- Portraits of Violence: War and the Aesthetics of Disfigurement by Suzannah Biernoff
Many academic works on war and disability have appeared in the past decade, with a recent focus on mutilations and facial wounds. Suzannah Biernoff's entry into this subfield is a welcome addition particularly because she brings the keen eye of the historian of art and visual culture to a subject that social and medical historians treat quite differently. With her knowledge of genre and context, she "plots a genealogy of the wounded body" (p. 5) by considering the trajectory of aesthetic forms, treatments, and responses. This is a carefully researched and deeply thoughtful exploration of the image and idea of facial disfigurement, with chapters that delve into photography from the First World War, as well as the Iraq War and Afghanistan conflict (such as Timothy Greenfield-Sanders's portraits of veterans, in relation to the HBO broadcast of Alive Day Memories). As well, she assesses medical illustrations, medical photography, and photographic images printed in the popular illustrated press of the First World War. Traversing wars and cultural practices, Biernoff shows the sustained historical perception that the "loss of one's face" was the "worst loss of all" and was widely understood as a loss of humanity (p. 19). Biernoff argues that this visual evidence demonstrates that being human "is a cultural and aesthetic matter as much as a biological or medical one" (p. 21). The mutilated face signifies the "brutalizing, dehumanizing" (p. 4) impact of war, a theme consistently explored throughout the book, such as in discussions of Henry Tonks's pastels of facially wounded patients at Sidcup hospital, Horace Nicholls's photographs of prosthetic technologies and facial masks, the work of Anna Ladd (the American sculptor-turned-mask maker), and the intriguing video game Bioshock.
The book is divided into five chapters, opening with a discussion of Nina Berman's iconic portrait Marine Wedding, the famous photograph of the severely burned Iraq veteran Tyler Ziegel on his wedding day. The image sparked a much-needed debate during the war about the impact of serious combat injury on soldiers and their families. In documenting his daily life and his marriage, Berman inadvertently presaged his tragic demise. Biernoff shows that the mass circulation of the wedding portrait was a catalyst for the airing of widely differing views on the war, arguing that the Ziegel's face had become "a symbolic site invested with political as well as personal meaning" (p. 4). Concepts of valor, heroism, patriotism, and courage took on visible form.
In formulating her notion of the "elusive portrait," by which she means the discomforts of portraiture and the impossibility of capturing a person, Biernoff brings to light the remarkable work of British photographer Stuart Griffiths. Former paratrooper Griffiths had been homeless and embarked on a project to document (in a "visual protest"; p. 46) the plight of homeless, disabled, and addiction-affected veterans in London. This section of the book serves as an important elucidation on the relationship between portraiture and trauma, and how one informs and transforms the other. Biernoff insists, perhaps less [End Page 400] convincingly, that photographic portraiture is now the "primary means of framing war" in Western culture today (p. 36). The book is full of interesting comparisons of works and types of evidence, such as the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial (curated by Courtauld academic Julian Stallabrass) or Simon Norfolk's "military sublime" (p. 38). Examining the image culture of First World War bodies, Biernoff notes the "specifically visual" anxiety that disfigurement provoked, arguing that "a culture of aversion" arose in response. This "collective looking-away" was evident in hospitals, personal interactions, self-censorship via prosthetic masks, and the erasure of the disfigured from the press (p. 56). To be sure, mutilation was confronting and could not fit into the dominant discourse of sacrifice, but Biernoff offers a new perspective when the residual fear of syphilitic deformity also continued to shape the culture of...