ENIWETOK ATOLL, 1951: THE AMERICAN OFFICIALS SEATED CALMLY IN THEIR lawn chairs seem to be observing some curious 3-D movie -- not the atomic explosion reflected in their goggles.
A field outside Billericay, England, 1915: The commander of Zeppelin has fallen from the sky; his body has left a man-shaped dent in the grassy ground.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death, Sevastopol, 1855: The land seems strewn with stones -- until one looks again. They are cannonballs, not rocks.
Are these photographs beautiful? Are they works of art?
The pictures on these pages, and 220 more, will go on view Tuesday in "The Indelible Image: Photographs of War -- 1846 to the Present" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Though war, or at least killing, is a subject as old as painting, much old war art misleads us. The painters of the past, the sculptors and the sketchers, cleansed war of its chaos, its mud and pus and stench. Those who hymned war's glories turned battles into ballets; those who hated cruelty made war seem inhuman. Nothing is more human.
The camera has changed us. Corpses are not statues; they putrify and bloat. Uniforms get filthy. La gloire is drenched in gore. Photography has captured, as painting never did, war's alienating ironies, its normalcy and madness, its boredom and its wreckage. The exhibition shows us what men choose to forget.
It was organized by the Corcoran's Frances Fralin. She and her colleagues screened ten thousand pictures from a score of different wars before they picked the ones on view. They entered that strange realm where esthetics touches slaughter: "Uncomfortable bedfellows," she writes.
They set themselves these guidelines: Famous faces (MacArthur's, say, or Lincoln's) would be omitted, so would well-known "icons" (say, that shot of our Marines raising the flag on a peak on Iwo Jima), so would "all consideration of who took the picture."
Mathew Brady, Margaret Bourke-White, Gustave Le Gray, Timothy O'Sullivan and W. Eugene Smith are among the fine photographers represented. But not all great war photographs were created in the name of art. Many here were taken by photographers whose names we'll never know.
The images displayed were chosen with one chief criterion: whether soaked in pathos, or in propaganda, whether lyrical, bizarre, amusing or horrific, these pictures stab the memory. They linger in the mind.
"The Indelible Image" will remain on view through June 22.