I suspect tens of thousands of "death portraits" were taken in WWII; some by combat correspondents, military or civilian, but most by GIs... friends of the killed-in-action who wanted to have a last tangible memory of those with whom they served and loved.
For others--the professionals--photographing the dead was and is a solemn duty, never just a "job". To get the best photos, the real shots, you have to be there, share the din, the privation, the horror in portions large and small.
Matthew Brady's wet plate photographs of the Civil War dead--particularly at the charnel house that was Gettysburg and Antietam--brought to the American people for the very first time, graphic evidence of the real cost of war.
Of Brady's images taken at the Battle of Antietam, the New York Times said "If he [Brady] has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along our streets, he has done something very like it."
Brady's work is stark, linear and for the most part somber, even grim, though never overly emotional; war at its most common of denominators, death.
Along with Alexander Gardner, Brady captured the tumultuous events of the early 1860s as the nation threatened to come apart sat the seams, and gave us an inestimable national treasure in their 8x10 glass negatives.
It is obvious that many of Brady's photographs contained battlefield accouterments which were arranged as props and if live subjects were featured, they were always posed... as the bulky equipment and lengthy time exposures of the day demanded. For these reasons they would not meet the standards of today's war photojournalism, but Brady's role in the Civil War was more that of archivist than reporter.
Without his images and those of a handful of other pioneering photographers like Gardner, the Civil War would not have the impact on our national psyche that it does today. Because Americans were being killed wholesale on both sides, it will remain, hopefully, our most costly war.
Caught between the 19th and 20th centuries, photography of The Great War reflects its era, part romance and part mechanized dehumanization.
But often the images were manipulated for political advantage and therefore became propaganda, not history.
Later, as we entered the war of terror without realizing it, the bodies of our dead U.S. Army Rangers were abused and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993.
I remember the "controversy" surrounding the networks' broadcasting the tape of the howling sub-humans abusing the corpses. People didn't think it fit for the evening news.
I felt differently; if Americans can send a young man to war on their behalf, then they damned well have the responsibility of watch the result of their actions.
And so it is that a picture of one of the most beloved figures of the Second World War... UPI correspondent Ernie Pyle reverently posed in death by his beloved Marines has surfaced.
This photo of his body was recently discovered 63 years after he was killed April 18, 1945, by Jap machine-gun fire on Ie Shima, a small Island off the coast of Okinawa.
Releasing it two weeks ago, AP reported that "The figure in the photograph is clad in Army fatigues, boots and helmet, lying on his back in peaceful repose, folded hands holding a military cap. Except for a thin trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth, he could be asleep."
It's good these pictures exist; were it not for them, civilians would be able to escape and ignore all responsibility for the deaths of young men long before God would ordinarily call them.