How does modern war mark the California landscape? A single day’s photographic record produced on the Southern California coast offers one compelling answer. On February 24, 1942 the Life photojournalist Eliot Elisofon and his editor John G. Morris drove from Los Angeles to Goleta, CA, just northwest of Santa Barbara. There, from a point about a mile inland, Elisofon exposed the sweeping central coast surveys presented here and here. As landscapes the pictures--one looking north into the Santa Ynez range, the other south toward the Channel Islands--trade in a grandeur suggestive of that other great photographer of the western landscape during those years, Ansel Adams. But there was a war on, and Life magazine was not generally out for landscape views, however majestic. These pictures didn’t make the cut as news pictures, and were never published. But there was war news to be had in the Southern California landscape that day, and Elisofon and Morris were there to get it. News had come the previous evening that at 7:15pm a Japanese submarine had surfaced just off the coast of Goleta and attacked the Ellwood oil field, firing dozens of heavy shells into the site and only just missing the Richfield high-octane aviation fuel tank that was their principal target. “For the first time in this war,” Life later reported, “the U.S. had truly been attacked at home.”
In ‘good’ news pictures, the kinds of news pictures that Life liked to publish, landscapes are the stable, uneventful settings for the momentary and aberrant foreground disruptions that constitute the news. In the two of Elisofon’s pictures that were allotted full pages for Life’s “Japanese Carry War to California Coast” report of March 9, the Santa Barbara landscape retreats to its proper journalistic role as backdrop, and very much by design: first, as stage for a shell fragment held aloft by Morris; and second, as the smooth, rolling topography out of which a cavity has been dug by an errant Japanese round, here guarded by an attending soldier. It is precisely these munitions and the damage they do that had set Morris and Elisofon in motion, and these pictures inscribe the more visually manifest markers of war onto this otherwise still-peaceful landscape.
The shell fragment picture leading the article is, for all its insistence of the irrefutable material proof that the newsworthy thing had indeed occurred, the less compelling of the two. Still, Morris’ account of its production, published in his 2002 memoir Get the Picture (University of Chicago), is illuminating in its account of the process by which an event comes to be resolved as an image:
We arrived at the scene just before daybreak and, at a roadside diner in Goleta, found the press: twenty or thirty reporters and photographers plus cameramen from the five newsreels. Sentries patrolled a fence that blocked access to the ‘battlefield.’ We were all told to wait for an escort, on his way from G-2, Southern California Defense Command, headquartered in Pasadena. Soon after sunrise, frustrated and bored, I walked over to the fence and chatted up one of the sentries. “Wanna see somethin’?” he asked. He reached into his tunic and pulled out a jagged shell fragment slightly larger than my hand. I immediately offered him five dollars. “For five bucks you can only borrow it.” I gave him the five, demanding that the deal be considered exclusive, and hid the fragment under my coat. Elisofon was deep in conversation with the other photographers, explaining the virtues of one of his pricey lenses. I stepped on his foot and said, ‘Let’s go up the road.” As soon as we were out of sight, I pulled out the shell. He photographed it in my hand, over a strand of barbed wire. That picture became the frontispiece for the following week’s Life. (56)
Morris, an almost unparalleled figure in the early codification of value in photojournalism, has clear ideas about the proper subject of a Life news photograph. The single most important priority here was not geographic exposition but narrative clarity and proprietary exclusivity. Irritated at once by the sight of the legion of camera reporters already on the scene, Morris pursued instead an object that might be removed from the otherwise sealed “battlefield,” pried his photographer from a friendly discussion of equipment, and staged a view of maximum communicative efficiency if uncertain bond to its site. If Elisofon is photographing a Japanese shell fragment pulled from the Goleta earth, for Morris the thing held firm in hand is all the more precious for being a scoop!
While its production was framed by the same desire for an exclusive, Elisofon’s second full-page photograph in Life’s report, less clear in its reference than the first and far richer for it, is a different kind of picture altogether; one where the landscape is very much alive as the central actor. Morris tells the story:
The G-2 officer came to give us a tour of the damage, which was slight. Disappointed, the press corps rapidly departed to meet deadlines in L.A., which permitted Eliot and me--our deadline still several days off--to get another exclusive. In the diner, I had heard talk of a shell that had gone “way up in the hills.” We drove high up into the coast range until we came to a sentry at the farmer’s gate. We waved and called, “The colonel sent us,” and drove right by. Finally we arrived in a meadow. There sat a solitary soldier, guarding the neat hole left by a five-inch shell from the Japanese submarine. It had failed to explode and was, so he claimed, already on its way to Aberdeen Proving Ground for ballistics tests. Eliot composed a vertical that served as a virtual map of the ‘engagement”: the soldier looking out to sea, the Channel Islands in the distance. (56-7)
For all the satisfying insight into the occasionally duplicitous procedures of news-gathering on display here what strikes me most is Morris’ exacting description of Elisofon’s camera work toward the end. The whole of the story, Morris suggests, is conveyed through Elisofon’s picture as if it were a war map--from the submarine’s position between the Islands and the shore, to the fuel facility occupying the coast, to the farthest reaches of the enemy’s fire almost a mile inland, to the final presence of the United States military as a guardian in response. And all of this etched invisibly into a view that is classically Southern California, as if the attack has torn the fabric of expectation as fully as it has torn up the soil in the picture’s immediate foreground. The picture’s caption as it appeared in Life, very possibly written by Morris, completes the sketch:
A full mile over the target, this neat crater, scooped in the soil by a 5-in. shell which failed to explode, appears extrinsically to condemn the accuracy of the [Japanese] gunners, who were firing from a mere half mile from shore. Actually their miss was a good deal less than a mile. Their target was the flat oil storage tank visible above, a little to the left of center. Firing at point-blank range, the [Japanese] had their gun trained in almost level trajectory. Skimming the top of the tank by a few feet, the shell simply kept going until it struck the rising slope of this coastal meadow.
Elisofon’s photographic field is shown to be determined by the precise span of the shell’s trajectory, and we are invited to assume a forensic gaze, sighting our line from the foreground divot to the roof of the white storage tank in the middle distance (just to the left of the trees near the waterline) and on finally to the shell’s point of origin beyond. While the great western landscape has not been so badly torn here, the conditions of visibility have been forcefully restructured, the beholder’s perspectival sightline recoded as a shell’s deadly path. Where the Westward picturing of the California landscape might have once suggested the mastery of all that one can see, here now it served as index to nothing other than the full, panoramic reach of the beholder’s own vulnerability. The once restful business of sitting in a Santa Barbara meadow gazing out over the Pacific would, from this point forward, the picture declares, be anything but a quiet, meditative act. The position from which Elisofon made his picture was now not only a battlefield, but, in the eyes of the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department, a crime scene.
It could well be that one of the photographers Elisofon was talking lenses with that morning was SBSD crime scene photographer Ralph Bradford, also on the scene and whose own exacting record of the attack, above, was made the same day. Where Elisofon’s picture gazes anxiously outward at the origin of the barrage, Bradford’s looks up toward Elisofon’s position and the Santa Ynez beyond to survey the full range of its more immediate effects. One of those effects, somewhere out there in the hills of Bradford’s picture, seen through the infrastructure of oil extraction, was Elisofon and his own activity of photographic survey; his and Morris’ and Life magazine’s own participation in the reordering of the Western landscape, once marked by the promise of American empire, now marked by the fear of another.
A concluding note: The Japanese attack at the Ellwood oil field was launched just as President Roosevelt made his first radio address following his December 8, 1941 declaration of war against Japan and four days after he had signed Executive Order 9066, which cleared the legal way for the internment of California’s Japanese-Americans that would begin so soon after. Three years earlier, Roosevelt, an avid collector of war pictures, had published, in a small edition, the treasure of his collection: a portfolio of sketches by artist as gunner William H. Meyers, chronicling the United States Navy’s military conquest of the Mexican territory of California. Until the Ellwood shelling, this was the last time that a foreign power fired its guns on California. We have very little photographic record of that 1846-7 phase of the Mexican-American War, and the sketchbook by Meyers, a gunner on the U.S. Sloop-of-War Dale, is, according to Roosevelt’s own introduction, unique as an eyewitness visual record.
Included among Meyer’s drawings are a number of pictures of the U.S. military’s bloody incursion into Northwestern Mexico, in what is now Los Angeles County. Among these, three, marking incidents on January 8-9, 1847, merit brief mention here. They offer a quick sequence depicting the crossing by US troops of the Rio San Gabriel, their immediate attack on Mexican defensive forces there, and their final decisive assault, the next day, at the Battle for Los Angeles. Taken together, Meyers’ pictures figure a scene not so unlike Bradfords’. Tracing their gaze from a watery position up into the hills, Meyers and Bradford both offer a Southern California landscape scored with the heavy annotation of militarized aggression; Meyers marking progress toward the acquisition of the desired prize, Bradford itemizing violence done against the freshly contested prize-in-hand. But to my eye only Elisofon’s pictures, and especially those that weren’t published, those that we started with here, seem to register something of contingency flagged in the encounter of Bradford’s and Meyers’ pictures; that unstable, almost indifferent correspondence of the landscape to the territory.
Thanks to Kenneth C. Hough and Paul Petrich Jr. for sharing their resources and expertise on the history of the Ellwood shelling with me in the preparation of this post.
Jason Hill is an art historian based at the Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art, where he is Terra Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in American Art. His writing on art and photography has recently appeared in X-TRA, Études Photographiques, and Photography & Culture.