December 7th, 2015
A Conversation with David Shields
In David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, a textual collage published in 2010 that is the most well-known of his twenty books, he argues for a more fluid form of literary expression as an antidote to the stagnation of traditional narratives. Shields’s latest project, a selection of New York Times war photography titled War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict*—subtitled *(in which the author explains why he no longer reads The New York Times)—occupies an adjacent intellectual space to his previous work, arguing that the heightened aesthetic sensibilities of the depiction of military conflict sanctify the experience of war. It is a testament to the Times’s long-held position as one of America’s main arbiters of cultural opinion—as well as its carefully cultivated perception of unbiased reportage—that Shields felt it necessary to indict the newspaper as a main culprit in what he considers an unseemly descent into the “beautiful,” an easily consumed banalization of combat’s horrific actualities.
War Is Beautiful is made up of sixty-four photographs that ran on the front page of the Times between 1997 and 2013, and is divided into ten thematic sections (Beauty, God, Love, etc.), each framed with epigraphs eclectically culled from sources such as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, an interview with Gerhard Richter, and a Gore Vidal quip (“The New York Times, the Typhoid Mary of American journalism”); also included is a brief introduction by Shields and an afterword by the art critic Dave Hickey. Though these spare parts may not coalesce into a whole, Shields does convincingly present a complex investigation that, at the very least, explicates a host of relevant questions for the digitized age. “Behind these sublime, destructive, illuminated images are hundreds of thousands of unobserved, anonymous war deaths,” he writes of his selected photographs in the introduction. “This book is witness to a graveyard of horrendous beauty.” I spoke with Shields by telephone last month, during the eastern leg of his promotional tour.
CW: Do you think you are being unfair to the New York Times?
DS: Fairness to me is not exactly the point. I’m not a political scientist; I’m not a reporter; I’m not a photographer; I’m not even a photo critic—I’m someone who tries to come up with what strikes me as proactive metaphors. I looked at nine thousand photographs, and then I narrowed it down to 4,500 color pictures. I found one thousand war photographs on page A1, and of those thousand, seven hundred fit my criterion of glamorizing combat. Of the other three hundred, almost none contradicted my thesis. I was always looking for a course correction—it’s not generally thought to be a brilliant career move to publish a book-length criticism of the New York Times. So no, I don’t think I’m being unfair.
CW: Yet it’s difficult to think of an alternative. What do you consider “good” war photography? What would be the antithesis of the images in the book?
DS: I think the Times pointed it out in a photo-essay they ran in 2013 of important images from the Vietnam War—photographs, according to the headline, that “made a difference.” It was implicitly saying: “Here are pictures that may have had an effect on the Vietnam War.” And during Vietnam, the Times published Pulitzer Prize–winning photographs that conveyed the raw, naked, visceral act of war, including an Eddie Adams photograph of an execution-style assassination of a South Vietnamese captain. There is a noble and great and impressive and rigorous tradition of war photography, from Mathew Brady to Robert Capa, Edward Steichen, and some of the people I mention in Vietnam: Eddie Adams, David Hume Kennerly. What I’m trying to do with the book is ask: “Where are such pictures for Iraq and Afghanistan?” They are definitely not in the New York Times.
I’m interested in pictures that are less stylized, less romantic, that have less of a tendency to mythologize and beautify. Picasso said “Good taste is the enemy of great art,” and so many of these pictures, almost without exception, seem to me exquisitely and problematically tasteful. Where is the war here? Many of these pictures are hugely under the sway of Abstract Expressionism and other modernist masterpiece paintings, so photo after photo feels like a direct rip-off or pale echo of Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, Pollock, Rothko, etc. The effect is that these pictures feel beholden to a kind of swooning beauty. I’m arguing that the Times has abandoned trying to faithfully document some actually observed reality and is instead now producing a kind of empty, plastic beauty: war as screensaver, or war as wallpaper.
Look at the pictures that the Times ran of the Paris attacks. On Monday, November 16, there was a very bellicose, war-inclined headline from France, and underneath that headline was a photograph of hundreds of thousands of fallen bouquets of flowers, and then underneath that was the very embodiment of French beauty, a beautiful blonde French woman standing and mourning. I’m urging my fellow readers to ask, not necessarily if the Times is evilly and gleefully rubbing its hands together, thinking of how to disseminate state propaganda—it’s not Pravda, after all—but I’m urging us to think figuratively about what cultural messages are getting sent.
One of the photographs I’ve included is an image of spent gun cartridges [on page 58 of the book]. You could say that it is just a pretty picture, but it is an exact echo of a particular Jasper Johns painting. The picture was cropped from a much larger photograph by the Times, and the larger image was much less abstractly gorgeous, much less perfectly composed. That is a really interesting picture to put on A1. It could be an advertisement for cuff links or for a new retrospective of Jasper Johns, but it’s not. It’s spent gun cartridges from the war.
CW: There has been a somewhat logical critical response to your project that claims you may be overstating the negative effects of these types of photographs. What is the harm of that particular photo of the gun cartridges? Why is the cropping, or the way it might reflect a modern art aesthetic, problematic?
DS: That’s valid, and some people have pointed out that there are all kinds of aspects of war. Part of war is incredibly beautiful. It does adrenalize the senses. I looked at one thousand color pictures of combat from October 1997, when the Times started running color photography, until 2013, and if those images were balanced often, or even occasionally, by images that convey a more naked fidelity to observed experience, and less of a fidelity toward modernist paintings, I’d be a lot happier. In On Photography, Susan Sontag discussed how at an early age she saw a photograph of Holocaust survivors, and the photograph “lacerated” her. For me, very few of these pictures attempt in any way to lacerate the viewer with some sense of the human cost of war. This is how consent gets manufactured. And because the Times’s brand is pseudo-neutrality, I think they escape a lot of media criticism in general.
The Times recently ran a picture of post-attack Paris, and on the upper left corner there was a wine glass next to a bullet hole in a restaurant window. It was a powerful message to choose this picture to represent the Paris bombing. On the one hand, you have the bourgeois beauty of an untouched wine glass, and on the other you have a bullet hole through a glass window, which represents a clash of civilizations: do we want a civilization of beautiful wine goblets, or a civilization of bullet holes through restaurant windows? And if we want the civilization of a beautiful wine goblet, then war is necessary.
CW: You quoted Susan Sontag, whose work critiquing war photography and aesthetics is among the most influential. Do you think that we still have that capacity to be “lacerated” by the horrors of a photograph, after having already been exposed to a long tradition of graphic depictions of war?
DS: If we are that completely benumbed and desensitized, then why bother being alive? I disagree with a huge amount of Sontag’s writing on photography, which to me throws out the camera with the bathwater. So it’s not as if I’m a huge Sontag acolyte and in no way do I want to take beauty out of the equation. Instead, I’m asking for a more hard-won beauty—a photography with a greater consciousness being brought out of an aestheticization of horror. A fully-considered production of beauty, more purposeful and intentional. I’m writing a kind of lover’s-quarrel letter to the Times. I’m saying, “You’ve got to be thinking about this a little bit more.”
Recently, there were images of a boy named Aylan Kurdi who drowned fleeing Syria and whose body was found dead on a Turkish beach. I’m not a huge fan of the photographs; there are all kinds of problems with them. There are some elements of kitsch and a fetishization of children in war photography—but, in any case, those pictures did apparently move people.
CW: You could argue that such images move people because they come from an iconographic tradition of suffering that we’ve become accustomed to—which is certainly an argument central to your book. That image of a child dying is certainly not reassuring, but naturally fits the way we think about pain and loss and suffering and war. Haven’t we seen images like this before?
DS: In a way the Times has a kind of show bible for their war photography. Soldiers as fathers, soldiers as God, war as a fashion shoot, war photos as outtakes from a movie, theater of war as playground—so in a way it does feel that the Times has a similarly limited repertoire of photographs. There are fifteen things on their playlist, and they just sort of seemingly shuffle between these fifteen tropes. I think your point from earlier—just because something is stylized, that doesn’t preclude the possibility to move us—is fair enough. But what I’m arguing is that these pictures have seemingly stopped trying, in any way, to faithfully document some kind of reality.
CW: One of the book’s sections is “War as Movie,” and is comprised of photographs that look as though they could be stills from a movie. This aspect of your project seems similar to Cindy Sherman’s early work of reappropriating Hollywood’s visions of femininity through the traditional female pose in American cinema. Do you feel that your aims are related?
I don’t want to compare this work to hers, since she took the actual pictures, but I think that by decontextualizing and recontextualizing and showing a cultural ideology that is getting disseminated and promoted—which for Sherman was an image of femininity that was being promulgated by American movies—I would say that my project is relatively similar. And like Sherman, I put these photographs into new categories to show how tropes occur over and over again. It wasn’t on her part to say that she was never going to watch a movie again, and it’s not on my part to say that we are never going to fight a war again. I rather ask: can we be somewhat more self-aware and self-critical and reflexive in our absorption and consumption of these images?
CW: A recreation of some of these images in the mode of Sherman could underscore the absurd or banal aspects of it.
DS: I would love to see someone do that. I would argue the underscoring isn’t totally necessary, in my view, probably because I’ve lived with these pictures for too long. The absurdity of it, the comedy of it, the tragi-comedy of it—“gross” might be a little strong, but gross ideological work is getting done here.
CW: In the current cultural climate, photography might have to become more aesthetically exaggerated in an incendiary sort of way to have an explicit impact.
DS: It almost has to break the frame first, and then it might actually move you.
CW: This argument has rapidly expanded—when Sontag began writing about this, it was a completely different thing.
DS: Yes, I was going to say that her book Regarding the Pain of Others, which came out in 2002, already seems very dated given the rapid decline of print journalism and the rise of the web. Things are very weird now. Images can get uploaded and consumed instantaneously around the world. In a way, the Times plays it down the middle so that their pictures are quasi-unobjectionable: Here’s a wine glass and a bullet hole, we’re not taking sides. Or here’s a beautiful French woman and here are rose petals. But those pictures do take a side by not taking sides. That is a form of cheerleading and flag-waving—and can we please talk about it?
Cody Wiewandt lives in Brooklyn.
This interview has been edited and condensed.