Last weekend, on the occasion of Veterans Day, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) opened a landmark exhibition exploring the experience of war through the eyes of photographers. WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath is an unprecedented collection of nearly 500 photographs, books, magazines, albums and photographic equipment. Images in the show were recorded by more than 280 photographers from 28 nations, spanning 6 continents and more than 165 years.
Accompanying the show is an epic illustrated catalogue, also titled WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath, that features interviews and essays by curators, scholars and military historians. The over 600-page volume designed and produced by Pentagram Associate Julie Savasky and Partner DJ Stout in our Austin office is breathtaking in its scope and despairing in the morality of its tale.
The exhibition and book is a career highlight for Anne Wilkes Tucker, the MFAH's renowned curator of photography, who along with Will Michels and Natalie Zelt worked on the project for over a decade. The idea for the exhibition began when the museum acquired what is believed to be the first print of Joe Rosenthal's famous 1945 photograph of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. The purchase of the small sepia-toned print prompted Michels, who is an expert on the history of the iconic image, to ask Tucker why she hadn't been collecting war photographs for the museum. Inspired by his expertise and enthusiasm, she decided to undertake the extensive research project that took Tucker and her colleagues all over the world.
The book focuses on the relationship between armed conflict and photography, not only surveying the types of photographs created during wartime but also the various techniques used to make them. As technology has advanced over time, photojournalists have been able to get closer and closer to the action, enabling the viewer more intimate ways to understand the harsh realities of war. "Because of the solemn nature of the subject matter we tried to keep the design simple and respectful," says Stout."But even then, by the time you get about a third of the way through the book it really starts to get to you."
In the book Tucker says this about the name of the exhibition: "The slash in the title WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY acknowledges that armed conflict and photography are separate entities whose interactions between 1846 and the present have led to the creation of millions of photographs." Savasky and Stout turned the slash in the title red to symbolize a wound. "That bloody gash on the pristine white page is small," says Stout, "but it's deep."
Books previously designed by Stout and his team for Anne Tucker and the MFAH include The History of Japanese Photography, a 400-page volume that is the first history of the subject, and First Down, Houston, an oversized photo-documentary on the inaugural season of the Houston Texans NFL team.