Viewing the WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY show currently at the Brooklyn Museum offers a test of emotional restraint as well as the inclination to aestheticize. If the number of images (over four hundred) is daunting, the sum of human pain on display registers as a body blow. Only a practiced and necessary resistance to the actuality depicted (corpses burned and dismembered, hangings, shootings, the contorted, agonized faces of the wounded) allows the viewer to move through this horror show without being overwhelmed.
When this show was at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, James Gibbons, in an insightful essay in Hyperallergic, noted this paradox: “Although by an empirical measure war is becoming less common, the world doesn’t feel less violent, in large part because of the unceasing flow of images.”
I found some images easier than others to insulate myself from: those from the distant past — the Crimean War, Gettysburg, Iwo Jima — are familiar from old magazines and textbooks and so appear embalmed in the protective aura of the historical. More recent scenes from Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, or Somalia were snapped in far-flung locales, places where violence seems to have been safely sequestered. Aside from my relation to the photos of the World Trade Center in flames, I am a wary tourist in this domain of mayhem. The show’s curators acknowledge their audience’s naiveté — Anne Wilkes Tucker’s epigraph from Susan Sontag for the catalogue’s introductory essay is an apt and telling one: “The understanding of war among people who have not experienced war is now chiefly a product of the impact of the images [of wartime photographs].”
While these virtual intimations of mortality pale in relation to actual combat, it is still difficult to remain immune to their force. Part of their impact springs from their artfulness — the deployment of light and composition to deepen the photo’s impact, its memorability. The effect, though, is twofold: to be sure, when skillfully presented the visceral detail is sharpened and the viewer braced; but that artfulness also offers an alternative response, one primarily focused on those formal properties — the way a soldier cradling a comrade resembles the Pietá, or the grainy finish that blends the texture of mud with the skin of a wounded man. We retreat from the fact of bloody spectacle by focusing on the blood’s subtle palette.
A photo taken in 1966 by French photographer Henri Huet is efficiently described by his caption: “The body of an American paratrooper killed in action in the jungle near the Cambodian border is raised up to an evacuation helicopter, Vietnam.” Although he grew up in France, Huet was born in Vietnam and returned there to cover the First Indochina War and then the US involvement. A series of powerful photos published in Life Magazine in early 1966 — the cover image showed two heavily bandaged G.I.’s, one a medic, attending to the other — is often cited as among the first graphic depictions of the war for an American audience. He continued his work in Vietnam until a helicopter carrying him and several other journalists was shot down over Laos in 1971. Everyone aboard died. Their remains weren’t recovered until 1998.
In Huet’s soft-focus, black-and-white photo we see the helicopter from a vantage directly beneath; the body floats midway between the ground and the chopper. The bright sky obscures the cables attached to the corpse so it appears unsupported; in fact, it’s easier to see the figure as diving from the helicopter rather than being lifted up. The corpse’s arms hang loosely and the head falls back, but a closer look allows us to imagine the arms outstretched and head flung back in joy — the retrieval of a casualty morphing into an exultant ascension. Trees, vehicle, and Marine emerge in silhouette, the lack of interior detail enhancing the image’s abstraction. The biomorphic quality of the helicopter — the torso-round cabin, the elevators in the rear like open arms — suggests a corporeal, even maternal connection between man and machine: the soldier descends or rises in either embarkation from or return to home.
Such speculative readings are of course routine; they are made at the image-maker’s invitation. Huet’s complex image affords the viewer ample opportunities to aestheticize, but does our reflex to interpret compromise an ethical and emotional response? What does it mean to attend to the pattern of light and dark, the way the sky’s white glare encases the shadow-bound body, even as we dim our awareness of this lost life, a young man who bled out on the forest floor a world away from home?
For more than a century and a half, America’s wars have taken place somewhere else. Over the past decade, flagged-draped caskets have returned and families have grieved. Yet less than one percent of the nation’s population has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, so this pain is well quarantined; the rest of us know about the widows and amputees because we’ve seen the pictures. It’s nowhere near enough knowing, but if you look unguarded it’s really too much.
WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) through February 2.
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