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Vicki Goldberg on Anne Wilkes Tucker and Will Michels with Natalie Zelt, War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath

Vicki Goldberg reviews War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath by Anne Wilkes Tucker and Will Michels with Natalie Zelt.

 - February 13, 2014

“It makes no difference what men think of war. . . .
War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone.
War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The
ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

I challenge anyone to look through this book without both wincing and admiring, sometimes when confronting the same image. War photographs can plunge us into a kind of purgatory, a state of pain that comes with the promise that we, far from the hell out there, need not suffer eternally. War/Photography, the catalog for the enormous show (almost five hundred photographs and objects) that originated at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, curated by Anne Wilkes Tucker and Will Michels with Natalie Zelt, inflicts a good deal of pain: photographs like Greg Marinovich’s of a South African hacking at a man who’s consumed in flames, or Patrick Chauvel’s of soldiers in Bangladesh publicly executing prisoners by repeatedly bayoneting them. And there are admirable, remarkable, sometimes beautiful photographs as well: Christophe Agou’s view through the ragged cross-shaped bars of a shattered window to the bare bones of the towers destroyed on 9/11, and Edward Steichen’s elegant picture of soldiers relaxing and sleeping on a flight deck during World War I.

The book is handsomely designed and produced and, at six hundred pages, is as stuffed with useful and surprising information as a detective’s file cabinet—and heavy enough to flatten your lap. Uncommon facts proliferate. There were many photographs before and during the supposedly almost unphotographed Falklands War. Official German photographers in World War I took color photographs. More than half the population of Great Britain saw a film that included actual footage of the Battle of the Somme while that battle was still going on. And more.

Uncommon photographs multiply as well: the grave of a Mexican prisoner in 1913, still alive enough to reach an arm up from the earth after he’d been buried. The track of a Japanese torpedo racing toward American ships at Pearl Harbor in 1941. A parachutist in 1962 falling into another man’s parachute on the way down. A Khmer guerilla in Cambodia awaiting surgery from medical personnel standing knee-deep in swamp water. And more. And more.

If you cannot see an exhibition during its tour, the catalog offers a vague feeling that you have done so. With war photographs (and movies), one of photography’s most persistent specters is especially prevalent (and dangerous): the insidious sense that we have absorbed the experience, that we know what such conflict is like. Technology is working hard to intensify this notion, as soldiers’ photographs from the field catapult to prominence on the web, and automated photography—aerial photographs from unmanned planes and earth-based images from cameras attached to soldiers’ helmets—zeroes in on dangerous and gruesome encounters.

Every catalog adds to Malraux’s museum without walls, but the catalog’s greatest power is its ability to fill in contextual blanks. If photographs tell but do not explain, catalogs do both. War/Photography does this hugely and often grandly. If occasionally uneven, it fulfills the curators’ stated hopes by providing a platform for discussion of conflict and conflict photography.

The exhibition and book’s premise is complex: that it is important to comprehend not only the intention and purpose of war images, but also their distribution and their effects. Effects are particularly hard to pin down, but the ubiquity of such images since the advent of the illustrated press, plus the ongoing popularity of war movies, testify to their persistence and their strength. Part of War/Photography’s premise inheres in its structure: it looks at the genre comprehensively, not the (mere) history of individual wars or individual photographers, but “the arc of war—from instigation, to recruitment, embarkation, and training, to ‘the fight’ and ‘the fog’ of war, to its aftermath, with prisoners and executions, the wounded and refugees, to war’s end, memorials, and remembrance.” All such photographs are universally recognized as having to do with war, but this is a much more inclusive definition than the common term “war photography,” and the slice across time and place in each category produces some intriguing hints that all wars are both the same and entirely different.

Anne Wilkes Tucker’s introductory essays to each section thoughtfully and authoritatively address the images and issues in that section. John Stauffer’s and Bodo Von Dewitz’s contributions are particularly brilliant and revelatory.

Stauffer, who writes about the effects of images in the Crimean War and the American Civil War, has a logical explanation for which of Roger Fenton’s two pictures of The Valley of the Shadow of Death in the Crimea came first. He also writes that though the British had a virtual lust for images of that conflict, far more, millions in fact, were published in the illustrated press in America, despite the fact that the U.S. was not engaged in that war. What’s more, “England was comparatively free of censorship, which helps explain why the correspondents and public opinion played a crucial role in the war’s outcome.” The other combatants, who had a clearer idea of the power of the press, rigorously controlled it. Government restrictions on publication had been around a long time, but the burgeoning media carved a wide new path for influence to flow along. The mid-nineteenth century gave birth to the mass media, the mass audience, and the image era, all of which grew up fast, eventually reaching maturity—and decadence. They are still growing before our eyes.

Bodo Von Dewitz writes about photography’s influence in Germany during and after World War I. Traditionally, that war is considered rather photograph-poor due to early censorship, restrictions on professional access, and the frequent reliance on staged images when action pictures were hard to get. But in fact, Von Dewitz writes, “countless millions” of photographs were produced by soldier amateurs, sent home as postcards and greeting cards, kept in albums, sold in bookshops in the field, and exhibited on the home front. In postwar Germany, many books were published with war photographs, giving rise to “an unprecedented, intensive journalistic examination of wartime experiences.”

The amateur images were variously interpreted, or slanted and used as propaganda (in an early indication of the questionable authority of photographs as documents). The media’s reinterpretation of these wartime memories generated “the building blocks for the rise of the National Socialist movement, which ultimately resulted in the Nazi dictatorship and its politics of re-armament and war”—a breathtaking claim for the power of photographs. No exhibition has the space to include such history, a persuasive argument for this catalog and catalogs in general.

All photography books change the object in one way or another. Paper and color are different, even if minimally, and scale cannot be reproduced. Reducing the scale of a work of art alters its effect, a fact rendered especially meaningful now that photographs have laid claim to grandeur.

The Houston exhibition juxtaposed two pictures of the identical subject but of quite different sizes: Seamus Murphy’s black-and-white image of a dead Taliban soldier in Afghanistan (20 x 24 in.) and Luc Delahaye’s color photograph of the very same corpse (43 1⁄8 x 93 1⁄4 in.). The book necessarily reduces them, replicating the ratio of one to the other as closely as possible, yet the experience of Delahaye’s oversize image simply cannot be reproduced on the page.

Its scale introduces another factor. Murphy’s picture, though it too is large enough to suggest the photographer expected it to be displayed in an art context, retains elements of a captured or photojournalistic image. The dead man’s feet are nearly at the bottom edge of the picture and the body stretches back toward a wide, deserted landscape. In Delahaye’s photograph, the body lies parallel to and precisely in the center of an elongated frame, and only a brief expanse of ground, not enough to call a landscape, frames the figure and serves to emphasize its centrality. This formal, classicizing composition calls upon the histories of painting and sculptured relief; composition, muted color, and ambitious scale adamantly insist that a war photograph can be conceived from its inception as a work of art. Time, the market, and museums may have lightly tossed many war photographs into the amorphous category of art, and many a photographer, Murphy included, has given a rough picture an artistic twist, but few who were on the battlefield have claimed the mantel so decisively as Delahaye.

Both book and show carefully point out faked and staged photographs, as well as their origins and uses. Staged: the Kaiser was photographed visiting the front during World War I, but he never got there. No German soldier crouched in the muddy swamp of the front lines would have recognized the clean and tidy trench their ruler inspected; it was constructed for the occasion. Faked: Wesley David Archer’s Just as he left the burning plane (ca. 1933), a harrowing picture of a pilot falling through the air while his plane does its own death dive, was long accepted as a war document but later discovered to have been ginned up with a model airplane and doubtless a toy human, too.

Manipulated war photographs, often distrusted by the military, served governments, their agencies, and activists as morale builders and propaganda. The public apparently accepted some degree of manipulation, such as added scenery, but still believed in photography’s essential truthfulness. Would that we could discover whether news editors knew (or cared) which photographs they published were staged.

It seems a characteristic of our species that we will wage war forever. What’s more, as representations of war have mushroomed, they have stoked the appetite for them, which seems to be in no more danger of being slaked than war is of being stopped. It would pay us to understand our hunger for war’s images and to understand how those images have affected history and culture. These are big questions. This catalog hints at and poses them indirectly and asks us to discuss them, perhaps even to come up with answers—which could turn out to be as scorching as the photographs themselves.

Vicki Goldberg’s latest book is The White House: The President’s Home in Photographs and History (Little, Brown and Co., 2011), which features two hundred and fifty photographs, from the 1840s–2010, of the house; the presidents; their families, guests, and pets; and their relations with the media and involvement with technology. The exhibition War/Photography opened at the Brooklyn Museum on November 8, 2013.