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Photo exhibit is witness to wars

Photographers with works in a traveling exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles called 'War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath' talk about the images and life on the frontlines.

March 23, 2013|By Steve Appleford

His kids call it "the wall of death."

Generations of startling war images hang in the living room of photojournalist David Hume Kennerly: the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, the execution of a Vietcong fighter on the streets of Saigon, and a screaming Vietnamese girl running naked toward the camera and away from a napalm bombing.

"Imagine being a kid growing up in this house," says Kennerly, whose own pictures from Vietnam won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

The photographs from his fellow wartime photographers are displayed throughout his Santa Monica home. Now 65, Kennerly's career has taken him from Southeast Asia to President Gerald Ford's White House to the final episode of "Seinfeld," but he says his war experience ultimately defined him.

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"My closest friends, for the most part, are people in the business who were in combat," says Kennerly, gray-bearded and fit, and preparing for a trip to Hong Kong within hours. "We all shared an exciting experience, a dangerous experience. It really made me who I am today in terms of my own views of mortality. I never thought I would see my 25th birthday."

Pictures Kennerly shot during that early stage of his career were among nearly 500 collected by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for "War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath," a 10-year project for Anne Tucker, the museum's curator of photography.

The traveling exhibition landed this week at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, with pictures that capture the extremes of human experience. There are scenes of death and horror, grief and survival, but also moments of warmth and humanity when the shooting has stopped.

Work on the exhibition began with the Houston museum's acquisition of the original 1945 print of Joe Rosenthal's "Old Glory Goes Up on Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima." From there, Tucker and her co-curators searched photo agencies, military archives, museum collections, and looked beyond the work of professional photojournalists to also include pictures by soldiers and civilians with cameras.

"When we said the word 'war,' we wanted the fullest understanding of what war is," says Tucker, who chose to include pictures from refugee camps, munitions factories and Saddam Hussein's spider-hole hideaway. "We wanted to tell the story as straight as we could and let people take it whatever way they wanted to go, to let the pictures speak for themselves."

When the photos were shown in Houston last year, military families were among the most frequent visitors. Vets used them to explain their experiences, says Tucker. "Some people came back to see the exhibition four and five times. People were crying in the gallery."

For the much smaller Annenberg Space, the number of prints has been culled to a tight 180. Other images will be accessible digitally, and the Annenberg also commissioned a half-hour documentary for the show, "The War Photographers," focusing on the careers of six contemporary photographers: Kennerly, Alexandra Avakian, Carolyn Cole, Ashley Gilbertson, Edouard H.R. Glück and João Silva. The Annenberg Foundation was a key funder of the original exhibition.

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War photographer James Nachtwey once said, "Any picture of war seems to be like a plea to stop it."

No war has ever ended because of a photograph, though two stark images from Vietnam are credited with shaking Americans enough to accelerate growing antiwar sentiment: Eddie Adams' 1968 picture of a South Vietnamese officer shooting a Vietcong prisoner in the head and Nick Ut's horrific "Napalm Girl" in 1972. Both won Pulitzer Prizes.

For more than a century, war photographs have brought something of the battlefield to the folks back home, and the news wasn't good. Kennerly points to the Civil War photographs of Alexander Gardner, the first to show images of American dead. Gardner's war pictures were recently part of an exhibition at the Huntington Library in San Marino. "Gardner was the first guy to really bring it home," Kennerly says, "and it really had an effect on people."

More recently, snapshots from inside Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq revealed abuse of prisoners by U.S. personnel and caused world outrage, while a simple picture of flag-draped coffins on a U.S. plane coming back to the United States from Iraq ignited a national debate on insensitivity from the media and censorship by the Bush administration, which had previously blocked the release of such images.

For Tucker, an image that haunts her captures the moment when something is about to happen: the view from above as a Japanese torpedo bomber prepares to strike "battleship row" in Pearl Harbor and ultimately sink the battleship Arizona and its crew.

"We know exactly when that picture was taken. The Arizona hasn't yet exploded — 4,000 people are about to die," says Tucker. "I can't look at that picture and not be affected by that thought every time."

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