By Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times
The folks at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston spent 10 years sifting through vast archives and collections in an attempt to curate the most comprehensive and powerful exhibition of war photography from the late 1800s to the present.
The result is “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath,” opening in Los Angeles at the Annenberg Space for Photography on March 23.
The entire collection consists of some 480 images, but the traveling version in L.A. will show about 150 pictures. Nonetheless, they are moving, often searing, images of war’s questions, truths and heartbreak.
It has military and civilian points of view and focuses on different angles of conflict, including fierce combat and its aftermath, prisoners, executions, burials and memories. The exhibition contains difficult fare that might prompt some to close their eyes or even walk out.
Still, “War/Photography” reaches for spirituality, including unbelievably stirring work by a master such as Larry Burrows, a Brit who shot for Life magazine and whose landmark 1966 Vietnam War photo, “Reaching Out,” hangs high above the gallery. In it, a wounded soldier looks Christ-like, half-seated and half-sprawled on the ground, his arms outstretched. To the left we glimpse a bloodied and bandaged soldier reaching across the frame, as if a disciple. Alas, whatever godliness exists is stripped from the image, which is set atop a ridge of shattered trees and a sea of mud.
The exhibit includes a black-and-white image by French photojournalist Christian Simonpietri that shows Bangladeshi soldiers with fixed bayonets executing three Pakistani sympathizers. In it, a blade pierces through the chest of one man and into the heart of another victim helplessly pinned on the ground beneath him. We debated about that image in journalism school, and I supported its publication under any circumstance.
From World War I, the catalog includes a gelatin silver print by Wesley David Archer that depicts a German fighter plane crashing in flames, its pilot clear of the cockpit and plummeting to Earth. I can’t even imagine capturing that with the primitive, unwieldy cameras of that time. Included are the heart-stopping icons produced by Eddie Adams, Nick Ut, Joe Rosenthal and Eugene Smith.
Early on, one encounters a triptych by South African Jaoa Silva that is otherworldly. The images were made immediately after Silva stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan in 2010. The images show two soldiers, seemingly shocked into inaction, their faces blank and emotionless as they look down on the gravely injured photographer. A real pro, Silva was snapping away before even realizing he had lost both legs.
A section titled “Aftermath/Death” contains Don McCullin’s still life image of a Viet Cong fighter whose personal effects are strewn about his corpse. It is elegant and deeply provoking. And right beside that we see a military chaplain administering last rites to Vietnam War correspondent Dickey Chapelle, who is facedown, a streak of dried blood trails across her cheek beneath one of her trademark pearl earrings.
Yes, many have died. Robert Capa and Larry Burrows perished in the combat zone, pursuing their vision that photography could bridge a gap of understanding. Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were tragically killed too. Their work is featured and speaks of their ultimate sacrifice. The exhibit has James Nachtwey’s image of a firefighter amid the smoking rubble of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Featured in a commissioned film that is central to the show are David Hume Kennerly, Edouard H. R. Gluck, Alexandra Avakian, Ashley Gilbertson and my friend and Los Angeles Times colleague, Carolyn Cole.
The collection raises an answer to an old question. Does war photography make any difference? By all measures, armed conflict has not been stemmed or stopped—it’s pace and scope seemingly hastened and enlarged.
One truth emerges from photographers who have been at war. If we aren’t there to witness and document the tragedy and sorrow, who is to say it ever happened at all?
Thus, I am very honored and deeply humbled to be included in this exhibit, which travels next to Washington D.C. and Brooklyn. At the entrance to the Annenberg, visitors will be greeted by a very large reproduction of my photo, the Marlboro Marine. I hope the weary, distant eyes of Marine Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller serve as a warning that you are entering Dante’s Inferno.
If you are bothered, angered, saddened or traumatized by the images, then good. But try to be inspired into action as well — and feel free to make it your personal mission to put each and every war photographer out of work.
Follow Luis Sinco on Twitter @luissinco
The exhibit, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and titled WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY, includes more than 150 photographs from 1887 through the present. It will open Saturday, March 23, and run through June 2. Admission is free. The Annenberg Space for Photography is located at 2000 Avenue of the Stars, Century City, CA 90067.
Photo: Carolyn Cole, left to right, Ashley Gilbertson, Nick Ut, Luis Sinco, Hayne Palmour IV and Edouard H.R. Glück. Credit: Unique Nicole / Annenberg Space for Photography