Art review: ‘War/Photography’ at the Corcoran

The tone of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “War/Photography” exhibition is dispassionate. The photographs are often wrenching and horrifying, but wall texts keep the voice measured, the affect flat. Captions focus on the who, how and when of war photography, clinically parsing the many ways — official, professional, propagandistic, amateur and artistic — that the camera has intersected with mankind’s meanest and most destructive pastime.

The exhibition, first seen in a slightly larger form at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, fills almost the entire second-floor gallery space of the museum, and includes some of the most recognized and — though the word is strange — beloved images of war. Robert Capa’s controversial 1936 image of a dying Spanish militiaman, falling at the moment of bullet’s impact (Is it real? Faked? Or simply mis-captioned?), is on view. So is Capa’s blurry, grainy and terrifying photograph of soldiers on D-Day, neck-deep in the Atlantic Ocean, moving forthrightly into a maelstrom of death. Also: Nick Ut’s politically explosive shot of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a 1972 napalm strike; and Alfred Eisenstaedt’s 1945 Times Square image of a soldier kissing a woman on V-J Day, which today looks a lot more like egregious sexual harassment than untrammeled high spirits.

But most of the more than 300 images on display will be unfamiliar or dimly remembered. Although organized in chapters, with titles such as “The Fight,” “War’s End: Victory/Defeat” and “Faith,” the exhibition also offers a chronological overview, from Roger Fenton’s first efforts to bring the Crimean War home to an increasingly literate and politically engaged audience in England, to images of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the toll of war on America’s new generation of wounded veterans.

The forward slash in the “War/Photography” title is a clue to a fundamental tension in the show, between an exploration of war through documentary means and a survey of the aesthetics and tropes of war photographs. For the most part, the curators have decided in favor of the former, organizing the exhibition more as a sociology of war than a history or analysis of imagemaking. The chapter headings have been dictated by the elemental experience of combat and its collateral effects — the wait, the engagement, prisoners, medicine, executions, aftermath — not the curious quirks and characteristics that war photographs often share, no matter when or where they are made, nor whose suffering they depict.

Erase the captions, and most war photographs show only basic trauma and emotions, carnage, suffering, fear, excitement and exultation. As Susan Sontag has argued, to the extent that the photographer can compel a moral response, it is often generic: against the very idea of war, not this particular war, or that particular military. And thus visual tropes speak broadly about the morality of war: Soldiers are often likened to timber, or to cogs in a machine, the former stressing the inexhaustible organic material of combat, the later the distressingly mechanical nature of war. Damon Winter’s 2010 image of American soldiers packed into a giant military transport plane and Carolyn Cole’s 2004 photograph of Iraqi detainees lying facedown in the dirt during the battle of Najaf, are in the former category. David Burnett’s 1971 photograph of a soldier seen against the wheels of a military vehicle, the round shapes echoing each other as if the young man is merely a gear in the monstrous apparatus of war, is in the latter one.

“Photojournalists on War” is a new collection of dramatic images and stories that sheds fresh perspective on the Iraq war. Author Michael Kamber describes the project. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

War photographs often share a tendency to delay or sidetrack basic legibility. What sense can one make of the body seen against a bright sky in Henri Huet’s 1966 image of a dead American paratrooper in Vietnam? Is it falling from the helicopter above it? In fact, it’s being raised up, but there’s no way to determine that from the image. A 2009 image of soldiers sleeping in “fighting holes” in Afghanistan makes it seem, at first, as if they are trying out freshly dug graves, not seeking safety in shallow trenches.

The double take of these images, the moment of confusion as you search out an explanation, is clearly part of their power, a way of arresting the attention and compelling a second and third interrogation.

This is where the slash that divides war and photography becomes unstable, where aesthetics assert themselves in a way that can trump the documentary power of the image. Sometimes it is accidental, as in a 1965 aerial photograph of a U.S. Naval task force in the South China Sea. The ships are making a gentle turn, inscribing a repetitive pattern of arcs on the surface of the water. It could be an abstract painting, not an image of imperial power asserting itself far from the homeland.

Often, however, aesthetics intrude directly, and intentionally. Gerda Taro’s 1936 photograph of a Spanish militiawoman training on a beach near Barcelona, shows an elegant figure silhouetted against a dramatic sky, wearing high heels and pointing a gun out of the frame of the picture. This and many of the images made by Soviet photographers during World War II feel like film stills, with a low horizon line, or expressionistic heightening and confusion of perspective (Georgii Petrusov’s almost vertical 1930s image of a tank procession is a powerful example).

The arguments for and against the importation of beauty into images of war are endless, and unlikely ever to achieve closure. Christophe Agou’s 2001 photograph of the wreckage of the World Trade Center is a good argument contra aestheticizing images of destruction. The famous shot foregrounds a piece of the fallen building in the shape of a Christian cross, imposing an unwanted religious particularity and certitude on an event that was a colossal failure of religion, an act of terror in the name of God. Powerful aesthetic ingredients often come adulterated with centuries of tangled associations and can overwhelm the basic function of the image.

Larry Burrows’s 1966 “Reaching Out” and Gary Knight’s 2003 “Death of a Marine at Dyala Bridge” both show wounded or dead soldiers, surrounded by dramatic groupings of their comrades, and both draw heavily on the precedent of history painting to structure, tighten and condense a powerful narrative into a single image. Here, aesthetics serve the interest of engaging the viewer.

Few images with the power of Knight’s photograph from Iraq have emerged from our recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and our endless commitment to war all the time, everywhere, in perpetuity so long as anyone remotely threatening an act of terror can be fished out of the global information dragnet. The politicization of the war in Iraq, the professionalism of a military that depends heavily on “red state” America for its service personnel, and the capitulation of major media to the “good taste” of a squeamish American public has generally neutered war photography in the United States (though not in much of the rest of the world). War imagery in the United States depends on substitutions (the blood on the ground, the wreck of the car) for human pain and suffering, or else focuses on healing and the emotional toll of war on soldiers and veterans. We don’t show blood, which is paradoxically seen as an invasion of privacy in what is the most public of mankind’s horrible hobbies.

That loss isn’t really registered in “War/Photography.” It features images of civilian and military suffering in America’s recent wars that would never make it directly to the American public, at least not through most newspapers and mainstream publications, but there is little discussion of the collective aversion to basic truth-telling about war in our national media culture. Even the most iconic image to emerge from Iraq, the one that will define the failed ideals of the United States for at least a generation, is seen only secondhand: Ashley Gilbertson’s photograph of an American soldier watching television, on which the hooded image of an Iraqi prisoner being tortured by Americans at Abu Ghraib appears, suggests that the prison torture scandal was primarily a media phenomenon, an inconvenience of bad publicity, not a systemic failure of American morality.

It’s a delicate balance, incorporating a moral or ethical voice into an exhibition that covers war as an anthropological phenomenon. At times one wants more rage. The wall text that introduces a chapter on “Faith” treats it primarily as an aid and comfort to soldiers. But the belief in supernatural beings, the defining intellectual habit of our species, is also the single most powerful and persistent cause of war. Its dread power is everywhere throughout the exhibition, on the belt buckle of a Nazi soldier that reads “God with us,” and the “God Bless America” sticker that shares space with a “Bomb Hanoi” button on the jacket of a young boy in Diane Arbus’s 1967 image of a pro-war marcher in New York City. But religion is given a pass.

The message, communicated through the size of the exhibition, and eventually by the numbing power of its images, is that war is inevitable, ubiquitous and natural, like adolescence, death and weather. That is probably, regrettably true, at least until one final war cleanses the planet of its most bloodthirsty animal.

It is absolutely worth the time to see the exhibition, and strangely, disturbingly, it is both dispiriting and entertaining, depressing and fascinating. One leaves keenly aware of the difficult path between two extremes, both represented by powerful photographs in the exhibition. In Spencer Platt’s 2006 image of fashionable young women in a jazzy red car touring war wreckage in the southern neighborhoods of Beirut, one sees the ugly voyeurism that has attracted human beings to these images since at least the Civil War. And in Ron Haviv’s 1995 print of a Bosnian soldier returning to the site where a mass grave may hold the bodies of his entire family, one sees another soldier, to the side, dully smoking a cigarette, unable or too spent to engage his comrade’s paroxysms of grief.

To look, to gawk, to walk away feeling blank. War photographers have struggled to make images that break through, undermine and question these basic human reactions. It’s hard to tell from this exhibition if they have failed, or succeeded all too well. Perhaps war is a fable with no moral at the end, no claim on our conscience. Or maybe it’s the greatest show on Earth.

War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath

is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from June 29 to Sept. 29. For more information, call 202-639-1700 or visit www.corcoran.org.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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