On Feb. 5, after President Biden ordered a Chinese balloon that had violated American airspace to be shot down, a Navy photographer took several extraordinary photographs of Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 as it collected some of the debris off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C.
In one of the images, which has been widely reproduced in the last two weeks, three sailors wrestle what looks like an enormous garbage bag entangled with broken scaffolding into a small boat while half a dozen of their comrades stare watchfully into space; in another, the humans are relegated to the edges and the focus is on the balloon itself, an ominous, if waterlogged, mass of wrinkled white plastic.
The photographer in both cases was Mass Communication Specialist First Class Tyler Thompson. And somehow his images’ unusual lighting and dramatic composition, which smooth individual sailors into heroic archetypes and make the calm, pre-dawn Atlantic seawater as lush as oil paint, nearly pushed away my anxieties about rising tensions with an emerging nuclear superpower, and a sky crowded with other mysterious devices.
What they made me think of, instead, was the 19th century, and in particular the paintings of Winslow Homer, who depicted the sea often, giving it a numinous quality that could be dangerous or comradely. In “The Herring Net” (1885), which shows a fisherman and his small assistant pulling a heavy net into a small boat, the separately lit waves are helpful companions, holding up the boat’s prow and suffering along with the weather. In the first of Thompson’s Navy photos, similarly, the low, glassy surface of the water seems almost as involved in the action as the sailors — it’s bearing silent witness to what’s happening.
“It is a seductive photograph,” Jeff Rosenheim, head of the department of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said in an interview, reviewing Thompson’s image of searchlight-illuminated sailors pulling the wrecked balloon into their boat. “What seduces me is the oblique way you enter it. There’s a very lyrical approach to it, a kind of poetics of description, lighting, materials.”
So did Petty Officer Thompson get lucky, or is he that good? Thompson, as it turns out, studied photography, videography and writing, as well as graphics and multimedia, at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md. (The Navy said he was on leave, with no connectivity, and so was unavailable for an interview.)
Whether the composition was intentional or accidental, Sylvia Yount, head of the American Wing at the Met, found surprising art-historical resonances. She compared Thompson’s photos to the “collaborative impulse coming out of disaster” that echoed throughout “Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents,” the 2022 exhibition she co-organized at the Met. “Communities of men seem to be a focus here,” she said.
And they certainly recall “heroic narratives found in American and European history paintings,” she added, such as Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” which hangs at the Met, and Théodore Géricault’s stunning “The Raft of the Medusa,” which is in the collection of the Louvre. (The New York Times once called it “a timeless memorial to the desperation of shipwrecked people.”)
There are contemporary and more concrete resonances, too, of course. Rosenheim, remembering a long-ago trip to see jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in California, said that the balloon made him think of a sea creature. Yount, noticing how perfectly staged the first photo looks, mentioned the photographers Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall, both of whom make large, carefully arranged tableaux.
But I kept coming back to the 19th century, and finally to Moby-Dick.The composition in the group image evokes shipwrecks, but more than anything, the sailors look like a whaling crew, pulling at the flayed blubber of their giant prey. (There are even a few mysterious pink blotches on the trailing, tangled end of the balloon to evoke blood.) In the close-up, we come face to face with the stark white mass itself, and it’s surprising just how alien and difficult to parse it is. Its wrinkles point in all different directions, and its color, depending on where the light falls, varies from pink to green. At once lush as Renaissance drapery and sterile as a syringe, it looks like nothing hopeful or good — but all those qualities make it, like Moby-Dick, an irresistible artistic subject.