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The Corcoran Gallery of Art’s sprawling exhibit, “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath,” is admirably complete—-maybe even too complete for its own good.
Filling most of the museum’s second floor galleries, the exhibit covers everything from training to combat to the often grisly aftermath of battle; it features images that stretch from the mid-19th century to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, surveying a vast array of conflicts, from the great-power wars to regional conflicts in such places as Colombia, the Congo, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
One of the exhibit’s strengths is its inclusion of extensive work by photographers of various nationalities, including some boldly modernist works by relatively obscure, mid-20th-century Russian photographers—-Dmitri Baltermants’ image of Russian soldiers wistfully playing Tchaikovsky on a piano in an otherwise bombed-out home, Georgi Zelma’s almost surreal depiction of soldiers overrunning a captured building in Stalingrad, and Georgii Petrusov’s boldly off-kilter depiction of supply vehicles jamming a sinuously curved road.
Of course, there’s plenty of action on display—-Robert Capa’s fittingly blurred, almost hallucinatory vignette from the storming of Normandy; an image documenting the Sisyphean task of laying phone lines under fire during World War II; and Horst Faas’ hard-to-believe photograph of five U.S. helicopters hovering on the front lines in Vietnam. (A World War I image by an Australian photographer reminds us to maintain a healthy skepticism; the action-packed image was actually created seamlessly from a dozen different negatives.)
The exhibit offers fleeting views of beauty along with the omnipresent danger—-the graceful arcs of ships seen from the air as they rush into battle, and a picturesque urban vista that serves as a backdrop for a young, bottle-wielding, Catholic protester in 1960s Northern Ireland. More commonly, though, the offerings are grim—-post-apocalyptic scenes of Crimea and Cambodia that exude a split-second visual complexity worthy of a monumental Renaissance canvas, but limned in inky blacks that suggest a particularly hellish scenario by Gustave Doré.
The chilling images pile one on top of the other, risking a viewer’s numbness—-brutal interrogations, gory combat injuries, vicious executions of dictators and collaborators, and children coping with the horrors of war. (Mark Redkin’s World War II image of children watching the hanging of two peers for alleged collaboration is particularly unsettling.) Equally unnerving, viewers are forced to confront their own ambivalence about death and justice in Luc Delahaye’s colossal image of a dead Taliban soldier.
Still, despite generating genuine emotion, the exhibit undercuts itself by its length and structure. It’s organized thematically, with a taxonomy that’s unnecessarily obsessive-compulsive—-no fewer than 29 distinct sections, many of them framed by rather Talmudic distinctions (separate categories for images of medicine during and after war, for instance, and a separation between photographs of troops’ “leisure time” and “daily routine”). The wall texts are so busy explaining these themes they can verge on the pedantic.
The exhibit also fails to grapple consistently with technology. It addresses early technical advances—-in a nice touch, Nick Ut’s iconic Vietnam image of a fleeing, napalm-covered
girl is installed on the cylinder of a vintage wire-service transmitter—-but there’s too little discussion of recent developments in social media, such as Twitter.
The exhibit closes with Simon Norfolk’s series of pastel-hued color photographs of France’s D-Day beaches taken in 2004. The images offer a tangible reminder that war can be transitory. After a long march through a blizzard of visual and emotional shrapnel, Norfolk’s photographs hit the viewer as gently as the fleeting wingbeats of a dove—-a welcome coda, but one that, undeniably, is all too fragile.
The exhibit is on view to Sept. 29 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St NW
Top image by Thomas Hoepker
Second image by Henri Huet
Third image by W. Eugene Smith