Theater of Combat

With images of carnage a constant presence, artists and photojournalists are looking at war and devastation from a studied distance.

Sarah Pickering photographed the explosion in Land Mine, 2005, on a military base in southeast England.


Wars are fought with pictures and media spin as well as cluster bombs and IEDs, so it’s no surprise that as the world enters the sixth year of the “war on terror,” photographers everywhere—on the front lines and at home on their computers—have been drawn into battle. With the cost of producing images negligible, and the delivery faster than ever before, anyone can join the fray. Al Qaeda now transmits its message of worldwide jihad through videos rather than armed militants, and events in Iraq since the 2003 invasion have proven just how easily a camera can level any barricade of government rhetoric. The May 2004 broadcast of men and boys in Fallujah laughing and dancing as the charred, mutilated bodies of two dead U.S. civilian contractors hung from a local bridge revealed that, contrary to official predictions, Americans were not being welcomed everywhere as liberators. Nothing is so horrifying anymore that people won’t take pictures of it and share them online. Snuff films of journalists, civilian aid workers, and of Saddam Hussein himself being executed appear on TV and the Internet. The American prison guards who chronicled their torturing of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib traded the incriminating pictures with their friends. “War porn” Web sites are a novel feature of the so-called YouTube war, a reaction perhaps to the media ban on any visual representation of death, even a draped coffin.

With pain and carnage only a few mouse clicks away, many artists have responded by stepping back from the action to study at a cool remove the no less expressive theater of combat that includes everything from the media conventions for packaging war on television to the art history of ravaged landscapes.

Karen Irvine, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, believes young artists have reacted against the stridency that tends to characterize most war, and especially antiwar, photography. Her recent “War Fare” show presented work by Ashley Gilbertson, Sean Hemmerle, Sarah Pickering, Sean Snyder, and veteran activist Martha Rosler—a gathering of the new, chilly antiwar irony along with some old-school anger. Pickering, with her large-format camera, for example, portrays the gorgeously controlled explosions used in military training exercises, sales demonstrations, and movie battle scenes, whereas Hemmerle, a former U.S. Army sergeant, combines images of landscapes he photographed in Iraq and Afghanistan with Internet “grabs” of George W. Bush and the United States Central Command.

“Most younger artists are scared to be too blatant,” Irvine notes. “Students are certainly familiar with the Vietnam legacy. They share the same frustration and anger about the present situation. But they’re more interested in asking questions. Where does the information they receive come from, and how reliable is it? They want to force viewers to reach their own conclusions rather than tell them what to think.”

Simon Norfolk (born in Nigeria and now a British citizen) earns his income as a photojournalist but has found increasing support among museums and galleries, including Bonni Benrubi in New York, for his quiet pictures of places torn apart by armed conflict. He has done extended essays on Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Liberia, and his 2003 series “Scenes from a Liberated Iraq” was recently exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In these mostly uninhabited landscapes, shot with a medium-format camera, Norfolk views the destruction of bombed palaces and ministries through the long lens of history. Scenes are bathed in the golden light of the region, where armies have bloodied each other for millennia. Horror is in the details. A brick wall sprayed a rusty red marks the spot where ammunition from an Iraqi tank blown up by American troops exploded, killing Baghdad children who were watching the burning vehicle. A grove of date palms against a cloudless sky once served as an Iraqi artillery position, indicated by the pile of spent shells still littering the ground.

“Anyone interested in the effects of war instantly becomes an expert in ruins,” Norfolk has written on his Web site (www.simonnorfolk.com). In his glowing panorama of Buchanan, Liberia, the wood ties that once held together the railroad tracks are missing, the result of looting during the country’s long civil wars, which have left 200,000 dead and displaced hundreds of thousands more. Conscious of the pictorial traditions by which the world’s destitute are treated on television and in newspapers, Norfolk depicts the victims’ plight indirectly, by portraying the homes they have lost or, in the case of a dead Iraqi soldier, the shaving brush, toothbrush, and toothpaste he once carried.

An-My Líª (born in Vietnam and now an American citizen) has an even more distanced perspective on war. Her acclaimed 1999–2002 black-and-white photographs of U.S. marines training for Iraq in the desert of Twentynine Palms, California, exhibited at Murray Guy in New York, have the forlorn delicacy of photographer Timothy O’Sullivan’s 19th-century western landscapes. The artifice of the war exercises and the immensity of the sky and barren ground that swallows up the figures make everything look unreal and even insignificant. Líª’s 2005 two-screen video of young and fidgety soldiers in this setting, shown during last year’s “Ecotopia” exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York, remains one of the most poignant studies to emerge from the Iraq adventure. It reveals how many of those recruited to fight are still so young that they are, in a sense, “playing soldier.” Líª’s midcareer retrospective, which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Photography and heads this summer to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, underscores her continuing investigation of war and memory, as well as her resistance to the conventions of photojournalism. The large 5-by-7 camera and her preferred palette of grays allow her, as she told writer Hilton Als in her Aperture monograph, to be “one step removed” from the world and to “blur fact and fiction.”

With their war photographs, the French photojournalists Sophie Ristelhueber and Luc Delahaye have expressed dissatisfaction with their profession. Since 1982 Ristelhueber has worked on assignment throughout the Balkans and the Middle East, but the results—as seen in her 1992 book Fait: Kuwait and in Details of the World, the catalogue for her 2001 retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston—look nothing like a typical news magazine photo-essay. She is a landscape photographer who finds conflict, not comfort, as she looks down at her feet or scans the horizon. Her page spreads and installations are edited to accent the fragmentary and inconclusive. Veering unpredictably between color and black and white, Ristelhueber uses her camera in the manner of a triage doctor, with each photograph serving to bandage a section of blasted earth that will never again be quite whole.

In her enormous triptych Iraq, taken in 2001 and exhibited in “Ecotopia,” scorched palm trees lie uprooted like shattered cannons or, as Ristelhueber says in the catalogue, “the remains of a defeated army.” Even many of her aerial shots—views in which the chaos of the world should achieve an Olympian clarity—look like n
onsensical puzzles.

Delahaye is less successfully positioned outside the traditional boundaries of war photography. Although he officially declared himself an artist, rather than primarily a photojournalist, he is a former member of Magnum Photos, and he still shoots pictures for Newsweek. He will have a show at the J. Paul Getty Museum July 31 through November 25. Delahaye’s subject matter—politicians, the wretched of the earth, dead bodies—is recognizably journalistic, even if hard-edged. Taliban (2001), his monumental 8-by-4-foot portrait of a slain soldier lying in an Afghanistan ditch, was made with a Technorama, a panoramic camera with film negatives 12 times the size produced by Delahaye’s usual camera. This was shown mounted on Plexiglas for his 2004 show at Ricco Maresca Gallery in New York. The picture’s scale and horizontality are clearly intended to bring it into the realm of history painting, an area that Jeff Wall has also engaged. By enlisting a nameless but actual corpse instead of employing actors and costume designers—as Wall did in his elaborate 1992 tableau from the Afghan-Soviet war, Dead Troops Talk—Delahaye may have crossed the border of good taste. But he has also issued an esthetic challenge: whose photograph offers the more compelling antiwar statement, the studio director’s or the journalist’s?

Far more modestly, the Irish photographer Paul Seawright and the American Ed Grazda have produced extended essays about Afghanistan. Seawright’s 2003 book, Hidden, a commission from the Imperial War Museum in Great Britain, is a study of an inhospitable place. Artillery casings on a dirt road and smoke over a hill describe a country under siege. But soldiers are nowhere to be seen, a deliberate strategy by the artist, whose washy color is both seductive and deceitful. What is hidden can also ambush and kill you.

Grazda has been photographing in Pakistan and Afghanistan since 1980. His Afghanistan Diary: 1992–2000 (powerHouse) is a record of the people just before the U.S.-led invasion—the years after the mujahideen crushed the Soviets and when the Taliban ruled. The devastation of the long civil war is hard to miss in his pictures. But while most photojournalists jump into a war zone for a few days or weeks and then move on, Grazda has developed a network of local relationships. The ongoing series on his friends in Pakistan, who have more than once crossed the border to fight, is unlike any other photo-essay produced during this Afghanistan conflict.

World War II continues to ensorcell artists who weren’t alive when it ended. Andrew Freeman’s 2001–5 series on the architecture of the Japanese internment camps in California was exhibited recently at LACMA. After extensive archival research, Freeman traced the way the camps’ nondescript buildings have been cleansed of their shameful history, recycled, and relocated throughout the state in the form of art galleries and Little League clubhouses.

The Boston-based photographer Stephan Jacobs has done a similar examination of the Nazi military structures that still dot northern German cities. Erected within existing park systems, they have, in the decades since the war, become hemmed in by suburban growth. “The concrete on many of these bunkers is so thick they can’t be easily demolished now without taking down adjacent buildings,” his project notes state. Incorporated into residential neighborhoods, vines and graffiti spread across the fortress walls. These haunted relics now serve as youth centers and sound studios.

A committed World War II reenactor who belongs to a pretend German panzer unit based in Massachusetts, Jacobs has for some ten years recorded the soldiers’ mock exploits with a large-format camera, in period black and white. (A selection was shown in 2005 at Gallery Kayafas in Boston.) Like Líª, who has participated in Vietnam “war games,” Jacobs finds the contrived realism of such scenarios to be a heady experience that casts doubt on the quest for authenticity, on the truth status of “documentary,” and on any well-intended re-creation of the past.

Barry Frydlender, whose large-scale photographs will be exhibited in a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, opening May 16, and who had his second New York show at Andrea Meislin last spring, is one of the few artists now concerned with images of war to have carried a gun in a real army. Like many younger photographers, however, he stalks the topic obliquely, as if the value of any direct confrontation with the audience—as in the engaged art style that prevailed during Vietnam—has been exhausted.

Each of Frydlender’s pictures represents what appears to be a single scene in his native Israel—a peace demonstration, say, or the withdrawal of troops from Gaza. But the shots are actually composed of multiple images taken seconds or months apart and stitched into a deceptive continuity using Photoshop. Although his photographs indirectly address the question of space—who owns the land is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian quarrel—they are also about time: how our illusory notions of it are shaped by the camera.

The pervasiveness of military symbolism, and its uncritical adoption in domestic life, was a theme of the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn’s sprawling installation, Utopia, Utopia = One World, One War, One Army, One Dress. At the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in late 2005 and then at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco, Hirschhorn and his team packed rooms floor to ceiling with photo reproductions from newspapers, magazines, book jackets, and clothing catalogues, all bearing a camouflage motif. (Even the adhesive tape tying together this messy warren was a two-tone green and brown.) On everything from barbecue aprons to diapers, Hirschhorn showed that today it has become patriotic to dress like a soldier, even if you aren’t putting your life on the line.

Richard B. Woodward is an arts critic based in New York.

© 2019 ARTnews Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved. ARTnews® is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

[add_to_cart item="106-03" showprice="no"]