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Telling the Stories Behind the Images of ‘WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY’

Dmitri Baltermants
Dmitri Baltermants, 1912-1990 Attack — Eastern Front WWII, 1941 Gelatin silver print, printed 1960 The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Gift of Michael Poulos in honor of Mary Kay Poulos, 1997, © Russian Photo Association, Razumberg Emil Anasovich.
WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, a traveling exhibit currently at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., brings together photographs that span 165 years — from the Mexican-American War through present-day conflicts. Featuring over 200 photographers from 28 nations, the show presents the work of notable photographers and photojournalists, alongside images captured by military photographers and soldiers in the moments when they put down their weapons. The show is not organized chronologically by conflict but by themes of war, including “Training,” “Resistance,” “Medicine in Wartime,” and “Homecoming.”

Anne Tucker, co-curator of the exhibit, spent years studying the individual attributes of each photograph. Along with her collaborators, “I would travel and look at hundreds, maybe thousands of pictures in one day and then that night we would ask ourselves, with no notes, what pictures do you remember from the day…This project took 10 years, so those pictures had to still be speaking to us after 10 years.”

One image that stayed with her through the process was “War Paint” by Carolyn Cole. Tucker explained what makes the image so powerful for her to Jeffrey Brown:

Tucker shared many of the stories behind the images in the collection, and reflected on some of the dangers and pitfalls for the more digital and media-accessible contemporary era of war photography.

“The photographers talk about going on patrol, coming back, up-linking the pictures, they are immediately distributed to the news. And anybody with Google search can come up with that unit or that soldier’s name,” Tucker said.

Tucker laughed while sharing one story in which an angry-looking solder approached a photographer one afternoon on patrol: The soldier’s mother had seen a photograph taken by that photographer of her son smoking and was not pleased.

Co-curator Will Michels explained that humor was essential while collecting so many photographs that depict horrible reality. “We did a lot of laughing during the course of this show because it’s necessary. It’s the foil for what you’re seeing and what you’re doing and what you’re experiencing.” Michels pointed out “First Cut” by Mark Grimshaw as a photo in the collection with humor:

Michels extols the power of portraits, what he calls “double portraits.”

“It’s a portrait just as much about the person in the picture as [it is] the photographer…. It’s the photographer’s choices that made the portrait as powerful as it is.”

Michels shared the story behind Cedric Gerbehaye’s photograph of Laurent Nkunda, former general in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Armed Forces and warlord sympathetic to the Tutsis in the Congo and the in the government of neighboring Rwanda.

War photographer Louie Palu, whose work appears as the banner image for the show, had a similar take on portraits: “In a way, it’s a little bit of a self-portrait of myself. I think a little bit of every photographer is in their photograph and I think quite a bit of me is in that.”

Palu was deeply affected by the five years he spent covering Afghanistan. He recounted his experience with the subject, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Carols “OJ” Orujela, and reflected on the power behind the “WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY” exhibit:

WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath” is on show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., until Sept. 29 before moving to the Brooklyn Museum, where it will will be on display Nov. 8, 2013 to Feb. 2, 2014.

For more on the exhibit, watch Jeffrey Brown’s report that aired on the broadcast on September 10, 2013.

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