A mother's final, clutching embrace of her son before he leaves for war; the bug-eyed stare of a drill sergeant; a torpedoed and sinking ship; a bandaged soldier praying on his cot; deep slashes across the face of a death camp survivor. Much more than just documents of war, the photographs in "War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath" at the Brooklyn Museum (Nov. 8, 2013-Feb. 2, 2014) capture both the chaos and brutality of war, and deeply humanize the experience of armed conflict.
Delicate daguerreotypes sit alongside iPhone images in this exhibition, which includes more than 400 photographs, magazines, cameras and ephemera from the last 166 years. Unlike a traditional survey organized chronologically or by war, "War/Photography" follows the arc of armed conflict: from an aggressive action that triggers the fighting, to the recruitment, training and daily life of a soldier, to combat, injury and treatment or death, and, finally, to the troops' homecoming, healing and remembrance.
Hung salon-style on dark, clay-colored walls that slice through the exhibition space, these photographs show the stark realities of wartime and its aftermath. In David Douglas Duncan's image from 1950, a tear streaks down the face of a corporal who has just learned that no ammunition remains and no help is coming. A mother swims with her children across a river in South Vietnam to escape a U.S. bombing in Kyōichi Sawada's image from 1965. In David Silverman's photograph from 2000, a crowd of photojournalists are all poised to capture the image of the same Palestinian, hurling stones at Israeli forces.
For many, the injuries of war far outlast the fighting. In Jonathan C. Torgovnik's 2006 photograph Valentine with her daughters Amelie and Inez, Rwanda, a woman poses with her children, one of them the product of wartime rape. Peter van Agtmael's 2007 portrait of Raymond Hubbard, whose leg was severed in an explosion in Baghdad, shows him and his sons playfully wielding toy light sabers in a Wisconsin field.
The evolution of photography itself has altered how war is recorded, and ultimately, remembered. Photographers represented range from Roger Fenton, one of the first war photographers, who developed his negatives in a wagon that housed his portable photographic lab, to Michael Christopher Brown, whose cell phone images were the first of their kind to appear in National Geographic. Iconic photographs that have long been representatives of the horrors of war are included, such as Fenton's roadway full of spent cannonballs during the Crimean War in The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855), Robert Capa's Spanish soldier splayed mid-air in Falling Soldier (1936), and Huỳnh Công "Nick" Út's 1972 photograph of a terrified young Vietnamese girl, running naked through the streets after a napalm attack.
"War/Photography" is the culmination of more than 10 years of research by curators Anne Wilkes Tucker, Will Michels and Natalie Zelt for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where the show was organized. This is the fourth and final installment of the show. The Brooklyn Museum's installation includes four vintage World War II photographs from its permanent collection, the short documentary film Diary (2010) by photojournalist Tim Hetherington (who died on assignment in Libya in 2011) and two interactive features for visitors to pose questions to both photographers and veterans. Tricia Laughlin Bloom, the Brooklyn Museum's associate curator of exhibitions, spoke with A.i.A. via e-mail, explaining the importance of "War/Photography" for a Brooklyn audience: "A great number of war photographers, photo agencies and news bureaus are and have been based in New York City, so it's fitting that the exhibition should have a New York venue."