Friday, August 9, 2013

Matsushige's 17

If I could just let it go, forget about that picture.

Aug 6 2013

As usual, I try to distingish the importance of this morning's essences. As usual, around 8 oclock, I peer outside into the bright eastern morning and sparkling currents of the river below, reconfiguring what I see to another location and time. Then, at 8:15, the required moment, I'll note it all before my eyes, the angle of the sun across roofs, New York's own awakening. I'll compare the similarities and dismiss the differences quickly. Its an annual ritual. Then later, as usual, I'll linger and scrutinize the forms and shades of the bridge embankments of Manhattan, looking odd I guess,  even odder than usual, as I stare at what, to others, is nothing at all, but project on these ordinary, urban, functional and gray angles, an emotional echo. August 6. Its a strange personal ritual I share with very few, if anyone else at all, I imagine. As usual, I'll quietly, futiley tell myself to bring my camera there  sometime one August 6th, to the Manhattan embankments with their thick railings, to start an art project to mimic or re-enact...that picture... that is seared into my soul, as though my familiar Manhattan surroundings were Miyuki bridge. As though I was Matsushige- the person who made that picture. Or maybe someone else, some lower ranked Military photographer who might have recorded a few on that day too, maybe hidden away even now, forgotten somewhere in a Hiroshima warehouse. As usual, I'll shake my head wondering why I'm so regular in my thinking about these matters around August 6th. That day.That picture.

Dreadful anxieties about annilation flow from that picture.That smudgey, rectangle of distant fires, broken windows and burned victims seems like a detailed imprint not only  from the past, but of a possible, awful future too. I grew up in the 1960's, and vividly remember sitting in a school hallway, shoulder to shoulder with my class, ducking and practicing, molding ourselfs to a suitable position which might better resist the impact of a Hydrogen bomb. One morning an odd picture appeared in the lobby of my family's apartment building. That toxic looking, yellow and black fallout shelter icon, directing us to an imagined safety.

During World War II,Yoshito Matsushige was working in Hiroshima as a photographer for the local newspaper. Soon after the atomic explosion, he had the presence of mind to dig out his camera from under the debris of his home, as well as two rolls of film - 24 possible pictures. And at the end of the day, 17 potential shots remained blank.

Matsushige made his way from the less damaged outskirts toward central Hiroshima, he made his way through the havoc, and fleeing, burned and mangled survivors. A firestorm engulfed most of the city. Others may have tried to record the event also, but only a very few photographs emerged from that day. I want to understand the pictures never taken. And their final, irretrievable absence in the world's collective archive of momentous documents.

Live broadcasts, selfies by the billions, smart phone cams, web cams, and the ubiquitous digital camera, are  entrencehed now in our grasp of current events. Pictoral memories left with us after an historical, or mundane, event are expected instamtly, and, lots of them. Theres scarcely any reason to have to imagine what an important event looks like anymore, no need to sketch in the little details, its all on Instagram. But in 1945, there were far fewer cameras around generally.

Crouching and sheltering in a shattered store after the Trade Centers towers fell, one woman asked a photographer “Why are you taking pictures?”, he told her "To document what is happening of course". Could I?

I ask, what would my own reaction be if I were in that situation. It nags me. I'm not a photojournalist, my concerns, ability and ideas about image making differ from a photojournalist's motivation or instinct.

Matsushige may provide understanding of my question. He remembers ...“Near the Miyuki Bridge, there was a police box. Most of the victims who had gathered there were junior high school girls from the Hiroshima Girls Business School and the Hiroshima Junior High School No.1. they had been mobilized to evacuate buildings and they were outside when the bomb fell. Having been directly exposed to the heat rays, they were covered with blisters, the size of balls, on their backs, their faces, their shoulders and their arms. The blisters were starting to burst open and their skin hung down like rugs. Some of the children even have burns on the soles of their feet. They'd lost their shoes and run barefoot through the burning fire. When I saw this, I thought I would take a picture and I picked up my camera. But I couldn't push the shutter because the sight was so pathetic. Even though I too was a victim of the same bomb, I only had minor injuries from glass fragments, whereas these people were dying. It was such a cruel sight that I couldn't bring myself to press the shutter. Perhaps I hesitated there for about 20 minutes, but I finally summoned up the courage to take one picture. Then, I moved 4 or 5 meters forward to take the second picture. Even today, I clearly remember how the view finder was clouded over with my tears. I felt that everyone was looking at me and thinking angrily, "He's taking our picture and will bring us no help at all." Still, I had to press the shutter, so I harden my heart and finally I took the second shot. Those people must have thought me duly cold-hearted. Then, I saw a burnt streetcar which had just turned the corner at Kamiya-cho. There were passengers still in the car. I put my foot onto the steps of the car and I looked inside. There were perhaps 15 or 16 people in front of the car. They laid dead one on top of another. Kamiya-cho was very close to the hypocenter, about 200 meters away. The passengers had stripped them of all their clothes. They say that when you are terrified, you tremble and your hair stands on end. And I felt just this tremble when I saw this scene. I stepped down to take a picture and I put my hand on my camera. But I felt so sorry for these dead and naked people whose photo would be left to posterity that I couldn't take the shot. Also, in those days we weren't allowed to publish the photographs of corpses in the newspapers. After that, I walked around, I walked through the section of town which had been hit hardest. I walked for close to three hours. But I couldn't take even one picture of that central area. There were other cameramen in the army shipping group and also at the newspaper as well. But the fact that not a single one of them was able to take pictures seems to indicate just how brutal the bombing actually was. I don't pride myself on it, but it's a small consolation that I was able to take at least five pictures...Sometimes I think I should have gathered my courage and taken more photos, but at other times I feel I did all I could do. I could not endure taking any more ” Testimony of Yoshito Matsushige

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