Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 9, 2013
Anne Wilkes Tucker and Will Michels War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath Exh. cat. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2012. 604 pp.; 179 color ills.; 362 b/w ills. Cloth $90.00 (9780300177381)
Exhibition schedule: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, November 11, 2012–February 2, 2013; Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles, March 23–June 3, 2013; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, June 29–September 29, 2013; Brooklyn Museum, November 8, 2013–February 2, 2014
Walter Astrada. Congolese Women Fleeing to Goma, from the series Violence Against Women in Congo, Rape As Weapon of War in DRC (2008). Chromogenic print. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Museum purchase with funds provided by Photo Forum 2010. © Walter Astrada.

The complicated relationship between war and photography is the subject of a massive exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Entitled War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, the exhibition includes more than 500 objects (pared down from over 2,000 initially under consideration) that range from photographs and photographic equipment to books, magazines, and albums. Produced by more than 280 photographers from 28 nations, the exhibition covers wars that occurred over six continents, beginning with the Mexican-American War in 1846 and culminating with the 2011 civil war in Libya. Yet, rather than organize this extensive material chronologically, co-curators Anne Wilkes Tucker, Will Michels, and Natalie Zelt divide the exhibition into twenty-nine thematic sections that are best navigated with the assistance of strategically placed maps of the floor plan. According to Tucker in the exhibition’s equally hefty catalogue (over 600 pages with contributions by curators, scholars, and military historians), the conception for this sweeping, if not overwhelming, structure was largely informed by the photographs themselves. After spending a decade conducting research and examining thousands of images from a myriad of sources, the curators noticed certain significant patterns emerge that roughly followed the progression of war from its instigation, to “the fight” and its aftermath, and finally to war’s end, including memorials and remembrance. From these recurring patterns, the curators identified twenty-nine fundamental types of pictures—the advent of war, patrol and troop movement, rescue, prisoners of war, support, refugees, faith, daily routine, and executions, to name just a few—that they argue were produced during or in response to armed conflicts and their aftermaths regardless of the specificity of a war’s history, culture, or era.

In organizing War/Photography in terms of these twenty-nine universal types of images, the curators significantly enlarge the scope of “war photography”—a subject often considered only as the product of photojournalists—to also consider the important contributions made by military photographers, commercial portraitists, amateur photographers, and artists, among others. With this enlarged scope, the curators are thus able to include such iconic photographs as Robert Capa’s Death of a Loyalist Militiaman (1936) and Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut’s Children Fleeing South Vietnamese Napalm Strike Near Trang Bang, Vietnam (1972), which one would expect to see in an exhibition about war photography, as well as less familiar, even anonymous, objects that were made largely for private consumption. A few notable examples of these more obscure objects include a German soldier’s scrapbook album from World War II that contains a haunting snapshot of a dead Polish woman whose underwear around her ankles suggests that she had been raped, and the personal journals and diaries of photojournalists Dan Eldon and Stephen Dupont, both of which offer fascinating glimpses into the intricate role that photography played in their private as well as professional lives while on assignment in Africa in the early 1990s and late 2000s, respectively.

Despite the significance of this widened lens, the decision to group images and objects together in War/Photography solely in terms of universal themes of war’s progression also has its shortcomings. For instance, even though the German soldier’s scrapbook represents a seemingly private approach to the photography of war, it is placed in the section “Civilians,” which includes photographs that range from Herbert Gehr’s more mundane depiction of a Harlem family in their living room in 1943, to John Filo’s now famous depiction of a 1970 anti-war demonstration at Kent State University gone fatally wrong, to James Nachtwey’s formally evocative depiction of a grieving Afghan woman in front of her brother’s grave that he took in 1996. Given the tendency to think about “war photography” strictly as the depiction of (heroic) soldiers in combat, the importance of including this substantial and varied group of images cannot be overstated. At the same time, since there is no conceptual framework underlying the formation of this group beyond the identification of commonalities of subject matter—the section is further divided into “Civilian Daily Life,” “Civilian Dead and Wounded,” and “Civilian Grief”—this classification system feels arbitrary at best. In short, the curators have identified a significant type of imagery, but they tell viewers nothing about the myriad of uses to which these photographs have been put or the kind of work—political, personal, ethical, or otherwise—that they do in the world.

This thematic grouping also limits the meanings of the objects and images to their contents. The German soldier’s scrapbook offers a case in point. Placing this object in the section “Civilians” encourages viewers to think about what the snapshots depict rather than who took them or how they were used within this scrapbook itself. In raising this criticism, I do not mean to diminish the import of what is depicted within these snapshots. However, to further understand the historical, social, and even political significance of this scrapbook and what its images depict, one cannot overlook the unknown German soldier who is presumed to be the owner and possible maker of these snapshots. Considering authorship would also open up other avenues of exploration, including the relationship that the scrapbook shares with what Liam Kennedy terms “soldier photography” in an absorbing essay in the exhibition’s catalogue. This type of recent digital photography, often posted in real-time, which Kennedy argues “is new in the representation of warfare” (480), is unfortunately not included in the exhibition itself. The exclusion of these works results in a missed opportunity for the curators who could have used the scrapbook and other items like it to explore visual precedents for this supposed new genre. Moreover, a section on “soldier photography” would have also provided an ideal context in which to consider the widely circulated and discussed photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison that are also notably absent from the exhibition. Given the notoriety of these photographs—the hooded prisoner from Abu Ghraib is even referenced in several photographs included in the exhibition—their exclusion warrants, at the very least, an explanation from the curators.

More discussion is also necessary regarding the decision by the curators to include a significant number of artists within the exhibition. This is not to imply that the choice was ill-conceived. On the contrary, it proves to be an excellent decision; in enlarging the scope of War/Photography to also include the contributions of artists, the curators overcome the tendency to consider photojournalism and art as antithetical. Yet, because the curators neglect to provide any conceptual framework for this decision, its significance is greatly diminished. Furthermore, because each section emphasizes the contents of photography, viewers are not likely to know whether or not they are looking at the work of an artist unless they are familiar with the artists whose works are on display. In the section “Remembrance,” for instance, which is located at the exhibition’s end, there are two diary-like images by artist Jim Goldberg that are part of his series Open See. The formal similarities between Goldberg’s art works, in which his African refugee subjects handwrite and even draw their thoughts directly on the polaroid photographs that he takes of them, and the journal and diary pages of photojournalists Dan Eldon and Stephen Dupont, in which they incorporate handwritten notes and photographs from their time in Africa, are remarkable. But, rather than explore the implications of these formal parallels and how they are complicated by the social positions of their makers as well as by the terms of their production and dissemination, the images, presented as universal types, instead simply become one of many proliferations of “remembrance.”

There is one section of War/Photography where fundamental differences between the photographs, their makers, and, most importantly, their contexts of use are not subordinated to universal themes of war’s progression. This section focuses on images taken at Iwo Jima during World War II. Though Tucker writes in the catalogue’s introduction that the aim of this section is “to present photographs of most of the types in their original context” (3), the images and objects in this section largely transcend that function. This outcome is the result of the curators’ use of images and objects to not only construct a rich visual archive of the battle at Iwo Jima and its aftermath, including W. Eugene Smith’s historic photograph from 1945 that was packaged in 2001 with a special Iwo Jima Battle Edition G.I. Joe Marine doll, but also to trace aspects of the life cycle of Joe Rosenthal’s iconic 1945 photograph Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, including what may be the first print made from the photograph’s negative, its appropriation as part of the cover of an album assembled by Technical Corporal Herman Robinson who served in Iwo Jima, its use in Christmas cards, its reproduction in a comic book, and its recreation on a football game float, among others. By detailing the numerous incarnations of this photograph as well as the wider social and historic contexts in which it was produced and disseminated, viewers are given the opportunity to visualize the function, proliferation, and even commodification of war photography. It is a shame that such a conceptual framework did not inform the others sections in the exhibition as well. If it had, the truly remarkable group of images and objects that the curators have painstakingly culled together in War/Photography might have moved beyond classification to explore some of the intricacies of what these images and objects of conflicts and their aftermaths really do in the world.

Erina Duganne
Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, Texas State University