on Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s, by Alexander Nemerov (Princeton University Press)

Alexander Nemerov is preoccupied with photographic or cinematic images that trigger “a piercing, wounding sensation without explanation,” or as Roland Barthes’ put it, a punctum. The precise lineaments and tones of an image capture the moment, as we like to say, but each picture “unfolds with its own temporal atmosphere.” In Wartime Kiss, his speculative study of American movie scenes and photojournalism of World War II, Nemerov “tries to imagine a different way of writing history” that addresses and tries to illuminate the renegade aspects of the moment that seem to lurk within or just beyond the images.

NemerovSarasota.jpgHe begins with Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic photo, “V-J Day Kiss, Times Square.” (At left: a 30-foot statue based on the image in Sarasota, Florida.) In Life Magazine’s August 27, 1945 issue where the photo appeared, there were also stories about violence during different war-ending celebrations. In San Francisco, for instance, an article reported that servicemen “defaced statues, overturned streetcars, ripped down bond booths, [and] attacked girls.” Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Nemerov believes Eisenstaedt’s “sailor’s act is violent as he steals his unsolicited kiss.” Is that violence embedded within the photograph (underscored by Nemerov’s description of the sailor’s physical “locking” of the woman into position) or is his reaction an idiosyncratic and temperamental result of his own research?

Nemerov builds his meditations on dual supports – first, the force of persuasive assertion, and then, the lyrical uplift of association and imagination. “The trembling of these moments is maybe only so much personal projection,” he concedes, and then continues with a spectral glint, “but then again it might be some breath of the past that has chosen me … to be its host.” What he longs to produce is “historical writing that responds to these moments [that] is as weightless as the moments themselves.”

NemerovDeHavStewart.jpegIn the first of two chapters on Olivia de Havilland (now 96 years old), Nemerov considers a series of promotional photos of her and James Stewart taken by John Swope in 1940. In the key image, Olivia and Jimmy, who were then lovers and reaching the heights of their careers, recline on a blanket in the park. There is a phonograph alongside set up to play. Nemerov perceives both “ordinary historical time” and “a time without time” in the frame, “a special contentment.” De Havilland’s core disposition – a light spirit and alacrity – is evident in many of her roles, and Nemerov talks us through some of them. He then segues into the interest many Hollywood figures then had in flying including, of course, Stewart who flew for the Air Force. Olivia is related to Geoffrey de Havilland, the famous English aircraft manufacturer (killed while testing an experimental jet in 1946). Their “contentment” is happening while Hitler is marching. Pearl Harbor is a year away. Nemerov says of the photo and its interior hidden history, “The many small ‘nows’ that comprised those wondrous moments of being above it all were the stuff of the great “Now” of a business that could not think its own death. The whirring of the propellers must have sounded like imperishable modernity itself, no less than the revving of the projectors or the spooling of firm in its reels.” De Havilland represents just one of many telling efforts made by Nemerov to look carefully at the imagery of women just before and during the war.

Nemerov.jpegThe many pleasures of Wartime Kiss hinge on Nemerov’s assemblage of anecdote and related fact. Does he really need “to imagine a different way of writing history”? Is he actually doing this? W.E. Sebald has led the way in this regard, and if Nemerov strives for “lightness” as the prime virtue of this new mode of historical narrative, then Sebald has established a standard in prose to which Nemerov may aspire. The latter is, after all, a teacher, and his essayistic skills are sharp. Sebald is hardly interested in polemics – and Nemerov, while striving to prove the pertinence of his hunches, is careful to lighten his touch (though there are a few lapses). What distinguishes Nemerov is what he writes about, his broad reach through the archives, and the personal resonances in his gestures that suggest, yes, he has been “chosen" to be the host of a different way of telling history.” If Sebald expresses a melancholy wisdom, Nemerov communicates both an invigorating desire to be wise and an avidity for incertitudes. The complexity is charming

NemerovBourkeWhuite.jpegMy favorite chapter deals with Margaret Bourke-White. Here, Nemerov creates some satisfying complications. There are the photographer’s celebrity and the stylish intentionality of her images. There are her adventurous photo shoots during wartime, especially those that occurred in flight. She sought to be “free from the encumbrance of calculation” but “she was equally a stranger to the moment that lasts forever.” Nemerov then takes up examples of “infinities” – images and films by others that suggest the escaping or escaped moment. In the film Curse of the Cat People starring Ann Carter, “the moment dilates … perpetually at odds with the charisma of the present.” The essay is rich with suggestion and adequately illustrated.

NemeropvB17.jpegThroughout Wartime Kiss, Nemerov returns to pictures and movies about the B-17 and the people who flew them. (On the left: the in-air destruction of a B-17, the kind of image one wasn't likely to see in Life.) My father was a B-17 ball turret gunner based in Foggia, Italy in 1944. On one mission at the end of his tour, he took his camera along. From his perch below the fuselage, he had a 360-degree view of horizon and ground below. After a raid near Munich, he saw three planes in the distance moving in formation at a rate he had never witnessed before. He snapped a picture, but they had zoomed beyond his sight. I have the image here -- one can see three other B-17's in his squadron and the open air where the mysterious planes had been. Back at base, he found out what they were: experimental German jets, probably flying to a location considered safer. The photo contains their disappearance and my father's amazement. Wartime Kiss puts one in the zone for such thinking.

Nemerov says, “Long-ago events and people array themselves in effigies stroked and caressed out of vapors so fine it would tax the powers of even a believer to see them.” Clearly, there are traces of how deliberately he has taxed himself in these pages, but while reading them it is possible to believe in the lingering scent of those vapors.

[Published December 12, 2012. 184 pages, 46 halftones, $22.95 hardcover.]

Re Take A Picture

Another most thought-provoking review. Thank you. It strikes me that the temporal atmosphere is so framed in artificiality, or in the transient moment, that it demands history to locate it. Photography (I've got mates who do this) seems like such a capricious variant of time that poetry is a breeze in comparison. Strange though, isn't it, that the capturing of the moment remains fixed in both. Whether it's a distinction of degree or kind, I leave that to my betters.