MANCHESTER, N.H. — War photography began not long after photography did, with Roger Fenton during the Crimean War. From the beginning, photographing war has posed a double challenge. Can such grim subject matter qualify as art? Even more daunting, at what point does documentation become exploitation? Robert Capa famously said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Morally, can a war photographer get too close?
War photography reached a high point with Capa, during the Spanish Civil War and World War II; David Douglas Duncan (who turns 100 in January!) during the Korean War; and Larry Burrows and Don McCullin during the Vietnam War. That line extends to James Nachtwey, who since 1980 has photographed conflicts from Northern Ireland to Rwanda. It’s fitting that the many awards Nachtwey has received include the Overseas Press Club’s Robert Capa Gold Medal, which he’s won five times.
“Witness to History: James Nachtwey — Afghanistan, Ground Zero, Iraq” runs through Dec. 14 at the Currier Museum of Art. The subtitle tells us that the exhibition focuses on work from the past 20 years. But the consistent virtues in these photographs — a rare eye for composition, a Capa-like instinct for being in the thick of things, a no-less-instinctive respect for his subjects’ humanity — have been constants throughout Nachtwey’s career. “I have been a witness,” he has said of that career, “and these pictures are my testimony.” The terminology may be legalistic, but the sentiment expressed is unapologetically moral.
Moral, but not moralistic: To bear witness is not to preach. These are photographs that make those who see them think and feel. They are not photographs that indicate what to think or feel. The respect Nachtwey has for his subjects (soldiers, medical personnel, civilian victims) he extends to his audience as well. He might even be said to show that audience. The man staring up at smoke billowing from the South Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 doesn’t just anchor a remarkable image. He is a viewer surrogate.
There are 24 photographs in “Witness to History,” 13 in color. The images are 28 inches by 41 inches. They feel much bigger than that. This makes sense. Sometimes, as here, scale is a function of feeling even more than size.
One of the most impressive things about Nachtwey’s work is its artfulness (in framing, composition, use of color) and how that artfulness never detracts from the subject matter. Ability and modesty maintain a steady balance.
A grieving woman in Afghanistan kneels amid tombstones. In her grayish robes, she seems to merge with the soil, to become an extension of the earth her brother now lies beneath. It’s as if emotion and geology merge.
A US soldier escorts an Iraqi criminal at gunpoint. The soldier’s rifle barrel, a wall behind the two men, and a series of flat roofs create a system of horizontals. A utility pole, a minaret, and another rifle, hanging upright on the soldier’s back, create a constrasting system of verticals. A viewer hardly notices — it’s the first rifle, against the man’s neck, that holds the eye — but once noticed, the geometric elegance of the composition is striking.
The centerpiece of the show is an installation, “The Sacrifice.” Set off in an alcove, it’s immersive and imposing: 32 feet long and 32 inches high. The installation is a kind of mosaic — or, better yet, montage. In its static way, it has the dynamism of a motion picture sequence. Three rows of 20 photographs each are joined together — no mattes or frames or white space to separate them.
Akin to a frieze, it calls to mind John Singer Sargent’s World War I mural-sized painting “Gassed.” Sargent’s canvas honors the heroism of its subjects through overt classical allusion: arranging the soldiers like Greek hoplites on a temple facade. Meant to ennoble, such aestheticization has the opposite effect. It trivializes. The reality of war mocks such niceties.
There is no such trivializing in “The Sacrifice.” Taken in US field hospitals in Iraq during 2006 and 2007, the images show doctors and nurses and wounded soldiers in extremis. The photographs are black and white, which is good. The photographs might be unbearable otherwise. They’re like a stream of visual consciousness — faces, fear, tubes, exhaustion, damaged flesh, compassion, surgical tools, blood — yet the jumble they belong to is utterly legible and coherent. Arthur C. Danto, that wisest of art critics, once wrote of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “Be prepared to weep.” Such a tribute, and caution, applies to “The Sacrifice.”
On Oct. 28, Nachtwey and Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Greg Marinovich will hold a public conversation at the Currier. Ticket information is available at http://www.currier.org/calendar/artalk-conversation-between-photojournalists-james-nachtwey-greg-marinovich/
WITNESS TO HISTORY: James Nachtwey — Afghanistan,
Ground Zero, Iraq
Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash St., Manchester, N.H., through Dec. 14, 603-669-6144, www.currier.org