A few years ago, David Leeson, a photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for his coverage of the Iraq war, told an interviewer that he once truly believed there could be "a series of photographs, or a single photograph, that could end war ... But can you find it? I never did."
I came across Leeson's words in the catalog for "War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath," the huge, tough-minded, very moving new show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (It runs there through Feb. 3, then moves to Los Angeles, Washington and Brooklyn.) The exhibition lays out the ways cameras have been put to use during 165 years of world wars, undeclared hostilities and barely organized fang baring. Cameras are the transformer tools of warfare, adaptable as battlefield aids for reconnaissance and surveillance, as peerless instruments of propaganda and, above all, as a means to witness the atrocious facts of war. I came away from the show thinking that maybe Leeson had been holding himself to too high a standard. You may not be able to end war with a camera, but you can do a lot of useful things with one--even tell the truth.
Instead of being organized chronologically, the Houston show suggests that war is better considered as an eternally recurring narrative. Curated by Anne Wilkes Tucker, with Will Michels and Natalie Zelt, "War/Photography" divides its story into chapters, from prewar buildup through postwar remembrances, with wars from all periods combined in each. The weaponry evolves from sabers to torpedoes to rocket-propelled grenades. (For the record, sharpened steel is forever.) The photo equipment changes from 19th century box cameras to cell phones and satellites. But the fundamentals of war--brutality and suffering, grief and self-sacrifice--don't change much. They haven't since the first time a caveman figured out how to use a rock.
The show casts a wide net, with images by more than 280 photographers of all kinds--not just photojournalists but also soldiers, civilians and official military photographers like the American officer who took the movie-worthy view of war at sea USCG Cutter Spencer Destroys Nazi Sub. It also defines war photography as an activity beyond the war zone itself. That allows in postwar images like Darien, Wisconsin, Peter van Agtmael's unnerving picture of an Iraq-war veteran with a prosthetic leg having a lightsaber battle with his sons, or Jonathan Torgovnik's Valentine with Her Daughters Amelie and Inez, Rwanda, a haunting 2006 portrait of a woman raped by Hutu fighters, who is shown with her two daughters. One of them--the one she's embracing--is the product of that rape.
Moving outside the battlefield also acknowledges that combat is just a small part of war, which is "99% boredom and 1% sheer terror," as one Civil War soldier put it. Pictures like Dmitri Baltermants' 1941 image of leaping soldiers, Attack--Eastern Front, World War II, may be what we think of first as war imagery. But scenes of the home front--portraits of homecoming like Micha Bar-Am's 1976 shot The Return from Entebbe, Ben Gurion Airport, Israel and pictures of GIs goofing around on base, killing nothing more menacing than time--they're the face of wartime too.