The Art of War
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JEFFREY BROWN: We’re used to seeing the war in Iraq through the lens of a camera, video on the nightly news, photos in the morning paper.
But here’s another view: Drawings and paintings of American soldiers and Iraqi caught up in the conflict around them. They’re the work of artist Steve Mumford who made four trips to Iraq, ten months in all, part of the time embedded with military units, mostly on his own walking the streets of Baghdad, always with a sketch pad and pen or brush in hand.
Several years ago Mumford painted a series of canvases depicting the Vietnam War. When the Iraq invasion began, he decided to go and see it unfold firsthand, inspired by the example of Winslow Homer who went to Civil War battlefields and showed the results in Harper’s weekly magazine.
This spring almost 150 years later, Harper’s printed a series of Mumford’s paintings and drawings in an eight-page spread titled “Watching the Tempest.”
While in Iraq Mumford had an even more direct line to the public: artnet.com, an Internet site about the art world on which he posted his work accompanied by descriptions of his experience.
These have now been brought together in a new book called “Baghdad Journal.”
When we talked to Mumford recently at his New York studio, he told us first of the doubts that set in immediately after he drove from Kuwait into Iraq with two journalists.
STEVE MUMFORD: And I suddenly felt like an impostor. You know, I wasn’t a photojournalist. I didn’t have a satellite dish to beam any images to, you know, a news organization. And it just seemed so almost surreal to pull out a drawing pad.
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s almost a quaint idea, isn’t it, so be drawing a war at a time when we’re all so used to the quick camera click or the video that we see every night on the news?
STEVE MUMFORD: Yeah, it’s true. I mean, I think post World War II people got so used to the idea of the camera being the kind of device of record that drawing came to seem completely outmoded.
JEFFREY BROWN: While the journalists he knew were compelled to follow the latest action, Mumford says he had more freedom to draw whatever he came across. Often that meant capturing a behind-the-scenes look at everyday life that’s rarely portrayed.
STEVE MUMFORD: For example, in Baghdad, you know, there’s so many marketplaces, and the marketplaces remain these vibrant kind of places where people go to buy their food or whatever. That’s a key part of life in Baghdad which tends to get neglected because it doesn’t make an interesting war story.
But for me I wanted to show the whole sort of spectrum of life, you know, in Iraq, especially in the early days when I felt safer walking around Baghdad I would set out in the morning with my drawing supplies and just walk around Baghdad, so if I saw something that looked interesting I’d sit down and start drawing and right away have a crowd of Iraqis surrounding me.
JEFFREY BROWN: People were real interested?
STEVE MUMFORD: They were real interested. They were watching every move of my pen as I drew. And if I drew somebody they knew, they would lean over and kind of stab at the paper and say, Ahmed, there’s Ahmed.
JEFFREY BROWN: Among the slices of Iraqi life, a shopkeeper’s son, stray dogs in Baghdad, backgammon players, a man smoking a pipe. A number of drawings portray members of Baghdad’s artistic community, several of whom befriended Mumford.
Similarly, Mumford was able to show the behind-the-scenes lives of American soldiers, hitting golf balls into the Tigris at dark, relaxing after a long day.
Soldiers and Marines over there, I know, got used to the idea of having journalists along but when you came to them as an artist, did they — did that seem strange, kind of weird to them?
STEVE MUMFORD: I think they may have been a little disappointed at first.
JEFFREY BROWN: Disappointed?
STEVE MUMFORD: I would get into a humvee going on patrol and the soldier would say, so, what organization are you with — you know — maybe expecting ABC or CNN or something like that. I’d say, well, I’m an artist with artnet.com. And there would be this big silence in the humvee.
JEFFREY BROWN: Like, “what?”
STEVE MUMFORD: Yeah.
JEFFREY BROWN: But military personnel did accept him, Mumford says, and he was allowed to join a number of patrols and see action firsthand, including a tense fight against insurgents in Baqouba.
STEVE MUMFORD: Soldiers were on patrol. I had maybe 10 minutes to try to, you know, at least start a drawing. I wanted to capture some of that, the tenseness on the street at that time and the alertness that the soldiers felt on patrol. I wanted to be able to communicate the feelings of worry and at the same time trying to be prepared that that platoon was feeling at that moment.
JEFFREY BROWN: I’m sure you’ve had a lot of time to think about this and been asked about it. But how do you describe the difference between what the camera captures and what you capture in your drawings?
STEVE MUMFORD: I think that the drawings capture Iraq in a more personal way. You know, we’re bombarded with images from the war. At this point your average American has probably seen thousands of images of soldiers and Iraqis. When they look at a drawing, they see something which they know somebody has spent time, by hand, recording, maybe over a period of an hour.
Some people have said it’s almost like it slowed the war down for them. And that was my experience of it — that since it took so long to make a drawing, there was an hour in which people were interacting with me as I made it.
And each thing that I saw I had to spend some time kind of looking at, understanding and then making an image of, whereas a photograph, you take it and there it is; it’s finished.
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s interesting because you’re not claiming that the drawing is more objective or, quote, honest than the camera but the very subjectivity somehow is more real in a sense?
STEVE MUMFORD: That’s actually an excellent way to put it. It’s absolutely subjective. It’s less objective than a photograph but maybe it’s that very subjectivity that draws the viewer in and holds their interest in a different way from the way that they would look at a photograph.
JEFFREY BROWN: Steve Mumford, thanks for talking to us.
STEVE MUMFORD: Sure, it was my pleasure.