Monday, January 20, 2014

The arc of war

"Marines, Korean War," David Duncan, All rights reserved

I remember the first war photograph that got to me. I must have been about 11. It was a picture by David Douglas Duncan in an old Life Magazine of two U.S. Marines, heads ducked down, rifles in their hands, running toward a battle in Korea. The first Marine wore his helmet at a rakish angle and sported a pencil-thin mustache like the young Ernest Hemingway. As he raced past the camera toward possible death, he managed a grim, tiny smile. I was smitten.

I think most, if not all, boys are drawn to fantasies of war. For me Duncan’s picture lit up visions of nonchalant courage and noble sacrifice that were already present in my adolescent consciousness. Later, I learned the photo was an honest depiction. Far from a propagandist, Duncan, an ex-Marine, had covered World War II, then the Korean War –always from the perspective of the troops in the field. Shooting in Vietnam, he had turned against the war and published two photo books — I Protest (1968) and War Without Heroes (1970).

Such attitudes – for or against war — are studiously avoided in “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath” at the Brooklyn Museum. Sprawled across multiple panels, this large, ambitious collection presents over 400 pictures by 255 photographers from over a dozen nations. The curators declare their intention to explore “the general progression – the arc – of every war ” and divide the pictures into sections on “recruitment, training, embarkation, daily routine, battle, death and destruction, homecoming, and remembrance.” The exhibit covers an astonishing 166 years worth of wars — from the Mexican American War (1846-1848) to the recent conflicts associated with the Arab Spring (2010).

"Drill sergeant, Parris Island," Thomas Hoepker, All rights reserved

The curator’s scholarly approach is very good at putting to rest contentious myths about certain well-known photographs. For instance, was the World War II shot of American soldiers raising the flag on Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima a spontaneous action or premeditated propaganda? It turns out it was a little of both. The flag-raising captured by Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photo was improvised as a way to signal to thousands of troops still fighting on the island below that the mountain had been taken. However, it wasn’t the first flag that had been raised that day. A smaller flag in a less visible spot had been hoisted (and photographed) a short time earlier. The one that became world-famous was a replacement, and, yes, homeland PR was a big part of the reason.

In fact, propaganda (sometimes just natural bias) can be found in pictures from all sides in this show. Famous American photographers like Margaret Bourke-White and Edward Steichen, for example, did their bit for the war effort in World War II by creating beautiful compositions of grand battleships in naval processions and sleek fighter planes taking off, accompanied by the cheers of onlooking troops. It’s hard to fault the photographers’ intentions. That was their job, after all, and, in time of war, they obviously wanted to make their country look good. It is only while looking at pictures of the pulverized landscapes and shattered human bodies these graceful machines can leave behind that one remembers their murderous purpose.

"Untitled," Wesley David Archer, All rights reserved

Easier to classify, if not to forgive, are the fabricators. Before small cameras, fast films and Photoshop, fakes were harder to create than today–– but they were also easier to get away with. In World War I, for instance, a man named Wesley David Archer produced a mesmerizing shot of a war plane in flames with its pilot falling below it through space. The plane’s wings bear the Iron Cross, which would make the pilot German. How marvelous! There was only one problem: Archer had created and photographed the whole scene in his studio as part of a money-making scam. Later, he went on to become a well-known model-maker in Hollywood.

"Valentine with her daughters, Amelie and Inez, Rwanda, 2006," Jonathan C Torgovnik, All rights reserved

Such dishonesty (certainly at the level of posing or on-scene cropping) will always exist in photography, but, to my mind, the most important pictures in this show represent a relentless visual boring at the truth about the real experience of war. This body of pictures has been building up since photographers like Robert Capa began carrying small, versatile cameras to the war zones of the 1930s. It continued through the appalling horror and mega death of World War II and Korea, but it wasn’t until the Vietnam War that truly disturbing images became widely available in the United States. With the publication of Eddie Adam’s photograph of South Vietnam’s National Chief of Police summarily executing a Viet Cong guerilla in 1968 and Nick Ut’s 1972 shot of napalmed Vietnamese children running in agony down a road, the floodgates finally opened. Included in the show are incomparable images by Don McCullin, Horst Faas, Larry Burrows and others, widely credited with helping to end the war.
"Assault with helicopters, Vietnam," Horst Faas, All rights reserved
Today many of us are privileged – and, if we read newspapers and use the internet, even compelled — to look at truly painful color photographs of both combatants and victims from the world’s far-flung conflicts. As this show demonstrates, a steady flow of war images by a loose multinational corps of male and female freelancers is now a given. Surprisingly free from allegiance to ideologies or nationalistic prejudices, most of these pictures honor and grieve both civilian and military suffering. At their most provocative they even open chinks of compassion for the others – the enemies who fight against and try to kill our loved ones.
"Viet Cong soldier, Vietnam," Don McCullin, All rights reserved
Let me give an example. A 10-foot-long full color image from Afghanistan by French photographer Luc Delahaye shows a very young man lying dead in a shallow, dusty pit. He is wearing a thin cotton shirt beneath an empty ammunition vest, baggy pajama-like pants and dusty black socks. His legs are neatly folded like a well-behaved boy. Indeed, if not for the small wound in his neck, he could almost be a gangly post-adolescent boy taking a nap. Then we notice something. He is wearing socks. But where are his boots? Stolen, we realize.Who is this abandoned and desecrated boy?
Delahaye tells us in a single word: “Taliban.”
If I had looked at this picture when I was 11, I would have turned away confused and upset. That’s good.

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