Academic journal article Western Folklore

Picturing Hunting

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Picturing Hunting

Article excerpt

Shadow texts stalk hunting snapshots. "Shadow texts" is the phrase rhetorical critic Barry Brummett (1991) uses to name the familiar texts we bring to our experiences with new texts. Shadow texts help determine-perhaps they overdetermine-our understandings of the newly encountered text. The intertextual conversation sometimes happens against our will. Often it brings surprises, just as it did the day I was looking through a three-ring binder of a dealer's offering of real photo postcards at a vintage photography show and I saw the postcard reproduced in Fig. 1.

Already I had seen many snapshots of hunters in various poses, in various settings, and at various stages of the hunt. And I was pretty familiar with the formula genre this snapshot represented, the tableau of weary but satisfied hunters, holding their rifles in some relaxed pose, their hunting dogs often sharing the tableau, and the dead game laid out as proof that this was a good day of hunting. Sometimes snapshots and real photo postcards made from snapshots (as is this one) have additional information on the back, perhaps an identifying handwritten note or two for the scrapbook memory or even a full-fledged postcard message, address, stamp, and postmark. This card has none of that, but we do see across the bottom of the photo and part of the printed photograph "Bear Hunters, Oct. 1919," an indication that this postcard might have been made in multiple copies and sold commercially to an audience beyond the five men in the picture (see Morgan and Brown 1981). We don't know where these hunters got their bear, their station in life, or any other particulars.

I thought I was thoroughly familiar with this genre of photograph, and yet this one surprised me. My eyes went immediately to the bear at the center of the photo and to the way the two men on either side of the bear were holding him (her?) up for the photograph, the man to the viewer's left holding the bear's fight forearm by the wrist, almost gently and affectionately, while the man to the viewer's right was supporting the bear's head upright with a firm grasp of the bear's left ear. There seems to be drool (perhaps it is blood) coming from the bear's mouth, but overall the impression I get is that this could be a living bear, a pet bear, posing with its loving masters.

But we know the bear is dead, and the "shadow text" that leaped immediately to my mind was the scene in Stanley Kubrick's 1987 film, Full Metal Jacket, when a member of the platoon poses with a dead Vietnamese soldier as if the dead man were still alive, enjoying a relaxing moment and a laugh with the platoon. I saw the same combination of mockery, parodie comraderie, and black humor in the photograph of the bear hunters.

What was going on here?

As I thought about it, the association between hunting and war is not so strange. Director Michael Cimino used deer hunting as the central, driving metaphor in his 1978 Vietnam film, Deer Hunter, and Norman Mailer's 1967 novel, Why We Are in Vietnam, is set on a hunting trip in Alaska. That date on the postcard with the bear and hunters, "Oct. 1919," took on even greater significance for me against the background of the Great War.

It is not necessary to think that the photographers and their subjects in such hunting photographs consciously modeled their arrangements and poses on war photographs. Far more likely and interesting is the possibility that there was emerging simultaneously with war photos in the late nineteenth century a visual formula for picturing the surviving hunters and their prey, and that this formula bled freely across the boundaries of the genres-the hunting snapshot and the war snapshot.

Intrigued, I posted an inquiry on the moderated American Studies internet discussion list, H-AMSTDY, asking whether anyone knew if Kubrick's tableau was purely his fancy or if American GIs actually took snapshots posing with dead enemy soldiers. These would be personal, clandestine photographs if they existed, I realized, as the military and the government would not want such photographs to be part of the public record of GI behavior during the Vietnam War. …

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