American Soldier Photography

By Jackson Davidow
April 12, 2023
Index Magazine

American Soldier Photography

A man looks down at a box filled with various stacks of photographs.
Jackson Davidow in the Art Study Center with a box of photographs recently donated by collector Peter Cohen.

In an undated photograph, two sailors with arms around each other crouch down on a ship’s deck, grinning toward the camera.

Their coordinated kneeling position and radiant expressions call to mind the final pose of a musical number, and a strong sense of camaraderie and affection between the two is undeniable. With their shaved heads and matching uniforms and expressions, they look so similar they might be mistaken for brothers. Turning over the print, we learn this is not the case: one of the men had scrawled, “This is Patrick and myself. He was my new pal. Also taking [sic] on the second day out of Pedro.”

The mention of “Pedro” suggests the men were stationed at the Naval Air Base San Pedro, a Los Angeles facility in operation from 1927 to 1947. From the snapshot, we can glean little specific information about the identities of these men or the photographer. It is safe to assume, though, that one of them wrote the note to a family member, friend, or loved one to show how they were thriving, despite the everyday intensities of serving in the armed forces, probably far from home. The past tense of the handwritten text is striking, even if it might have been added retrospectively. Was their friendship confined to the navy ship? Was the writer mourning Patrick? What was their relationship like?

This image belongs to the vernacular genre of soldier photography, broadly defined in this article as photographs taken by soldiers who are not trained as photographers, or photographs by unidentified people that offer a window onto the experience of military service in an increasingly militarized world. While soldier photography is a global phenomenon that cuts across national boundaries and disparate settings of war and peace, this article concentrates on the American context, from roughly the 1860s to the 1960s.

This category of photographs served many social functions—from assuring loved ones of a soldier’s health and well-being, to showcasing their physical and emotional intimacies with peers, to accentuating their attractiveness and strength, to emphasizing their patriotism. The photographs can also operate as tools of state, reflecting the attitudes of the governments the soldiers serve. Over time, this genre became more professionalized, as evidenced by the Military Photographer of the Year Prize, awarded since 1960. It also became more diverse, particularly through its dissemination across social media in recent years.

A compulsion to perform soldiering—often inseparable from the desire to perform masculinity—tends to be the common denominator of the phenomenon of soldier photography, even if this takes many forms and sometimes turns on itself. Though this mixed, uneven, and patchy genre is infused with ideologies of the nation-state and constructs of white heterosexual virility, many images are sites of play, transgression, and questioning. In other words, the photographs are often more complex than they first appear.

Soldier Photography in the Collections: A Closer Look

In 2022, an archive of soldier photography was added to the Harvard collections through a generous gift from collector Peter Cohen. A selection of these photographs was recently on view in the galleries, in an installation related to the Black experience of military service.

Several examples of soldier photography, including those already in the museums’ photography collection and those from the Cohen gift, are explored below, as we trace the genre’s development.

While soldier photography was a common cultural practice that intersected with many realms of American public and private life, the genre finds itself at the margins in histories of photography. We might trace its origins to the Civil War, one of the first major geopolitical conflicts that photographers documented extensively. The war coincided with the advent of faster, cheaper technologies, and it became common for soldiers to have their portraits made, such as the elaborately framed image above.

Because of the ever-present possibility of death, such representations held enormous meaning for soldiers’ families and communities. Several decades later, in an untitled 1942 image (above) by commercial photographer Joseph Janney Steinmetz, we see a woman from Pennsylvania penning a letter to her husband, whose framed military portrait decks her secretaire. Her toddler perches beside her, gazing distraughtly toward the image of his father, who is off serving in World War II. The whole family wears military uniforms—a reminder that the military brings them together just as much as it keeps them apart. While the father’s professional portrait does not strictly count as vernacular soldier photography, Steinmetz’s staged patriotic picture makes clear the importance of portraits on the home front.

As photography became more accessible to the public in the early 20th century, more military photographers worked to serve the government in a professional capacity, while other soldiers made private images that captured their professional and social worlds. During World War I, the Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak, a popular folding camera series that could be carried on one’s person, was even marketed as the “soldier’s camera.” An untitled photograph (above) by an unknown artist from the 1910s shows a soldier using one such camera to photograph a boy and a girl, possibly his own children, lolling on a spacious porch. We can imagine this man cherishing the resultant image, bringing it with him to the American military bases where he was stationed around the world.

Another snapshot similarly depicts two soldiers in an open field taking pictures of the individual photographing them as well as a civilian woman in the foreground, who might herself also be engaged in the act of photography (we can see only the back of her body). With its dynamic interplay of gazes, this unconventional image raises interesting questions about gender and representation within this photographic genre.

As American women started to serve officially in the military in World War II, they, too, documented their lives, as evidenced by Martin Schweig’s portrait of an enthusiastic female soldier. Female soldiers created their own unique images from their perspectives as nurses in the field and in other roles; soldier photography, however, was mostly produced by men and was dominated by masculine tropes. When women appear in the photographs of male soldiers, for instance, they are often referenced as romantic attachments and sexual exploits—that is, objects worth defending or fighting for—rather than as contributing members of the armed forces.

Alongside gender, questions of race and racialization unsurprisingly pervade soldier photography, especially because the military was an arena where people of color served beside their white compatriots, risking their lives for a country that denied them basic civil rights. The undated photograph above, for instance, shows four soldiers being assessed by two of their superiors, perhaps at a military base. Only one man, who appears in the foreground to the right, is Black. Like his white peers, he stands erect, his face joyless. The image encourages a reading of Black soldiers’ absorption into a project of militarized nationalism.

Carried into the field, photographs were tokens of life back home, helping many soldiers construct a sense of individuality in a severe and homogenizing environment that promoted group identification. Photographs also provided soldiers with images of family, offering a glimpse into everyday life. Enclosed in a metal frame, this small Photomatic print above of a serviceman and his girlfriend or wife might have sat on the windowsill of the army barracks or been stored in a trunk.

Some photographs show how soldiers created a feeling of home in their temporary living quarters. This snapshot of a tent’s interior helps us visualize how soldiers modified their surroundings. Above the bed and disheveled table—upon which we see someone’s booted foot resting—a makeshift wall is lined with photographs: Hollywood starlets, pin-up models, and possibly a more personal portrait of a girlfriend or wife back home. A bottle of Coca-Cola on the table also provided soldiers with a taste of home.

Soldier photography also looked outward, and scholars have noted the ways it interlaced with the genre of tourist photography. Exoticizing snapshots of foreign lands such as the Philippines or Japan offer important insights into the charged power dynamics related to gender, race, and colonization that characterized military life. Many photographs drew attention to the servicemen’s sexual prospects that might not have been available in the same way back home.

In the 1955 photograph above, taken during the lingering American postwar occupation of Japan, a white soldier poses with a cigar in his mouth, each arm around a Japanese woman; whereas the woman to his left smiles brightly, his arm possessively on her breast, her counterpart on the right seems more reticent. Because the implication is that these women are sex workers, their degree of agency, both in this photograph and more generally, is difficult to determine.

An undated photograph features what appears to be an Asian woman sandwiched between two Navy shipmen in front of a painted backdrop of a tropical beach. All three seem to be having a marvelous time; their legs playfully and provocatively entangle in such a way that demonstrates a physical intimacy between not only the woman and the men, but also the men themselves. It is interesting to speculate on the production and circulation of these racializing and sexualizing pictures. Did these servicemen send them to friends back home to boast of their sexual encounters abroad, or did they keep them as suggestive souvenirs for themselves? Just as these two photographs illuminate light-hearted, even transgressive moments of soldiering, they can be regarded as scenes of violence, exploitation, and colonization.

As the photographs discussed here make clear, the genre of soldier photography is about much more than soldiers and soldiering. It brings into focus critical considerations related to identity, power, and belonging that are essential to the history of photography. Though the examples of soldier photography discussed in this short article do not extend beyond the Cold War and are therefore limited to analog practices, soldier photography continues into the present. Deeper scholarly and curatorial engagement with this material is sure to unearth a wider spectrum of nuanced, challenging, and enriching narratives.


Jackson Davidow is the John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Curatorial Fellow in Photography in the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Harvard Art Museums.