A smile is the strangest thing. In the right context it can illuminate the world, suggest kindness or joy, invite us into intimacy. But in the wrong setting, or on the wrong faces, it seems creepy, malevolent, even disgusting: a sign of moral corruption.
These thoughts were prompted by a visit, in October, to the four interconnected Spanish Civil War shows at the International Center of Photography in New York City (on view through January 6) and by a series of photographs that the New York Times had published the previous month. One of the first photos a viewer encounters at the museum is called “Republican militiamembers, Barcelona”; it was taken by Gerda Taro in August 1936. It shows a young, handsome couple sitting on rattan deck chairs; in the background is a blurry collection of trees. The man, dark-haired, wears a button-down shirt and a tie under his coveralls and sports a pointed hat with a star, which would have identified to which of Spain’s many left-wing groups he belonged. The woman, her smooth blond hair pulled away from her face, wears a dark shirt and, probably, trousers; she rests her head on the back of her chair. The man and woman tilt their heads toward each other as the sun bathes their faces, and they seem almost to explode with laughter: they must have shared a thought that was deliciously intimate, or deliciously funny, or perhaps both. They look healthy, strong, hopeful and in love: radiance is the word for this. And between them, gripped in the man’s left hand–we can clearly map the veins in his forearm–stands a huge rifle.
The Times photos were full of laughter too. In one, a gleeful group of young, uniformed women and a few men–one of whom plays an accordion–surge across a wooden bridge as they try to escape a rainstorm. In another, a group of well-coiffed, pretty young women, all wearing dark pleated skirts and neat white blouses, sit on the ledge of a deck as they eat blueberries and smile for the camera. Anyone who claims we can no longer be shocked by photographs is wrong; for these banal pictures–part of a newly discovered trove of snapshots taken by an anonymous SS officer in the summer of 1944–depict a group of Auschwitz guards relaxing and at play. (As Jean Hatzfeld showed in Machete Season, his book of interviews with Rwandan genocidaires, torture and murder are hard work.) The Auschwitz employees look healthy, strong, confident and cheerful: horror is the word for this.
All of which is to say: in looking at photographs, especially those that document the political crises of our time, context is (almost) everything. A smile can welcome a new world or announce its annihilation.