to the photographs evolved into a mixture of rapture, bafflement, and repulsion. Over night I realized that these photos glorified war through an unrelenting parade of beautiful images whose function is to sanctify the accompanying descriptions of battle, death, destruction, and displacement.” Needless to say War Is Beautiful isn’t something you casually pick up, nor is it something you idle through. I read it in one night.

Book Cover

Photo Credit: Ozier Muhammad / The New York Times / Redux

Taking on an institution so as to question its mission, purpose, and motivation, as well as present Shields’ argument in an understandable way, can seem daunting. Only in thought. Shields’ treatment and framing of the photography is simple and flawless. “The proof is in the pudding” and in many ways Shields has kept it that simple. War Is Beautiful is straight reportage, allowing the photographs to support his theory which never reads highbrow or over the top. He’s thought long and hard about this, and it shows. It does, however, help to refer back to the introduction when starting a new chapter/album of photographs.

Each chapter starts with a quote or thought that speaks to that chapter’s collection of images. The introduction contains a clear description of each of the chapters. Flipping back and forth is an enjoyable experience. It feels more like reading print in newspaper as opposed to a book. The publication itself activates functions that most books don’t. There’s an engagement and a calling to reference backwards and forwards, reading facts and keeping things straight is usually like that. You do that with newspapers. You don’t do that with books. You do that with this book.

The photographs in the book are, of course, striking. Not just striking, they are heart wrenching. Beyond the source or the suggestion of the words attached when they were originally printed, viewing them as a collection, one after another, is painful. Not bad, but certainly difficult in their reward. They are, after all, New York Times photographs – they break rules – they have atmosphere, they are bloody, they are unbelievable. They win Pulitzer Prizes. 

Photo Credit: Joao Silva / The New York Times / Redux

These photographs could hang on the walls of museums just as much as they can grace the pages of print. Their formalism and function are paralleled by their ability to document. All these photographers, taking aim at the front lines; it’s not all that surprising that their use takes on many forms.

In his introduction he shares, a comment from a photojournalist who worked for The Times. “Photographers found it difficult to work in Iraq because the topography doesn’t show well in pictures. ‘Iraq was just a flat, ugly, Middle Eastern country with a shitload of oil.’” Shields is totally focused on the power of usage. A photograph isn’t any more truthful then the written word. It’s not quick and it isn’t the most apparent. Keen eyes are needed to read between lines, and it takes a good amount of time and sense to grasp what a photo really poses. In an Afterward by Dave Hickey, he ends the book best, “The total effect of these photographs is to portray an American industrial project in the desert somewhere . . . Summing it up, these pictures generate more distrust of American military adventures than I had before, and I had a lot.”

I hadn’t really thought about it until I read the book. My thinking has been changed.

Photo Credit: Mohammed Abed / Agence France-Press-Getty Images

Photo Credit: Damir Sagolj / Reuters

Efrem Zelony-Mindell is an artist who lives in New York. For more of his work click here …

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