A to Z of Photography: Ultimate Confrontation and Umbo

A to Z of Photography: Ultimate Confrontation and Umbo

We now arrive at the second of the three tricky letters of the alphabet. Unfortunately, U is uselessly underwhelming but ultimately and uniquely utilitarian! The first an iconic photo of political protest and confrontation, a theme that continues to this day in newsrooms across the world. Then discover Umbo.

Ultimate Confrontation

Picture the historical setting - your government, which stands for law and order, of setting a high legal and moral standard, is involved in illicit and illegal activity, of perverting moral and legal codes, of practice that has taken the lives of its own citizens as well foreign nationals. The issue has become of such national significance that it has mobilized people across political and social divides, uniting them to a common cause of protest. Only by sustained pressure on political powers and direct action can change be effected.

If this sounds familiar then it is because governments across the world have, and continue, to abuse the power that is invested in them by their people. As Philip Zimbardo said on his Ted talk on the Psychology of Evil, responsibility without oversight leads to the abuse of power. It is a difficult line to travel, but leaders need the flexibility to enact change without the opportunity to abuse that position unseen and unchallenged. In short, we need the traditional strengths of honesty, trustworthiness, and empathy. Attributes which seem to be in short supply with our leaders at the moment.

Which brings us to "Ultimate Confrontation", shot by French photojournalist Marc Riboud on 21 October 1967 during anti-war protests against the Vietnam War. Over 100,000 activists, brought together by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, marched on the Pentagon. It is a classic shot that has oft been repeated, for example more recently in Baton Rouge where there were demonstrations against the shooting of Alton Sterling and in Tiananmen Square with Tank Man.

What makes this image so powerful are the subjects and their juxtaposition. We have the soldiers, with a hint of youthfulness, in the service of their country, following orders. The rifles are a symbol of control, however it is the bayonets that draw the eye. There is something primal about a blade and the way it savagely weaponizes the scene. Opposing them is a single child holding a chrysanthemum. Jan Rose Kasmir was a 17 year old American high-school student and is the icon of flower-power innocence. The framing is immaculate because it is so tight with background paraphernalia lost in bokeh. In fact the tightness makes individual soldiers unidentifiable — they simply become "soldiers", no longer individuals, but agents of the state. More than the framing, the moment is clearly important. It is an instant in timed captured in perpetuity, however we must remember that there is a temporal complexity to understanding how the individuals acted and reacted as the protest developed. Speaking retrospectively, Kasmir says

The moment that Marc snapped that picture, there is absolute sadness on my face because, at that moment, it was sympatica. At that moment, the whole rhetoric melted away. These were just young men. They could have been my date. They could have been my brother.

Many other images were shot during the protest, including "Flower Power" by Bernie Boston, but they didn't capture the same emotive dynamic. We can all analyze a news photo to understand why it is iconic, however to actually take one is a little more nuanced. Sure you've actually got to be there, but there is more to it than that. Riboud might have thought through some aspects such as framing, however I wonder how much is experience and how much is luck. To get more experience you simply have to get out there and shoot more. A lot more. And to get luckier? Get out there more!

Confrontation is a recurring theme in photography


Umbo, or Otto Umbehr, was a German photo journalist who worked from the 1920s onwards and was one of the foremost modernist photographers of the period. Initially training as a painter at the highly influential Staatliches Bauhaus (or simply Bauhaus), he was expelled and lived in poverty in Berlin. He was subsequently gifted a camera by his friend Paul Citroen, which became a major pivot point in his life. His portraits and urban scenes gained him a reputation as an avant-garde photographer and in 1926 he set up a studio, as well as joining the Dephot photojournalist agency in 1928 (which later closed when the Nazis came to power in 1933).

His work unusually combines close up film-style and Bauhaus-style panel pictures. Atmospherically, the modernist approach feels similar to the work of Paul Outerbridge, equally surreal, imaginative, and refreshing. His street work involved montage and unusual angles which, when combined with the bohemian society of the Weimar, provide a familiar yet distant view on another society in another time. Umbo plays with the viewer psychologically, mixing how we see things with how we understand them, making his images more than the sum of their parts. He experimented with fish-eye lenses and x-ray film amongst others.

Up to and during World War 2 he was a photojournalist working for Signal and latterly a driver. Sadly, most of his archive, around 60,000 negatives, was destroyed by bombing in Berlin. Whilst much of the original material is permanently lost, the remainder of his complete work is now in public ownership, preserved by three German museums (Berlinische Galerie, Sprengel Museum, and the Bauhaus Dessau). It is also typically photographic that, after the war, he tried to resume his career, unsuccessfully. In 1958 he ended his creative outputs and took on a range of low paid work to supplement his income, although continued to teach. It was only in the late-1970s, shortly before his death in Hanover in May 1980, that a major retrospective was organized and he saw some profit from his hugely influential pre-war work.

Take a look at samples of his work at MoMA and Geothe Institut for a better appreciation of this photographer and his work.

Other Us

All the U's made it in to the article this week!

A to Z Catchup

Alvarez-Bravo and Aperture

Bronica and Burtynsky

Central Park and Lewis Carroll

Daguerrotype and Frederick Douglass

Exposure and Harold Edgerton


Family of Man

Nan Goldin and the Golden Triangle

Hyper-lapse and Horst P. Horst

Image Stabilization and Into the Jaws of Death

JPEG and William Jackson

Lenna and Leica

Inge Morath and Minolta

Noise and Helmut Newton

Paul Outerbridge and the Orton Effect

Panorama and Pillars of Creation

Wayne Quilliam and the Queen

Reflex Camera and Tony Ray-Jones

Shooting Sex and Strip Photography

Tilt-Shift and Train Wreck at Montparnasse

Lead image a composite courtesy of Skitterphoto and brenkee via Pixabay used under Creative Commons and Wikipedia, in the public domain. Body image courtesy of the Kheel Center and used under Creative Commons.

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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