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Classic and historic portraits of war

With the invention of photography in the 1830s, new record-keeping capabilities emerged. By the 1850s, newspapers had started sending photographers to document wars. Today, photography has become an expected standard of the media’s coverage of conflict.

While books have been published on individual wars, conflicts, photographers and agencies, there wasn’t a strong collection of war imagery, Anne Wilkes Tucker, curator of photography for the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, said.

In conjunction with Veteran’s Day this year, war photography spanning from the 1840s to modern-day conflicts will be displayed at the museum, curated in part by Tucker and colleagues Natalie Zelt and Will Michels, the collections photographer.

The 480-image exhibit ranges from reportage to portraits and is not categorized by war or year, but as a progression, from the advent of war, including enlisting and training, through the end of the conflict.

Portraiture is the most common type of imagery made during wartime, Tucker said.

In the beginning of the medium, action photos weren’t much of an option. With slow shutter speeds, portraits of soldiers—dead or alive—were the easiest way to document the situation. But even with faster film and camera flexibility, portraits remain an important vision of war.

“Imagery changes with technology,” Tucker said, “but the patterns we’ve established are there.”

Nina Berman, an established documentary photographer whose work is featured in the exhibition, believes portraits individualize war.

They “take a conflict scene that feels remote and make it feel accessible,” she said. It’s easy to disconnect as a civilian, but a personal photograph with the soldier’s can name help bridge the gap.

The photojournalists who risk their lives to tell these stories are a dedicated breed, curator Tucker said. As she talked to many of the photographers, she didn’t find adrenaline junkies. They’re informed about both sides and have their own honor code about what they will and won’t shoot.

“They’re really smart people,” she said. “They’ve really thought about what it might mean, who it might reach and what’s the point.”

The 10 years of research for the exhibit taught Tucker a lot about the connection between war and photography.

“Photographs have been useful in planning and conducting wars, and have been essential in gaining public support for war efforts and in the loss of that support,” she writes in a catalogue of the museum’s display.

“Photographers are really just responding to this thing we humans are doing,” Tucker said.

- Elizabeth I. Johnson, CNN

 All images are courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Houston.