Houston : Will Michels by Robert Stevens
Tell me more about how you got interested in doing the exhibition War/Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. I know you received a print of the Iwo Jima flag raising photographed during World War II in the Pacific Ocean area. What size was it? I am trying to understand why that sparked the exhibition? Do you have a background of interest in this genre?
I have a fine art background and have been a fine art photographer for 25 years, but my degree is in Architecture (Pratt Institute.) I graduated during one of the worst Architectural recessions in the history of this country, 1991. The job I found was working as part of the restoration effort on the Battleship TEXAS, a World War I era Dreadnaught. The TEXAS was at Iwo Jima during World War II, and shelled for five days, as part of the invasion force. Many TEXAS veterans saw the flag go up in person from the decks of the ship. I’ve seen the pride in their faces, as they tell their story of watching it go up – hence my personal connection to this iconic image made by Joe Rosenthal. It is one of the most published photographs of all time, usually seen as a vertical, with punchy contrast – full of bravado. Our print, is very small, 3 5/8” x 4 ½”, a contact print made by the man who processed the film on Guam. More importantly it’s the earliest known print, trimmed slightly, stamped by Naval Censors on the back, positively dating it to war-time, and mailed home to his family. It is a horizontal, including most of the negative, brown in tone with normal contrast. It is different than any other print I’ve seen of it.
2. Most newspapers and magazines have always preferred dramatic action photos of war once the photographic emulsions were fast enough to stop action. Can you talk about that?
Editors and the public have always wanted dramatic and heroic images of military in action – it sells papers. They continually want what is not photographable – Not only action, but night shots, sabotage, reconnaissance as well. Two action shots that are not photographable are aerial dog fights, which doesn’t really happen militarily anymore, and hand to hand combat. Out of the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of images we looked at, we never saw pictures of these two acts. They are depicted in movies, so the public wanted and expects to see them. What this segues into, are fakes, as photographers have always tried to bend to the demand and stage events. There are several fakes in the show.
3. Following up on that. The press prefers drama, action, climatic moments yet most of the days soldiers sit and wait (exhibition section: The Wait). Can you talk about how the public usually sees an unreal vision of war.
Most of what the public sees of war is Action, Grief or Humor – again, they sell papers. These are such a small part of the military experience. Excluding significant experiences like training, medicine (their mental, spiritual and physical health) and the wait. But also, you have to take into account all the people involved in getting a story to the public. A photographer takes a photo, a writer writes the story – both are another person’s view of what is happening, an interpretation that is shaped by the talents of a writer and photographer. No one learns of an amazing heroic act if the photographs are bad or it’s poorly written about. We know more about the daily life of American soldiers during WWII because of correspondent Ernie Pyle and his amazing talent.
4. There are twenty-six sections in the exhibitions. Can you talk about a couple that you are most passionate about or stand out for you.
The Portraits section is one of them. I’m a portraitist, so portraits strike a personal chord with me. It also surprised me to learn that the portrait is the most common type of military picture, but it makes complete sense as wars are ultimately about people. I also really like and respect the way the great editors and photographers use portraits in their stories, to ground them making them more human. We have followed their example and have tried to do the same.
The Iwo Jima section was very well photographed. There were over ninety photographers there. There is a reason there are so many amazing images from that battle. It did two things the other sections do not do:
1) Showed how an image can become part of the public’s consciousness.
2) Showed that the categories work on two scales: micro and macro. Iwo Jima has almost all the categories represented.
The Executions section has some of the most beautifully composed photographs, but also the most difficult to view. I really like that juxtaposition. I’m also proud that we didn’t shy (personally and institutionally) away from extremely difficult images and this section (and Aftermath) is proof of that.
5. Can you describe a couple images that stopped your breath, that were surprising, unusual, or stunning.
Two that popped into my head immediately are:
Henri Huet’s – “The body of an American paratrooper killed in action in the jungle near the Cambodian border is raised up to an evacuation helicopter, Vietnam” Is complex for the viewer, because of the angle and contrast. It is misinterpreted most often as a body falling, not being lifted. It is hauntingly beautiful.
Ken Jarecke’s – “Incinerated Iraqi, Gulf War.” It is so bold in its composition – in your face, especially since the man pictured doesn’t have much of one left. However, it’s the print that really grabs me. It is one of the most beautiful in the show, despite its horror. I like this push and pull it does to the viewer. It was essentially banned in the US. We are the first public institution to own a copy, which I am very proud of.
6. Many curators/critics have talked about the use of iPhone by citizens who witness war events. Some professionals now use them like Michael Christopher Brown in Libya. What are you feeling about their use by both groups?
For me, it doesn’t matter what kind of camera it was taken with – it’s one of the last things I consider when looking at an image. Cameras are only as good as the person using it. Give a crappy camera to Don McCullin, W. Eugene Smith or Todd Heisler and it won’t matter. It’s the eye, not the camera.
That said, this genre is also about news and access, being at the right place at the right time. Previously, the great images are taken by the right photographer who was at the right place at the right time. Now there are cameras on virtually every square foot of the planet. This has altered that equation a bit – any camera at the right place at the right time. Today, the Idea of the talent of a photographer is often removed from the equation, and only the news value is considered. The London bombing images are great, because they exist, they were news, but won’t transcend into great photographs.
8. Do you sense a shift from the conscious framing of scenes as done by professionals in the past like James Nachtwey or even the very different approach of Antonin Kratochvil, to much more interest today in the moment - as reflected in the way citizens use their camera. I sense "the moment", "the instant," is the ultimate reason for citizens to record an event, person, place, today. And that this interest will filter up into newspapers and magazines, regardless if they are in print or online. In other words, the citizens who use their iPhones to make photos are the same people who look at photos of war and their interest in “the moment” over framing will drive what they want to look at, purchase and this will influence the composition of professionals.
I don’t see that citizens are capturing “the moment” or “the instant.” I don’t think that entered their thinking at all. It’s more like, “I was there” or “look what I saw” and how many people end up liking it on Facebook. It’s about place, not news. However, it’s the news outlets that make them news as they run it with a story attached. I believe it boils down to intent. What your question is ultimately referring to is the loss of the editor as a filter. Someone who decides what is newsworthy, which photo is best to accompany the story. On the web, images get used without any vetting. Which is one reason why an iconic image hasn’t surfaced for the Iraq/Afghanistan wars.
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