The Spotter’s Parable

I once read that the famous American photographer Edward Weston was employed by the government as a spotter during World War II. At home atop the Carmel Highlands, where many of his most well known photographs were taken, Weston and his wife sat with binoculars scanning the horizon for Japanese submarines.

It’s a story I’ve always found evocative, one that I made an effort to hold on to though I couldn’t have said exactly why or what for: an answer that convinced me there was some question I needed to figure out how to ask.

Recently though I’ve begun thinking about the story as a sort of parable that can illustrate a certain unconventional approach to understanding the role of photography in World War II– not an answer, then, but a lesson on how to ask questions.

World War II is still something like the Ur-text for technologically deterministic theory–its historians can find the substantial refinement, if not the genesis of almost every post-War media technology in this or that military program. This week and next, I want to use this story about Weston–the Spotter’s Parable– to propose another critical model. This is because it isn’t a story about how some technology was developed in the military and then moved into Art; it’s a story about how socio-political conflict provokes the improbable folding together of both those worlds.

When Weston began to work as a spotter, he relied on exactly those things–the unique topography of his environment and his visual keenness–that define his photography. And though I won’t go so far as to say that there was no difference between Weston’s spotting and photography, it is also simplistic to say that he was always doing one or the other: when he was looking for submarines he was still using his position (literally and metaphorically) as a photographer, and vice versa. As such, World War II wasn’t (just) a violent incubator for new media technologies that would go on to have importance in avant-garde aesthetic or critical fields, it was an experimental field where aesthetics and politics mixed. But I don’t want to confuse this with the autistic fetishism of the Futurists who marveled at the aesthetic virtuosity of World War I’s killing machines–my parable doesn’t abstract or glorify war, it weaves war back into a human history of seeing and feeling.

Check back later in the week for the first post in this series.