For a few years in the 1980s David Shields was a Visiting professor at St. Lawrence University. His first book was fairly “traditional”—sentences of his own prose arranged in chapters —but since then Shields has published books that push the boundaries of traditional writing. Some use extensive clips from other writers. Some are all conversation.
“War is Beautiful” is Shields eleventh book and it looks like an art book with its big size and thick white pages. It’s subtitled: “The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict.”
Shields writes that for decades he was “entranced” by the war photos in The New York Times, but “over time I realized that these photos glorified war through an unrelenting parade of beautiful images whose function is to sanctify the accompanying descriptions of battle, death, destruction, and displacement.”
The sixty-five photos in this book are arranged in ten chapters: Nature, Playground, Father, God, Pietà, Painting, Movie, Beauty, Love and Death. Each photo gets its own page and has no caption until the end of the book.
The photos in this post disturbed me even as they show artistic beauty. Is there a lesson here? Shields says he no longer reads The New York Times. I’m not willing to do that but I think I will be a more cautious consumer of front-page images. I’ve always known that war photos are meant to manipulate, almost any photo is. Here’s Shields: “Behind these sublime, destructive, illuminated images are hundreds of thousands of unobserved, anonymous war deaths…” With words we must remember to read between the lines. With photos we must remember to look beyond the image.