From journalistic war photographs to works of art

`Moving Walls 9' at Creative Alliance

Art Column


Photography is first an eloquent visual language, only second an art. Most photographs -- family snapshots, passport pictures, news and advertising shots, for instance -- don't even aspire to the status of art, however artful they may be. What makes one photograph just a picture and another a work of art is a matter not only of aesthetic judgment, but also of intent, custom and usage.

All three issues arise in Steve McCurry and Sean Hemmerle's photographs of Afghanistan and Iraq in Moving Walls 9 at the Creative Alliance. The show is part of a series of traveling exhibitions sponsored by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore that use photography to explore topics of social justice.

On their face, McCurry and Hemmerle's pictures of the human dislocation and physical destruction of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq belong to a tradition of war photography that goes back at least as far as Mathew Brady's harrowing images of the U.S. Civil War. Brady's pictures never were intended to be viewed as art, but as on-the-spot battlefield reportage. Since Brady's time, any number of photographers have produced pictures that are recognized as masterpieces of the genre -- Joe Rosenthal's Flag Raising on Iwo Jima, for example -- yet war photography, in contrast to landscape, portraits or the nude, has never been considered a fine art form.

Photographs of war that appear in the media are usually interpreted as illustration -- pictorial confirmation of the truthfulness, so to speak, of whatever texts happen to accompany them. Since the meaning of all photographs is inherently unstable and ambiguous, textual information, in the form of captions, news reports or commentary, offers the only way of determining what these images mean. Who is the pretty woman in McCurry's photograph gazing fondly at an older man? She is an Afghan refugee being comforted by her father. What is this rubble-strewn chamber photographed by Hemmerle whose walls are covered with crudely drawn figures? It is a schoolroom in Baghdad damaged by American bombs.

Although custom and usage lead us to view such images as news, our perception can be altered by knowing the photographer's intent. Hemmerle clearly wants us to respond to his pictures of bombed buildings and streets littered with rubble as artwork, a kind of dystopian cityscape shaped by war's wanton destructiveness. His pictures, in which few or no people appear, can be read as a solemn meditation on the terrifying randomness of large-scale, violent conflict and its despairing aftermath. Viewed this way, the fact that the images are of Baghdad in 2003 rather than, say, of Berlin in 1945, is purely incidental to their meaning as artworks.

McCurry's images likewise can be liberated from their original journalistic context, though it's less clear in his case whether this was the photographer's intent. His photographs have a painterly formality that almost belies the suffering of his subjects, like those 19th-century Orientalist images by French academic artists such as Jean-Leon Gerome, who painted sensual fantasies of Near Eastern exoticism and sexual license for Western consumption. As artworks, McCurry's images aren't nearly so deliberately exploitative, but they clearly belong to a long tradition of depictions by Western artists of a timeless, "inscrutable East." Aside from the vivid photographic color and an occasional bombed-out automobile, there's hardly anything in these scenes of everyday domestic and street life to suggest that they couldn't have been made 100 or even 500 years ago.

The exhibition also includes photographs by young people in local community arts programs at the Crossroads School, the Baltimore Talent Development High School and Youthlight. Their earnest, if occasionally awkward, efforts to document the blighted urban environments in which they live provide a poignant counterpoint to McCurry and Hemmerle's impassioned war zone reporting.

Moving Walls 9: Damaged Landscapes, Resilient Spirits runs through May 6 at the Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave. Call 410-276-1651.

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