WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Amelia Wiggins

Published on December 29, 2012

  • Museum: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

  • Visit Date: December, 2012

  • Description:

    WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath

    “There are nearly five hundred objects, so pace yourself.” So begins Director Gary Tinterow in the audio tour introduction of the exhibition WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The exhibition includes photographs of war and its effects spanning 165 years and six continents. Organized in twenty-nine sections that map the progression of war, from its advent to it remembrance, WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY begs the question: Can a subject as large as war be adequately covered in a single exhibition?

    WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY is a display of photographs documenting history on a global scale. It is also an art exhibit of beautifully composed images of conflict. It is about the evolution of photography, its technologies and techniques. It is a show about how photographs of war are captured, distributed, censored, sometimes staged. And, most ambitiously, it is an exhibition that seeks to unpack the nature of war and reveal its effect on our world.

    The lack of single focus is revealed in the exhibition’s title itself. It is made up of two words separated by a slash (as if to say “either/or, decide for yourself,” or perhaps to put the terms in conflict, mirroring the war theme) and a much more straightforward, though no less large, subtitle. The title wall text ends with the exhibition’s goals, which also reveal a split focus: “The curators hope that this exhibition will foster meaningful dialogue about human conflict and more extensive research to benefit generations to come.” Is this show about dialogue, or research? Both may be noble pursuits, but the subject of war is so large that the curators would have done better to look at it through a more limited lens, with a single objective for their visitors in mind.

    Each of the twenty-nine sections begins with a panel of text, two to five paragraphs in length. Though scholarly in voice, the content reveals new ways of looking at the themes identified. Much of the writing discusses the people who shot the photographs and the risks they took. Links are made between depicted conflicts and elements of contemporary American life, such as how surveillance technology developed by the CIA was later used to create Google Earth. This helped dissolve the layer of remove I felt from viewing pictures of far-off battles. The best portions of wall text and audio guide, however, are the first-person accounts of soldiers, victims, and photographers. These quotes are immediately affecting, making the photographs come alive in ways that the curator’s voice does not. For untitled photographs, titles in brackets were added to describe the event depicted. These added titles are helpful in understanding the images portrayed. A photograph of a soldier shedding a tear is made more meaningful by the bracketed text, which reveals that he had just heard that no more ammunition or recruits were available.

    The photographs selected are powerfully affecting. The diversity of scenes depicted is a strength of the exhibition. I saw happy soldiers returning home, mourning mothers, stoic leaders, impressive weapons, and haunting pictures of the dead. In its curation of a variety of images, the exhibition succeeds in showing the many facets of war. However, the sheer quantity of objects should have been reduced. After two hours in the exhibition and with a good third of the gallery space still before me, I started skimming text and pausing only for brief moments before the largest and most immediately captivating photos. I would have had more space to look, consider, and respond to individual images if there were fewer.

    The organization of the exhibition mixes cultures and time periods, which makes the greater theme of war more universally resonant. I compared soldiers from different countries, mourners wearing different clothes. I found myself moved by pictures of victims who looked like me as well as those that did not. Although the first photographs in the exhibition show the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center, the majority of the photographs are not from my own time and country. Many photographs of violence much removed from my own life were deeply affecting, which speaks to the power of the images selected. The incredibly skeletal form of a walking Sudanese man stopped me in my tracks; the nearby photograph of an American burn victim on his wedding day also haunted me. The proximity of these two dissimilar images did more to delve into the nature and complexity of war than any of the wall text.

    Unfortunately, one of the most poignant parts of the exhibition, a reading room with generous space for community response, is pushed to the end of the show. By the time I got to it, I was too exhausted and numbed to compose my own remark or explore much of the room’s offerings. I did, however, read a number of the hand-written responses visitors had written and tacked to the wall. Unlike most post-it note commentary in museums, the vast majority of the notes at the end of the WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY exhibition were deeply personal, thoughtful responses. Most went on for several lines, filling the entire index-card-sized space. (Perhaps the exhibition designers should give up the post-it format in favor of larger paper). I did not find a single off-topic remark. Several left pleas for peace; some contained political opinions and arguments; many memorialized a loved one who had served in the military.

    This field of hand-written thoughts contained the most human interpretation found in the exhibition. I found myself wishing that I had time and energy to read every one. WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY would have been a much stronger exhibition if these comments were integrated throughout the galleries. Such stations would give visitors much-needed space to pause between images. They would better incorporate the community’s response to war, personalizing and humanizing the subject. Finally, feedback stations that share space with objects would prompt visitors to more directly respond to the images on view, as well as sharing their personal narratives. This single gallery, designed like an afterthought at the end of the exhibition, was the best step the curators took to realize their goal of fostering meaningful dialogue about human conflict.

Latest Comments (2)

Next stops for the exhibition

by Amelia Wiggins - December 29, 2012

If you’re not able to see the exhibition in Texas, WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY will travel to the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles; the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; and the Brooklyn Museum. There is also a 600-page catalog available.

Good review, Amelia

by Kathleen Mclean - December 30, 2012

And thanks for the notes about the tour. I will make sure to see the exhibition.

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