NEW YORK — Modern warfare, as currently understood, began in 1864. William Tecumseh Sherman marched to the sea, laying waste a 50-mile-wide swath of Georgia, and Union and Confederate forces dug themselves in for extended trench warfare around Petersburg, Va.
Another key element had already been in existence for a quarter-century: photography. The camera did as much to make war modern as any weapon or strategy did. The French Revolution, with its citizen armies, had democratized how war was waged. Photography democratized how it was experienced. Even if only as two-dimensional simulacra, war could now be seen with a specificity, directness, and realism that not even the finest painting or print could previously offer.
The relationship between camera and combat is almost as old as photography. “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath” indicates how profoundly each has affected the other. The show runs at the Brooklyn Museum through Feb. 2.
“War/Photography” is expansive in size, content, and ambition. It includes the work of 284 photographers, from 28 countries. There are some 400 items — not just photographs, but books, magazines, postcards, photo albums, and cameras. Among the latter are a stereo camera from Mathew Brady’s Civil War studio and a Speed Graphic used on D-day. An omission is video games. Surely, they are how anyone under 20 is most familiar with warfare. The images may not be photographic, but in their exaggerated way they strive for a photographic potency.
Chronologically, the show begins in 1846, with the Mexican-American War, and extends to 2011, and the overthrow of Libya’s Moammar Khadafy. But “War/Photography” is arranged around thematic juxtaposition rather than chronological development. As its subtitle indicates, the show construes war broadly — armed conflict extends to terrorism, for example — and aftermath can, and rightly does, take it far from the battlefield. Among the categories are Camp Life, Children, Executions, Public Memorials, and Prisoners of War. Again and again, it’s the human element in war that the show emphasizes. The look of battle may change — weapons grow deadlier, equipment more elaborate — but inhumanity remains constant. It makes perfect, if grim, sense that in the Refugees section images from World War II should hang next to images from Rwanda and above others from Korea and Vietnam.
The arrangement is a bit overwhelming at first. The show is visually dense with so many images in a relatively small space (two large galleries, linked by a connecting room where a monitor shows a video by the late war photographer Tim Hetherington). But a visitor quickly realizes that “War/Photography” is no jumble. It resembles its subject that way. Even at its most chaotic, war imposes its own dynamic, its own overarching structure. Hideous forests emerge from so many shattered trees.
“War/Photography” is not so much seen as experienced. Going from picture to picture, as one normally does at a show, intent on each, would be a mistake. Excellent as so many of the images are, the overall effect is what matters.
There are names of photographers you’d expect: Roger Fenton, whose recording of the Crimean War makes him the father of war photography; Edward Steichen; Robert Capa; W. Eugene Smith; David Douglas Duncan; James Nachtwey.
There are names of photographers you would not expect whatsoever: August Sander (a portrait of a Nazi soldier), Cecil Beaton (a sailor repairing a flag with a sewing machine, a child in hospital, airmen studying aircraft recognition, all from World War II), Weegee (a sailor smooching a girl in a darkened theater), Diane Arbus (a pro-Vietnam War protester), Lewis Hine (World War I soldiers rough-housing in camp), Richard Avedon (a South Vietnamese napalm victim), Robert Frank (a Navy recruiting office), Walker Evans (a Civil War monument), T. E. Lawrence. That’s right, Lawrence of Arabia. It’s a photograph of an explosion from a bomb he planted on a Turkish railroad track. In this image, fighter and photographer become one.
Some of the most striking pictures come from little-known photographers. The Soviet photojournalist Dmitri Baltermants manages to make war look like a Constructivist event, and his Russian Front colleague Max Alpert makes two. Rachel Papo's “Military kiosk counter, Shaare Avraham, Israel” goes beyond democratizing war to domesticating it.
There are images you’d expect: one of Capa’s D-day photographs; Eddie Adams’s Saigon execution; Alfred Eisenstaedt's V-J Day kiss; Henri Cartier-Bresson's accused Nazi collaborator; Joe Rosenthal’s raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi, on Iwo Jima. The one exception to the show’s thematic organization is a section devoted to that battle. It includes some three dozen items, among them a comic book and GI Joe doll.
The doll’s presence chimes with Anja Niedringhaus’s 2004 photograph of a Marine in Iraq who carries a GI Joe as a lucky charm. There are many such grace notes here. A Capa photograph of two ambulance drivers knitting echoes the Beaton picture of a Royal Navy sailor sewing. The inclusion of a set of the most-wanted playing cards from postwar Iraq connects with Peter Stackpole’s “Men in Gas Masks Playing Cards,” from 1944. That may be the most incongruous image in a show abounding in them — incongruity being as intrinsic to war as violence. If the Stackpole isn’t the most incongruous, then it’s Dennis McLellan’s “Releasing Carrier Pigeon From Tank, Western Front,” from 1918.
Familiar faces emerge from the crowd of images: Winston Churchill (the famous Yousuf Karsh portrait), Che Guevara (dead), Hermann Goering (imprisoned), Douglas MacArthur (returning), Emiliano Zapata (sombrero’d). Yet the vast majority of people we see are nameless and faceless, which is in the nature of modern war.
It’s in the nature of its aftermath too. In Peter van Agtmael’s “Darien, Wisconsin, October 22, 2007,” three figures are playing “Star Wars” in an empty field. They wield light sabers. Two are boys. The third figure is taller. Is he a boy, too? It’s hard to tell, since he’s wearing the helmet of an imperial storm trooper. Look down instead of up, and a likely answer emerges. His left leg below the knee is a prosthesis. The weapon he carries and the ones being used against him are toys. Clearly, that was not always the case. It’s one more reminder that aftermath matters as much in the title as war and photography do.Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.