“WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath” opens in Houston

Alfred Palmer, American (1906–1993), Women aircraft workers finishing transparent bomber noses for fighter and reconnaissance planes at Douglas Aircraft Co. Plant in Long Beach, California, 1942, gelatin silver print, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Will Michels in honor of his sister, Genevieve Namerow.

HOUSTON, TX.- On November 11, 2012, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, debuts an unprecedented exhibition exploring the experience of war through the eyes of photographers. WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath features nearly 500 objects, including photographs, books, magazines, albums and photographic equipment. The photographs were made by more than 280 photographers, from 28 nations, who have covered conflict on six continents over 165 years, from the Mexican-American War of 1846 through present-day conflicts.

WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath has been organized by the MFAH curatorial team of Anne Wilkes Tucker, the Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography; Will Michels, photographer and Glassell School of Art instructor; and Natalie Zelt, curatorial assistant for photography. After the MFAH premiere, which runs November 11, 2012, to February 3, 2013, the presentation travels nationally to the Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and the Brooklyn Museum. Accompanying the exhibition is a 600-page catalogue of the same title, with interviews and essays by the curators, contributing scholars and military historians.

The exhibition takes a critical look at the relationship between war and photography, exploring what types of photographs are, and are not, made, and by whom and for whom. Rather than a chronological survey of wartime photographs or a survey of “greatest hits,” the exhibition presents types of photographs repeatedly made during the many phases of war—regardless of the size or cause of the conflict, the photographers’ or subjects’ culture or the era in which the pictures were recorded. The images in the exhibition are organized according to the progression of war: from the acts that instigate armed conflict, to “the fight,” to victory and defeat, and images that memorialize a war, its combatants and its victims. Both iconic images and previously unknown images are on view, taken by military photographers, commercial photographers (portrait and photojournalist), amateurs and artists.

“WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY promises to be another pioneering exhibition, following other landmark MFAH photography exhibitions such as Czech Modernism: 1900–1945 (1989) and The History of Japanese Photography (2003),” said Gary Tinterow, MFAH director. “Anne Tucker, along with her co-curators, Natalie Zelt and Will Michels, has spent a decade preparing this unprecedented exploration of the complex and profound relationship between war and photography.”

“Photographs serve the public as a collective memory of the experience of war, yet most presentations that deal with the material are organized chronologically,” commented Tucker. “We believe WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY is unique in its scope, exploring conflict and its consequences across the globe and over time, analyzing this complex and unrelenting phenomenon.”

The earliest work in the exhibition is from 1847, taken from the first photographed conflict: the Mexican-American War. Other early examples include photographs from the Crimean War, such as Roger Fenton’s iconic The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) and Felice Beato’s photograph of the devastated interior of Fort Taku in China during the Second Opium War (1860). Among the most recent images is a 2008 photograph of the Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the remote Korengal Valley of Eastern Afghanistan by Tim Hetherington, who was killed in April 2011 while covering the civil war in Libya. Also represented with two photographs in the exhibition is Chris Hondros, who was killed with Hetherington. While the exhibition is organized according to the phases of war, portraits of servicemen, military and political leaders and civilians are a consistent presence throughout, including Yousuf Karsh’s classic 1941 image of Winston Churchill, and the Marlboro Marine (2004), taken by embedded Los Angeles Times photographer Luis Sinco of soldier James Blake Miller after an assault in Fallujah, Iraq. Sinco’s image was published worldwide on the cover of 150 publications and became a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

The exhibition was initiated in 2002, when the MFAH acquired what is purported to be the first print made from Joe Rosenthal’s negative of Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima (1945). From this initial acquisition, the curators decided to organize an exhibition that would focus on war photography as a genre. During the evolution of the project, the museum acquired more than a third of the prints in the exhibition. The curators reviewed more than one million photographs in 17 countries, locating pictures in archives, military libraries, museums, private collections, historical societies and news agencies; in the personal files of photographers and service personnel; and at two annual photojournalism festivals: World Press Photo (Amsterdam) and Visa pour l’Image (Perpignan, France). The curators based their appraisals on the clarity of the photographers’ observation and capacity to make memorable and striking pictures that have lasting relevance. The pictures were recorded by some of the most celebrated conflict photographers, as well as by many who remain anonymous. Almost every photographic process is included, ranging from daguerreotypes to inkjet prints, digital captures and cell-phone shots.

The MFAH curators have been joined on this ambitious project by an international advisory committee: Hilary V. Roberts, head of collections management for the Imperial War Museum Photograph Archive in London; John Stauffer, chair of the history of American civilization and professor of English and African and african american studies at Harvard University; William Sheldon Dudley, former director of naval history for the U.S. Navy Department and retired director of the Naval Historical Center, Washington, DC; Jeffrey William Hunt, director of the Texas Military Forces Museum in Austin; Xavia Karner, chair of the Sociology Department at the University of Houston; and Paul J. Matthews, founder and chairman of the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston. Additionally, Bodo von Dewitz, senior chief curator of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany; and Liam Kennedy, director of the Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin, contributed essays to the catalogue.