MANCHESTER, N.H. — Television made Vietnam “the living-room war”: the first military conflict seen in people’s homes. That decade-long stream of images on the nightly news became its own environment, a visual texture, all dank greens and muddy browns. The flood of pixels was at once barely mediated (hence its enormous political impact) and all but undifferentiated (hence its capacity to numb).
For mediation and differentiation, one looked elsewhere, to the discrete images provided by such gifted photojournalists as Larry Burrows, Don McCullin, Eddie Adams, Horst Faas, Henri Huet, Nick Ut. All of them have photographs in “Visual Dispatches From the Vietnam War.” It runs at the Currier Museum of Art through Nov. 11, Veterans Day.
Half a century later, it’s their work that conveys an unmatched reality and poignance. There have been superb books about the war (Michael Herr’s “Dispatches,” Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”), and at least one great movie (“Apocalypse Now”). But both prose and film have emphasized the war’s unreality: its nightmare surrealism. Nothing continues to bring home the awful actuality of Vietnam as the work of these photojournalists does.
War photography has a long and potent history, running from the Crimean War, where Roger Fenton first practiced it, to right now, in Afghanistan and Syria. “Visual Dispatches” helps us appreciate what a pivotal moment Vietnam was in that history.
It wasn’t just the quality of the work — which was often extraordinary, comparable to that of such predecessors as Robert Capa and David Douglas Duncan. To take just one example, McCullin’s “Shell-Shocked Marine, Hue, Vietnam” stands alongside Duncan’s unforgettable portraits of Marines from the Chosin Reservoir. It’s also the way Vietnam saw the culmination of war photography as a tradition. Advances in camera and communications technology (the latter especially) gave war photographers a freedom of movement, and their images a rapidity of distribution, beyond anything Capa could have imagined.
Conversely, the inundation of images back then was nothing like now, living as we do in a world of hundreds of channels and the World Wide Web, the one channel to rule them all. Pictures still mattered — and they mattered, in part, because they were largely the province of gifted professionals. Tens of thousands of US soldiers owned Instamatics and Swingers, but how many amateur photographs from Vietnam do we remember? Contrast that with the Iraq war, where the most indelible images were all taken by soldiers, at Abu Ghraib. Not the least effect of the phenomenal democratization of photography has been to erode the impact of photojournalism and diminish its role.
The 32 photographs in the show make plain just how gifted these professionals were. That sounds like a piddling number, yet these images have a forcefulness and sweep that help “Visual Dispatches” feel much larger than its actual size.
The show includes what are surely the three most famous images from the war: Malcolm Browne’s 1963 photograph of the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk; Eddie Adams’s “Saigon Execution,” from 1968; and Ut’s picture of a young girl who’d been hit in a napalm strike. All three have an accompanying video with the photographer discussing the image. (The democratization was already underway: Browne, at the start of what would be a distinguished reporting career, had a camera, and no one else at the scene did, so he took pictures.) Further augmenting the show are display cases with vintage copies of magazines and typescripts of news dispatches from the war.
At the end of the exhibition is a place for visitors who are Vietnam veterans to show their own photographs from the war and another for museumgoers to offer their responses. This is fitting, as well as a reminder that “Visual Dispatches” is simultaneously about history and morality as well as art. These photographs are at once documentary evidence, indictment, and tribute. They record acts of compassion as well as cruelty. (We learn from the video that as soon as Ut took his photograph, he covered the girl in his poncho and drove her to a medical facility and made sure she received treatment.)
The tricky word here isn’t history or even morality, but art. Can images of horrific violence and death lend themselves to beauty? Certainly, there’s great artistry here. Even shooting on the fly, their own lives often at risk, these photojournalists again and again demonstrate extraordinary aesthetic instincts. The simplicity and tact of Rick Merron’s “US Troops Carry the Body of a Fellow Soldier, February 1966” place it in the tradition of enduring funerary art. The larger question is one of trivialization. Yes, art is long and life short, but does speaking in terms of art diminish the suffering in the lives these images show?
Herr, toward the end of “Dispatches” (the show’s title echoes his), quotes his friend the daredevil English photographer Tim Page. It’s 1969, and Page has been asked to do a book whose purpose would be to “take the glamour out of war.” The request flabbergasts him. “It’s like trying to take the glamour out of sex, trying to take the glamour out of the Rolling Stones,” Page says. “I mean, you know that, it just can’t be done!” Looking at these images, you can see what Page meant.
One of the things that set apart Vietnam from other conflicts was the central role of helicopters. They appear again and again in “Visual Dispatches,” the way angels do in illuminated manuscripts — or devils do. As ugly as bugs, as beautiful as stallions, they are visually unique and formally beautiful as chargers agallop are or ships of the line under full sail. In Faas’s “Helicopters in a Landing Zone, March 1, 1965” the aircraft look like nothing so much as parents nurturing their young. In Huet’s “Army Helicopters Refueling, January 1966” it’s the humans who seem alien, and the machines living creatures.
In Burrows’s “Ammunition Airlift, Operation Pegasus, April 1968,” what you first notice is the red flag in the foreground. What you can’t forget is the CH-54 Flying Crane helicopter in the background. Deus ex machina? Deus as machina. In Burrows’s justly famed photo essay “One Ride With Yankee Papa 13,” which ran in Life magazine in 1965, the helicopter is seen from within. The best-known photograph, “Farley Shouts . . .,” shows how the inside of a helicopter is no different from — is as universal as — any place where death is. All uniqueness is gone. These dispatches are from the Vietnam War, yes. So much of their interest and value have to do with that specificity of time and place. So much more has to do with their being dispatches from an arc of human experience that reaches back beyond Homer — and ahead to Judgment Day?