Houston : Anne Tucker by Robert Stevens
Tell me how you got interested in doing the exhibition War/Photography. I know you received a print of the Iwo Jima flag raising. What size was it? I am trying to figure out why that sparked the exhibition?
What connects war photography to all my other projects is an attraction to what I don't know, to what is unknown in the field of photography.
The Joe Rosenthal print is 3 5/8 x 4 3/8 (9 x 11 cm), small enough to go in an envelope. It inspired Will Michels (co-curator of exhibition), to ask why the museum had collected so few war photos. I asked him to make a list of what we should acquire. Using his list to look at many books on wartime photographs I felt the discussions were limited. Either they were chronological histories that skipped from war to war, mostly those fought by Western armies and covered the highlights with little analysis, or there were monographs on the stars --- Capa, Burrows, Smith. One exception is Bob Zeller’s Blue and Grey in Black and White that is marvelously rich about both the war and its photographic coverage.
We were lucky to get grants allowing us to travel and sit in archives to look and look and look. At the end of each day we would talk about what we had seen, if it was new, what it related to, etc. Patterns began to evolve that crossed culture, time, wars and related to the nature of war: death, destruction of property, rescue, faith, medicine, etc. Only much later did we realize that if we organized the project in the rough order of war and kept the patterns, the viewer could walk through the exhibition seeing war as perceived by the photographers. The big issue was considering different contexts for discussing war related photographs: photographers' views; military historian's views; relationships to other pictures in their pattern group.
For instance, putting the Eddie Adams in the section “execution” situates it in the context of how common executions can be in armed conflicts, every day really. Also, we felt that when most texts discuss "war photography" they are really discussing photojournalists’ pictures of war related events.
Hilary Roberts, an early and constant advisor who is a curator at the Imperial War Museum, pointed out that there are four types of photographers: military, commercial (portrait and photo journalists), amateur, and artists. So we decided that was another important context to consider. How were these groups’ pictures the same and how did they differ from those by other types of photographers?
In the 19th century photographers could only photograph what did not move. Can you talk about how war photographers had to accept that inability to record action until WWI or there abouts, whereas magazines prefer the dramatic action of an isolated moment - like a bomb exploding or a crowd rampaging.
Early newspapers and magazines preferred dramatic action photos of armed conflict but it was not possible with the photo plates of the time. Action shots exist from Boar War but the drawback was not so much speed of record as distance from the subject. The fake pictures in our show of biplane fights were so widely accepted because people really wanted to see those fights but when photographed the planes were little dots in sky. In real dogfights, there were no photographers working in the plane. It was too dangerous.
The press prefers drama, action, and climatic moments yet most days soldiers sit and wait (exhibition section: The Wait). Can you talk about how the public usually sees an unreal vision of war.
Ken Jarecke explains that he took the horrific picture of an Iraqi burned in his truck so people like his mother would know that what they saw in films was not the way war is‘ but people want to see fighting and photographers try to get those pictures and are killed. The Fight is a rich section of the show but all the other aspects are also "war." Again we are putting the fight in the context of the other sections.
Speaking of the twenty-six sections of the exhibitions. Can you talk about some that you are most passionate about or stand out for you.
I tried to be neutral in my writing, neither for or against war. I want to present various aspects and leave the discussions for readers. We worked with veterans and military historians to be sure our texts were accurate about the military aspects. I am least neutral in the essay on civilians. I understand "collateral damage" as a military concept but millions have died as a consequence --- died, been wounded, become orphans or refugees. Most soldiers in established forces are professionals, but civilians are unavoidably caught in the crossfire and sometimes they are deliberately sacrificed.
I love the photos in the Daily Routine and the Leisure Time sections because here men and women are relaxing, getting a moment away from the conflict.
I love the Portraits sections because of the humanity in them, sometimes charming, dear and sad, engaging.
The Remembrance section is a different take and an important aspect of the show, a different way, mostly in retrospect, to deal with the subject.
Also, can you describe a couple images that stopped your breath?
Todd Heisler's series, especially of the widow in the room with her husband's casket and the Marine standing guard all night with her and the one of the airplane passengers watching from their window as a flagdrapped coffin is unloaded.
Ken Jarecke's image of the burned Iraqi. The print is so rich. The richness of it is seductive at the same time the subject is repulsive.
The German snapshot album where the man beautifully drew a hangman's noose around the snapshot of a hanged "spy."
Osamu James Nagakawa's picture of the Okinawa cave where civilians died either by suicide or from flames shot into the caves by advancing troops or both
Don McCullin’s shell shocked soldier (wait until you see the print).
The picture of Dickey Chappelle being given last rites. Pearl earing in her ear. Hands tucked up against her cheek in the same way that I sleep. I could go on.
The photo of Japanese soldiers using Chinese civilians for bayonet practice. The photograph taken by Christian Simonpietri of prisoners being bayonetted in Bangledash is hard to view, but that is retribution, the same emotion behind many wartime pictures, including Capa and Cartier-Bresson’s photographs in post war France. The Japanese soldier’s emotions appear ice cold. And they wanted this moment photographed or it would not have been. The photograph was distributed and published in Japan. Many images in the executions section are of armed men killing unarmed men and the armed men, or their superiors (as in the Stoop report)wanted the picture made.
An image that was not shocking but surprising, is the Frank Hurley image of a patrol perfectly reflected in water below them. We saw dozens of these pictures by no less than W Eugene Smith, Capa, and French photographers in Indochina,etc. Photographers couldn't resist the pattern and symmetry. Maybe it was a response to order in a time of chaos or maybe it was simply an elegant image that appealed to them.
Citizens more and more, including on Facebook, etc. love making photos ALL the time. Do you feel that gives more opportunities for war events to be recorded when professionals cannot be there or do citizens replace professionals today?
Civilian photographs are part of the project. Thousands of snapshots have been made since the Boar War by both civilians and combatants. We include soldiers’ snapshot albums from Iwo Jima and Germany. Anonymous pictures taken by professional and civilian are part of the medium’s history. The change is not that civilians are making images, but that they can find an audience over the internet for everyone. It is the game changer. Michael Kamber would photograph soldiers in Iraq in the morning, post to NY TIMES blog at noon and by the afternoon patrol, soldiers would have seen his pictures and let him know if they liked them or not. So many pictures are on the internet. Shifting through, editing, judging is the challenge no matter who made it.
At the same time do you sense a shift from the conscious framing of scenes as done by professionals like James Nachtwey or the very different style of Antonin Kratochvil, to more emphasis on the moment and not the composition as reflected in the way citizens use their iPhones and cameras.
"The moment"is a strong motive for non-professionals to record: an event, person, place. And this interest filters into newspapers and magazines, in print or online. The citizens who photograph with their iPhones often also look at others’ photos of war. Their interest in specific moments will drive what they want to record , and that as well as what we call the “snapshot aesthetic influences their framing and compositions as it often does for professionals.
Yuri Kozyrev has done an incredible job of absorbing the snapshot approach to make great images. Tim Hetherington used the aesthetic. Sophisticated photographers have been absorbing the snapshot aesthetic for over a century. It's whether they say something with it that matters.
War Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath
From November 11th, 2012 to February 3rd, 2013
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
1001 Bissonnet Street
Houston, TX 77005,
T : (713) 639-7300