The collective memory of war is often shaped by images, as the recent 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings made clear. The images which have most clearly defined our visual memory of the D-Day invasion are the eleven surviving negatives
taken by Robert Capa
on the morning of June 6, 1944. With their blurred forms of soldiers wading through the frigid Atlantic towards probable death, with their landing craft floating ineffectually in the far distance and the German anti-tank defense system rising like surreal teeth around them, these photographs are a crystallization of the fear and terror of war (they are also the inspiration behind the first harrowing minutes of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan
). They are justifiably famous.
But there are other images taken on the beaches of Normandy that are almost entirely unknown. Rarely seen, they speak to another side of war.
Blasted trees, Normandy, June 1944
A number of years ago, while researching a BBC documentary about World War Two, I paid a visit to Manuel Bromberg
at his home in Woodstock, New York. Bromberg had waded ashore and onto Normandy’s Omaha beach in June, 1944. Like the other soldiers he carried an M-1 carbine
. But unlike the other men he was packing some specialized equipment: a Leica camera was slung around his neck and a sketchbook was jammed into his back pocket.
Bromberg was one of a select few, a member of the now almost forgotten US War Artist’s Unit. His assignment was, in part, to cover the D-Day invasion. “It was an impossible sight. Bodies were still floating in the water. It was a combination of Dante’s Inferno and the biggest junkyard ever seen” he told me as we walked over to his painting studio, which was on the grounds of his house. Then eighty-seven he was a vigorous man with a gruff demeanor, a rangy gate and leonine hair.
His studio was modest and comfortably cluttered. A number of partly completed paintings hung along a far wall and the worktables were dense with tools and paintbrushes. He took his sketchbook off a shelf and showed me his rough and ready renderings of blasted bunkers, soldiers on the march, evacuations from field medical hospitals. I casually asked about the camera and the photographs. Did they still exist? He gave me a long look, walked over to a corner of the studio and kicked a cardboard box. “Have a look” he said, “they’re all in there.”
Bromberg’s photographs are of a different order from Capa’s. He was not a photojournalist. He was on Omaha beach in the capacity of an artist and his photographs reflect a different set of pictorial priorities. With their informal, almost snapshot quality, their intimacy and their attention to the wreckage of battle they document war’s destructive impact. They also tell the story of a visual artist’s search for material.
Soldier and boy, Normandy, June 1944
Bromberg arrived on Omaha beach after the most brutal fighting had already taken place. Nevertheless he was overwhelmed by what he saw. “Here I was with all this debris of the war and bodies and destroyed homes and destroyed bunkers and destroyed minefields and hedgerows and orchards…it was this enormous visual tapestry. How the hell are you going to handle it?”
His solution was to gather notes, visual notes. Wielding his Leica like a notebook (he was not a trained photographer) Bromberg went about gathering details, photographic images that he envisioned using later in his paintings: the twisted forms of the German defenses, the skeletal outline of blasted trees against a blank sky, the contorted body of a dead German soldier. “I was thinking pictorially. I was thinking not just about the subject matter but also what was evoked.”
His use of the camera gives these images something different from Capa’s adrenaline stoked photos or the more standard framing and subject matter of the official US Signal Corps
documentation of the fighting. Bromberg’s photographs are both more consciously aesthetic and more particularly human. Aesthetically, he wasn’t interested in depicting heroics but rather the impact that the forces of war had unleashed on the human body, on the landscape, and on military materiel. He found the crushed and shattered hull of a ship “aesthetically beautiful as a result of violence” which was probably not what the Army had in mind when they sent him on Operation Overlord.
While visiting a makeshift evacuation hospital set up on the bluffs overlooking the beaches, he found himself scanning the dead and dying in search of the telling detail. What he discovered was a soldier stretched out in an almost classically painterly pose. The soldier looks both vulnerable and serene.
Evacuation Hospital, Normandy, June 1944
Bromberg told me that he had felt burdened by the responsibility of his assignment and that he was never able to satisfactorily depict what he had witnessed. The wording of his commission had stated that he was expected to “be more than a mere news gatherer”. It had gone on to state that he should produce work in the tradition of Goya, Gericault, and Delacroix. Understandably, this had made him anxious and depressed. “That’s scary right away, to be told to do like Goya”.
Nevertheless, he found his own way to depict his experience. Never intended to be seen by the public, or to be anything more than working reference sources (which is why they sat in a cardboard box for sixty years) these photographs, with their off-kilter framing and snapshot aesthetic are anti-heroic and quietly powerful.
I returned to visit Bromberg a number of times over the course of the next year or so (his story, sadly, never made it into the film). During that time his awareness of the significance of the photographs grew. “Omaha beach images are set to certain high points. I have photographs of GI’s cutting other GI’s hair on the beach. You don’t see that in Spielberg”.Adam Harrison Levy is a writer and documentary film-maker. He recently worked on the upcoming BBC2 series, The Genius of Design and produced Selling the
Sixties, a BBC documentary about consumerism, advertising and culture
of the early 1960s. A version of this article first appeared in The Guardian in May 2004.
this essay, Design Observer is pleased to announce that Adam Harrison Levy
will be joining our regular stable of contributing writers. His
previous essays on Design Observer may be found here.