Louie Palu’s U.S. Marine Gysgt. Carlos “OJ” Orjuela, age 31, Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, from Project: Home Front, 2008. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; gift of Joan Morgenstern. © Photographer Louie Palu.
NEW YORK - A lot of people were visiting the wild and eye-catching Jean-Paul Gaultier show at the Brooklyn Museum the other day. A smaller subset of the visitors, including me, were checking out a much different type exhibition: War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, which is up until February 2.
Sober-minded, perhaps, but truly thrilling in its way. This show, organized by legendary photography curator Anne Tucker of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (where it debuted), has big ideas behind it and a terrific selection of works. There are more than 400 photos and other objects on view in the warren of connected galleries.
Josiah Barnes’s Embarkation of HMAT Ajana, Melbourne, July 8, 1916 (printed 2012). On loan from the Australian War Memorial.
The exhibition is not reliant on battle pictures, as you might expect. Its view of war is expansive enough to include training, camaraderie, civilian support, injury and recovery and terrorism at home (9/11, Kent State).
Perhaps it is telling that the show’s few famous images of triumphs – like Joe Rosenthal’s iconic picture of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, and Alfred Eisenstaedt’s snap of a dramatic V-J Day clinch in Times Square – are actually not the ones that stayed with me.
The pictures of everyday people in unremarkable circumstances were the ones I doted on, like Cecil Beaton’s photograph of a British WWII sailor sewing a flag (he looks up at the camera at the exact moment the shutter opens), and Peter van Agtmael’s 2007 image of a veteran with an artificial leg playing Star Wars light sabers with two children in a field.
Cecil Beaton’s A Royal Navy sailor on board HMS Alcantara uses a portable sewing machine to repair a signal flag during a voyage to Sierra Leone, March 1942 (printed 2012). The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; gift of the Phillip and Edith Leonian Foundation. © The Imperial War Museums.
Certainly I never expected to see an image as disturbingly beautiful as Soldier Birkholtz: 353 Days in Iraq, 205 Days in Afghanistan, by the American photographer Suzanne Opton. It’s simply a ravishing 2004 portrait, except that the subject is lying down and the image is a horizontal close-up of just his head. His eyes are open, and blank. It’s hard to imagine what he’s been through, and as images of war go, it’s indelible.