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diers on the Antietam battlefield in 1862: “If he has not
brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and
along the streets, he has done something very like it.”
As a check on that power, we ask that the reality
inside the frame be authentically real. It becomes a
matter of great moment whether Robert Capa really
caught a soldier in the moment of death, or Rosen-
thal’s picture might have been a re-enactment, or
Gardner’s bodies were artfully arranged. We license
the photographer to see the world with special acuity,
to record it, to capture, in the words of Alfred Stieg-
litz, “a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than
reality.” But the germ must be real.
We live in a world transformed by photography,
and the transformation continues at a blinding pace.
Photography allows us to go anywhere, to see almost
anyone, to witness life from womb to tomb, to peep
inside palaces and hovels, to venture beyond the stars
and beneath the seas, to be exalted by the beauty of a
tender touch and revolted by the ugliness of an ISIS
Now we’ve reached an age when almost every-
one usually has a camera in hand and every scene is
a potential photograph. On social media, the photo-
graph has become a kind of existential statement: I
am here! Can you see me? Power has shifted from the
photographer to the viewer, who has an almost infi-
nite number of images to choose from.
Photography is a mode of communication, after
all, which is to say a back and forth, give and take.
The photographer frames a glimpse of the world; the
viewer interprets and responds to it. There is potential
for power and even revelation in both roles. We are,
perhaps, moving ever closer to the ideal expressed by
Edward Steichen: “When I first became interested in
photography, I thought it was the whole cheese. My
idea was to have it recognized as one of the fine arts.
Today, I don’t give a hoot in hell about that. The mis-
sion of photography is to explain man to man and
each man to himself.”
Von Drehle, formerly a TIME editor at large, is the author of
Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s
Most Perilous Year.