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Book Review: Faces of War: The Untold Story of Edward Steichen’s WWII Photographers (Berkley Caliber

Discussion in 'Biographies and Everything Else' started by dgmitchell, Jun 28, 2009.

  1. dgmitchell

    dgmitchell Ace

    May 9, 2008
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    In January of 1942, the Secretary of the United States Navy, Frank Knox intervened to cause the Navy to waive its usual requirements in order to commission Edward Steichen – already an old man of 62 – as a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy. Steichen’s name is probably now forgotten by most people, except for true photography buffs and perhaps a few students of WWII, but in 1941, he was the most pre-eminent commercial photographer in the world. His work for Vanity Fair and Vogue in the 1920’s and 1930’s had set the standard for celebrity portraiture and, in 1938, he had retired at the top of his profession.

    As war approached, however, Steichen wanted to be recommissioned in the service. During the Great War, he had served in the Photographic Section of the Air Service, where he eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He ultimately would have 55 officers and 1000 men reporting to him. In the days leading up to WWII, Steichen had hoped to reactivate his commission from the First World War, but the army told him that he was just too old. It was only then that Steichen had turned to the navy and managed to pull strings to obtain a commission. For the rest of the war, Steichen would lead the Aviation Photographic Unit of the United States Navy, a unit that would leave as its legacy some of the most compelling images of the Second World War.

    In Faces of War: The Untold Story of Edward Steichen’s WWII Photographers (Berkley Caliber, May 2009; 240 pages), Mark D. Faram presents a vivid account of Steichen’s effort during the war, and of the cadre of top photographers who accepted commissions to serve under him. Steichen and his men – including Horace Bristol, Charles Fenno Jacobs, Victor Jorgensen, Charles Kerlee, Dwight Long and Wayne Miller -- would travel deep into battle in the Pacific Theater with the officers and crews of carriers and submarines and just about every other type of water craft that the navy offered. They would suffer exposure at high altitudes, standing behind navy pilots so that they could capture the images of air combat. They would receive medals for valor, as when Barrett Gallagher, one of Steichen’s men, threw down his camera in order to aid the wounded on a torpedoed carrier, despite the very real risk of being killed by exploding ammunition.

    Of course, the real joy of Faces of War is in Faram’s compilation of so many of the Aviation Photographic Unit’s photographs. Those images are enduring tributes to the men who fought the war and of the beauty and horror of human conflict. In one image, Steichen captured a small flower pushing its way through the carnage of the battle field. In another, he recorded the silent tragedy of a soldier's fingers pushing through the surface of the rubble and dirt that had collapsed upon him – killing him. By the end of the war, Steichen and his men would contribute more than 14,000 vivid photographs to the record of the United States war effort.

    Mr. Faram does a wonderful job of researching the legacy of the Aviation Photographic Unit and he includes a great many of those photographs in Faces of War. Moreover, the Berkeley Caliber imprint has packaged Faces of War with a wonderful bonus DVD that includes much more of the Aviation Photographic Unit’s catalog, including motion pictures. The DVD is visually stunning and a tremendous packaging decision by Mr. Faram’s publisher.

    Faces of War opens the reader to the often overlooked contributions of the photographers who recorded the images of war in the days before television news cameras broadcast war live into America’s living rooms. Although Steichen and his men did not produce images with the immediacy of a television broadcast, they did capture moments on film that are far more enduring than any television images could ever be. Students of 20th century photographic history must read this book and students of World War II should consider reading it as well. Mark D. Faram, a navy veteran himself, has presented his readers with a tribute to Steichen and his men and to the art that they created in the midst of the horrors of war.

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