Perversion, fascination, habituation?

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This is one of the most amazing pictures of Yevgeny Anan’evich Khaldei, a Red Army photographer whose photographs encompass both moments of historical significance and small details in the middle of chaos. An interest and appreciation of ruins, in their many different avatars, runs through all his work.

The first picture was taken after the liberation of Sebastopol (present day Ucrania) in 1944. The relax enjoyment of the figures contrast strarkly with the ruins on the background, a gross reminder of the siege and continuous attack to the city during a year by the German army in 1941-1942.

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The second image was taken in 2 May 1945, the day the Battle of Berlin finished. Soviet soldiers climbed on top the Reichstag and waved a flag, making visually clear that the city was taken (there is certainly something with raising flags, other famous examples come to mind, like this one, and, not surpisingly, it seems both were staged).

Differences between these two photographs reveal major trends in ruin imaginary and ruin theory. The photograph at the Reichstag  connects with national symbolism and grandiose narratives. Conversely, the photograph of Sebastopol, with its satisfied, relaxed victors, has something of the so-often quoted ‘perversity’ described by Henry James :

To delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime, and the pleasure, I confess, shows the note of perversity (Italian Hours).

Surely, Khaldei’s perversity, it has always seemed to me, is a sarcastic morbidity, an attraction to shock that heralds a future forms of photography, yet without the politicaly-correct veneer. It directs our attention to the real inhabitants of the ruins, to issues like fascination and sensuality. It is not a photograph about war: for all we know, these people might be the aliens who picnicked in Stalker‘s Zone. It is about how we get quickly habituated to destruction, about the coexistence of horror and beauty, pleasure and death. (Is there something almost ‘fascist’ in ‘fascination’?)

Both our habituation to horror, and our enjoying it aesthetically, have a story. One of their makers happened to be in China during the Second Opium War. The Italian photographer Felice Beato, probably the first ’embedded’ photojournalist, joined the Anglo-French expedition on the Taku forts (大沽炮台), near Tianjin, which were taken on 2 August, 1860. Among his most striking photographs, the first to record at almost real time a military operation, are the ones depicting Chinese dead soldiers. About the circumstances around these images, we have the witness of a military doctor, Dr. David F. Rennie, who wrote:

“I walked round the ramparts on the west side. They were thickly strewed with dead—in the north-west angle thirteen were lying in one group round a gun. Signor Beato was here in great excitement, characterising the group as “beautiful,” and begging that it might not be interfered with until perpetuated by his photographic apparatus, which was done a few minutes afterwards. Not far from this group, a tall and very dignified-looking man of between fifty and sixty, stated to be the general who had conducted the defence, was lying dead, his lower jaw shattered by a rifle bullet.” (cited in Of Battle and Beauty: Felice Beato’s Photographs of China, David Harris, 2000).

Felice Beato,  Interior view of the North Fort of Taku on the Peiho River, 1860. Albumen Print

 

Update:

I couldn’t resist to upload the following photograph in relation to the one by Khaldei that opens this post.

Sunbathers outside the port of Isola del Giglio in Tuscany, Italy, with the wreck of the Costa Concordia on the background.
Aug. 11, 2012, AP/ Giacomo Aprili

 

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