Silliman's Papers

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Monday, November 17, 2003

The Thelonious Death of Music and the Dylan Pox of Rage
By Daniel Silliman, Nov. 2003.

Oh yeah he was famous
long ago you wouldn’t know
electric violin turned bludgeon
beating out the face
flat damn her anyway
and now he’s sweeping up.
You wouldn’t think. Sweet fucking rage.

And since violins are for intellectuals and freaks
they’re all locked in towers now
and no one can wear a beard.
The subway went silent
he’s performing public art with a broom
so the last dog died.

He kicked that dog but the dog died
maybe they’ll give him another one
but the cigarette machine doesn’t think so.
      They said
the electro-violin was gonna
undermine the world save the world
shave the stave the wave the pearl
but it gave the dog a howl and made a pretty face pretty flat
and the guy that gave him the broom said
it was all worthless you know.

Pock Mate, he said.
Purely poppy taste and kiddy curdled gut
      they only play checkers these days.

Come out from behind the eye patch,
he screams at pirates riding mopeds
while he swats off piercing pawns because
you can’t forget the pawn that’s lagging.
      Looking at him y’know.
King trapped in a corner where the dead dog is turning sour
and the daily says Fuck the Bitches in 70 point

but that was on TV a week ago.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

The Funeral and the Procession:
The work of Robert Capa, the greatest war-photographer, 1913 to 1954.
By Daniel Silliman
for 20th Century Journalism
November 2, 2003

Robert Capa said that poverty was about shoes. This was neither a little point nor a random one, for to speak of shoes is to speak of poverty in a way that the theorists never can. It is to speak as a human. Capa, who photographed five wars in 18 years, who photographed the dieing, the dead, and the yet to die, who captured with his camera the honor and the horror of the 20th century, was an artist who looked at the world as a human.

Some photographers are safe behind the camera’s lens. Distanced. But Capa and his camera were always moving closer: closer to the soldiers eating lunch amid the rubble beneath the statue of an angel, closer to the priest making the sign of the cross above the caskets of dead children, closer to the old man smiling at the boy with the gun upon his back, closer to pretty face beneath the bloody bandage. “If your picture isn’t good enough,” he said, “you’re not close enough.”

Capa photographed war. He photographed war where “the shelling lags; the enemy rests on his haunches; and on such mornings the defenders of Madrid take the sun, read, play chess, write letters home which, when they arrive, will be no guarentee that the sender is alive.” He and his camera were there with the soldiers, as the abnormal became normal, and was all the more abnormal for become so.

Born Andre Friedmann on the Pest side of Budapest the year before World War I, Capa’s life was one marked by war, and his work one of marking it. He covered five wars with his camera: The Spanish Civil War, the Japanese invasion of China, World War II, the Arab-Israeli conflict in the foundation of a Jewish state, and the French in Vietnam. All this in a span of 18 years.

His photographs of the Spanish Civil War are among the best ever taken of battle and of an embattled people. The Picture Post ran 11 of 25-year-old Capa’s frontline photographs, declaring him, in a statement still considered true, “The Greatest War-Photographer in the World.” Drawn to the front between the warring forces of socialism and fascism, Capa joined and defined the great moralistic cause his age, the Spanish attempt at a non-Stalinist Communism. Madrid was to be the tomb of fascism, and Capa was to chronicle its death. Capa memorialized the conflict with his picture of a Republican militiaman, an anarcho-syndicalist, at the moment of his death. At the moment of Capa’s snapping shutter, the man’s right hand loses it’s grip letting his rifle slip, the mans knees weaken and he tumbles to the brown grass of a Spanish hillside where he died. Spain’s Socialist Republic failed, and Capa was there, shooting the refugees and the captured.

He was a man that knew poverty was about shoes, that death is about blood filling a doorway, that liberation is about a free first glass of wine. His pictures show that. His pictures carry more humanity than the poems of a thousand poets. A man faces down into a pile of rocks in the spread-eagle of death, a woman reaches for the hand of a little girl and looks into the sky with fear, a portrait is stacked against stacks of belongings displaced in the broken street, and we know the 20th century with the accuracy of a journalism that is deft, bold and intimate. The photographer’s journalism tightly tells the story, is bold in the telling, and compassionate for having told.

In Capa’s own writing, we see a man close enough to war to know its quietness and its chaos, and enough of a journalist to try and show the whole thing. He was, by turns, a devout believer in the cause of his photography and an intense skeptic. In him is realized the tensions of the “incompatibility of being a reporter and hanging onto a tender soul,” even the tender soul that drives one to be a reporter. “I hated myself and my profession,” he writes after of a confrontation with a wounded English pilot, “This sort of photography was only for undertakers and I didn’t like being one. If I was to share the funeral, I swore, I would have to share the procession.”

At 40, Capa died in Vietnam covering what was his fifth war and what was then, May 25, 1954, the French war in Indo-China. The night before, playing yet another hand of poker and drinking a warm cognac and soda, he’d declared Vietnam a reporter’s war. “Nobody knows anything and nobody tells you anything,” he said, “and that means a good reporter is free to go out and get a beat every day.” Capa was touring the falling French outposts along the Red River Delta, shooting pictures of peasants in fields of rice contrasted with tanks and explosions. “This is going to be a beautiful story,” he said on his last morning. Wandering among the troops, remarkable for the carefulness that comes with the experience of five wars, he stepped on an anti-personnel mine and was the first American correspondent to die in Vietnam.

He died in Vietnam with a camera in his hand, a cigarette in his mouth and film in his pocket waiting for the right picture. He left behind a few cameras, a few unpaid hotel bills, and body of work showing the face of war and the face of man. Capa was among the best of journalists, the finest of the breed to walk the 20th century. He balanced bravery and compassion, honesty and idealism, journalism and humanity.

“Just ask anybody where the war is,” Ernie Pyle once told Capa in North Africa, “you can’t miss it.” Capa found the war. He found it and four others. He found war and in finding war found his century, with its story and its insanity. Most of all, he found his protagonist, the little man who was thrown against the world he couldn’t change, but would try. Capa’s photographs show the meaninglessness and the meaning of war, which is the hopelessness and the hope of being human.

“We were lying around in the little square in front of the church, completely pooped and thoroughly disgusted. There wasn’t much sense to this fighting, dying, taking pictures, I was thinking.” His pictures tell this story, but it wasn’t a simple story of despair for the story is inevitably a story of life. As he wrote of his picture of a tea in an English bomb shelter, “They are no braver that other people, in Lambeth, and no more terrified either… Life continues in spite of the lights failing, the gas and water mains being hit. In spite of death, life in its ordinary regular drudging character is more durable than the desire to stop it. They find ways of getting through the bad times by laughing at them, by belittling them, by dramatizing them, by not understanding them.”


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