Originally published in The East Hampton Star on February 21, 2002.
Featured in The Evergreen Review Issue 105 in 2002.
Barney Rosset's photos of combat in Southwestern China, taken in 1944 when he was a 22 -year-old officer in a United States Army Signal Corps unit operating out of New Delhi, are as effective and sometimes difficult to look at as any of the images produced by better known World War II photojournalists whose work first drew attention in the pages of Life and other slick magazines of the day.
After the war Mr. Rosset went on to fame as the publisher of the Evergreen Review and Grove Press, which he transformed from an obscure house into one of the most important names in 20th-century literature.
It was Mr. Rosset who fought for the right to publish Henery Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" and D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" in the United States, winning unprecedented legal battles against government censorship in the process, and who brought to the public the work of Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Marguerite Duras, Samuel Beckett, and dozens of others.
His photographs have come to be exhibited only in the last few years. First there was a group of formally composed, serene often dreamlike pictures of his first wife, the painter Joan Mitchell, that were shown at the Danziger Gallery in New York in 1998. The photos portrayed the young Ms. Mitchell, who was just beginning her career, with a tenderness that strikes us all the more powerfully for the elegant simplicity of the compositions.
They are memorable also because their format and style were the opposite of what is fashionable in photography today -- colossal Cibachrome or digital color images whose scale is so compelling that you don't so much look at an image as feel battered by pixels.
Mr. Rosset's war photos are powerful the way that, for example, Robert Capa's are -- we are placed directly into a situation and forced to witness events we'd rather not think about. The pictures are simply composed, and they affect the viewers instantly. Much art goes into making such forceful photos, but it's all invisible.
You can, though, get a sense of Mr. Rosset's approach to his subject because there are sometimes multiple images of one subject. There are two views of a wounded Chinese soldier; in one, he is alone, seen dead on; in the other, he's seen from a bit farther away, and other soldiers are entering the frame. It's the difference between an isolated figure out of Goya and a single frame from a more complex narrative. They are successful in different ways.
But though we are sometimes allowed to see the choices the photographer was presented with, there is no intermediary between the subject and the viewer. You do not sense Mr. Rosset's presence, and that's to the good.
It's also a reminder of what first-rate documentary photography is about. I can't count the number of times I've looked at an otherwise disturbing photo by the most respected war photographer of our time, Sebastino Salgado, and have found myself marveling at his technique rather than affected by a scene of human devastation; Mr. Salgado is a stunning technician whose subject sometimes takes a back seat to his style.
Mr. Rosset gives us a sense of what it was like to be in Kweiyang and Kiangkoa with the Chinese forces who fought the Japanese, and his subjects are not only men in combat but civilians, especially refugees. A picture of a woman trudging through snow with her feet wrapped in rags is not easily forgotten, nor is that of a lost-looking woman seated in the ruins of a bombed building.
A row of litter-bearers trudges down the road, a man crouches behind the barrel of his machine gun, which is shrouded in branches for camouflage. The star-and-bar insignia of a wrecked U.S. plane on the side of a road has been painted over by the Japanese with a red circle, in order to draw Allied fire.
In a photo that leaves you with mixed feelings, a young man balances a pole across his shoulders; two little baskets hang from the pole, and from each of them a baby peers. A white flag is attached to one basket. It's a touching image, but you wonder: Did they make it?
"Conflict in China" is the name of the exhibit. It can be seen at the Janos Gat Gallery on Madison Avenue in New York through March 23. A catalog with a memoir by Mr. Rosset is also available.
Sometimes the photographer takes the long view: The tranquillity of a field "on the road between Kweiyang and Liuchow" is interrupted by the sight of a house missing its roof and a burned-out truck. Three men in the distance point rifles at the photographer in "Soldiers Guarding the Road," and harried-looking members of an artillery unit talk on a field phone. Splintered bits of house frames that resemble black toothpicks are stuck in rubble like hors d'ocuvres.
February 9, 2002
I am thrilled to get the catalog of your Conflict in China exhibit, along with the great Janos Gat catalog. The photos are extraordinary --- it's as if you shared the sensibilities of Eugène Atget and adapted them in your own style to the bleak horror of war. Uncanny: you have looked through your camera and seen totally what confronted you, not unlike Atget, who, in his images of Paris streets, also saw totally what confronted him. The fact that your photos reveal bodies and his photos reveal buildings is only a surface difference. Your bodies unveil context, so do his buildings. Wow! I will spare you further comments on the basic indivisibility of function and form.
As for your text in the catalog, it is a marvelous account, uniquely your own, a real, ribald, and embracing accompaniment to the grim photos. If this is a preview of the way you are (thank God!) finally proceeding with your autobiography, prospective readers all over the continents can give great thanks.
I wish I could be on hand for the Opening on Feb. 12th. Meanwhile, good luck, Godspeed, my thanks for sending me this wonderful material, and, as always, my love to you and Astrid.
February 4, 2002
I received your horrific and wonderful China photos with riveting narrative. My current girlfriend's son lives in the same region of China. He's engaged to a Muslim Chinese girl. My dad was a grunt in New Guinea and the Philippines. The photos and narrative brought back memories of his jungle combat stories. I wish that I could be in New York to see the exhibit in person. Congratulations.
February 7, 2002
Dear Barney and Astrid, Congratulations on your China exhibition and catalogue, which arrived yesterday! The photographs are fascinating, and so is the text (I'm now in Liuchow...). A good taste of your memoirs to come, I suspect.
February 13, 2002
Dear Barney and Astrid,
was good, very good to see you both again. The photos I found very Barney: disturbing, beautiful, honest, dynamic. I do hope to see you both soon and as always wish you and yours the very best.....
February 18, 2002
dear friends so sorry to have missed the vernissage, but i did finally get to the gat gallery and wanted to tell you that the images are magnificent !
all best wishes
September - November 20OI
When Richard Milazzo sent his poem "Even Before They Could Enter", he also sent the following letter with it.
A few weeks back you sent me a beautiful and moving text that you had written about the situation in Afghanistan and downtown Manhattan, as well as several written by others. I wanted to respond in a comparable spirit, but found that my initial feelings were too confused. I'm not sure that they are any clearer now. I am too conflicted about my love of Arabic and Islamic culture and what happened recently to make any real sense of it. Anyway, this is my response, not specifically to what you wrote but to the thing in general. I think there is too much ideology in it to make it function very well. I had originally wanted to write something when I heard about the child who had asked her mother about the "birds on fire" that were falling from the buildings. She was, of course, referring to all of the people who were throwing themselves out of the windows to escape the flames. Anyway, between you and that child's phrase which I could not get out of my head, this is my response.
04 Dec 2001
Wonderful to see evergreen continue in this new media of the internet. One of my favorite books is a big collection of Evergreen reprints from the 50s and early 60s -- something I've read and re-read over the years with great pleasure. The history of the literary avant-garde in this country is unimaginable without factoring in the genius, prescience and good (& sometimes shocking!) taste of Barney Rossett and the Evergreen crew. Keep on moving in the 21st Century, friends!