Her hair is perfectly styled, pinned up behind her with a huge flower. She wears a blazer, rests her chin on her left hand while her right hand holds a poised pen. In a perfectly proportioned composition, her head and right hand make two points of a triangle; the third, connected by the diagonal of her left arm, sits on the table in front of her: a human skull. The photograph by Ralph Crane from the May 22, 1944, edition of LIFE magazine explains itself in the caption:
When he said goodbye two years ago to Natalie Nickerson…a big, handsome, Navy lieutenant promised her a Jap. Last week Natalie received a human skull autographed by the lieutenant and 13 of his friends and inscribed: “This is a good Jap—a dead one picked up on the New Guinea beach.” Natalie, surprised at the gift, named it Tojo. The armed forces disapprove strongly of this sort of thing.
The photograph seems to offer yet one more instance of man’s inhumanity to man from a war notable for its unparalleled destruction and brutality. The underlying rhetoric of racism that determined World War II is well known on all sides, including the differing American attitudes toward the Japanese and the Germans. As one marine told journalist John Hersey in 1943, “I wish we were fighting against Germans. They are humans like us…But the Japs are animals.”
The collection of Japanese war trophies—which included various body parts, including skulls—was, by all accounts, endemic and uncontrollable. Charles Lindbergh noted numerous such instances in the diaries of his travels to the Pacific theater: “It is the same everywhere I go,” he wrote. The problem was so widespread that when Lindbergh returned to the States, he was asked by customs officers—almost as a matter of course—if he was carrying any “human bones” in his luggage. Crane’s photo, appearing in one of the most popular magazines of the day, was only the most visible instance of a much deeper problem, one that was rooted in a long-standing program of propaganda that stretched back over a decade.
But the photograph from LIFE magazine stands out in its composition, which evokes the tableau of the memento mori, particularly Georges de La Tour’s Penitent Magdalen. De La Tour painted this subject at least four times, each painting composed slightly differently, but always the silent, contemplative woman gazing at a human skull.
Mary Magdalene was a popular image in Renaissance art, and, along with Saints Jerome and Francis, was most commonly depicted with a human skull. The common story at the time was that Magdalene had been a prostitute before meeting Christ—a powerful narrative moment, as Magdalene is shown in De La Tour’s paintings contemplating her mortal, earthly ways. As she holds the skull, she repents, turns her back on this life with its inevitable death in favor of an immortal life with Christ.
Crane’s echo of De La Tour says a great deal about our relationship with death. In the Renaissance tradition of memento mori, the skull is that sudden and uncanny disruption, an alien presence that infects its surroundings with the taint of mortality. By nature anonymous, it is an abstract figure of death, not any particular individual’s remains. The tradition of memento mori is self-reflexive: one is meant to meditate not on the death of the skull’s owner but on one’s own death—the skull before the viewer is always and only the viewer’s skull.
But soldiers scalping their enemies’ bodies are not often thinking of their own deaths. In his novel The Thin Red Line, James Jones wrote of an “imagination problem,” the problem being that American soldiers were unable to imagine their own deaths. One critic describes a scene in which the soldiers of Charlie Company are confronted with a report of the desecration of a fellow soldier’s corpse, describing how “every soldier could imagine—but could not endure imagining—himself as that abject figure. And so each resorts to some mental strategy to magically forestall undergoing such a ritualized physical humiliation.” Most avoid the fear of death by resorting to an ever-increasing brutality. “Obviously,” one character remarks, “the only way really to survive in this world of humans called culture we had made and were so proud of, was to be more vicious, meaner and more cruel than those one met.” It is precisely in acts of savage brutality that these American soldiers avoid facing their own mortality, as if, by becoming themselves inhuman, they can avoid the fate awaiting all humanity. The war trophy—the skull collected by a loving boyfriend—no longer reminds the American sailor that he will die. It now assures him instead that it is the Japanese soldiers who have died and will continue to die.
The Renaissance tradition offered up one skull that was not anonymous, that had an identity, that most famous of skulls, poor Yorick’s. Hamlet’s soliloquy on the former court jester is an act of reclamation, rescuing Yorick’s skull from a pile of anonymous bones and giving it a name and a history. In the process, Hamlet transforms it from an abstract memento mori into the trace of a specific person.
The most famous line in the soliloquy—“I knew him well!”—would find its way into a literary work that tackled the problem of war trophies in World War II. Winfield Townley Scott’s poem “The U.S. Sailor with the Japanese Skull” details the process by which a head becomes a skull.
Peeled with a lifting knife the jaw and cheeks, bared
The nose, ripped off the black-haired scalp and gutted
The dead eyes to these thoughtful hollows: a scarred
But bloodless job, unless it be said that brains bleed.
Skinned, gutted, dragged behind a ship in a fishing net, and finally bleached white in the sun, the skull in Scott’s account evolves until it is “made elemental, historic, parentless by our Sailor boy,” a sailor who cannot now, after all that work, say, “Alas! I did not know him at all.”
A poet and literary critic by trade, Scott fell into journalism during the war just to make ends meet, and in the process he saw much of the depravities firsthand. In the years following, he came to Hamlet as a way to comment on the barbarism of the Pacific conflict. Addressing a skull is always a confrontation with an uncanny otherness; in this case, the confrontation is with an other not divine but racial. Scott’s poem uses the trophy skulls to reveal the always problematic relationship between human and dehumanized enemy. In the context of war, the iconographic figure of death itself is no longer as alienating as the more radical otherness of an enemy from another race.
Published after the war, Scott’s poem was a condemnation of the brutalities he had seen, but Crane’s LIFE magazine photo, published during the heart of the war, had a different set of intentions. LIFE magazine was not quite outright government propaganda, but it definitely fulfilled an agenda in its presentation of the war. In particular, the magazine editors used captions and commentaries to guide their readers in how to read its photos. A May 1945 photo essay titled “The German People” used captions to create a specific narrative of the recently defeated Germans and their national character. The opening image of two teenagers and an older man is accompanied by a caption that reads, in part, “These faces are unhappy but hard and arrogant,” in case the viewer finds their expressions inscrutable or enigmatic. This kind of ideological coaching, reducing the manifold possibilities of the photo to a single meaning, was an editorial hallmark of LIFE magazine.
But the encounter with the memento mori is always pedagogic. The entire concept of the memento mori is marshaled around its command function: remember that you will die. In the seventeenth century, this function was made particularly clear in emblem books like George Wither’s A Collection of Emblems, Ancient and Modern, published in 1635. Wither had come into possession of a book of emblems by the famous Netherland engravers, but found their captions lacking. After writing a few new verses for some of the images, Wither was encouraged by friends to “moralize” the rest. Skulls appear prominently in nearly a fifth of the forty or so illustrations, and in almost every case, they are accompanied by variations on the same sentiment. “The rage of Death, which thou shalt see, Consider it, and pious be,” reads one, while another reads, “Live, ever mindful of thy dying, For Time is always from thee flying.”
One might expect this kind of pedagogic message in De La Tour’s work as well. The iconographic significance of the penitent Magdalen was fairly well established by the time De La Tour produced his series of paintings on the theme during the 1640s. In addition to the skull, the paintings all feature the same set of symbols: the mirror indicating vanity, the burning flame symbolizing the soul in the process of purification, the chin resting on the hand to signify melancholic reflection, and so forth. To a seventeenth-century audience well versed in iconographic references such as these, the paintings would convey a familiar narrative, that of a former prostitute who contemplates her own mortality as she abandons the world of the flesh in favor of divine salvation, someone who’d taken messages like Wither’s to heart. But the power of de La Tour’s paintings may lie in the way they refuse the simple didacticism of an emblem caption: By focusing on the moment before the conversion, de La Tour refuses the look of gratified salvation, offering instead the enigmatic look of melancholy, which stands in mute tension with the pedagogic aim of the memento mori tradition.
What De La Tour’s paintings and Wither’s emblems suggest is that the memento mori tableau, however striking, cannot speak for itself and must be spoken for. Ralph Crane’s photo for LIFE magazine appears to say something definite, something striking, but exactly what it says depends on the caption underneath it. It is difficult, in such a short paragraph, to get a clear idea of exactly how Natalie Nickerson felt upon receiving the skull or what was going through her mind as Crane took the photo; all we have of her mental state is the photo itself and the sentence “Natalie, surprised at the gift, named it Tojo.” But, as with the caption of the “unhappy, hard, and arrogant” Germans, we’re told how to read the image: The Japanese soldier is a “Jap” and thus unlike Nickerson’s “big, handsome Navy lieutenant.” Beyond this, the caption suggests a glibness, a cavalier attitude toward the skull, an editorial jocularity that is not reflected on Nickerson’s face. If anything, she seems melancholic; she seems more like de La Tour’s Magdalene than the magazine editors suspect.
The disjunct between the jocularity of the caption and the detached quality of Nickerson’s expression is striking. It’s not clear, especially after the space of so many years, to what degree the photo was staged. The tableau seems unmistakably arranged to mimic the memento mori paintings, but it’s difficult to surmise how much influence the photographer had on Nickerson’s facial expression. If her look was a natural response to the human skull before her, it would seem to conflict, however subtly and momentarily, with the seeming callousness with which she reportedly named it Tojo. Her expression, perhaps, marks an authentic confrontation with death more than a celebration of one more enemy soldier dead. If Nickerson’s look was staged, it suggests that Crane as a photographer was more interested in mimicking the memento mori images of artists like de La Tour than he was in setting up an image that would bear out LIFE’s ideological aims.
Crane’s photo, perhaps surprisingly, provoked significant outrage, not just among LIFE’s readership but among the armed forces as well. For the remainder of the war, high-ranking officers, such as the army’s judge advocate general, Major General Myron C. Cramer, made repeated, if futile, attempts to force commanders in the field to put a stop to the practice of collecting war trophies. Genuinely offended by the indecency of the LIFE photo and aware of the violation of the Geneva Convention regulations that it represented, these few voices of reason also knew full well what an opportunity the photo provided for Japanese propaganda. It was for the latter reason, and not for the desecration of an enemy corpse, that Natalie Nickerson’s “big, handsome Navy lieutenant” was ultimately reprimanded.
More outraged, of course, were the Japanese. On August 10, Crane’s image was sent to Tokyo from Berlin, and the national response was shock, anguish, and vitriol. Crane’s photo was reprinted throughout Japan as a symbol of American barbarism, most notably in Japan’s largest daily, Asahi Shimbun, which editorialized:
This is truly the picture in question that has starkly revealed true American barbarism.…We, as Japanese, find it difficult to bear looking at it. A prayer spontaneously wells from our hearts—a prayer of blessing for the spirit of that Japanese war dead. The next instant we feel indignation pressing fiercely within our breast. Even on the face of the American girl can be discerned the beastly nature of the Americans. Let us all vow the destruction of American savagery from the face of the earth.
Despite the unsettling nature of the image, I’m not sure I see “the beastly nature of the Americans” inscribed on the face of Natalie Nickerson, any more than I see in her the glib chauvinism that the LIFE caption suggests. Having spent years looking at this photo, I’m still not sure what one could read in her expression other than a private and inscrutable confrontation with death, an experience that is not easily translatable into nationalist rhetoric of any kind.
In 1933, the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin predicted that the caption of a photograph would become increasingly important; without it, he wrote, “all photography construction must remain arrested in the approximate.” In the case of Crane’s staged portrait of Natalie Nickerson and her Japanese skull, Benjamin’s assertion seems undeniable; it is the caption that works to shoehorn a photo’s otherwise ambiguous content into a stable ideological message. Divorced from captions and bombastic propaganda, an image defies simple, didactic meaning—arrested in the approximate, the image of Natalie Nickerson offers instead a silent and unspeakable confrontation with the dead.