© Louie Palu
This month the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) will open an exhibition that promises to change the way photographs of war are seen, understood and written about. The result of ten years of research by a curatorial team that included longtime MFAH photography department curator Anne Wilkes Tucker, Will Michels and Natalie Zelt, “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath” takes viewers through 26 stages and collateral effects of war—from enlistment to combat to wartime’s impact on civilians and children—as depicted by photographers during the 165-year history of the medium, up through present day. PDN spoke with Tucker and Michels about the exhibition.
A condensed and edited version of this interview appeared in the November issue of PDN.
PDN: You write in the exhibition catalogue about the diversity of motivations that exist in photographers who choose to photograph war. Are a photographer’s motivations evident in the images that they make?
Anne Wilkes Tucker: We found two types of photographers: We classified them crudely as those who went towards the bullet and those who went away. The photographers who adamantly say they only photograph aftermath—Seamus Murphy, Simon Norfolk and Eugene Richards—want you to see the horrors and the legacy of war. For the men and women who actually photograph conflict, it’s much more complicated and harder to sort. But the good ones are some of the most intelligent people I have ever met, and some of the most informed. They knew why they were there, they knew what the issues were, they knew who the players were on both sides. [Interviewing them] was an education in issues.
It’s a mystery to me why they keep putting themselves in that danger. I think it’s too easy to say it’s adrenaline. But it’s complicated because they’ve seen people killed. So many of them keep going back to John Hoagland who was killed in Central America. Of course now they talk about Chris [Hondros] and Tim [Hetherington]. A couple of photographers stopped photographing after Chris and Tim. Michael Kamber, who I’ve become very close to, decided he would no longer be a war photographer after Tim’s death, because Tim was one of his closest friends. But even those who talk about Hoagland, who was right with a bunch of photographers when he was killed, as were Chris and Tim, it shook ‘em up, they talk about it, they grieve about it, but a fair number of them continue to be conflict photographers. The ’Nam guys, [Larry] Burrows and [Kent Potter], those deaths really shook ‘em up, but they stayed. It’s a faith I think, it’s some kind of faith that they’re doing something that needs to be done.
PDN: Was there a point when war photographers began to take a more critical approach to their reporting?
AT: A lot of people talk about how important it was that Larry Burrows was British. The British had nobody in [Vietnam]. His pictures of the lineup of Vietcong bodies all lying in the mud—people talk about how he brought a different perspective, as did [Philip Jones] Griffiths. Griffiths hated war, and after his book [Vietnam, Inc.] came out [the South Vietnamese government] wouldn’t let him come back to photograph.
PDN: Did you see a difference in the way that photographers treated the people that they photographed as you were looking through the images?
AT: There were SOBs in every era. And there were kind people in every era. I think that was something they brought to the field, whether they were a swaggerer, whether they were a quiet person. One of the photographers I wish I could have met was Ernest Brooks, a British photographer [during] World War I, damn good photographer. He risked his life to make a photograph of going up and over [the wall of a] trench, one of the only existing photographs from World War I of up and over, because another photographer had faked it and sold the fake as real. Everything I’ve read about him, he comes across as such a man of integrity. His officers kept nominating him for medals and the home office said photographers don’t do anything to deserve medals. He made great pictures, and he comes across as such a man of integrity.
Will Michels: Integrity is a good word that we haven’t used very often that describes those photographers who go back and shoot over and over and over again. And that’s what it’s about.
PDN: Did you notice differences in how photographers treated their subjects from conflict to conflict? For example, if you’re an American photographer photographing during World War II, you likely have a much different perspective than an American photographer photographing during the Vietnam War. Is any of that perceivable?
WM: Don McCullin and Larry Burrows have such a distinct style, it’s about them.
AT: [W. Eugene] Smith’s one of the few you can really read. Jim Hughes’s book [Shadow and Substance: The Life and Work of an American Photographer] really gives you Smith’s life day-by-day. Smith is just driving for a great picture every time he’s out. But it’s still a Gene Smith picture.
David Douglas Duncan is interesting and stands out because he was a Marine during World War II and he only photographed Marines when he was at war. So he had an allegiance to the Marine ethic, which is something. And he hated Vietnam. He really felt that we were right in being in Korea, and those pictures are about the men’s hardship, and trudging through the cold and that great picture of that guy, but they’re about men in a just cause. [In] ’Nam you see more pictures of the guys with these acerbic, excuse me but, “Fuck You” messages on their helmets. Some of those guys probably existed in Korea, but whether Duncan didn’t see them or chose not to photograph them, the pictures he made in Vietnam and the book he published, which is anti-Vietnam, are in sympathy with the guys who really are visibly questioning why they’re there.
[Susan] Meiselas photographed both sides in Central America, and Central America is totally different because you weren’t embedded with people to whom you had an allegiance. You’re photographing the Sandinistas one day and the government people the next, and so there’s more distance in those pictures than in World War II where you were either photographing the good guys or the bad guys, as it were.
PDN: Most often we see war photographs in the context of the conflicts they depict. How do you think looking at these photographs grouped according to the stages of war, rather than chronologically by individual conflict, affects how we understand them?
AT: There was a lot of misunderstanding that we were trying to address. One of the most misunderstood pictures is Eddie Adams’s [photograph] of the execution in Vietnam. Adams has a quote in the book that this photograph ruined two lives: Adams is referring to [the executed soldier and] the general … because people think [the general is] doing a really horrible thing. Any military historian that we talked to said, “Look, it was the Tet offensive. There was no front line, there was no place to take that person, there were no soldiers to spare to take them anywhere.” That man is a soldier, he’s not a civilian, he had just killed the aide de camp and the entire family of that general. By putting a picture like that in a section called “Executions,” it gives [it], I think, the context that it should have—it’s not an act of inhumanity. We feel like we are not taking [the pictures in the exhibition] out of context, we’re just putting them in a different context. What we’re hoping it will do is broaden the discussion of this type of picture.
PDN: How did you decide on the organizational structure of the exhibition?
WM: We knew from the very beginning that neither one of us were interested in a chronological look at battles. Anne asked me to put together a list of categories that I thought war pictures would fall in to.
AT: That list of categories kept getting refined as we traveled and went to archives, and it was really helpful in finding things in archives: you need keywords to search. And then we had a panel here with military historians and curators and that really helped to shape the list. For instance we had a category called “Homefront,” and one of the military historians said, “Well, when the war comes to your door how are you going to make that distinction?” So that section became “Civilians.” So that’s how they evolved, and then it was a question of whether there were enough good pictures to support keeping a category. Is it something the photographers themselves kept coming back to?
PDN: Were there wartime subjects you were unable to find photographs of?
WM: We realized there were a couple of places where there were no pictures. And one of the primary examples is rape. There aren’t pictures of it, but it’s not because it didn’t happen.
AT: Interviews at World Press Photo and Visa pour l’Image in Perpignan, [France,] were hugely helpful to us. We always asked, “Did you ever think you were going to die?” We asked, “Why are you doing this?” And then we began to ask, “Did you ever see and not photograph a rape?” And several [photographers] said “Yes,” for two consistent reasons: One is the person doing the rape is armed and [the photographer is] not—and the person doing the rape doesn’t want to be photographed. And two, they felt it was adding to the violation of the woman if they made the picture. And they were guys mostly, and they felt like they should be stopping it, but of course they couldn’t stop it, so it was really a complicated issue.
PDN: Were there other examples of things you couldn’t find photographs of?
AT: Hand-to-hand combat. Never saw one. It’s not where a photographer belongs.
WM: We also started asking the question: Is there anything that you chose not to photograph? And the common answer was: the wounded.
PDN: You talk in your catalogue essay about the picture’s capacity to mentally engage viewers and evoke questions, and that being the paramount consideration for your decision-making about which pictures to exhibit. Do you think original news value frequently translates into longevity and historical value?
AT: Absolutely not, because people don’t remember the news from generation to generation. I think it has to operate on some human level—human recognition in ourselves of something that we can identify with on a mental/emotional level.
WM: We’ve always said that this is going to attract two major audiences: A military audience and an art-based audience.
AT: And general audience, I would say three.
WM: And the military audience has no idea that the photographer even exists. They don’t really care. And the art community is more interested in the photographer and the composition of the picture than how it places in history. I think the pictures that stand the test of time do both of those things.
AT: We’re saying that we looked at a million pictures; I think that’s defensible although we didn’t count, but we would just sit for days in archives and just look until they booted us out. Then we would compare notes and we would get Xeroxes, and those Xeroxes finally came down to 2,000 pictures in a database. We always had them categorized, but we really started putting all the Xeroxes in a category up on this board that we have, so when we look at a picture over and over and over again over a ten-year period, some of them just dropped out because we didn’t want to look at them anymore. They just didn’t hold our attention. And there were pictures that we would cut and then the next session we would say, “You know that picture that we cut? I’ve been thinking about it.” So it was like a picture called back and said, “You do not know me yet, I have more to tell you.”
For a few years now we’ve been having groups of people come up to our print room and putting up 20 or 30 images and then we’ve been asking people to pick their favorites. Absolutely every time, without fail, somebody would pick their favorite and then they would start talking about it but soon you would get to the personal reason they chose it. Something in that picture triggered something pivotal to them that revived and made them want to talk about.
WM: The title of Eugene Richards’s book says it the best: War is Personal. And unlike so many other art genres, this is something that’s touched everybody’s life in one way or another, so everyone who comes to it has a personal story.
AT: And it really impressed us—those ways that they’ve been affected maybe as much as three and four generations removed. So the concentric circle of who’s affected by war can span decades. Among the many things that I learned from this project, the longevity, the legacy of war impressed itself upon me enormously.
PDN: Was it a goal or did you feel a responsibility to, as much as you could, remove your own personal reactions from the selection process, or is that something you could conceivably do?
AT: We had no illusions that that was possible. The great thing about the three of us, and Natalie’s not here, is there’s 20 years’ difference in our ages, so we brought three very different eras. I was a Vietnam War protester and Natalie learned about the Vietnam War when she went to college and studied it. Will’s a photographer, I’m an art historian, Natalie’s an American Studies historian, so we brought three very different perspectives, so we had some pretty good arguments. And I think that helped any one personal feeling prevailing.
PDN: You chose essays by Larry Burrows [“One Ride with Yankee Papa 13”] and Todd Heisler [“Final Salute”] to be the only two representations of long-form photo essays in the show. Why did you choose them?
WM: So many people cite Larry Burrows as an influence and one of the reasons they decided to start taking pictures to begin with. That’s an obvious reason. But also it was one of the largest photo essays ever to be in LIFE magazine.
AT: They’re real picture essays. There’s a story in both. There’s a passage, there’s a complexity in both.
WM: And also both of their stories are really about the human experience. Larry Burrows chose to follow one person [a helicopter crew’s chief during a rescue operation], and that’s the same thing that Todd Heisler did [following a member of the Marine Corps honor guard who notified families of casualties]. So they have a similar launching point but different results.
PDN: How did the interviews you conducted with photographers influence how you understood the images?
WM: I can give you a specific example of why the interviews were very important. We interviewed Paolo Pellegrin in Perpignan, and I had looked through many, many pictures and his books, and one thing that I noticed in so many of his images is there is a large section of black. So I asked him, “Why the large areas of black?” He said without batting an eye, and I’m paraphrasing, “It’s the giant unknown void that is war.” It’s the unknown and he’s building it into his pictures.
PDN: In the digital age people question the images that they see more readily than in the past, maybe because they’re aware of how easily images can be manipulated. But the exhibition makes clear that image manipulation isn’t anything new. Do you feel like the public mistrust existed throughout the history of war photography?
WM: I absolutely believe that a fake in the 1930s, very few people saw … as a fake. Whereas today, people question every photograph that comes on the Internet, partially I think, because they think it’s fun. The photographs by Wesley David Archer, “Death in the Air,” they’re of aerial combat by biplanes. They’re extraordinary pictures, but they’re clearly fake. But everybody wanted to believe so they overlooked it.
AT: I think what you want to see is a huge factor. They believed the Archer [photographs] were true because they wanted to see a biplane dogfight. People questioning whether something is a fake, maybe they want to believe it’s not true.
PDN: It seems conflict photography has become more subjective, and the photographer’s point of view is more evident now. Do you think that shift is recent, or have there always been photographers creating clearly subjective images?
AT: I think subjectivity starts with W. Eugene Smith. The way Gene framed them and the way Gene printed them and the darkness of them.
WM: I would almost argue that with Roger Fenton’s portraits.
AT: We’ve become huge fans of Roger Fenton’s portraits.
WM: They’re still being mimicked today.
AT: I think the better the photographer, whatever age he was in, the more subjective the pictures, because the best photographers put their wealth of experience and perceptions into their work.
WM: Going through the archives at [the Marine Corps headquarters at] Quantico, Anne got to one person, and it was a Marine photographer and he was really talented. He didn’t end up in the show but he was really talented.
AT: We got to where we’d hold up a picture and we’d look at it and then we’d flip it over and it would be him. And he was just a guy in the Marines who was photographing, but he just had an eye, a style, whatever you want to call it, whatever creates that thing that makes you know its a Burrows or a Capa or a Duncan or you know. And that’s subjective.
AT: I’m curious: Do you think my essays were subjective?
PDN: I think you had an opinion about the way war photography has been considered, and about the fact that we haven’t spent as much time with it as we should.
AT: I tried to not be pro or against war, I think the only essay that made the military historians uncomfortable was the civilian one. I felt the personal heat inside of myself writing that essay. That was a hard essay to write because there just wasn’t a proper reason for those people to experience what those people experienced.
WM: That’s one reason why we pulled civilian and children out and they have their own categories. They don’t quite fit into the normal rules.
AT: Many more civilians have died in Iraq and Afghanistan than soldiers.
WM: I think in any war more civilians died.
PDN: What major factors are influencing the creation, distribution and consumption of war photographs today?
AT: You’ve got the military, who are getting more and more sophisticated about the kind of pictures they want made and how to use them. That has been a big change. The military, who fought the inclusion of photographers at first, now embraces them, promotes them, and knows how to distribute and use those pictures to their point of view. You’ve got commercial guys that can’t make a living, which is going to make it harder and harder for the next generation of commercial photographers to make a living. And then you’ve got the burgeoning private-sector photographs, which the military can’t control as much as they are trying [to]. They just can’t control it, it’s a ball rolling down the hill that is just too big and too fast.
One of the things that I didn’t go into in the introduction [to the catalogue] is the loss of the editor: somebody looking at the pictures and figuring [out] which pictures are best or how they flow or what text goes with them. On the one hand the photographers are happy about that, but on the other I think it is a loss. A great editor like John Morris or the guys at LIFE or somebody like [AP’s] Horst Faas, who handpicked so many people and encouraged them and nourished them, that’s what gets lost with this lack of a commercial outlet for the photographs. And I wrote in the introduction about how the Internet is so amorphous, nothing can rise to the top, or it’s weird how something rises to the top. I don’t know. I’m having trouble imagining that world, the world that’s coming, but I know it’s going to be different.
PDN: In the catalogue you define the three types of war photographers as official [working for the military], commercial [working for the media] and private [citizen journalists]. Talking about the private war photographers, obviously the pictures that they take during the digital age are being seen so much more now than they ever have been in the past. I was curious how the influx of private photographs has changed what we see from a conflict?
AT: Two things are happening: One, the private is getting out there, and two, the commercial guys are losing their market. TIME and Newsweek aren’t paying for anybody to take trips. They aren’t setting anyone up. And so they’re having real trouble earning a living. If it weren’t for the NGOs, it would be even harder. And the platform, not everybody reads TIME like everybody read LIFE magazine. When I was a kid you knew what day LIFE magazine was going to get delivered. You don’t have to be commercial to get your pictures seen and so the meaning of commercial photographer I think is changing.
I think it’s about a new kind of celebrity. The new coinage is “hits.” How many hits did your pictures get? And people talk in this language now, and that’s a whole new language. Tim Page said that nothing was better than putting the LIFE magazine under your arm that had your pictures in it and strutting into the photographer’s bar in Saigon. That’s just not an experience anymore. It’s all how many people have seen it and how fast and over time. And as I said in the foreword, news even on the Internet changes because it’s not whether it’s still news, it’s when did you discover it. It’s just as new to the person who saw it six months later because it’s still on the Internet. It’s not [lining] the birdcage anymore [like newsprint], it’s still on the Internet, so all those definitions are changing. In a way the [exhibition] is coming at the end of an era.
PDN: What do you hope pros are going to get from seeing the show or the catalogue?
AT: Well I hope they feel that we’ve honored them. I hope they’re not too upset that it’s this picture and not that picture in the show. I know certain photographers who are not happy about the choices. I hope that it brings them new audiences. I hope that it brings additional serious consideration to what they do.
PDN: What about your hopes for experiences of the general public?
WM: When I’ve been showing very knowledgeable people, I’ll come back from World Press or something like that and I’ll have the World Press catalogue and will look through it and they’re response most of the time is, “How come I’ve never seen these pictures?” And that is why I am glad that this exhibition even exists, not necessarily what I hope they’ll get out of it.
“War/Photography” will be on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston from November 11, 2012, to February 3, 2013; at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles from March 23 to June 2, 2013; at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, from June 29 to September 29, 2013; and at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City from November 8, 2013, to February 2, 2014. The exhibition catalogue, published by Yale University Press, will also be available.
"War/Photography" Photo Gallery