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War/Photography

Images of battles won and lost paint us all with the brush of brutality at a searing, resonating MFAH exhibit.

''WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is blunt, soul-­­searing, often painful — and maybe the most important exhibition you will ever see. Seven years in the making and featuring nearly 500 works, the show has a 165-year time span. It ranges from an unknown photographer's c. 1847 Mexican-­American War daguerreotype to shots of the Arab Spring.

After its run at the MFA, the show will travel across the country with stops in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn. It is especially resonant in Houston, a city with a population that includes countless refugees from the war-torn locales in the exhibition, including Vietnam, Bosnia, Lebanon, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Rwanda and many others.

The power of "War/Photography" comes not just from the photographs chosen but also from the way they have been organized. The curators, Anne Tucker, MFAH Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography; Will Michels, photographer and Glassell School of Art instructor; and Natalie Zelt, curatorial assistant for photography, grouped the images by subject matter, creating thematic sections like "The Wait," "The Fight," "Children," "Refugees" and "Executions" that explore stages and effects of war. The result is much more powerful than a long chronological slog through world conflicts would have been.

Valentine stands with her daughters Amelie and Inez in Rwanda by Jonathan C. Torgovnik
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of the artist. © Jonathan Torgovnik
Valentine stands with her daughters Amelie and Inez in Rwanda by Jonathan C. Torgovnik

Location Info

Map

Museum Of Fine Arts, Houston

1001 Bissonnet St.
Houston, TX 77004

Category: Museums

Region: Kirby-West U

Details

"WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath"

Through February 3 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

By organizing the images in this way, the curators have brilliantly and bravely illustrated the human predilection for war across cultures and across time. In the section titled "Advent of War," there are images that lead to cries for war, like those taken by Japanese pilots while they bombed Pearl Harbor, or the plane hitting the second tower of the World Trade Center. And there are snapshots of touching goodbyes in the section titled "Embarkation." But whether the images come from the dimly remembered Crimean War (what was that about?) or the current bloodshed in Afghanistan, the human tragedy of people fighting and dying is the overwhelming narrative.

James Frank Hurley's 1917 The shell-shattered areas of Chateau Wood, in the section titled "Aftermath," is a testament to wholesale destruction The raw earth and tree stumps look like they were hit with an atomic bomb. The massive scale of WWI's muddy low-tech trench warfare was supposed to repulse nations against annihilating each other ever again. The image reminds us that this was supposed to be the "war to end all wars."

The section titled "Medicine" includes snapshots of the maimed of WWI, a foot missing toes, a hand missing fingers, the assorted horrific wounds of a century ago. And there are far more recent images. Modern technology lets us save people with shocking injuries that would have meant certain death even a decade ago. But those saved have to then figure out how to go on. There was a story on NPR not so long ago about how IEDs usually go off as someone is stepping over them, often blowing off the legs and genitals of very young men. These same young men have made DNR pacts not to try to save each other if something like that happens. One of the most heart-wrenching and disturbing images is Eugene Richards's 2008 photograph Nelida Bagley helps her son Sgt. José Pequeño from his bed at the West Roxbury Veterans Medical Center in Massachusetts. It shows the naked back of a man, his mother's face over his shoulder and her arms around him as she tries to lift him. Looking at the back of his head, you see the left side of his skull has been cleanly carved away.

The "Civilians" section is extremely difficult as well. A Rwandan woman stands with her daughter, the child of rape. An ethnic Armenian woman with bandaged breast and leg sits on a bed. She was raped and tortured by Azerbaijani soldiers in front of her chubby-cheeked four-year-old son, who stands by her bed staring at her. A Somali father digs a grave for his daughter. An Afghan woman in a burka has collapsed on the ground in a pile of flowing fabric. Only a hand peeks out to clasp the stone that marks her brother's grave.

People, average and unarmed, lie dead in the streets — mourned by friends, family or a pet cat. Or they are simply alone, with no one who cares for them remaining. In Ron Haviv's March 31, 1993, photograph A soldier of the Tigers, a Serbian paramilitary group, kicks the dying bodies of the first Muslims to be killed in the war in Bosnia, the Tiger soldier has a pair of sunglasses perched on his head; he casually holds a cigarette in one hand and a rifle in the other. He's captured bringing his foot back to kick the head of a middle-aged Bosnian Muslim woman lying face down in the street.

The show doesn't offer us any easy narratives of good and evil. We are all tarred with the brush of brutality. A photo in the "Children" section shows a January 18, 2005, image of a crying, blood-splattered little girl illuminated by a soldier's flashlight. The Chris Hondros photo is titled U.S. Troops Mistakenly Kill Iraqi Civilians, Tal Afar, Iraq.

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