War/Photography at The Corcoran Gallery of Art

War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and It’s Aftermath

June 29, 2013–September 29, 2013

The Corcoran Gallery of Art

by Tim Ruane

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A Liberian militia commander loyal to the government exulted after firing a rocket-propelled grenade at rebel forces in Monrovia. July 2003. Image credit: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Who would make art out of war?  This is the question one asks while walking through rooms of Washington D.C.’s  Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the answer is more than 185 brilliant photographers whose works display in “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath,” the Corcoran’s monument of not just history, but also art.

The Corcoran shows almost 300 war photographs in this exhibit, and many not only record the human experience at its most tragic, they also please in a way that only high art can.   There is a picture of battleships in beautiful symmetry at sea.  There is a Robert Capa of two women, Allied ambulance drivers, leaning on their vehicle, while relaxing and knitting.  There are pictures of dolls mocking with their absurdity Hitler and his Germany.  These shots entertain, rather than shock and decry the barbarity and senselessness of man’s greatest and perpetual folly.

A photograph by Chris Hondros taken during a violent conflict in Liberia in 2003 is one of these.  It is a shot of a soldier leaping in the air.  The picture, perfectly balanced, might be one of a high-hurdler in the Olympics.  It is not until the viewer looks closely that he/she sees that the photograph is not a shot of an athlete at all.  It is a picture of a warrior holding a rifle in the air over his right shoulder.

A shot by Don McCullin is another.  It is a portrait, more powerful than any politician or king, of a U.S. soldier in Hue Vietnam in 1968.   The soldier is shell shocked.  The photograph hangs defiantly in your face, but it is also clearly a master work of art.  It seers and captures character like portraits by Paul Strand.  It succeeds with bold tones and contrasts like so many shots by Bill Brandt.

There are, of course, photographs that horrify and do what an ancient said of war: “beget more evil than it kills.”  Nina Bernman’s 2006 wedding portrait—a bride and her groom in his boldly colored U.S. Marine uniform—screams of the cruelty of war and its evil.   The bride is gorgeous but distressed, and the reason for her discomfort glares.  Her groom is pathetically deformed.   His head is a gory blob, melted by battle, as if it were the drippings of the wax of a heated candle.

A Kenneth Jarecke photograph of a scene during the U.S. invasion of Iraq is another example of the evil of war.  This picture of a corpse is so horrid that it shocked and froze even the Associated Press, which refused to publish it in America.  Fortunately, gutty editors in England got the picture out to the world.  It is a photograph of a man incinerated by bombs.  He looks like a mannequin that has been over-cooked, fried and burned.  The picture displays a man’s head, shoulders and arms, which look like coarse chunks of discarded charcoal.

In 1916, William Butler Yeats, in a poem on Irish revolutionaries who were executed after the Easter Rising, writes that a “terrible beauty has been born again.”   A terrible beauty has been born again, too, at the Corcoran.  “War/Photography” proves that war is mad, but it shows, too, that war can be made into something superior—classic works of art.

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