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Comments (16) Posted 06.09.09 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Adam Harrison Levy

The Photographs of Manuel Bromberg

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.

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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. 

With 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.

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Comments (16)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

Fascinating. It's always great to be able to capture stories, life and events from many sides and not just one person's point of view.
06.11.09 at 10:23

Great story, well-told. Any chance that the photos will be published anytime soon?
06.11.09 at 12:48

Great job Adam.

Glad to see this on DO. The humanity in Bromberg's photos is apparent. Too many art school hippies (myself included) grow up believing the military consists of either blind, brainwashed drones or insane officers. It's just not true. "Soldiers" can be compassionate, too (myself included). Sometimes to a fault.

Will try harder to "do it like Goya." Ha!

Joe Moran
06.11.09 at 12:49

What an unusual morning. I didn't expect anything about any war to appear on DO. I must release you from the design cage and the limits, I've imposed, because I am not a designer. Normandy is the most emotional day of the year for me. These photos bring tears. My father was at Normandy, the Pacific theatre, Sicily, northern African, and finally Japan. In his later years, we ended up spending almost everyday together, after my almost 20 year absence from home. We talked. We covered the waterfront. Everything, I wanted to know, he slowly told me. He never understood why the US government allowed so many US military in so soon after the bombs. He gave me his navy diary, filled with love letters to my mother, who waited for him. She began a scrapbook, with as much as she was allowed to have. Four years later my father returned to CT. his birthplace. They began their life together. And, my father died one year and a day after my mother. What I have is all the scrapbooks, pictures, letters. I have massacred this post. Kindly, slice it for me. Many thanks for a surprise, initially sad, but very exciting in that I'm beginning to grasp the latitude of DO. I will learn to be short. I do know I can expect anything!

Thanks, Gayle Dallas Blackston
Gayle Dallas Blackston
06.11.09 at 01:35

Great Pictures! We all need to respect the troops for the bravery and courage they have shown!
Graphic Design Orange County
06.11.09 at 06:47

Wow those are prolific.
Television Spy
06.12.09 at 03:24

Why is it that the most horrendous historical events make for beautiful photography? Holocaust, 9—11, natural disasters, etc.
06.12.09 at 06:19

Why is it that the most horrendous historical events make for beautiful photography? Holocaust, 9—11, natural disasters, etc.

because these events make human lives asymmetrical. While Hollywood standards of facial beauty are supposedly set on symmetry, we all know that the explorers (photographers who venture into such fields) base their photography on bold, interesting angles that aren't perfectly balanced.

06.13.09 at 08:57

thanks for the response Mr Blank. I have to respectfully disagree. I think the answer is more primitive. When people are driving and see a horrible accident on the side of the road they slow down to stare. I do not believe them staring has anything to do with angles or symmetry.

wdefrg—if you're going to pollute this message board w/ a cheap sex sight plug—here's a tip—MAKE SURE IT WORKS.
06.13.09 at 12:15

see i usually dont stare at those accidents. i just keep on with where i am hesded. i once got in a fender bender and twoi other cars stppped to stare and ended up in the worse accidents than mine. i may be add when im reading and clicking and writing, but not about gawking at horror.

my exhusband however would look at all those kind of things (and blondes, too.)

06.13.09 at 01:13

I just finished Ken Burns' Civil War doc set. Absolutely brilliant. But at times—I have to admit—I did feel i was 'gawking at horror'.

"my exhusband however would look at all those kind of things (and blondes, too.)"

Are you talking about the accident scenario or the cheap porn site posted above?

06.13.09 at 02:14

the accident. the blondes were in real life and always made him turn his head. i am dark haired, slightly grey, was a blonde for my first two years of life before my actual hair pigmentation took hold. never had any yearning to be blond and cannot understand the yearning or the desire to look at such either especially if it is bleached straw.

06.13.09 at 03:30

There is a mural in the Greybull, WY post office by Manuel Bromberg. I was researching his work and found this article. Thank you, Mr. Levy, for your efforts to mine Mr. Bromberg's life work. The photos are haunting and the article is appreciated.
Charlotte Hinckley
06.23.09 at 09:50

I suppose I'm in the minority here. I didn't find these images especially compelling. Interesting yes; historically significant, yes.
But not gripping.

I think the addition of the photographer's captions and/or notes would add an important perspective to these images.
06.24.09 at 07:38

very interesting post. Thanks a lot for sharing it.
Benjamin blog
01.11.10 at 07:43

Alexei, I agree there is a lack of a compelling tone. If we had no historical relationship to the photos, as we do, they would be of lesser interest. For example, if these were photos of Serbs, say, getting their hair cut, talking to a child, the heart would not go out so. Besides, I think these photos themselves are intrinsically interesting or skillfull, in fact, I would guess that they were the edits.
03.16.11 at 03:46

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Adam Harrison Levy is a writer and freelance documentary film producer and director. He specializes in the art of the interview. For the BBC he has conducted interviews with a wide range of actors, writers, musicians and film-makers including Meryl Streep, Philip Glass, and Paul Auster. He was the U.S. producer for Selling the Sixties, a cultural history of advertising in New York and Close Up, about the artist Chuck Close. He is the author of  essays for Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945, an exhibition at the International Center for Photography, and Saul Leiter: Retrospective. He teaches at the School of Visual Arts and in the Film Studies Dept at Wesleyan University. In 2012 he was a Poynter Fellow at Yale University.

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