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W. Eugene Smith

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War/Photography, on view from Nov. 11 to Feb. 3, is a magnificent, wide-ranging exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. As chief curator Anne Wilkes Tucker explains in the sumptuous catalogue, that slash in the title is important: this is not a show simply of photographs of war. It’s a demonstration and examination of the relationship between the two and how that relationship has changed over time. There are plenty of images of combat, but the catchment area extends way beyond the battlefield–both in space and in time–to include preparations for war, refugees fleeing its consequences, damage to property and the physical and psychological aftermath of conflict. Taken by some of the most famous photographers—more than 280 are showcased—in the history of the medium, by aerial reconnaissance units and unknown combatants and civilians, the pictures are drawn from the archives of photo agencies such as Magnum, military archives and personal family albums. It’s a stunning show, full of well-known pictures, surprising new ones and—if one consults the catalogue—surprises about well-known pictures.

More than a few of the featured pictures have been either faked or staged. That is to put it too simply, for the slipperiness of the distinction between “real” and “arranged”, or “genuine” and “fake”, turns out to be one of the themes of the show. The problem crops up right from the get-go, with Roger Fenton’s famous pair of pictures of the Valley of Death (1856) from the Crimean war—one of which shows cannonballs strewn more abundantly than the other. (slide #1) The scholarly war over which picture was taken first continues to rage. I thought this question had been definitively settled by Errol Morris in his book Believing is Seeing but John Stauffer argues in the catalogue for precisely the opposite conclusion. The “Dead Rebel Sharp Shooter” in Alexander Gardner’s famous image from the Civil War (slide #2) was dragged to the place where he is seen to have died and arranged in such a way that the rifle — not his own but a prop carried by the photographer — added extra pathos.

As with the Civil War, so in the First World War: it was impossible to take pictures of actual combat. One of the reasons why the famous footage of soldiers going over the top at the Battle of the Somme is faked is because it is on film. Filmed at a training ground, it shows a soldier who is shot, falls down, looks at the camera — and folds his arm before dying. Among the most spectacular images of the war, James Frank Hurley’s “An Episode after the Battle of Zonnebeke” (c.1918) (slide #3) seems like a composite expression of our idea of the Western Front — because, it turns out, it is a composite print made from multiple negatives. As Siegfried Sassoon wrote in his poem “Cinema Hero”: “It’s the truth/That somehow never happened.”

The complexity of Hurley’s image is in stark contrast to Wesley David Archer’s photograph of a pilot who has bailed out of his burning plane (c.1933) (slide #4). It is a picture full of suspense because we don’t know whether the parachute is going to open. What we do now know, courtesy of his widow, is that it was done with a model airplane. Armed with this knowledge you go back to the original and… it still looks amazing! You don’t feel cheated so much as admiring of someone who could create such a truth after (or independent of ) the fact.

Everyone is familiar with the doubts that continue to swirl around Robert Capa’s picture of the “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman” (1936) (slide #5) in the Spanish Civil War. No one can agree on exactly the circumstances in which it was made. And so, ironically, while photography is generally assumed to be strong as evidence but weak in meaning, Capa’s photograph has come to resemble painting, of which the contrary is held to be true. Joe Rosenthal’s image of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima in 1945 is an especially complicated case in that it was widely assumed to have been staged, faked, rigged or something like that, even if we can’t remember exactly what is supposed to have gone on because it’s all a bit muddled up with memories of the Clint Eastwood film about what happened.

The full story, as narrated in the catalogue, is that the flag was raised twice — not for Rosenthal’s benefit but, in the words of the Lieutenant Colonel who ordered it to be done, “so that every son-of-a-bitch on this whole cruddy island (could) see it.” (slide #6) How do we know this is accurate? Because there are photographs – i.e. photographs of the sequence of events that led to Rosenthal taking his photograph – to prove it. (see below) In any case, the success of Rosenthal’s image was due to the way that it not only recorded a moment and event but, in doing so, expressed a truth of enduring – even mythic – proportions about the Marine Corps. The same could be said of Len Chetwyn’s iconic picture from the North Africa (1942) campaign: a photograph which proves, at the most basic level, that this was indeed a battle waged by men in shorts! (not shown). The fact that a detail from it is used on the cover of a beautiful Australian edition of Alan Moorhead’s African Trilogy highlights the way that documentary veracity and imaginative truth are mutually supporting. The surprising thing – which turns out not to be so surprising if we consider how perfectly the picture is composed and lit — is that it’s the photograph that provides the imaginative half of that equation. Smoke grenades had indeed been deployed, but for pictorial effect rather than combat effectiveness.

Louis R. Lowery / Bob Campbell / Bill Genaust — The Museum of Fine Arts Houston

Three examples of photographs that documented the sequence of events leading to Rosenthal's iconic photograph of the flag raising on Iwo Jima.

So there is a delicious irony, in a show that is so scrupulous and judicious in its investigation of the relationship between real and doctored pictures that the catalogue seems, in one instance, to have fallen victim to a booby-trap in its midst. John Filo’s photograph of the killings at Kent State in 1970 shows a distraught woman kneeling over the body of a dead student. Unfortunately it so happened that a pole in the background looked like it was coming out of her head. Since this pole was aesthetically unpleasing, it was removed from the picture as published in Life magazine and elsewhere. Amazingly this clumsily doctored version – you can see quite clearly how the pole has been erased – is the one printed in the War/Photography catalogue! (slide #7)

Courtesy of Jeff Wall

Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near
Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986), 1992

As we move into the contemporary the distinction between art and documentary becomes increasingly hard to sustain—or to put it the other way around, the No-Man’s Land between the two grows ever larger—as shown in works by color photographer Luc Delahaye (slide #8) and photojournalist Damon Winter’s Gurskey-esque view of a plane-load of troops “Flying Military Class” (slide #9). In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag argued that Jeff Wall’s “fictional” image “Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan)” was among the most successful war photographs of recent times. (note: Wall’s image is not part of the War/Photography exhibition) So perhaps Peter van Agtmael’s well-known shot of a line of U.S. troops sheltering from the downdraft of a helicopter in a rocky grey landscape in Nuristan, Afghanistan, in 2007, works on us powerfully for two reasons. (note: van Agtmael’s image is not part of the War/Photography exhibition) First because a compositional similarity to W. Eugene Smith’s shot of Marines sheltering from an explosion on Iwo Jima in 1945 (slide #10) establishes its place in the heroic and noble tradition of documentary photography. Second, because an uncanny resemblance to Wall’s image tacitly acknowledges that the fictive now sets a standard of authenticity to which the real is obliged to aspire.

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum

An American Blackhawk helicopter lands at the Ranch House, an isolated U.S. outpost in the Waigul Valley of Nuristan Province, near Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan, 2007.

The relationship between Wall’s large works and the scale and ambition of history paintings has often been remarked on. But Gary Knight’s picture from Dyala Bridge, Iraq, 2003 (slide #11) achieves an even more remarkable relationship with the art of the past. A photograph taken in the immediate aftermath of fighting, it combines the documentary immediacy and evidential power of the best photojournalism with the epic grandeur of history painting.

Geoff Dyer is an award-winning writer and journalist. See more of his work here.

WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath will open at the Museum of Fine Art Houston on Nov. 11, 2012.  The exhibit will then travel to Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and Brooklyn Museum through February 2014.

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Fifty years ago today, a young Bob Dylan released his self-titled debut album. In the ensuing years, Dylan has written music and lyrics for some of the most eloquent and acclaimed songs of our generation. A polarizing figure at times, Dylan has been both glorified and vilified in the media, all the while proving to be a constant moving target—often cryptic, sometimes playful, intensely private but always enigmatic. His life and work have been obsessively analyzed, dissected and pored over by critics and fans alike. Yet Dylan has refused to be labeled—neither protest singer nor folk singer—or pinned down to be understood. Despite the scrutiny, famous relationships (including one with folk singer Joan Baez), a mysterious motorcycle crash and his subsequent reclusion from the accident, and the constant touring, Dylan, the troubadour, has marched to his own beat.

Dylan Rock Explosion, a new exhibition at Cité de la Musique in Paris, tracks the pivotal path of Dylan’s development from 1961-1966. The show, which runs through July 15, features photographs and films—and related ephemera—that capture the young Dylan as he came to prominence and sparked a musical revolution. Featured in the exhibition is photographer Daniel Kramer, who documented the musician during the span of one year and one day from 1964-1965, a period in which Dylan shifted from acoustic to electric guitar.

Kramer had no idea who Bob Dylan was before he noticed him perform “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” on the Steve Allen television show in 1964. “I hadn’t heard or seen him,” the photographer told TIME. “I didn’t know his name, but I was riveted by the power of the song’s message of social outrage and to see Dylan reporting like a journalist through his music and lyrics.” Kramer says he was taken by the fact that the 23-year-old Dylan could get up alone with his one instrument and capture us through his music, lyrics and presentation. “Being a photographer my response was—that’s someone you want to photograph,” he says. Kramer found out who Dylan’s management was and contacted them, only to be told Dylan wasn’t available. It took Kramer six months to negotiate and secure a one hour portrait session in Woodstock with Dylan; that session ultimately ran to five hours. An invitation for Kramer to travel by car with Dylan to a performance at Town Hall Philadelphia immediately followed. Kramer then photographed Dylan during the next 367 days.

“It was my idea, my story and I did it totally on my own hook,” says Kramer of the first self-initiated session with Dylan. “I didn’t want any money. I just wanted the opportunity to do the story and then we see where we go. Interestingly, when I first started photographing Dylan, a lot of places were not interested in using his pictures because he was on the verge of becoming very, very important—but still just on the verge. Within six months the photographs started finding homes. Everyone eventually picked them up: Look, Saturday Post and, internationally, Paris Match.

The work was also responsible for introducing Kramer to W. Eugene Smith, which ultimately led to a lasting friendship. The legendary photographer helped bring attention to the work after becoming enamored with Kramer’s photographs. At the time, Smith was coincidentally looking for an essay to work on as an editor. Kramer’s images of Dylan would be that project. “He was like a midwife to the project,” Kramer says. A book—the first about Dylan—edited with Smith, written by Kramer and featuring 140 photographs from that period was published in 1967. Today, Kramer’s images have graced the covers of three Bob Dylan albums—Biograph, Bringing It All back Home and Highway 61 Revisited.

“I photographed a lot of wonderful and tremendously exciting subjects in my career, but Dylan remains one of the few at very the top of my list,” Kramer says. “I have always admired his courage as a performer who—as he wrote once in one of his books—steps out. He’s said incredible things and moved a lot of people. His lyrics and music have had an amazing influence on his time, and for a photographer, this is always great when you have an opportunity to document a part of that.”

Photographer Daniel Kramer is based in New York. His images have graced the covers of three Bob Dylan albums—Biograph, Bringing It All back Home, and Highway 61 Revisited. His work has also been published in LIFE, TIME, Fortune and other publications. In addition to documenting Bob Dylan, he photographed Norman Mailer extensively over a three-year period.

The exhibition Bob Dylan, Rock Explosion is on view at Cité De La Musique in Paris from March 6 – July 15. For more classic photos of Bob Dylan, see LIFE’s 96-page book, Forever Young: 50 Years of Song, on newsstands now.

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Located between the Dniester River and the eastern border of Ukraine, Transnistria is an unrecognized state of approximately a half million people. Though it asserts itself as a sovereign nation, it is claimed by Moldova and has no diplomatic relations with any United Nations member state.

Visiting the small zone in January of 2011, photographer Kosuke Okahara wanted to see what “it feels like to live in a country that doesn’t exist, if the people are still very attached to the place where they live.” The winner of a 2010 W. Eugene Smith fellowship, Okahara has worked in places as diverse as Colombia, Egypt, Sudan and his native Japan (where he is currently based).

In Transnistria, he found a place caught between past and present. These photographs were taken in the village of Lenina, a farming community that is losing much of its population, as young people depart to seek work in Russia or the Ukraine. Most of the residents, he found, were children left behind by their parents and older people. “As I stayed in the village, I wondered if it was possible for the people to keep their identity, as either Transnistrian or Russian or Ukrainian,” the photographer said in an e-mail to TIME. “Or do they need to adapt to the new world they are resisting?”

Okahara is currently working on a long term project on drugs in Colombia. More of his work can be seen on his website.

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