War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath

At Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles:

March 23-June 2, 2013

By: Roula Seikaly |

It started with the acquisition of an iconic and prize winning photograph: Joe Rosenthal’s Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima (1945), in which Marines are seen raising the stars and stripes after a key and very costly World War II victory. The addition of the image to the Houston Museum of Fine Art’s notable photography collection soon led to conversations between Anne Wilkes Tucker, the HMFA’s seasoned photography curator, and collaborators Will Michels and Natalie Zelt, about the connection between armed conflict and photography over time and across cultures. After ten years worth of dedicated research, the product of that dialogue is War/Photography. The simultaneously engaging and frustrating exhibition is on view at the Annenberg Space for Photography through early June.

Joe Rosenthal, Old Glory

Joe Rosenthal, Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of the Kevin and Lesley Lilly Family, The Manfred Heiting Collection © Associated Press

War/Photography is not the first exhibition to present imagery born of armed conflict.  As early as 1862, battlefield imagery that pictured the grim reality of the American Civil War was on display in Alexander Gardner’s Washington DC studio. That now historic exhibition shocked those for whom the war’s death and destruction was mere abstraction. Over time, the works of individual war photographers was featured on museum walls and in books, but nowhere were these images more prevalent than the weekly illustrated magazines including Life andLook. On the pages of those popular publications, we saw for the first time, for example, concentration camps haunted by the dead and the nearly dead. The result was that Nazi atrocities could no longer be denied. During the Vietnam conflict, readers of those same magazines saw soldiers caught in moments of terror and boredom alike, and then understood that patriotism often exacts the highest price. Throughout these conflicts, photographers documented the depths of human depravity, the heights of compassion, and the surrealism of both states as they coexist during wartime.

 Eddie Adams, Police Commander Nguyen Ngoc Loan killing Viet Cong operative Nguyen Van Lem, February 1,1968. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, museum purchase © Associated Press

Eddie Adams, Police Commander Nguyen Ngoc Loan killing Viet Cong operative Nguyen Van Lem, February 1,1968. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, museum purchase © Associated Press

Armed conflict has, for better or worse, contributed a cache of striking images to the history of photography, many of which were on show at Annenberg: Eddie Adams’ photograph of the assassination of a Viet Cong operative, Malcolm Browne’s shot of the protesting Buddhist monk as flames consume his body, and Nick Ut’s image of the young girl with singed flesh running from her bombed-out village are three historic photographs that are hung with soon-to-be iconic images that recount the September 11th attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The pairing of historic and contemporary wartime imagery is one of the exhibition’s strengths. The photographs are smartly grouped under thematic titles including “The Advent of War,” “Recruitment and Training,” “The Wait,” and “The Fight.” Tucker and her colleagues present a sort of narrative “arc” of war, a solid and previously untested premise that stems from a decade of research, writing, and conversations with historians, artists, archivists, and veterans. The unusual architecture of the Annenberg galleries in Los Angeles reinforces compelling juxtapositions. For example, hanging photographs portraying grief as an inescapable outcome of war are poised opposite to images of soldiers returning to joyous family members.

In spite of its successes, the exhibition is ultimately flawed. The inaugural installation in Houston, likely to corollate with upcoming Corcoran Gallery of Art and Brooklyn Museum of Art shows included in its tour, included 500 photographs that span the history of both the medium and modern warfare. At the Annenberg Space, only 170 photographs, less than half of the number originally chosen, were displayed. In effect, the historic and contextualizing framework of the whole exhibition is compromised. Tucker’s decision to exclude all nineteenth century images is understandable given the limited space, but it leaves the viewer with an incomplete impression of the progression of the very narrative that only partially unfolds at Annenberg.

Sal Veder, Burst of Joy, Travis Air Force Base, California, March 17, 1973. Tonnemacher Family Collection © Associated Press

Sal Veder, Burst of Joy, Travis Air Force Base, California, March 17, 1973. Tonnemacher Family Collection © Associated Press

At the center of the Annenberg Space is a small theater in which a short documentary is on show. Commissioned specifically for the Los Angeles presentation, The War Photographershighlights the work of six photojournalists who have covered numerous conflicts worldwide. While informative and at times gripping in its presentation, the sound from the film bleeds into the gallery viewer’s experience. Again, the space’s scale is simply not appropriate for such a grand-themed exhibition.

Moreover, analysis of critical issues such as the ethical and philosophical implications of working in a warzone is only obliquely addressed in the movie. The same could be said of the entire exhibition so far as insights gained from ten years of research is barely evident in the exhibition text. The thoughtful, approachable catalogue essays written by Tucker, Zelt, and a host of other knowledgeable contributors addressing key issues – the evolution of photojournalism as a profession, the fight photographers took on to be credited for their work, the role of technology, the internet, and governmental censorship of the media during war time – are thoroughly considered, yet noticeably absent within the exhibition itself.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the United States was held fast in the grip of civil war. As soldiers in the Union and Confederate armies met on battlefields throughout the emerging nation, savvy photographers followed the action and recorded the now historic events that shaped this country. Photojournalistic practice has not changed demonstrably since that time — photographers are still eager to follow and report the action as it unfolds in a war zone, though the risk to life and limb is great. War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, though lacking in its Los Angeles installation, honors photographers and service members whose calling takes them to the places, near and far, that most readily avoid at all costs.

Roula Seikaly
This article was written by

 Roula Seikaly is an arts journalist, writer, and curator based in San Francisco. She reports on contemporary art for KQED.

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