DEATH AND WATER: two things you'll notice about the pictures in "Vietnam Now and Then," an exhibition at Hemphill Fine Arts that combines combat photojournalism from the Vietnam War with contemporary images of that country.
The death thing is understandable. It is, after all, the business of soldiers to kill each other, even if that ugly truth was largely hidden from our eyes in the visual record of earlier wars. Close your eyes and think of World War II, for instance, and you'll likely imagine something like Joe Rosenthal's famous photograph of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, on which the Arlington memorial is based.
Vietnam was different. Vietnam was Larry Burrows's 1962 photo of American military advisers in the Mekong Delta chatting amid a bunch of corpses. They look as if they're sleeping.
Vietnam was also Vo Anh Khanh's 1970 picture of medics standing knee-deep in water in a makeshift operating tent located in a mangrove swamp. And it was Kyoichi Sawada's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1965 picture of a Vietnamese mother fleeing a bombing raid by wading through a river with her kids.
Water is a metaphor for something here -- tears or drowning or the mist of memory. It's there in the Vietnam of the past and it's there in the Vietnam of today, a country of great physical beauty, as Peter Steinhauer's photos show. Then again, take Mitch Epstein's 1994 photo of the ace of spades -- the death card -- lying in a French fountain in Hanoi. The Grim Reaper is always subtext.
On Saturday morning at 10, Hemphill will present a panel discussion on "Vietnam Now and Then" with Loren Jenkins, senior foreign editor at NPR; Washington Post photographer Frank Johnston; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stanley Karnow; and Los Angeles Times reporter David Lamb. Admission is $12. Call 202-342-5610. The exhibition will remain through Dec. 28. Hemphill Fine Arts is at 1027 33rd Street NW. 202-342-5610. www.hemphillfinearts.com. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 to 5. Free.
-- Michael O'Sullivan