Photo Archive Lets You Download 4,300 High-Res Photographs of the Historic Normandy Invasion

Taxis to Hell – and Back – Into the Jaws of Death, by Robert F. Sar­gent, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

In the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, the­o­rists like Roland Barthes and Pierre Bour­dieu explod­ed naive notions of pho­tog­ra­phy as “a per­fect­ly real­is­tic and objec­tive record­ing of the vis­i­ble world… a ‘nat­ur­al lan­guage,’” as Bour­dieu wrote in Pho­tog­ra­phy: A Mid­dle­brow Art. Bour­dieu him­self wield­ed a cam­era dur­ing his ethno­graph­ic work in Alge­ria, tak­ing dozens of con­ven­tion­al and uncon­ven­tion­al pho­tographs of the nation’s strug­gle for inde­pen­dence from France in the 50s. Yet he urged us to see pho­tog­ra­phy as for­mal­ly medi­at­ing social real­i­ty rather than trans­par­ent­ly rep­re­sent­ing the truth.

We have been trained to inter­pret the per­spec­tives most pho­tographs adopt as objec­tive views, when in fact they are “per­fect­ly in keep­ing with the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the world which has dom­i­nat­ed Europe since the Quat­tro­cen­to.” Pho­tog­ra­phy, in oth­er words, tends to give us art imi­tat­ing Renais­sance art. It can be dif­fi­cult to bear this in mind when we look at indi­vid­ual photographs—what Barthes calls “the This.”

Whether they doc­u­ment our own fam­i­ly his­to­ries or such momen­tous events as the Nor­mandy Inva­sion that began on D‑Day, June 6th, 1944, pho­tographs elic­it pow­er­ful emo­tion­al reac­tions that defy aes­thet­ic cat­e­gories.

At the Flickr account Pho­to­sNor­mandie, you can browse and search over 4,300 high res­o­lu­tion pho­tographs from the piv­otal Nor­mandy cam­paign, “From icon­ic images like Into the Jaws of Death by Robert F. Sar­gent,” My Mod­ern Met writes, “to troops inter­act­ing with locals as they lib­er­ate areas of Nor­mandy.” The pho­tos are deeply affect­ing, often awe-inspir­ing. When we look with a crit­i­cal eye, we’ll find our­selves ask­ing cer­tain ques­tions about them.

The skewed per­spec­tive and omi­nous sky in Sargent’s “Into the Jaws of Death,” for exam­ple, at the top of the post, might make us think of the Sturm und Drang of many a dra­mat­ic ship­wreck paint­ing from the Roman­tic peri­od. Was Sar­gent aware of the sim­i­lar­i­ty when he looked through the lens? Did he posi­tion him­self to height­en the effect? In pho­tos like that fur­ther up, of a French home dis­play­ing a pro‑U.S. sign on July 11th, 1944, we might won­der whether the res­i­dents made the sign or whether it was giv­en to them, per­haps for this very pho­to op. As always, we’re jus­ti­fied in ask­ing about the role of the pho­tog­ra­ph­er in stag­ing or fram­ing a par­tic­u­lar scene.

For exam­ple, the pho­to of a Ger­man sol­dier sur­ren­der­ing to Amer­i­can G.I.s, above, looks staged. But what exact­ly these sol­diers are doing remains a mys­tery. How much do these exter­nal details mat­ter? Pho­tog­ra­phy is unique among oth­er visu­al arts in that “the Pho­to­graph,” Barthes writes, “repro­duces to infin­i­ty” what has “occurred only once.” It is the meet­ing of infin­i­ty with “only once” that engages us in more exis­ten­tial explo­rations.  All of these sol­diers and civil­ians, shar­ing their joy and anguish, most of them now passed into his­to­ry. Who were these peo­ple? What did these moments mean to them? What do they mean to us 70 years lat­er?

The bombed-out cathe­drals and defeat­ed tanks make us pon­der the fragili­ty of our own built envi­ron­ment, though the destruc­tive forces threat­en­ing to undo the mod­ern world now seem as like­ly to be nat­ur­al as man-made—or rather some new, fright­en­ing com­bi­na­tion of the two. In the faces of the wound­ed and the dis­placed, we see spe­cif­ic man­i­fes­ta­tions of the same trag­ic inva­sions and migra­tions that reach back to Thucy­dides and for­ward to the present moment in world his­to­ry, in which some 60 mil­lion peo­ple dis­placed by war and hard­ship seek sanc­tu­ary.

The images draw us away into gen­er­al obser­va­tions as they draw us back to the unre­peat­able moment. This project began on the 60th anniver­sary of D‑Day “as a way,” My Mod­ern Met explains, “to crowd­source descrip­tions of images on the now defunct Archives Nor­mandie, 1939–1945. Thus, users are encour­aged to com­ment on pho­tos if they are able to improve descrip­tions, loca­tions, and iden­ti­fi­ca­tions.” His­to­ry may rhyme with the present—as one famous quote attrib­uted to Mark Twain has it—but it nev­er exact­ly repeats. The pho­to­graph, Barthes wrote, “mechan­i­cal­ly repeats what could nev­er be repeat­ed exis­ten­tial­ly.” Moments for­ev­er lost to time, trans­mut­ed into time­less­ness by the cam­er­a’s eye. Enter the Pho­to­sNor­mandie gallery here.

via My Mod­ern Met

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Clem Albers & Fran­cis Stewart’s Cen­sored Pho­tographs of a WWII Japan­ese Intern­ment Camp

The Fin­land Wartime Pho­to Archive: 160,000 Images From World War II Now Online

31 Rolls of Film Tak­en by a World War II Sol­dier Get Dis­cov­ered & Devel­oped Before Your Eyes

200,000 Pho­tos from the George East­man Muse­um, the World’s Old­est Pho­tog­ra­phy Col­lec­tion, Now Avail­able Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.