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A Harvest of Death

I recently became aware of Timothy O’Sullivan’s, "A Harvest of Death", a fine example of 19th century documentary photography. At the time this photo was taken, technical advances that had increased portability and exposure time made it possible for photographers to act in a manner similar to journalists, and one might very well consider A Harvest of Death as an early example of photojournalism. It’s difficult to miss the stark realism captured in this image.

The use of negative volume gives one a sense of an open and wandering space. This, along with gentle slope descending from right to left come together to lend the impression of a serene pastoral landscape, an otherwise ordinary field where one might expect potatoes or cabbages to be grown. Instead, cadavers sprout from the foreground. A medium depth of field allows the viewer to make out a number of recently deceased bodies in a line extending toward a horizon where only the faint outline of upright figures can be made out, unrecognizable in the ‘fog of war’, or perhaps in its settling dust. Whatever the case, life appears far away; death is near and immediate, and it is precisely this contrast of life and death that makes this photograph work.

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