Can a massive, world-class museum feel like a secret? Maybe if it's the Brooklyn Museum. The huge neo-classical building (and tasteful modern addition) looms over the formal lawns and greenhouses of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and Prospect Park, capped by a marble dome that shines down at summer weddings, soccer games, and commuters on the Eastern Parkway. Ads for its exhibitions show up on subway cars, busses, and across billboards. Maybe it's only a "secret" in comparison to its more famous cousins across the river. Any day, the galleries of MoMa and the Met are packed with tourists, buzzing with the sounds of conversation in dozens of languages. In contrast, the Brooklyn Museum seems to draw most of its visitors from inside the city. It's quieter, less-crowded, even as it puts on some of the best exhibitions in New York.
WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath is one such exhibit. It brings together books, magazines, camera equipment, and hundreds of photos from over 150 years of warfare, with the goal of revealing "the interrelationship between war and photography." But instead of showing the images sorted chronologically, or even categorized by the style of photography, the curators of WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY have sorted them across phases of conflict: Recruitment, Training, Embarkation, Daily Routine, Battle, Death and Destruction, Homecoming, and Remembrance.
It would be easy for an exhibition like this to take a well-worn, moralizing stand. The images of dozens of young men dead in a trench, or terrified children running from a napalm strike in Vietnam, provoke immediate emotional reactions. And while those (and many other) horrifying photos are present, removing them from their immediate context provokes deeper, more nuanced thought. Instead of singular atrocities, we see the tragic cycle of history, where events like these happen again and again, in different cultures, countries, and times.
But the most poignant images are not of the famous battles, or grisly casualties. They document the experiences of individual soldiers, and tell a more detailed story than the epic combat photography. We see their friendships and loved ones, their attempts to create a semblance of home in an achingly alien environment. A Polish mother kisses her teenage son on the face, knocking his helmet askew. An American soldier cuts grass from a tiny strip of green planted next to a tent in the Iraqi desert. In one series ("One Ride with Yankee Papa 13") we follow James Farley, a helicopter gunner with the looks and lanky build of a male model, over the course of a mission with his crew. In the first image his face is lit up with a crooked smile, two enormous guns swinging from his hands. The last has his features twisted as he sobs in a supply shack, alone, grieving for a lost comrade.
Too often, public conversation about war is reduced to abstractions. Our country becomes a single entity, "us," our opponents a monolithic force, "them," "the enemy." Any victory is "our" victory, "their" defeat. WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY breaks down this psychological barrier, showing the human tragedies that get lost in the scale of larger conflicts. No matter how justified, how righteous, how worth-fighting a war may be, we must remember that suffering and heartbreak will inevitably follow. And while some wars are truly necessary, and mankind cannot and should not lay down its arms, perhaps that knowledge will make us more cautious in taking them up.
WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath runs through February 2, 2014 at the Brooklyn Museum. Entrance to the exhibition is included with general admission.