Partisan images

War and Photography

November 7, 1997

There has long been need of a detailed and thorough study of press photographic coverage of the Spanish civil war and this book by Caroline Brothers admirably fits the bill.

Although the high-profile work of Robert Capa and David Seymour (Chim) has invariably attracted most attention and discussion over provenance, veracity or evidential worth, it is in the run-of-the-mill, contemporary news photographs that the continuing historical interest resides. Brothers analysed over 3,000 stills from the British and French press for a doctoral thesis upon which her book is based. If the publisher saw fit to include a mere 32 of them, this in no way detracts from the force of her arguments or the validity of her findings.

The ease with which war photographs, especially, have been appropriated to connote more meaning than they perhaps represented is all too clear from Capa's controversial and seminal photograph of the Spanish conflict, ''Death of a Republican Soldier''. And Brothers's account of the image's import and the subsequent heated debate on its authenticity is scholarly and persuasive. Few would now utilise the Capa photograph without reference to its likely staged origins or to the consciously manipulative aspects that thereby turned it into ''an archetypal symbol of death in war''. But the everyday photographic fare is just as important. And the fact that many lesser-known examples have passed largely unscrutinised into common circulation and continue to be used to represent what they did not intend also requires elucidation and elaboration of the sort Brothers provides to prevent, if nothing else, unwitting misattribution.

Witness, for instance, the photograph used to accompany Paul Preston's review of two books on Spain (THES, September 13 1996). Doubtless drawn from library stock shots, it was captioned ''Armed women march through the streets of Madrid, 1936''. But it shows nothing of the kind. Shot in Barcelona, it first appeared in the Daily Mail of July 24 1936, and was lifted from a filmed newsreel story that appeared on the cinema screens in the Gaumont British News for August 13 1936 under the title of ''The Blonde Amazon''. The whole thing was staged for the cameras, anyway, and its central female figure was not even Spanish but a British school-teacher, Phyllis Gwatkin Williams.

Brothers is alert to these dangers and her approach to the Blonde Amazon story, in particular, highlights the riches she mines from such sources across the board. She extrapolates much of substance from the introduction of the Amazonian note into press coverage and traces its nuanced evolution as an ongoing image in the representation of Republican women thereafter. It is one of many key themes she identifies as recurring throughout the war in British and French press photography, all of which contributed to an ideologically loaded and decidedly partisan rendition of Spanish events. For a medium of communication reputedly adhering to principles of impartial and objective reportage, bias and manipulation were more the order of the day. ''There has been a quite deliberate conspiracy,'' George Orwell commented in 1937, ''to prevent the Spanish situation from being understood.'' This masterly account lends substance, yet again, to the truth of Orwell's statement.

Though the opening chapter forms a useful if overly voguish theoretical grounding for Brothers's approach to photographic evidence, and the last chapter an all-too-brief, predictable and perfunctory coda on comparisons with the Vietnam, the Falklands and the Gulf wars, it is the mass of largely empiricist detail and analysis on Spanish civil war photography that constitutes the heart of the book, and its undoubted interest. In this respect, the book is invaluable and ranks alongside Herbert Southworth's Guernica! Guernica! as a fine study of media manipulation of the Spanish conflict.

Tony Aldgate is senior lecturer in history, the Open University.

War and Photography: A Cultural History

Author - Caroline Brothers
ISBN - 0 415 13099 9
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00
Pages - 7

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