War and peace

In 2002, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) acquired a print of the famous photograph of the American flag being raised by US troops during the battle of Iwo Jima on February 23 1945.

It was taken by the American photographer Joe Rosenthal and later used as the basis for the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, dedicated to every member of the US Marine Corps who has died defending his or her country since 1775. This image was also a catalyst for the museum’s photography curator, Anne Wilkes Tucker, to embark with her colleagues on a mammoth project to investigate the ways in which war and photography have been connected since photography’s first decade in the 1840s.

This weekend, on Veterans’ Day in the US and Armistice Day in Europe and the Commonwealth countries, the MFAH will open one of the most important surveys of photography and war ever undertaken. Its curators have reviewed more than a million photographs, searching the archives of news agencies, military libraries, museums, photographers’ files and the albums and collections of retired services personnel, and consulting historians from institutions including Harvard, the Imperial War Museum in London, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne and University College, Dublin. The exhibition includes works from 280 photographers in 28 countries, from the Mexican-American War in 1846-48 to the civil war in Libya in 2011. Some of the pictures have never been published before; others, like the Iwo Jima picture, have been repeatedly published long after the war they relate to was over.

Choosing the images

By Anne Wilkes Tucker, curator

The photographs came first in the process of shaping this project. More than two thousand images were evaluated in detail before the final edit. Each picture’s capacity to mentally and emotionally engage viewers’ interests and to provoke questions was always paramount. Who made the picture, for what purpose, and from what point of view? When and where? What is the purported subject? What thoughts and feelings does it evoke?

'Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima', February 23 1945. Gelatin silver print

Even the best pictures cannot answer those questions without accompanying captions and other texts, but even with accompanying texts, the answers are likely to vary among viewers and according to when, where, why, and how the picture was published or displayed and to the text that accompanies it. As Susan Sontag wrote, in discussing how the same photograph could be used by both sides of an argument depending on its interpretation: “All photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions.”

In the digital age, it is understood that photographs and other forms of information are malleable and are often disseminated to manipulate public opinion as much as to inform. A picture does not change, but how it is perceived changes. We “see” with our brains, and what we think we see is subject to the influence of our political, religious, cultural and personal beliefs and experiences. Often what we see depends on what we expected or sought to find.

Photographs may no longer be accepted as “truths” delivered by objective and transparent messengers, but they can nevertheless preserve something that once existed. This project proposes that what was perceived and captured by photographers has residual value for hundreds of purposes, including instruction, keepsake, historical marker, publicity, reconnaissance, criminal evidence and as a catalyst to further inquiry and understanding of armed conflicts and their aftermaths.

View photo gallery: http://on.ft.com/ZfttVg

‘WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath’, runs November 11 to February 3 2013 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, then travels to further US venues, www.mfah.org. The above is an edited extract from the catalogue, available from Yale University Press in December

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