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The Corcoran Gallery of Art is smart to have paired an exhibit of Civil War photographs with images from the war in Afghanistan: The artistic techniques are far more advanced than they were 150 years ago, but the battlefields they depict are timelessly grim. The Civil War collection is more scattershot—-the modest-sized survey includes works by seven different photographers in a wide variety of sizes and techniques, including tintypes, ambrotypes and cartes d’visites—-and the long exposure times and complicated processing then required meant that virtually all of the war-related images were staged to one degree or another. Still, the wreckage, human and physical, is evident, such as in two deservedly famous images by Alexander Gardner—-one of fallen sharpshooter, and the other of burned-out ruins of the Norfolk, Va., navy yard. Another Gardner image, less well-known, is striking for its contrast of destroyed buildings with an inexplicably peaceful, glimmering river. Equally striking in their own way are a series of unstereotypical images from the period—-a woman wearing a pro-secession sash, a “young, biracial artilleryman,” and a solider of Asian ancestry. Flash forward to the present and you have the documentary work of Tim Hetherington, who was embedded with Army troops in a remote region of Afghanistan for 15 months in 2007 and 2008. (The exhibit is posthumous; Hetherington was killed while on assignment in Misurata, Libya, on April 20, 2011.) His images—-of resting, exhausted soldiers, of spidery smoke rising from a hillside village, of military hazing rituals—-are straightforward but effective, with resonance to the World War II images of W. Eugene Smith and any number of Vietnam War photographers. But most impressive is Hetherington’s three-channel video, in which the central panel shows a sleeping soldier while the right and left screens show footage of combat operations; at times, the images overlap, suggesting a dream or, worse, PTSD.
Through May 20, 2012, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 Seventeenth Street NW Washington, D.C.