Hicks' photos, on display at UMBC, lay horrors of war on our doorstep

Art Review

September 21, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,sun art critic

Great war photographers are born, not made, writes veteran war correspondent John F. Burns in the catalog to Tyler Hicks' photographs of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hicks, who worked for several smaller newspapers before going to Iraq and Afghanistan under contract to The New York Times, is possessed of that peculiar combination of ambition, fearlessness, resourcefulness and an uncanny genius for survival that no amount of formal training can impart but that separates the great photojournalists from all the rest.

As Burns, himself a veteran war correspondent, suggests, Hicks belongs to that long tradition of the photographer-as-heroic-witness that stretches from Mathew Brady in the American Civil War to Robert Capa, W. Eugene Smith, David Seymour and Larry Burrows in World War II and Vietnam.

What they had in common was an unfailing capacity to create images full of drama and feeling without ever sentimentalizing their subjects.

In Histories Are Mirrors: The Path of Conflict through Afghanistan and Iraq, which opens Monday in the Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Hicks comes about as close as one would think humanly possible to conveying the awful face of war.

Like all great journalism, Hicks' photographs are first and foremost terrific storytelling engines that convey nearly as much through what they don't show as by what they do.

The photographs, many of which have been enlarged to near mural-scale for this show, have an almost painterly intensity of color and a landscapist's spatial expansiveness.

Hicks has a knack for putting the viewer in the midst of the scenes he depicts, be it a prisoner-of-war camp for Iraqi insurgents outside Baghdad or a stunning vista overlooking a snow-covered valley in Afghanistan.

His images of dead and wounded soldiers, terrified, confused civilians and devastated urban landscapes leave no doubt whatever that war is a cruel and ghastly business that leaves its mark on victors and vanquished alike.

We see a pathetic Taliban fighter, clad in bloody rags, summarily executed by equally rag-tag Northern Alliance troops. We look on with mingled pity and terror as a Northern Alliance fighter shot moments earlier bleeds to death before our eyes.

But we also see Afghan girls attending school for the first time since the Taliban took power and Iraqi families searching mass graves for their relatives murdered by Saddam Hussein.

These are among the quietest images in the show, but they remind us that wars don't happen in a vacuum, that the freedom to go to school or bury one's dead with dignity are indeed fundamental human rights.

Hicks' photos convey a sense of Iraq's deep tragedy (and also of the reawakening of hope in Afghanistan) not through moralizing sentiment or propaganda but simply by the inspired attentiveness he pays to the smallest details of facial expression and body language among his subjects.

On the evidence of these pictures, Hicks traveled mostly with the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance in Afghanistan (and worked out of The Times' Baghdad bureau in Iraq), but his reporting seems remarkably even-handed. He treats the suffering of both sides not as an opportunity to score political points but simply as the sad duty of one who bears witness to the human condition.

Marx said history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. But the tragedy of war most often just repeats itself as more of the same. And it is always awful.

Photography was barely two decades old when the camera went to war for the first time in the Crimean War in 1854-1856. A few years later, Mathew Brady shocked visitors to his New York gallery with his photographs of the Civil War.

"Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war," wrote one reviewer. "If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along our streets, he has done something very like it."

A century and a half later, Hicks has done something that similarly brings the tragedy of the 21st century's war on terror to our doorstep.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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