''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.
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.
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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.
In "Retribution and Homecoming," WWII images show the humiliation of Nazi collaborators. In Robert Capa's August 18, 1944 image Chartres, France, a woman with a shaved head clutches a baby, pursued by a jeering crowd. In Henri Cartier-Bresson's 1945, photo Deportee Camp, a Gestapo Informer Is Recognized by a Woman She Has Denounced, Dessau, Germany, a woman snarls at her Gestapo accuser. Righteous anger and hatred look the same to the camera.
The images of Nazi concentration camps offer an inarguable justification for World War II, seen as our last "good war." But no nation comes out of war with its morality intact. Matsumoto Eiichi's 1945 image Shadow of a soldier remaining on the wooden wall of the Nagasaki military headquarters (Minami-Yamate machi, 4.5km. from Ground Zero) is literally ghostly. It's like a rayogram made with a nuclear blast.
In the comments posted on the wall at the end of the exhibition, there are calls for peace, tributes to loved ones and quotes from John Lennon. And then there are slogans like "FREEDOM ISN'T FREE."
War and its legacies are complicated. I visited the show with a friend whose father was an American prisoner of war held by the Japanese. He was beaten daily for more than a year. While there, I also saw an old grad school friend and former Houstonian, photographer James Nakagawa. His grandfather helped develop the Zero for Mitsubishi. Nakagawa took the 2010 image Gama Cave #009, a large-scale color photograph from the blackened Okinawan caves where civilians were burned alive during WWII. The image is beyond haunting.
It's a practically flawless exhibition. The contemporary art in the "Remembrance" section harbors the only slightly out-of-place moments. Morimura Yasumasa's large color print of the artist dressed up as Emperor Hirohito and Douglas MacArthur seems too clowning in the context of the show. This much reality is a hard act to follow. But works in "Remembrance" like Nakagawa's cave photo and Richard Avedon's large, unflinching black and white portrait of a Napalm victim are moments of art and truth.
The only down side of this highly admirable show is the war-themed gift shop right outside the exit. I have groused about MFAH post-exhibition merchandising so much in the past that I feel like the town crank, but the shop here is the crassest ever. Wonderful photography books are overshadowed by war tchotchkes like a grenade-shaped stress ball and "Food Fighters," plastic army men cocktail toothpicks. Making war cute and playful does the exact opposite of what the show is intended to do. It's not the fault of the curatorial department, but it sure is a bad way to exit this moving exhibition. Hopefully somebody will edit the merchandise before the show travels.
As I slowly made my way through WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY, I kept waiting for the exhibition to turn south, to try to offer some patriotic, it's-all-worth-it-in-the-end sop to the audience. I have faith in the curators, but I didn't think MFAH as an institution had the stomach to be this frank and unrelenting. But it did. It doesn't let up, and the result is a powerful, heartbreaking exhibition that should profoundly affect anyone who sees it.
It isn't an easy show, but it's worth it. It makes us look at ourselves without illusions and we leave the better for it. How often does that happen?
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