War/Photography, Brooklyn Museum, New York – review

Think of war photographs and an elite corps of images infiltrates your mind: the South Vietnamese general firing a bullet into the brain of a handcuffed Viet Cong captive; the hoisting of the American flag on Iwo Jima; the blurry pandemonium of troops wading ashore on D-day. Each of those makes a cameo appearance in War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, a grim and grisly but surprisingly uplifting exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. The show reaches far beyond photojournalism to include pictures taken by anonymous amateurs, commercial portraitists, soldiers and artists. It casts a lingering shadow long after you’ve left the darkened galleries and wandered into the peaceful New York afternoon.

Instead of focusing on one photographer or a single conflict, the survey ranges over six continents and 165 years, from the Mexican-American war in 1846 through to the civil war in Libya in 2011. Anne Tucker, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (where the show originated), traces a series of developmental stages: training, combat, the home front, homecoming and so on. We see battlefields and blasted cities, but we also visit the homes of dead and traumatised veterans, and conclude with memorials and tokens of remembrance. The approach makes clear that, regardless of who’s fighting whom or why or where, all wars follow a similar narrative arc.

Josiah Barnes’s group portrait of young Australians shipping off to the first world war encapsulates the deluded run-up. Some of the boys are shrouded by the blurry tails of unfurling streamers; the rest, ruddy and unselfconscious, smile with blithe confidence. At the far end of the trajectory is Lee Miller’s disquieting mugshot of a beaten and bleeding guard at Buchenwald concentration camp, face shattered and eyes frozen wide in the whiteness of the flash. The photograph withholds judgment; the identifying caption suggests that he deserves his rough treatment but avoids saying who administered it. Another camp photo, by US Sergeant Harry Oakes, doesn’t shrink from documenting retribution more explicitly: an SS guard, on orders from the liberating armies, hauls emaciated corpses to a mass grave.

Context confers meaning. An image untethered from its circumstances can take on overtones the photographer didn’t intend. The Associated Press’s Eddie Adams always regretted his indelible 1968 shot, “Police Commander Nguyen Ngoc Loan killing Viet Cong operative Nguyen Van Lem”. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photo seemed to incarnate the depraved quagmire of Vietnam, but to Adams it represented the inadvertent power to distort. “The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera,” he wrote in 1998. “Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?’” Adams later apologised to the general and his family for destroying his reputation.

The show’s engrossing catalogue delves into journalists’ fears that they shape events simply by documenting them. One emblem of the Vietnam era was Malcolm Browne’s 1963 shot of a monk setting himself on fire to protest against the anti-Buddhist policies of Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime. The monks had alerted Browne to be ready for a spectacular action, an event that would command world attention if only he was there to record it. He showed up at the appointed time, and watched the whole ritual – the pouring of the gasoline and the lighting of the match. Later, he, too, wondered what might have happened had he stayed away.

“I’ve had this searing feeling of perhaps having in some way contributed to the death of a kind old man,” Browne later said. “Because that was the whole point – to produce theatre of the horrible so striking that the reasons for the demonstrations would become apparent to everyone.”

Browne’s logic implicates viewers as well. We rally to the tragedy in the lens, and in some way that makes us dupes or, worse, enablers. War photographers believe their work is necessary – “that there’s a photo that’s worth dying for”, as David Leeson put it – an image powerful enough to end war. We need to know what happened so we can confront the face of suffering and let empathy flow. But even in the midst of these noble motives, there are ethical pitfalls and potential complicities everywhere you look.

Perhaps the most dangerous trap is beauty. Luc Delahaye and Seamus Murphy both saw the same shoeless corpse of a Taliban fighter on a road outside Kabul in 2001, and each transmuted it into art. In Murphy’s version, the man bleeds into a desolate landscape unwinding toward the distant mountains. The dead body is confined to a small corner of the frame, and its twisted shape rhymes with the zigzagging road and mottled sky: death preserved as pattern.

Delahaye’s picture has a more sacramental monumentality. The four-by-eight foot colour print has the dimensions of an altarpiece and the body stretches out along the horizontal axis, like Christ at his entombment. It’s a study in lavender and tan, the whole frame darkly twilit except for one bright sparkle of fresh blood at the man’s throat. The drama is so intense that it practically requires a soundtrack – the Mozart Requiem, perhaps.

It’s not surprising that as journalists and bystanders observe civilisation crumbling, they should fall back on the comforts of convention. The most widely distributed – and therefore most significant – images are often those that speak the language of craft, composition, lighting and line. On the western front during the first world war, a German sharpshooter hung haphazardly tangled in a tree, and the French magazine Le Miroir put him on its cover like a hunting trophy. If a century later that scene has transcended propaganda, it’s surely because in death the officer’s body assumed a pose out of Goya’s “Disasters of War”. Maybe what war photography does best is not report unblinkingly, but notice the beauty threaded through violence, or fit unfathomable horrors into a template we already carry in our minds.

Until February 2, brooklynmuseum.org

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