Ever since acquiring the first proof print more than ten years ago of Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph of the raising of Old Glory on Iwo Jima’s Mt. Suribachi, Houston Museum of Fine Arts photography curator Anne Wilkes Tucker has been on a mission. It has taken her and colleagues on a worldwide search into collections and archives for photographs of war. The result is a deeply moving and comprehensive exhibition of 165 years of conflict photography, from the 1846 Mexican-American War to June 2012 and the war in Libya.
In the Houston showing, there were 486 photographs, magazines, cameras and artifacts on display. They came from 152 sources, were the work of 280 photographers from 28 nations, and represented 69-armed conflicts—a shameful roster of the orchestrated pain we human beings have inflicted on each other since the invention of photography. Ms. Tucker was also assisted by Nathalie Zelt and by photographer Will Michels who initially challenged Ms. Tucker to have the museum collect historic photos of war. About a third of the images come from the museum’s own holdings but (as revealed in a NY Times article):
Much of the rest was borrowed from museums and public collections around the world. But some came from individuals, like the 1940s photograph of Russian children gathered around the corpses of two others who have just been hanged as collaborators, or a 1937 snapshot of Japanese soldiers using live Chinese soldiers for bayonet practice.
Such a commitment to the often-gruesome subject of war, its damage and aftermath, is not what many would conceive as the proper focus of a major fine art museum, but Tucker, who was honored in 2001 by Time magazine as “America’s Best Curator,” has been unflinching in her dedication to the challenging subject. The NY Times article quotes her:
“We have some pretty horrific images,” Ms. Tucker said, “that wouldn’t be published in a newspaper.” And few art museums collect or show photographs of atrocities. "But war photographs, like the events they document, are part of the 'collective memory,'" she added, and “we decided that this was going to be about what photographers have photographed during wartime, no holds barred."
Tucker is so widely respected in the museum community that she convinced the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Brooklyn Museum to also host the show during this year and next. But right now, until June 2, you can see this landmark exhibition in Los Angeles at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City.
The Annenberg venue is comprehensive but far from complete. It offers about 150 photographs, tightly spaced in the hallway-like galleries that circle the central rotunda. The floor plan of the Annenberg is unique in that there are few traditional galleries. Instead, a running wall space of the stacked photographs grounds the exhibition. The presentation is not historical but thematic, showing the “order of war,” mixing B/W, color, professional and amateur images together in a way that serves to feature the disquieting continuity of, even the onerous litany of, suffering and death that is one of the major themes of photography itself.
A brief video gives an overview of the exhibition. It includes statements by curators Anne Tucker and Natalie Zelt as well as by Will Michels who is an instructor for the Glassell School of Art:
As does an even briefer “teaser” produced by the Annenberg:
Even though the Annenberg exhibition is attenuated, it includes an additional video presentation unique to the Los Angeles venue. There also is a slide show with only music and effects that illustrates many of the photographs not included from Houston. The video is a half hour documentary produced by and for the Annenberg. Directed by Steve Kochones for Arclight Prods, it profiles six-esteemed conflict photojournalists in on-camera interviews intercut with their photos as they describe the shooting of their best images. The photographers are: Alexandra Avakian whose memoir Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World was honored by American Photo; Carolyn Cole, winner of a Pulitzer prize for her coverage of the siege of Monrovia, Liberia:
Ashley Gilbertson, noted for his photo/memoir Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and his recently completed but not yet published Bedrooms of the Fallen, is interviewed right after he has made the last photo in Midland, Texas of a dead soldier’s bedroom in his family home. I have written before about Gilbertson for this blog:
Edouard H.R. Glück, who began his career as a soldier in Iraq:
David Hume Kennerly, who won a Pulitzer for his Vietnam War coverage and who has photographed eight wars:
and João Silva, co-author of The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War.
Silva is also the subject of another blog essay where I discuss Jehad Nga, Jim Nachtwey and the late Tim Hetherington.
While all six of the photojournalists featured in the Annenberg documentary are passionate and articulate, it is Silva who is most riveting. At first, he is shown in a normal size “talking head” shot; it is only deep into his interview that director Kochones cuts to a wider shot that reveals Silva’s two prosthetic legs, replacements for the limbs he lost to a landmine while on patrol in Afghanistan. Silva talks also about the chaos of photographing during the worst days of the South African fight against apartheid.
The exhibition catalog is much more than a grim record of loss and death.
Its six hundred plus pages include essays by the three curators as well as by half a dozen other scholars. The photographs along with rich illustrations from magazines and newspapers present as comprehensive an overview of the subject of war and photography as you may ever see in a single volume.
If you buy no other book this year (and this is no bedside tome as it weighs in at almost ten pounds) you must get this one. It will be with you the rest of your life:
I reflected for a long time about what more I might want to say about War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath. But I’ve come up pretty empty, confronted by the all too tragic enormity of the subject. There is that strange, anomalous “slash” between the two words. What did the curators want it to mean? Tucker writes in her introduction that:
The slash in the title…. acknowledges that armed conflict and photography are separate entities whose interaction between 1846 and the present have led to the creation of millions of photographs.
Yes. But, again that slant? It makes the two words seem to lean into each other. If only it were merely “interaction,” as if those two activities run along parallel but distinct courses. From another perspective this slant portends not just interaction but a marriage made in hell.
I have written much in this blog the past few years about conflict photographers I have known. I have striven to maintain a breath of idealism when doing so, as when Jim Nachtwey describes his work as “bearing witness.” And indeed it does. He and Tim Hetherington never stole shots. They work close in, witness with the people they photograph. No image is more telling of this immediacy than the photograph by Nick Ut that may have been the most significant image in turning the tide of American opinion against the Vietnam War.
Ut describes the making of this iconic photograph in an interview:
But after seeing this harrowing exhibition and listening to the interviews of the half dozen featured photographers, I come away with a more ambiguous, even ambivalent, feeling about the reasons men and women have in choosing to become “conflict photographers." I'll write more in a future piece when I look atthe current Sebastian Junger HBO documentary on Hetherington, as well as a new biography by Alan Huffman.
It seemed at times as if war photographers were vultures and, at other times, part of the conscience of the world. Going back and forth between war zones and the comforts of home tended to make such photographers perennial outsiders.
Huffman then proceeds to describe in detail Hetherington’s introduction to the intense emotions of war as he accompanies filmmaker James Brabazon in shooting a 2003 documentary about the Liberian civil war, the conflict that launched Hetherington's brief career.
There is, undeniably, a certain intoxication, even addiction, to that heady rush one experiences when photographing in an arena of death, especially the possibility of it being your own. But what else may be in that volatile cocktail of shooting a camera and shooting a weapon? It is a question, perhaps unanswerable, that hovers over this deeply haunting exhibition.