Our Sunday Best | The weight of light



Matthew Brady, first known war photographer, looking stern in self-portrait contact sheet.

Whatever the photographers brought into a place was carried on their backs, and sometimes in their minds. There were the cameras and the film and the light meters and the lens brushes. There were the tripods and the black bags for the exposed film. Their bodies were crisscrossed in straps that held the cameras easily at hand when they traveled on foot, and the straps dug into their flesh, mapping and marking them, so that when they removed their clothes at night, they would look down in wonder at this accidental cartography. Another day, another arrangement of straps, and bruises like the heels of mountains would begin to rise on the photographers’ bodies wherever their cameras swayed and hit. Sometimes the photographers shot pictures.

The photographers found themselves welcomed wherever they arrived, except for those places where they weren’t welcome at all. In those unwelcome places, they hid their cameras and changed their names and took pictures from behind the broken bones of buildings where the bombs had stripped away architectural flesh. In the places where they were welcomed, the local people examined them and asked them questions if they shared a language or two, and if no language bridged the barrier of photographer to man, they relied on other ways of speaking to one another: pantomime being a common favorite, but even that was known to fail. Sometimes the man in charge just looked the photographer in the eye to see if he was a good man or if he could be made use of in some way. It was up to the photographer to understand how this might go.


Some of the photographers were honest in their intentions, as much as a photographer can be honest about what they haven’t seen yet. Really, it is never in the best interest of any subject in the field to have their picture taken because the subject cannot control the variables—the light in the sky and the temperament of the photographer could make some unhappy results. A strong photograph or four or six can topple an empire—everyone came to understand that pretty quickly. And some of the photographers were liars—their job, as they saw it, was to expose historical events, but what those photographers wanted was to be at the center of history, so the pictures they took skewed the story and shifted the outcome of what would have been to what these photographers decided it must be.

But worse still were the earnest photographers in the field that functioned like sensitive eyes. These photographers had the unhappiest luck of all—they often found themselves in the unenviable position of having to decide whether to try to save a single person from tragedy or to take a horrifying picture that might rescue an entire country. Sometimes there was no time. Sometimes there was no real choice. No one could cost out the expense of a single person’s life and yet those photographers would spend the rest of their nights and their days trying to sort out the ghoulish mathematics of what they did and what they saw.


When all was done, the photographers packed up their rucksacks and tore down their tripods and left little behind to remind anyone of who they actually were. And they trekked back through the dark and the light places of this earth to wherever it was that would welcome them home, but they never came home as heroes. The city men and city women called the photographers witnesses and observers to their faces, but these same citizens felt uneasy around the photographers and their cameras. For what do you call an instrument that can topple a king and a mountain and a regime with the simple release of a trigger? And what do you call the person who carries this deadly instrument?

And the photographers were afraid of the city men and the city women. The photographer’s faces said, You asked us to bear witness for you and we have done it. Now you cannot meet our eyes? It was too much to take. The photographers began to pack. They picked up their bags and their cameras with the straps that crisscrossed their bruised torsos. They hoisted the tripods and checked their pockets for extra film and lens cloths. Some of the photographers wanted to weep—they were tired of loud noises and strange meetings with powerful men—but they did not weep. They would go. And some of the citizens felt guilty but said nothing as the photographers walked out of sight of the city.


Soon the distant photographs would come, and with them the stories, and the city men and the city women would sit in cafés at night and argue the merits of these stories and pictures, when all the while the photographers were out there with the journalists, names forgotten, good deeds unknown. At night in these faraway places, the photographers went into tents and into rented rooms, removed their shirts or blouses and lay down on beds and bedrolls to consider solitary thoughts. Sometimes their tired fingers traced lazy streets into the places where the straps of their cameras had worn thin crisscrossed scars over the years. Sometimes, when the photographers slept, they did not dream of home.


NOTES

The weight of light is part of Courtenay Bluebird’s ongoing history of modern photography, which has been featured on Bluebird Blvd.’s wholly original long-running celebrated weekly feature story series, OUR SUNDAY BEST. (This particular piece is based on a composite of various biographies I’ve read about famous and not-so-famous war correspondents who spent extensive time in the field/in country.)

To read more selections from this chapter, please go to Our Sunday Best {Truth Makes Contact}. Some of those stories are serious doozies, y’all. Wait until you hear about our man, W. Eugene Smith. He’s a wild one!

The image featured today is a contact sheet of some self-portraits shot by Matthew Brady, considered to be one of the first—if not the first—war photographer. What war did he photograph? The Civil War! Brady’s intrepidness changed our understanding of current events. We are deeply in his debt. Speaking of which, much thanks to the women and men who undertake the difficult task of photographing conflict all over the world. You are our eyes, our ears, and our hearts. Thank goodness for photojournalists.