DAVID PACE & STEPHEN WIRTZ
IMAGES IN TRANSITION
The WIREPHOTO project is a collaboration between photographer David Pace and gallerist/collector Stephen Wirtz. WIREPHOTO re-interprets archival images from World War II that were transmitted by radio wave for subsequent publication in newspapers. The original photographers are unidentified and no known negatives survive. Pace and Wirtz begin with rare original prints, which they examine and radically re-crop to create new compositions. The selected details are then scanned, digitally enhanced and enlarged to make 24”x30” prints. The new scale magnifies the inherent imperfections and artifacts of the original transmission process and reveals the extensive retouching that was done to the prints both before and after transmission. Cracks in the emulsion bear witness to the age of the transmissions and add a layer of history. The alterations to the original images force us to consider the notion of truth in journalism and documentary photography as well as the role of propaganda in war photography.
The project was published as a book in 2019 by Schilt Publishing of Amsterdam as Images in Transition: Wirephotos 1938-1945, with an introduction by Mark Murrmann. The following paragraphs are excerpts from Murrmann’s introduction to the book.
The images on the following pages consist of enlargements from wirephotos – photojournalistic images transmitted from the battlefields of World War II to news agencies and newspaper offices around the world. This work finds its roots in history, not so much geopolitical history, but the technical history of photojournalism. The source images for Images in Transition stem from a point of early image transmission technology when it could take approximately an hour to send a photo from France to the United States – a breathtakingly rapid speed of transmission at the time.
Images in Transition raises critical questions of photography and photojournalism: ethics of retouching and manipulation, the life and purpose of an image, the historical and journalistic value of a photograph versus the artistic value, and the propagandistic purposes of war photography.
The source material used here came from World War II, but don’t mistake this for a book of war photography. It's not even really a book of photography... [ıt is] a book rooted in photography, made of pieces of photographic images, but calling it a photobook would be a stretch. Images in Transition is a body of work rooted in history, photojournalism and technology. Ultimately, it is a book of art.
A first pass through the book leaves a sense of disorientation. A misplaced, off-balance feeling of familiarity washes over you. The uniforms, expressions, flags and weaponry all give a particular sense of place. However, the blurriness, dirtiness and the deep lines cutting through images, evoke a feeling of tumbling through a bad dream, or at least a movie version of a bad dream. A distorted feeling of panic and isolation acts as a disquieting thread pulling you through the images.
Yet there's a sense of familiarity in Images in Transition that comes not so much from recognizing a squadron of planes in formation and columns of German troops as being from the Second World War. The familiarity also comes from how often films about the war use a similar style in evoking a feeling of terror – quick cuts, snippets of grainy footage from the frontlines. In the tight crops and expert sequencing used in Images in Transition, you get a similar feeling of having a nightmare of WWII newsreel footage flashing at you.
Where the book differs from, say, an exhibition of these pieces, is the crushing fury of the collected images. Digesting them all together, meaningfully sequenced, lends the intense feeling of pressure or oppression. Cropping and highlighting the blemishes and details, focusing in on a single person or scene in often-dramatic press images of the war, Pace and Wirtz have created a body of work with the potential to ignite a bonfire of anxiety in the viewer. Paging through the book makes you feel something.
The images have a distinctly different effect when viewed individually, as prints. The collection here, gathered in a book, compounds anxiety. Alone, the images stand as mesmerizing pieces of graphic art. The transmission lines and almost dot matrix-like pixilation, enhanced by Pace and Wirtz's retouching, gain a more prominent voice when viewed in the context of a large print. It's a dramatic contrast. As individual pieces of art, the images feel almost abstract, graphic, even beautiful.
The details of the original wirephotos that Pace and Wirtz selected for enlargement aestheticize the print, not the war. While the backdrop of the war creates striking components with which to work, these are ultimately disambiguated, graphic-driven pieces of art. Imperfections and defects in technology enhance the artistic qualities of the images.
(...) This work, as it’s been transformed over the wires, through the ages and within Photoshop, reminds us that nobody has final control of an image. A photograph is never “done.” These photos, like most, were created for a specific purpose. They served that purpose then languished until gaining historical relevance. Many were lost to time. As press photos from World War II, their historical value lies in their photojournalistic context and content, the technological process through which they were made and transmitted, and possibly in their academic context as a record of the war.
(...) Pace and Wirtz draw our attention instead to the history of the image as a physical object – its creation, from transmission to reception. The details and imperfections of history make each image unique. One wonders, did the print coming in at the AP office in New York have all the same defects as the print coming in at the Baltimore office? How did these prints survive this long? What stories do their imperfections tell us? That's part of why these defects are of importance – a perfect print tells no stories.
Within the art world, that matters. The image tells the story. The print itself remains in pristine silence. A fine art print with a corner bent in transit from one gallery to the next doesn't become more interesting because of its road wear. It gets demoted. Here though, the flaws give us so much more beyond the image and the typical captions. The creases and folds beg questions of where it's been. The fingerprints make you wonder who handled the original print and what happened to that? The transmission breaks lead a curious viewer to wonder under what conditions the image was transmitted.
Most photographs get left in a drawer (or today, on a hard drive), never again to be considered, if even looked at. In transforming common wirephotos into works of art, Pace and Wirtz have given these photos an unexpected second or third life, even beyond their historical relevance.
These photos were not meant to last. In nearly every instance, although the wartime photographers were highly skilled professionals, the original photographer is difficult (if not impossible) to identify and, apparently, no negatives exist. The original wirephotos are rare because they were disposable. Prints kept in a newspaper's morgue eventually get thrown out, either when moving or just making room for newer, more relevant photos. In the art marketplace, rarity of this kind is often discounted. By rescuing and transforming these once-disposable prints, Pace and Wirtz expose new layers of meaning in the images, scratching at questions about photojournalism's place in the fine art world. They push at the evolution of photographic art, nudging open new doors.
We return to the fundamental question: Is it beautiful work? Pace and Wirtz ultimately intended to make art. Have they succeeded? Even if some of the images prove to be unsettling – these are war photos, remember – one can't help but get drawn into this dizzying mix of starkly graphic art.
© David Pace and Stephen Wirtz, Images in Transition, Wirephotos 1938-1945, Schilt Publishing, 2019.
All pictures courtesy of the artists.
Stephen Wirtz is a collector of photographs and a former art gallerist. With Connie Wirtz he co-founded the Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco, exhibiting national and international painting, sculpture, and photography for forty years.
David Pace is a photographer, filmmaker, educator, and curator. He taught photography at colleges and universities throughout the San Francisco Bay Area for more than twenty-five years. His work has been exhibited and published internationally.