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Pictures Without an Exhibition | The Nation

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Pictures Without an Exhibition

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Untitled (prisoner #389 of the Khmer Rouge), by Nhem Ein, 1975–79

Untitled (prisoner #389 of the Khmer Rouge), by Nhem Ein, 1975–79

The massive show of war photographs on display at the Brooklyn Museum is somewhat of a mess. Its unusual, if not bizarre, organization fails to foster—in fact, actually precludes—a creative conversation (moral, political or historic) among the 377 photographs it presents. In this sense, the exhibit, which spans more than 150 years and is modestly titled “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath,” is a wasted opportunity. And yet, almost in spite of itself, it also shows precisely what photography can do so well—sadly, perhaps—when it comes to documenting the sufferings and atrocities we gather under the rubric “war.” And so, despite its grave failings, this is a show that is well worth seeing. 

Perhaps the show’s curators thought they needed some novel device—something unusual, improved and snazzy—that would grab the interest of an attention-deficient audience transfixed by its smartphones. This may be why the curators have eschewed any coherent historical organization, or even historical perspective or context: history is, you know, so old hat. Their new hat consists of a series of concepts that, presumably, define all modern wars—starting with the Mexican-American War of 1846–48 and going up (almost) to the present—and around which the photographs are grouped. These include “The Wait,” “Executions,” “Leisure Time,” “Faith,” “Children” and “War’s End: Retribution.” Alas, under the rubric of these timeless tropes, photographs are often juxtaposed in ways that are, at best, mysterious and, at worst, severed from precisely those other images that would deepen their meanings and challenge our understandings. Instead, we are presented with abstract concepts or visual puns. The relatively sparse captions that accompany many images exacerbate this problem, either by failing to provide contextual background or even occasionally by misleading. (Laurent Nkunda, a fearsomely brutal Congolese warlord and enslaver of children as soldiers, is identified as a “dissident general.”)

And so my reaction as I made my way through the show—a frustrating series of crowded warrens—was, frequently, bewilderment. (“War/Photography,” which closes on February 2, was organized by, and originally opened at, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which is perhaps more spacious; some of the photographs that appear in the show’s catalog, and were shown in Houston, are not mounted at the Brooklyn Museum.) Why, I wondered, were the “Iraqi Most Wanted Playing Cards”—those cheerfully bright pictures of Saddam Hussein and his posse, distributed by the US government after our 2003 invasion—nestled next to black-and-white photographs showing the obscene stacks of jumbled corpses in Nazi concentration camps? Because, it turns out, the death-camp pictures were published in 1945 by the US Office of War Information, which means that both sets of images—those of dead Jews and those of Iraqi tyrants—are part of the show’s first category, “Media Coverage and Dissemination.” There may, of course, be ways in which murdered Jews and Iraqi war criminals should, or at least could, be thought about in tandem, or might be seen to exist within some sort of historic continuum. But surely this would require the presentation of an argument—one that encompassed decades of complex postwar history both in Europe and the Middle East—that has nothing to do with the anodyne concept of “media coverage.”

Other juxtapositions rely on emphasizing the (often meaningless) similarities of visual details. In the section called “Reconnaissance, Resistance, and Sabotage,” the exhibition catalog shows a Seamus Murphy photograph (originally displayed in Houston) that depicts a Palestinian militant, his face swathed in a tightly wound keffiyeh; through the narrow slit for his eyes, he is reading, and apparently broadcasting, what I take to be a communiqué. Placed next to this is an Adam Ferguson photo of an American soldier in Afghanistan; it is nighttime, and he peers into long-range surveillance equipment on the lookout for improvised explosive devices. In both these pictures, in other words, the eyes have it. But so what? In the section titled “The Wait,” a Susan Meiselas photograph from Nicaragua shows six muchachos, or Sandinista guerrillas, primed for battle behind sandbags. Two have their guns drawn, but all have their faces covered by a random collection of scarves or kerchiefs: in white, black, red, yellow or prints. Next to this is a Carolyn Cole portrait of an American soldier in Najaf, Iraq, whose face is smeared with black and beige “war paint.” Perhaps there is a connection between the Sandinista Revolution and the war in Iraq; Noam Chomsky would say so. But in this context, the only connective tissue is the donning of masks. To which one can only respond, again: So what? 

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Sometimes these visual connections are not just irrelevant but cruel. In “Prisoners of War and Interrogations”—obviously one of the more brutal sections—the exhibit’s catalog presents a surprisingly peaceful image. Taken by Werner Bischof, one of the early Magnum photographers, in Korea in 1952, it shows various laundry items—shirts, socks and, most prominently, a pair of men’s trousers—fluttering on silhouetted lines of barbed wire. This photograph abuts another, in which a pair of men’s trousers also dominates the frame. But this latter picture, taken by Sean Flynn in 1966, shows a Viet Cong suspect “being interrogated”—that is, tortured—as he hangs, by bound legs, from a tree; he is surrounded by his tormentors, one of whom holds a stick. The juxtaposition of these images—hanging pants! hanging pants!—reveals the kind of formalist sensibility that gives formalism a bad name. Indeed, it is the kind of formalism that, as Robert Hughes once wrote, “would find no basic difference between a Nuremberg rally and a Busby Berkeley spectacular, since both, after all, are examples of Art Deco choreography.” 

Even when meaningful relationships between pictures could be fostered, the organizational principles of “War/Photography” often prevent them. Richard Avedon’s enormous 1971 portrait called “Napalm Victim” filled me with revulsion (as a person) and shame (as an American). It shows a Vietnamese woman of unknown age. Her hair is pulled back, she wears a black shirt with a trim of white, and she stares directly at us. But this is a stare like few others. The woman’s left eye has, I think, been melted away, and a blind white ball fills the distended socket; her nose is gnarled and twisted, wrenched to one side; her upper lip looks smashed in, her lower one swollen; she is missing several teeth; and her skin is a criss-cross of deep lines. Even if you, like me, are no fan of Avedon’s, this picture demands contemplation, for here Avedon is not (as he so frequently did) bragging about his ability to shock us, but rather presenting us with a woman whose very existence is a shock, and whose wounds are an indictment for which there is no conceivable defense. Avedon himself becomes irrelevant. But shouldn’t this picture be in conversation with—wouldn’t its sorrow be deepened, its challenge sharpened, its meanings either clarified or complicated—if it were shown with Don McCullin’s picture of a dead North Vietnamese soldier, eyes still open, surrounded by scattered photographs of those he loved, including a smiling young woman and two toddlers? Or with McCullin’s iconic portrait of a shell-shocked American grunt—his stare as unrelenting as the napalmed woman’s—awaiting evacuation from Hue? Instead, “Napalm Victim” is sequestered, far away, in a grab-bag category called “Remembrance.”

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