Bad Manners: A 1944 Life Magazine “Picture of the Week”
The Life magazine “Picture of the Week” from May 22, 1944, still shocks nearly seventy years later. In this photograph by Ralph Crane (1913–1988), viewers see a woman writing her boyfriend, an American soldier, a thank-you note for a strange and horrific gift: a Japanese soldier's skull. Passed by American censors and redeployed as anti-American propaganda in Japan, this photograph exposes the perils of mixing a foreign war, photography, and the home front mass media. This essay has two primary components. First, it discusses the formal and iconographic qualities of the photograph, which, in tandem with its barbaric backstory, help produce its deeply unsettling effects. Second, incorporating thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) and Maurice Blanchot (1907–2003), it explores the way that the “Picture of the Week” attempts and subsequently fails to rationalize the depicted brutality. This failure not only serves to emphasize the barbarity on display but also leads to a broader concluding discussion about the nature of photography and its attempts to communicate the unthinkable to a distant home front audience.
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