A decade ago, Chris Hedges titled his analysis of the addictive power of war War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. If war truly is a force that gives us meaning, photography is a force that gives us a means by which to envision that meaning. In War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, which runs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through February 3, 2013, photography’s ability to capture every aspect of war—from beginning to end—becomes almost troublingly clear. Dedicated not just to the thick of the fight, but also to the events leading up to as well as the consequences thereafter, War/Photography demonstrates how deep our need is to picture war as a means to understand it and, perhaps, avoid it. Unfortunately, in an age of dehumanized battle where automated drones strike from above, we may be losing the genre of war photography itself, just when we need it more than ever.
War/Photography breaks down the process of war into 26 different categories, from the moment of conception (such as Robert Clark’s photographs of the morning of September 11, 2001) to war’s end (such as Carl Mydans’ picture of the Japanese signing peace documents on board the USS Missouri) and its aftermath (such as Kenneth Jarecke’s Incinerated Iraqi, Gulf War, Iraq, which was published in Europe by the American Associated Press, but withheld from the American public). In addition to that chronological progression, parts of the exhibition cover special topics such as leisure time, medicine, faith, and, perhaps the most touching section, children.
Interestingly, the curators picked the Battle of Iwo Jima as a case study of photography in war. Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima might be the single most memorable image of Americans at war, perhaps because it hails from the “good war.” The exhibition not only features the first print of that famous photo, but also Rosenthal’s 1940s Anniversary Speed Graphic (4 x 5) camera. But before that famous flag raising, Rosenthal snapped Over the Top—American Troops Move onto the Beach at Iwo Jima (shown above)—a less romantic image than the flag raising, but more heroic in capturing that moment when troops at their most vulnerable venture into the fray. As famous as the flag raising photo is, it’s pictures such as Over the Top that strike at the human element that draws viewers in and back again and again.
But what makes art about war so interesting to us right now? While reconsidering the explosion of British war memorials in the first years of the 21st century in The Guardian, Ian Jack wonders if it was the passing of the last of the World War I vets, a boom in popular history books, or Princess Diana’s death “whet[ing] a public appetite for loss,” before concluding all of those forces contributed “as well as something valedictory in the air that suggested a familiar version of Britain was vanishing.” War/Photography stretches from from 1847 and the Mexican-American War all the way up to a 2008 photograph of the War in Afghanistan by Tim Hetherington, who was killed in April 2011 while covering the Libyan Civil War. Are Americans looking to war photography as a visible form of American Empire’s end?
When Bruce Cole reconsidered John Singer Sargent’s painting Gassed, he concentrated on the “paradoxical” nature of “an elegantly composed scene gilded by the warm summer glow of the setting sun” showing men blinded by gas warfare. “Unlike the nihilistic war artists a generation younger than he, Sargent was a Victorian who still saw nobility in war and in the sacrifice it required,” Cole writes. “His Gassed is, accordingly, a masterpiece that dwells between anguish and beauty, a haunting image of human suffering sanctified by his empathetic and elegant brush.” Although Cole’s talking about painting about war, the same thing could be said about the photographs in War/Photography. Nihilism loses to the larger, sanctifying forces of empathy and nobility. Yet nihilism might still be on the rise.
Missing from War/Photography is a new kind of warfare almost based on photography—unmanned combat air vehicles, better known as drones. In “Drone’s Eye View: A Look at How Artists are Revealing the Killing Fields,” Honor Hager features artists exploring war photography taken by the drone war machine itself. Trevor Paglen’s Drone Vision, Hagar writes, “provides us with a chilling ‘drones-eye-view’ of a landscape, enabling us to see what drone-operators see.” Five Thousand Feet is the Best a film by Omer Fast conveys the story of a former Predator drone operator who piloted drones in attacks on civilians and militia in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Hagar hones in on the point in the film in which the former operator talks about the drone’s laser targeting marker that marines came to call “the Light of God.” “[W]hen the troops put on their night vision goggles they’ll just see this light that looks like it’s coming from heaven,” Hagar quotes from the film. “Right on the spot, coming out of nowhere, from the sky. It’s quite beautiful.”
Perhaps there is a strange, terrible beauty to drone warfare, but what kind of art does that make for and, more importantly, how does that art make us feel? Looking at the “drones-eye-view” photos reminded me of the robotic killing machine’s vision in the Terminator films. All the humanity, the nobility, and the empathy fall away in the mechanized termination of life (not to say that all war involves dehumanization of self as well as enemy). The drifting away from the human reality of war that Rachel Maddow warns of in Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power seems complete in such images. War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath provides a fascinating forum in which to reconsider the power of photography to transmit the power of war as a guiding force in life as we have and may always know it.
[Image: Joe Rosenthal, American (1911–2006), Over the Top—American Troops Move onto the Beach at Iwo Jima, February 19, 1945, gelatin silver print with applied ink (printed February 23, 1945), the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Richard S. and Dodie Otey Jackson in honor of Ira J. Jackson, M.D., and his service in the Pacific Theater during World War II. © Associated Press.]
[Many thanks to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for providing me with the image above from and other press materials related to War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, which runs through February 3, 2013.]