Claims to Count on

Trachtenberg is a supporter of the photograph or stereograph image because of its immediacy, but also because of its lack of hearsay. He argues, while using Holmes as a crutch, “[that] photographic remains of [the war] proved too much like tokens of the real thing to be endured…these simulacra of dismembered bodies intruding upon [Holmes’s] interior space somehow reembodied the viewer as one who ‘sickens at such sights.’ As if [the pictures] were the ‘mutilated remains’ themselves” (Trachtenberg 294-5). Trachtenberg is arguing that to describe a vision is one thing but to see it, and even if it is a recorded image, is so close to the “real thing” that it might as well be the thing itself. The image is much more powerful than words or hearsay accounts about the images, than the visions witnessed. However this fragment of Trachtenberg’s piece is reminiscent of Whitman’s saying, “You may hear groans or other sounds of unendurable suffering from two or three of the cots, but in the main there is quiet—almost a painful absence of demonstration; but the pallid face, the dull’d eye, and the moisture on the lip, are demonstration enough” (“An Army Hospital Ward,” Whitman 33). In this way, the literal bodies that Whitman witnesses are working as the “dismembered bodies” the pictures represent. And if Trachtenberg is arguing that to see it brings a stronger presence than Whitman’s vision is the strongest there is (even though there is that lack of an actual vision to his reader).

A way of clumping Trachtenberg’s theory into a category is to say that he is capturing the notion of the objective viewer. Trachtenberg states, again through the voice of someone else – this time a “proclaimed historian [named] Francis Trevalyan Miller,” that “ ‘these time-stained photographs’ are the only unarguable facts to survive the war” (Trachtenberg 287). Trachtenberg then goes on to say that the photographer cannot influence the picture into being read a certain way, instead – as Trachtenberg finds with Gardner – there are a set of questions implied in the picture whether that was intention or not; there is a certain reading drawn into these frames. Those questions being raised are objective ones, ones that any viewer will ask when faced with these striking photographs.

On the opposite side of the spectrum Whitman gives a fresh account, a firsthand account – which is incredibly important – and although he has his biases or his opinions of war (to be less argumentative) he is still just describing events as they unfold around him. Although Trachtenberg is saying that photographs “are the only unarguable facts to survive the war” Whitman’s surviving account is just as poignant to express the feelings that war provoked, and if anything Whitman’s records are more unarguable because they happened to him, in front of him – and he can record every moment, a photographer can only create a finding, one split image of an event not the whole thing. Besides Trachtenberg is talking about other people’s photographs not his ow

It is funny that Trachtenberg brings up Gardner’s way of presenting an image with an accompanying text because Whitman’s words functioned as that text to the pictures Trachtenberg was displaying. Whitman writes,                                     I remember, too, that a couple of companies of the Thirteenth Brooklyn, who rendezvou’d at the city armory, and started thence as thirty days’ men, were all provided with pieces of rope, conspicuously tied to their musket-barrels, with which to bring back each man a prisoner from the audacious South, to be led in a noose, on our men’s early and triumphant return! (“Contemptuous Feeling,” Whitman 23).

The imagery of this passage instantaneously made me think of the image from Trachtenberg’s piece, “The Burial Party” and when centered underneath the headline of “Contemptuous Feeling” there is no wonder why.

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3 Responses to “Claims to Count on”

  1.   Dominique Says:

    I like the possibilities that come along with considering photos (particularly photos of war) as “dismembered bodies.” Nice.

    I wonder if your impression of Trachtenberg’s stance shifted after our class discussion. Is he talking about objective viewers, as you mention in the third paragraph, or is he talking about the creators of photo albums and that creator’s ability to manipulate the narrative that we “see”?


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    From Liza’s Perspective » Blog Archive » Claims to Count on

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