World-shattering drama: War photography

December 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
A wide-ranging exhibit titled "WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath" pulls moments from 165 years to reveal what happens before, during and after battle. Jeffrey Brown talks to a curator from the Houston Museum of Fine Arts about the challenge of reframing images of world-shattering drama as art.

Editor’s note: This piece was previously broadcast on The NewsHour on September 10, 2013. The exhibit is on at The Brooklyn Museum until February 2, 2014

JEFFREY BROWN: A Marine in Afghanistan has a close call with Taliban fighters. A Republican militiawoman training on the beach outside Barcelona in the Spanish civil war. A Bosnian soldier stands on a mass grave outside his destroyed home. A class photo of young children, many later killed in Argentina’s dirty war. And so familiar now, a jet crashing into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

They’re images from 165 years of war, broadly defined to capture what happens before, during, and after battle, part of a wide-ranging exhibition titled “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath.”

Now at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, it was developed and opened at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts by curator Anne Tucker.

ANNE TUCKER, Houston Museum of Fine Arts: I thought there was a human story to be told through the eyes of photographers about the full aspect of war. When people talked about war photography, it was either fighting or death, and we just thought there was a much greater story, and we wanted to open the discussion up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many famous images are here, Robert Capa’s 1944 D-Day photo of a G.I. struggling through the surf at Omaha Beach, Alfred Eisenstaedt’s Times Square shot of a soldier kissing a woman on V.J. Day, and Nick Ut’s 1972 photo of Vietnamese children running from a napalm bombing.

And there are moments of world-shattering drama, like this one taken from a Japanese plane.

ANNE TUCKER: The torpedoes going into Pearl Harbor, I can still cry when I see that picture.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? You see it from above?

ANNE TUCKER: You see the torpedoes going into Battleship Row, and you think about the people who are sitting on their bunks, writing a letter home, getting dressed for church, and they’re going to die.

Then there are pictures that feature an individual, and you grieve for that individual or you wonder what happened to them. You see the soldier Carolyn Cole waiting to go into battle with all of his war paint on, and you can’t help but wonder, did he survive? You know, is he home? Is he OK?

JEFFREY BROWN: The exhibition is organized by themes that cross through wars and time, including recruitment, seen here through the eyes of Australians heading off for battle during World War I, captured by Josiah Barnes, executions, a shirt worn by Mexican emperor Maximilian during his execution in 1867, a photo by Francois Aubert, and homecoming and memorials.

In “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” for example, Ashley Gilbertson captures the childhood rooms of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, portraits of lives that are no more. Anne Tucker says she and her team saw patterns to wars and their portrayal.

ANNE TUCKER: The patterns were, for instance, photographs of women weeping on a grave.

We only have one in the exhibition, but we saw hundreds. Somebody with a prosthesis, there’s only one in the exhibition, but we saw hundreds. People in military formation. People in transport. We began to look at these recurring types of pictures and realize that these were the stages of war.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another theme, waiting, the in-between moments before the battle begins, as in this photograph of Italian women ambulance drivers knitting.

ANNE TUCKER: It is momentary calm, because the fatality rate for these women ambulance drivers in Italy was very high. Our reason for putting it in the exhibition is precisely to show those quiet moments and also to show these essentially heroic women who are civilians or military who are part of the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Photojournalist Louie Palu has covered the war in Afghanistan since 2006. His portrait of Marine Gunnery Sergeant Carlos O.J. Orjuela was taken after a muddy patrol in 125-degree heat through an area filled with IEDs. It became a signature image for the exhibition.

LOUIE PALU, photographer: Every day, I would go with these Marines, and instead of taking photographs of them on patrol, which I had been doing for years, I would get to know them and talk to them. I wanted to know them so I could photograph them and then pass on that experience to the viewers. I really wanted a photograph that confronted you and brought you to task to understand the psychology of what the experience of war is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Will Michels, exhibit co-curator and collections photographer at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, says works like Palu’s are a mirror on to the subject and the photographer.

WILL MICHELS, Houston Museum of Fine Arts: I’m a big believer that especially with many of the portraits, that it’s a double portrait. It’s a portrait just as much about the person in the picture as the photographer his or her self. It’s the photographers’ choices that made the portrait as powerful as it is. The better the portrait, the more universal it becomes. It becomes every soldier. It becomes not a specific one. It becomes about the whole experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some of the images here are horrific. A sign at the entrance warning viewers is a reminder that the portrayal of dead bodies and other images have often been difficult for the public, the news media, including our program, and for government officials.

Another fraught issue in the history of war photography, the sheer beauty of images that portray death and horror, the balancing of documentation and aesthetics. Tucker explains her approach.

ANNE TUCKER: If the beauty brings somebody to engage with that picture, then it’s essential. And so you feel this push-pull to the aesthetics and the horror, and that war within yourself is fruitful to your thinking more about the picture.

JEFFREY BROWN: The exhibition offers visitors the chance to share their own reactions in a reflection room, just part of the continuing exchange among warriors, photographers, and viewers capturing the horror, beauty, boredom, bravery, and so much more of war.