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WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath

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On Veterans Day 2012, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts (MFAH) debuted an unprecedented exhibition exploring the experience of war through the eyes of photographers. WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath gathers together nearly 500 objects, including photographs, books, magazines, albums, and photographic equipment.

Images recorded by more than 280 photographers, from 28 nations, spanned 6 continents and more than 165 years, from the Mexican-American War in the mid-1800s to present-day conflicts. Iconic photographs as well as previously unknown images are featured, taken by military photographers, commercial photographers (portrait and photojournalist), amateurs, and artists.

The exhibition examined the relationship between war and photography, exploring the types of photographs created during wartime, as well as by whom and for whom. Rather than being organized chronologically, or as a survey of “greatest hits,” the images were arranged to show the progression of war: from the acts that instigate armed conflict to “the fight,” to victory and defeat, and photos that memorialize a war, its combatants, and its victims. Portraits of servicemen, military and political leaders, and civilians are a consistent presence.

Accompanying the show was a 600-page illustrated catalogue featuring interviews and essays by curators, scholars, and military historians. After the Houston premiere, WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY travels to the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles; the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; and the Brooklyn Museum.

On Jan 9, 2013, Kelly Klaasmeyer published in War/Photography Images of battles won and lost paint us all with the brush of brutality at a searing, resonating MFAH exhibit.

On November 9th 2012, the Financial Times published a selection of some of the photographs included in the presentation and an article signed by curator Anne Wilkes Tucker. She explains how the idea was borne and grew to the final project:

The photographs came first in the process of shaping this project. More than two thousand images were evaluated in detail before the final edit. Each picture’s capacity to mentally and emotionally engage viewers’ interests and to provoke questions was always paramount. Who made the picture, for what purpose, and from what point of view? When and where? What is the purported subject? What thoughts and feelings does it evoke?

Even the best pictures cannot answer those questions without accompanying captions and other texts, but even with accompanying texts, the answers are likely to vary among viewers and according to when, where, why, and how the picture was published or displayed and to the text that accompanies it. As Susan Sontag wrote, in discussing how the same photograph could be used by both sides of an argument depending on its interpretation: “All photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions.”

In the digital age, it is understood that photographs and other forms of information are malleable and are often disseminated to manipulate public opinion as much as to inform. A picture does not change, but how it is perceived changes. We “see” with our brains, and what we think we see is subject to the influence of our political, religious, cultural and personal beliefs and experiences. Often what we see depends on what we expected or sought to find.

Photographs may no longer be accepted as “truths” delivered by objective and transparent messengers, but they can nevertheless preserve something that once existed. This project proposes that what was perceived and captured by photographers has residual value for hundreds of purposes, including instruction, keepsake, historical marker, publicity, reconnaissance, criminal evidence and as a catalyst to further inquiry and understanding of armed conflicts and their aftermaths.

Exhibition by The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation at New Yorks’ Metropolitan Museum. April 2-Sept 2, 2013

«More than two hundred of the finest and most poignant photographs of the American Civil War were brought together for this landmark exhibition», according to the organizers.

Through examples drawn from the Metropolitan’s celebrated holdings of this material, complemented by important loans from public and private collections, the exhibition will examine the evolving role of the camera during the nation’s bloodiest war. The «War between the States» was the great test of the young Republic’s commitment to its founding precepts; it was also a watershed in photographic history. The camera recorded from beginning to end the heartbreaking narrative of the epic four-year war (1861–1865) in which 750,000 lives were lost. This traveling exhibition explores, through photography, the full pathos of the brutal conflict that, after 150 years, still looms large in the American public’s imagination.

On April 18, 2013,  Luis Cáceres reviewed the Metropolitan’s exposition in in an interesting article with some of the best photos.

Fotógrafos guerreros: cuando la muerte se transformó en propaganda

Luis Cáceres / Madrid

En el mes de septiembre de 1862, en plena Guerra de la Independencia americana, el fotógrafo Alexander Gardner fue enviado al campo de batalla de Antietam (Washington). Movilizado por otro fotógrafo, el neoyorquino Mathew Brady, Gardner tenía la misión de fotografiar lo que ocurría en el campo de batalla. Los reportajes que éste realizó entonces, incluidos ahora en una exposición en el Metropolitan Museum de Nueva York acerca de la Guerra de Secesión, transformaron el modo de documentar los conflictos armados. Fue durante la deflagración estadounidense cuando empezó a asentarse, lo que consideramos hoy como la ‘estética’ fotográfica de guerra. Leer más

División de artillería ligera en Pennsylvania / Timothy H. O’Sullivan


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