My review of Alec Wainman and Serge Alternês’s Live Souls has now been republished not only at The Volunteer, the journal of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, but also at The Tyee, as “As Europe Roils, New Glimpses of Fighting Fascists 80 Years Ago”.
The Spanish Civil War is edging towards the far horizon of living memory. There are no more than a dozen veterans still alive. They include Fernando Macarro Castillo, better known as Marcos Ana, a poet who signed up with the Republican Army and later spent twenty-three years in one of Franco’s jails. He is now 96 years old. And José María Gárate Córdoba, who fought on the Nationalist side and went on to be a military historian. He is 97. Or the Englishman Stanley Hilton (now living in rural Australia) who, at nineteen, jumped ship in Alicante and joined the International Brigades. He, too, is 97 years old. No doubt there are others who were only children at the time, indelibly marked by the first “total war” to be fought on European soil, in which civilians were directly targeted as in the infamous bombing of Guernica. But there cannot be many left. Next year there will be fewer. Very soon there will be none. And then the conflict will have passed fully into history.
But history has a way of catching up with us. Live Souls (Ronsdale Press, 2015), a collection of photographs (plus brief memoir) by Alec Wainman, who served in Spain as a volunteer ambulance driver and interpreter, is a reminder that the past is nearer than we think, the repercussions of this internal conflict broader than we might imagine. For the struggle between Franco’s insurgent Nationalists and Spain’s legitimate Republican government was always an international affair, as the former were enthusiastically backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Mexico and the USSR weighed in for the latter, and the rest of the world watched on and waxed sanctimonious. In some ways, the war of 1936 to 1939 was a dry run for the subsequent World War Two, as what would become the Axis powers tried out novel tactics of aerial bombardment and mass terror, while the true stakes of Allied anti-fascism were laid bare: the UK and France (among others) chose not to intervene where they felt their national interests were not at stake. In frustration and anger, thousands of (mostly) young men such as the Anglo-Canadian Wainman, fresh out of a Modern Languages degree at Oxford, travelled to Spain to help in any way they could, believing that the Republican cause transcended national boundaries.
But the global impact of the Spanish Civil War is not measured in geopolitics alone. The Republic’s defeat prompted a diasporic exodus of its adherents: throughout Europe but also to many countries of Latin America. And those who had fought alongside them also ended up at all four corners of the world: Stanley Hilton in a remote town on the border between Victoria and New South Wales, and Wainman on what must have seemed the equally isolated Canadian Pacific Coast, about as far away from the battlefields of Madrid, Catalonia, and Valencia as one could imagine. Here, in Vancouver, he dedicated himself to teaching Slavic languages and culture at the University of British Columbia, apparently telling few of his friends or colleagues of his experiences back in the heady days of 1937 and 1938. He died in 1989 and his archive of 1600 photographs taken in Spain with a trusty Leica was thought lost until, very recently, his son (who goes by the name of Serge Alternês) tracked them down, salvaged from the home of a retired London publisher. Now available, together for the first time, in this handsome volume, these images chart the tenacious persistence of memory, the resonance of surprisingly intimate encounters that radiates outward from then to now.
With few exceptions, almost all these pictures are portraits. The first, indeed, is the figure of the photographer himself, snapped close-up (a “selfie,” perhaps?) on a Barcelona street car. His head is back, and he looks somewhat warily at the camera lens from behind glasses that reflect the light from the street and so render the photographic subject slightly opaque, reticently fleeing our gaze. Equally, another photograph that features Wainman, in his khaki shorts, leaning on the bonnet of the ambulance he drove, is strangely out of focus and blurred. This is a portraitist who happily effaces his own image and subjectivity in order all the better to let those portrayed fix their own self-representation. On the page facing the picture of Wainman with his ambulance, for instance, is an image of John Cornford, the British Marxist poet whose “Full Moon at Tierz” and “To Margot Heinneman” are classic meldings of politics and romantic elegy. To add to the mythos of doomed romanticism, Cornford famously would go on to be killed in action at twenty-one. But in this picture, he’s perhaps surprisingly smiling, raising his fist in a salute that seems almost comic, self-consciously humorous. Wainman’s portrait opens up a perspective that goes beyond the time-worn cliché.
And so it is throughout the collection. We perpetually get the sense of a curious eye that lets itself be drawn by its surroundings and by the dispositions of those who are facing the camera. In nearly every case, the people we see are aware that they are being seen, and so participate in their self-representation. The cover image is another good example: it shows what appears to be a veteran militiaman, with an ammunition belt over his shoulder, amusedly looking at us with half-closed eyes as he takes a drag of a cigarette, while next to him a younger man, barely out of adolescence, extravagantly strikes a pose with his fist in the air. Behind them, a small crowd cheerily look on, observing this to-and-fro between photographer and his subjects, self-fashioning and its capture on film. The glory of this book is not that it shows us its varied array of combatants, volunteers, nurses, patients, peasants, children, and so on as they actually are, but rather that it allows them to show themselves as they want to be seen, devoid of any particular propagandistic intent.
Hence perhaps the book’s title. The “life” of these live souls comes through in the poses they strike, and in the freedom that the photographer gives them to strike them. If this is a claim to authenticity, it is so in that it is the record of a series of interactions: the truth of the encounter, of bodies that meet and become subjects through the medium of the camera gaze. The very last image, for instance, is of a young girl in the Basque country in 1939, at war’s end. She stands in front of a laden donkey, her head slightly bowed, her feet a little askew, one arm behind her back but the other (she hopes) almost nonchalantly balanced on the basket by her side. With a broad smile she looks directly at the camera. Here I think the caption gets it wrong in stating that “life remained the same as before for those children who were not orphaned or evacuated.” How could it? But what we see, in all the tension between the awkward pose and the beaming face, is the determination that, despite everything, life will go on. And this book, too, is the product of a similar determination: that even as the past slips into history, as memory becomes unreliable and at best second-hand, the soul of Republican Spain should continue to resonate into the future.
Reposted at The Volunteer, the journal of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.
Reposted also at The Tyee, as “As Europe Roils, New Glimpses of Fighting Fascists 80 Years Ago”.
Thanks to Kinsey Lane Sullivan in PolicyMic for her profile of Ramiro Gómez, a Los Angeles artist and (ex?)nanny whose ongoing project “Happy Hills” is devoted to “documenting the predominantly Hispanic workforce who work tirelessly behind the scenes to maintain the beautiful imagery of these affluent areas.”
Gómez’s technique involves a) installations featuring cardboard cut-outs of otherwise overlooked service workers (leaf-blowers, cleaners, nannies) in public places and so plain sight and b) interventions into images of pristine homes, taken mostly from magazines and adverts (but also occasionally high art) to reinsert the figures of domestic labour that have been erased or marginalized but without whom none of this would exist.
I particularly like this image, “Portrait of an Affluent Family”:
The funny thing is that, according to a note on Gómez’s Facebook page, so does the man pictured with his family. I’m not entirely sure what we can gather from that.
Roland Barthes’s analysis of photography, Camera Lucida, claims that photography is ultimately a question of affect, and famously delineates two forms of affect that photographs may provoke, or that provoke our interest–perhaps even our obsession–in photography.
First, the studium is “general interest” or “a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment” to photography as cultural or historical documentation (26). We may be curious or intrigued; our interest may “even [be] stirred sometimes,” but in the end our investment in photography for what it tells us (say) about the conditions of life fifty years ago–or about the scenery or customs of distant lands, or even about our friends’ children or summer vacations–derives from or constitutes no more (and, I’d add, no less) than an “average affect, almost from a certain training” (26).
Second, however, the punctum is what “break[s] (or punctuate[s]) the studium“; it is what “rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me” (26). Often the punctum arises from a detail, perhaps at the margins of the image: Barthes’s own examples, taken from news photographs of the Nicaraguan revolution, include two nuns crossing a road, a “corpse’s one bare foot,” “the huge eyes of two little boys,” or the rag covering a guerrilla’s face (23-5). If the studium is “of the order of liking” (27), the punctum by contrast invests the experience of viewing a photograph with a certain shock or surprise, perhaps even disgust, that reveals something of the viewer’s desire.
Barthes is undoubtedly more drawn to the punctum than to the studium. If we can more or less equate the studium with habit–for what is habit but “average affect” or, perhaps better, affect that has been averaged out?–then Barthes is concerned with rediscovering the ways in which photographs break our sense of routinization, of the everyday. If “Society is concerned to tame the Photograph” (117), Barthes’s concern is to show that photography remains wild, untamed. And if the “two ways of the photograph” are to be “mad or tame,” then there is no question than that Barthes prefers madness, or what he also terms “the photographic ecstasy” (119).
(Pierre Bourdieu, on the other hand, might be someone who is more interested in photography as habit, as a regularized affect that coincides with a “certain training”; it would be worth returning to Bourdieu’s own book on the subject, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, with this distinction in mind. It would enable us to provide a more generous, let us say, or perhaps simply more complex understanding of photography and “general interest.”)
Barthes is interested in the punctum as what supplements the routinized, banalized practice of photography (“it is an addition” ) but is “nonetheless already there,” ready to prick or shock the unwary observer. Even, indeed, the most everyday snapshots, he suggests, have something “scandalous” about them in that, by “attest[ing] that what I see has indeed existed,” they have “something to do with resurrection” (82). Hence “the Photograph” (and note the capitalization, for this in Barthes’s view is the essence of photography) “astonishes me, with an astonishment which endures and renews itself, inexhaustibly” (82).
This astonishment brings interpretation to a halt. Perhaps strangely for someone known as the founder of semiology, of the “science of signs,” who made his name in Mythologies with astute readings of the semantics of the image, Barthes is not here particularly interested in “reading” the photograph. Affect undoes or bypasses the mechanisms of signification and perhaps the symbolic order as a whole. If the studium allows for and indeed motivates interpretation, the punctum actively resists it: “the studium is ultimately always coded, the punctum is not” (51). Moreover, the punctum is somehow blinding, in that it opens up to what Barthes terms a “blind field” (57). Hence the paradox that “in order to see a photograph well, it is best to turn away or close your eyes” (53), for “to shut my eyes [is] to allow the detail to arise of its own accord into affective consciousness” (55).
(For this reason among others–the punctum as supplement, for instance–Barthes is especially close to Jacques Derrida in this book; see my comments on Memoirs of the Blind.)
We should not be surprised that for Barthes photography is essentially about the body (“What does my body know about Photography?” is his initial question ), and about “the return of the dead” (9) not simply as resurrection but as the return of death itself. The sense of astonishment or shock provided by the photographic detail is redoubled (or underwritten) by what Barthes calls “another punctum” (96); for if it is astonishing to realize that what I see has indeed existed, this shock owes to the simultaneous awareness that it no longer is. Death, and so time, is encoded in the photograph. Seeing a photograph of his mother as a young child (and much of this book is sparked by reflections on his mother, recently dead, as he scans through old photographs “looking for the truth of the face I had loved” ), Barthes realizes that “she is going to die: I shudder [. . .] over a catastrophe that has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe” (96).
But photography does not merely register temporality and hence death. For Barthes, photographers are themselves “agents of Death.” The photograph “produces Death while trying to preserve life” (92; my emphasis). This is then the second way in which photography is comparable to religion–or even takes the place of religion in that it provides a new location for Death now that religion does not have same hold it once had:
Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life / Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final click. (92).
Photographs perform the scandalous miracle of resurrection, but at the price of reminding us of, or even imposing upon us, the catastrophic and uncompromisingly final death that makes that resurrection necessary–and agonizingly desired.
I’ve long expressed my enthusiasm for the photographer Martin Parr. So it’s worth checking out a burgeoning debate recorded by Owen Hatherley between himself and Nina Power, inspired by a visit to Parrworld.
But it does sound as though Owen rather quickly concedes:
Nina reckons, and she is of course right, that this decontextualised pile up is just an exemplar of postmodernism at its worst, an end of history scenario where we can just accumulate ephemera from a time where we actually believed in stuff, place it untouchable under glass, and nothing need ever happen ever again.
They focus on what happens to documents of working class militancy, such as posters from the miner’s strike.
A first point to note is that Parr is equally (if not more) skeptical about the claims of those in power (think of the Saddam Hussein watch series) or of popular culture (the Spice girls chocolate bars).
Second, I’d say that Parr was more skeptical about political claims, political symbols, and political projects (including, yes, that of the the National Union of Mineworkers) than about politics per se. Or perhaps he clears the ground for a different kind of politics.
In any case, I don’t think he can be so easily dismissed as run-of-the-mill postmodernism gone amuck.
Apparently, the following photograph has been banned. (Details from the BBC.)
The chap identified as “number two” in the photograph is David Cameron, current leader of the British Conservative party (for details of the others pictured, see the Evening Standard), who has been working strenuously to present himself as man of the people.
I believe that at least one of my regular commenters may have further observations from Cameron’s school days.
Meanwhile, for a bit of balance, here’s a photograph featuring the current leader of the British Labour party.