Leaning On Others Through Difficult Times – Comparing “Wounded Soldiers” by Gerda Taro

SPAIN. Navacerrada Pass. May-June 1937. Wounded Republican soldiers.

Gerda Taro, Wounded Republican Soldiers, Navacerrada Pass, Spain, June, 1937

I immediately fell in love with this image.  For me there is a direct reference to W. Eugene Smiths image of his son and daughter walking on a path into a portal-like opening called The Walk To Paradise Garden.  Gerda made this image 10 years prior.  These two soldiers, suffering from the effects of war like Smith was, lean on each other in hopes of making it a littler bit farther, taking one step at a time, just as Smiths children leaned on each other in an image that represents so much about love, romance, and hope to so many.  Pain and suffering and love and hope are not always portrayed that differently when we look at images.  Greta’s image, juxtaposed against her multiple photos of dead and dying soldiers, provides hope.  The soldiers use each others strength to get them one step farther, a sign of love and support.  This is my favorite image by Taro: two wounded men walking away from a gruesome war, seeing things that nobody should see in such volume, and relying on each other for survival as they look to a pathway that leads to a bright and open future, or death.  Gerda died one month after making this image.

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President Lincoln and General McClellan, on the battle field of Antietam, October,1862, Alexander Gardner

The rising and crinkling of McClellan’s tent, and the sharp and black negative space within it, fit nicely over the dark and blurry soldiers as they walk up the path to the unknown.  The slightest hint of trees towering over the tent are visible through the blown out sky, a negative effect of what unfolds in Gerda’s image.  Like Lincoln and McClellan, these soldiers are wounded, the president and the general may not be physically hurt, but the majority of their army was, and possibly like the two soldiers above, were commanded by a leader only a week later to return to battle to rid the country of tyranny.

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Fading Away, Henry Peach Robison, 1858

Fading Away, a picture skillfully printed from five different negatives depicts the peaceful death of a young girl surrounded by her grieving family.  I draw visual comparisons to the man in the window and the two soldiers, both have their backs to the camera.  The blinds act as the trees.  The window evokes a similar feeling as the path, as well as the highlights from the sky in Gerda’s image.  The family mourning a young girl’s death brings about feelings that the soldiers families must have felt, not knowing if their sons or brothers were still alive.  The woman on the left gazes over to the young woman, as does the woman standing over the body, creating a curving line, flowing from one body to the next, a feeling I connect to the winding path, as well as the unknown beyond the hill, much like the unknown of what comes of us after death.

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Washington Navy Yard, D.C. Samuel Arnold, a conspirator in Lincolns assassination, Alexander Gardner, 1865.

This image, as well as images of the other conspirators and their hanging, were possibly the first photographic picture story of an event as it happened, drawing a comparison to Gerda, and her historical role as the first female war photographer.  These sequential images by Gardner paved the way for Gerda and other photojournalist like her.  The wall behind Gardner reminded me of the pathway in the wounded soldiers image, the rivets as the rocks, the darkened areas as the tracks from a military vehicle.  The curvature of the damaged emulsion mimics the curvature and pattern of the tips of the trees where they meet the sky.

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The Ascent of Mont Blanc (1861) – Auguste-Rosalie Bisson

A life threatening event, for the sake of a photograph.  These men, most crew members carrying Bisson’s photographic equipment, looking like ants, walk along a pathway, and over a bridge, reenacting a climb of Mont Blanc after they sumited the mountain.  Although a photograph of a team of climbers on a mountain in the Alps may not initially have the same impact l as a photograph of two wounded men during wartime, the climbers did risk their lives specifically for this image, just as Gerda did for her own photographs some 70 years later.   The tiny men refer to the soldiers, but multiplied to 12 men, not 2.  The men, just as the soldiers in the photo, relied on each other, using each other to further their steps up the highest mountain in the Alps.

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Side view from below of Orville soaring in level flight, spectators looking up at glider; Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, October, 1911, Wilber Wright

This image is a personal favorite of mine, and hangs in my home.  The two men, with their backs facing us, look on as Orville Wright flies across Kitty Hawk, making history nearly a decade earlier.  The prospect of hope, and the fortitude to continue through their struggles is at the heart of this image, as well as in Gerdas.  The soldiers future is unknown, their struggle is palpable, as was the Wright brothers’ on their journey to becoming the first people to build and fly an airplane.  The sand dune mimics the blurry pathway, Orville and the plane bring to mind the possibility that anything, if you are dedicated, passionate and lucky, can be achieved, just as the two men who struggle to stay upright, and the rest of the Republican army, hoped fascism could be overturned.

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W. Eugene Smith, A walk to the paradise garden, 1946

Smith was no doubt one of the greatest war correspondents of the last century. As the photographer for Life, he followed the offensive against Japan from Iwo Jima to Okinawa, where he was hit by mortar fire.

His war wounds cost him two painful years of hospitalization and plastic surgery. During those years he took no photos, and it was doubtful whether he would ever be able to return to photography. Then one day in 1946, he took a walk with his two children, Juanita and Patrick.

“While I followed my children into the undergrowth and the group of taller trees – how they were delighted at every little discovery! – and observed them, I suddenly realized that at this moment, in spite of everything, in spite of all the wars and all I had gone through that day, I wanted to sing a sonnet to life and to the courage to go on living it….”

While taking this image Smith felt a gross and sudden violence of pain in his hands and feet and throughout his spine.  This image, other then it’s obvious similarities in frame and subject matter,   reveals to me what is possible after struggling and hobbling along a pathway to an undecided future.  I see this image as a reflection of what those two men may have had the opportunity to feel later in life.  Hope and beauty.

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Entrance to the Ghetto, Kraków, Poland, 1937 by Roman Vishniac.

Vishniac is best known for his dramatic photographs of Jews in cities of Eastern Europe.   He traveled back and forth from Berlin to the ghettos of Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Lithuania between 1935 and 1938.  Like Gerda, his archive was organized and put on display by ICP.  Like Wounded Soldiers, this image draws connections to oppression and fascism.  The image shows one man walking away from us, one climbing a staircase and one walking towards the camera, at the entrance to a ghetto in Poland.  It’s dark and dim and it’s raining, creating a blurring effect similar to Gerda’s image.

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Luc Delahaye, – Winter, Russia, 2002, Bringing Coal

This image is one if those that show the determination to keep trying against the odds. “Bringing home the coal” shows a man in almost medieval costume, putting in a great effort to drag home coal, through the snow. It shows a gritty realism in it’s color palette and, like Wounded Soldiers, evokes suffering and tension, both images show us how lucky we are really.

cecil-beatonIndia, 1944, A Gurkha soldier transporting a wounded man on his back through the jungle. By Cecil Beaton.

This image, although not similar in style, evokes a man needing the help of another to live.  And like Taro’s image, it calls for another man to show compassion and humility.   Helplessness as well as strength are present in both of these images.  As well as direct and almost forceful contact against each others bodies.

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Untitled, Near Jackson, Mississippi. William Eggleston, ca. 1970

The corners of the photographic frame amplify the corners of the subject here, producing a sense of interior space and depth, the coat acting as the wounded soldiers in a sense. In this images, Eggleston reworks mundane subjects, a coat (reminiscent of the trench coat wore by one of the soldiers),  by shooting instead at odd angles, using flash, and adding color and dimensionality.  The bed frame and where the walls meet in the corner, a dirty and dark pathway, leads us in and out of the image, as does the pathway in Gerda’s image.  The coats white interior creates a spectacle for our eye to lead in to, and mimics the way the sky peaks through the trees in the wounded soldiers image.

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Molly, Pouting In A Corner (Strep Throat), Brooklyn, NY, 2016

I made this image of my daughter while thinking about the above photographs and Taro’s Wounded Republican Soldiers image.  Her back is to us, her face obstructed, her full-length nightgown is reminiscent of the soldiers full-length trench coat, the plants replace taros towering tree line, and molly’s path is out the window, just beyond the wall she is facing. Although Molly has me and my wife to lean on, she chooses to struggle through her strep throat and sickness on her own, comforted by her isolation and solitude, she is fearful and frustrated by the unknown of her illness.  She hides between two chairs, acting as her support, the chairs hide her from her parents, and in her mind, her strep throat.

 

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