I've been on the receiving end these last few days of some harsh criticism for saying San Francisco Chronicle photographer Darryl Bush's exquisite photograph of a solider leaving his girlfriend for Iraq was quasi-pornographic.
My critics are correct. I erred by suggesting it's quasi-pornographic. Drop the quasi. Bush's extraordinary snap is a spectacular example of the type of photograph Henri Cartier-Bresson characterized as a "decisive moment." But as used by the Chronicle, an image that in other contexts could be art or simply news reportage, becomes pornographic. If a qualifier is appropriate, call it military porn. That it is published just days before the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon only adds to the propagandistic value of the photograph.
For those of you who missed the front page of the Chronicle from September first, allow me to set the scene again.
The image is an extraordinarily poignant and dramatic photograph of a soldier leaving home. It completely dominates the paper's front page, and it is framed so that when the paper sits in a sales box, all you see above the fold is the caption in upper case letters: A KISS FOR THE ROAD, and a fatigues-clad torso leaning out of a bus window. When you open the paper and spread it out to its full broadsheet size, the full-color picture explodes with an emotionally wrenching storyline used through the ages to summon men to war.
Above the shirt pocket on the fatigues are the words, "U.S. Marines." The soldier's head - reaching far out the window - sports its military buzz cut, and a pair of dark shades protects him. Reaching up to him is that paragon of American womanhood: a statuesque blonde. Their lips are just touching, precisely outlined. She's just 17, according to the story, he's a sturdy 19, and off for his training in the California desert before deployment to Iraq.
It is a gorgeous photograph. It is beautifully erotic, and perfectly composed, and mind numbingly depressing. As I wrote when I called it quasi-pornographic, its message is blatant: war = glory = sex.
It is pornographic not because of its sex appeal, but because of the impact it makes as an illustration covering a newspaper's front page, exacerbated by its headline: A KISS FOR THE ROAD. Its sex appeal is inexorably linked to war, and - because of the timing of its publication - not just with the Iraq War, but also with the Bush Administration's cynical attempts to continue to merge the Iraq War with the attacks five years ago.
My colleague, the San Francisco writer Bruce Bellingham, checks in to say he agrees. He correctly notes that the use of the Darryl Bush photo is a nice tool for a military struggling to line up new recruits. And he laments the fact that such jingoist use of the media did not end with the lessons we were supposed to learn from the Vietnam War. Bellingham draws our attention back to 1966, and the poem Allen Ginsburg wrote at a table in the back of a Volkswagen bus as he crossed a U.S.A. largely still oblivious to the debacle in progress in Southeast Asia.
It is eerie to read Ginsburg's "Wichita Vortex Sutra" today, eerie because by just changing a few names and places, the poem howls about Iraq, our Vietnam redux. And Bellingham further points out that the "comely young lass, "as he calls the blonde in the Chronicle display, plays an iconic role in Ginsburg's work. "A billion dollars worth of Marines who loved Aunt Betty," Ginsburg wrote as he identified the troops and their pin-ups of Betty Grable, et al. War = glory = sex.
The day after printing Darryl Bush's stunning photograph, the Chronicle was forced to report on the latest Defense Department update to Congress on the bleak status of the war. The headline says it all. "Pentagon war report a sobering analysis: Stark assessment is in sharp contrast to Bush's optimism." Maybe the headline writer was reflecting on both President Bush and the pornographic optimism of how the paper used photographer Bush's picture.