Wars provide good subjects for photographers, from youthful heroes to ruined landscapes, and all the action in between. In their current show, the Museum of Contemporary History in Paris provides historical explanations for why war photographers took the pictures that they did.
Laurent Gervereau, one of the curators, explains the criteria behind the choice of pictures: “This is a history of the photographic representation of war. We are not attempting to gather together the most celebrated photographs of the past 150 years, nor to draw up a register of photojournalists, nor to follow every conflict step by step.”
“Our intention was to ask questions about the conflicts which produced new contributions to photography, and to try and characterise those contributions.”
His words explain the choice of pictures that range from famous shots, such as the Republican Spaniard photographed at the moment of impact by Robert Capa, to more mediocre pictures taken by amateurs. They were chosen by a team of researchers who looked for emerging themes identifiable with specific wars.
They picked out eight: the Crimean, the American Civil War, World War I, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, Vietnam, the Falklands and the Gulf. All are famous conflicts, known to most.
The exhibition starts at the beginning—with the Crimea war (1854-55), the first conflict ever photographed. These pioneer war photographers must have been quite determined to get their shots, given the length of exposure time for early photographs and the danger of cannon fire.
As early as the American Civil War (1861-1865), photographers were recording corpses, a subject that is still lavishly exploited by journalists today.
World War I coincides with the widespread used of photography in magazines, and the use of war photography as propaganda. This section includes themes such as the evolution of photographic equipment, the use of identity photos, war journalism and a fascination for images of injured soldiers.
The Spanish Civil War, marks the emergence of the “close-up”, in particular with the work of Robert Capa, and the rise of the photoreporter as hero.
By World War II, war photography was an established genre, and armies had their own photographic units. Now they were also having to tackle the “unshowable”—concentration camps, the atomic bomb—images that would haunt the memories of those who saw them, and alter the popular idea of war.
Vietnam occured in the hey-day of television, and the possibility of relaying less than photogenic images (in full colour) straight into people’s homes, provoked a wave of anti-war sentiment in the US.
The Falklands and the Gulf are grouped for the final section, which is characterised by aerial shots and satellite images.
By now the wheel has come full circle. Military minds have learnt that too many gory close-ups are bad for morale back home and keep the cameras at a distance.
By the end of the exhibition it is easier to understand its title “To see, or not to see the war”. What these photographs show, or avoid showing, is as much part of history as the wars they depict.
“To see, or not to see the war” is split between two sites. Part I (Crimea to the Spanish Civil War) is at the Musée d’histoire contemporaine, Hôtel national des Invalides. Tel: +33 (0)1 44 42 38 39. Part II (World War II to the Gulf) is on the roof of the Grand Arch at La Défense, Tel: +33 (0)1 49 07 27 57. There is a separate entry fee for both (until 10 June).
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Sweet is war: A new exhibition documents the history of war photography'