Re-Photographing War


Private William Cotter wounded at Petersburg, July 30, 1864 (Diseased thigh stump) photographed by William Bell

Had meself an artists date down to the National Portrait Gallery the other day with my mom. Went down to see the Katherine Hepburn exhibit but was fascinated with a small survey of wounded Civil War veterans that occupied a small room on the first floor. Reminded me so much of Nina Berman’s work, Purple Hearts. And I respond to this work because it depicts the violence and insanity without focusing on the, dare i say it?, decisive moment itself.

The moment of war itself, as depicted in movies, and occasionally in newspapers, and more often in news magazines, in this time of CGI and where 9 out of 10 Hollywood movies show gratuitous violence (made for export primarily where all the real money is made), has become pornographic, where we get off on the action (well, not I, a big believer in if you don’t like something, avert your gaze). But it’s legacy is very real and harder to sensualize.

Nina’s work has been doing quite well, and has a full touring schedule, the likes of which I wish us to all have with our own labors of love. As a side note, I “met” Nina once, while photographing the Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest. I recognized her, and clearly wanted to introduce myself, and just as I was about to approach her, a beaten down food-fighter approached the garbage can that separated Ms. Berman and myself, and proceeded to vomit in it. We looked at each other across the vomit-strewn garbage can and smiled, and somehow, for me that moment was way better than extending my sweaty palm and whispering a few adulatory praises. Sometimes you just need to leave well-enough alone.


© Nina Berman


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