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.