There is a lot of books being published every year, yes, I always think there are too many books published. I can never read all of them and many of them are not worth reading.
Some times I try to keep up with the new books and other times I find some old books, classics or documentaries
The other day I borrowed this book from a friend and starting reading it: «Shooting the Russian war» by Margaret Bourke-White, the photographer whom I have written about before on this blog.
This book is about her travel to USSR in 1941 together with her husband, the writer Erskine Caldwell.
The war had already started but had not come to USSR – or Russia as she calls it – when they left USA.
She had a permission to photograph and they get a hotel room in the luxurious hotel National in the center of Moscow with a good view to the Cremlin.
It is from the balcony of this room that she shoots some of the most spectacular photos of the first bombings of Moscow. The pictures are incredible with the almost geometrical pattern in the sky over the Cremlin.
Reading about the bombing and how she hides under the bed not to be taken to the shelter, how she puts her camera to work during this horror tells us about a very special woman.
After several weeks in Moscow waiting to go to the front she becomes impatient and in the end of a dinner which was given to the Soviet and foreign press in the end of September she has this conversation with one from the authorities:
«I can’t go back to America without photographing the front,» I said. «I simply can’t. What will I say when my fellow countrymen discover that I have not seen with my own eyes the heroism of the glorious Red Army? They will exclaim, «Why were you not allowed to witness those noble deeds about which we hear so much? Perhaps, then, they do not really exist!»
It sounded a bit oratorical, but continued association with Russians makes such Speech seem Natural.
«It is very dangerous at the front,» said Mr Lozovsky. «Aren’t you afraid?»
I get rather tired of being asked if I’m afraid when I believe that the mention of danger may be merely a convenient form of refusal.
«There’s only one thing I’m afraid of. That’s of going home without finishng my job.»
This seemed to sink in, so I added, «I came here to photograph Your country. If I had wanted to be safe I would have stayed at home. If the Red Army soldiers can face the danger, why shouldn’t I?»
«Fighting is their work,» said Mr Lozovsky.
«And photography is my work».
This conversation gave her the permission to go to the front. There she could observe the horrors of war. Some of the towns were completely gone, only black ashes were left on the ground. How she was able to photograph the dead bodies she explains like this:
«It is a peculiar thing about pictures of this sort. It is as though a protecting screen draws itself across my mind and makes it possible to consider focus and light values and the technique of photography, in an impersonal a way as though I were making an abstract camera composition. This blind lasts as long as it is needed – while I am actually operating the camera. Days later, when I developed the negatives, I was suprised to find that i could not bring myself to look at the films. I had to have someone else to handle and sort them out for me.»
This explains for me the consciousnes of the war photographer.
What Margaret Bourke-White has done, perhaps more than anyone else – was to document a time in history which we need to learn about to try to understand and not make the same mistakes again.
The book is fascinating, very well written and almost incredible to read. She did not only photograph the war scenes but she also got to meet with Stalin to photograph him. Her discription of this tyrant is very interesting. It is a strange picture imagening this young American woman bending down in front of he dictator to find her camera and lenses making Stalin laugh and catching him before his face settles again. When she came into the room there were two things she noticed: he had the Picture she had taken of his mother some years ago on the table, and she was struck by how small he was. She has seen these enormous posters everywhere of him so she looked up to see him, but then discovered that he was smaller than herself. When he started to laugh she writes:
«When his face lighted up with a smile the change was miraculous. It was as though a second personality had come to the front, genial, cordial, and kindly.»
Then he becomes serious again:
«When the smile ended, it was as though a veil had been drawn over his features. Again he looked as if he had been turned into granite, and I went away thinking that this was the strongest, most determined face I had ever seen.»
You come so close to the man himself seeing him with the photographer’s eyes.
This book is not easy to find. There are some rare ones in the antiquariates and they cost a lot. But if you are interested in photography and the time of war in Russia, this is one of the best books i have read about this.
Maragret Bourke-White used her eyes to see for us so that we can learn about this time in history. We should be very grateful to her. Thank you.