Killer Shots: A Photographic Response to War

at Catherine Edelman Gallery, through August 30

For “Killer Shots,” Catherine Edelman spent five months gathering 35 images of war and its aftermath by 22 photojournalists, relocating them from the pages of magazines and newspapers to the white walls of her River North gallery. Freed from the agendas of editors under deadline, these photographs now serve a curator’s vision–“to reveal photographic truths about war, the human spirit and our sense of morality”–in a commercial venue, though there may be no market for images of combatants, orphans, and corpses.

I’m not sure that “Killer Shots” achieves Edelman’s grand goal, but it does reveal how a gallery wall can give news photographs new life–the chance to thread thoughtful narratives rather than evoke knee-jerk despair or pity. Shot between January 1964 and March 2003, the photographs in Edelman’s exhibition depict woe from Mozambique to Ground Zero. But here the context is not chronology or geography or history. It’s other photographs by photojournalists. This allows the works’ formal features to emerge, but at the risk of downplaying their documentary import.

Though everything in “Killer Shots” has previously appeared in print, here the photos are insulated from the trivial surrealism that occurs when images of atrocity share pages with advertising. But there are other juxtapositions. Edelman pairs two portaits of exhausted, contemplative men–separated by 20 years and four time zones. Circular hubs figure in the backgrounds of both: the figure in David Burnett’s 1971 Fatigued G.I., Lang Vei, Vietnam sits in front of tank treads while Sebastiao Salgado’s subject in Kuwait (1991) leans against the tire of a vehicle used to cap ruptured oil wells after the first gulf war.

An ensemble of three images resembles a triptych. In the lefthand photo–Jean Gaumy’s Tehran, Iran (1986)–a V-shaped line of women in chadors aims pistols to the right, as if all were shooting at the angular line of human shadows on a wall in the righthand photograph, Susan Meisela’s El Salvador (1980). In the middle photograph, James Nachtwey’s Afghanistan (1996), a woman kneels in a desert and steadies her outstretched arm on a gravestone; framed in the lower part of the picture, she’s below the implied line of fire linking the standing shooters and the standing shadows. This sequence makes no geopolitical point about arms, women, and mourning, but it is a startling formalist exercise of the sort that picture editors at Time and Newsweek would never run.

Mounted on the gallery’s longest wall is a sequence that juxtaposes images of children and corpses, the motifs of eyes and blankets creating a disturbing collage. On the far left is Alex Webb’s Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1987), in which a procession of men carries shiny, black child-sized coffins across a plaza in the foreground and ascends a staircase in the background. Next is Nachtwey’s Southern Sudan (1993), in which the blank eye of a tiny victim of famine peers from under a mountainous blanket, the white of the eye dwarfed by a white porcelain pan nearby. Next in Edelman’s lineup is Salgado’s Zaire (1994), which shows three babies bundled together papoose style. Staring up, they seem alarmed, their eyes popping with a manic exuberance. The adjacent shot, Ethiopia (1984), is also Salgado’s. An older child stands facing the camera with eyes closed, draped in a blanket, against a spare, ethereal landscape; three taller figures behind the weary refugee conjure travelers to a netherworld.

Interrupting the series of children are two shots of Iraqi corpses lying in the desert, where they’ve reached their terminus. These are the most recent images in “Killer Shots”–and represent a rare instance in which Edelman has paired pictures of the same war: Jon Mills’s An Iraqi Lies Dead, March 22, 2003, Southern Iraq and David Leeson’s Death of a Soldier, Iraq, March 24, 2003. Mills crouches low to capture a dead Iraqi’s outstretched hands emerging from a blanket and coming together above his head, the tips of his forefingers touching in prayerful symmetry. Similarly, Leeson lies on the desert floor to frame a ground-level vista of the feet of one corpse whose shoes take on an awkwardly jaunty pose; another corpse is visible in the far distance.

Edelman’s theme of children in this sequence resumes with Larry Towell’s Maternity Ward, San Salvador, El Salvador (1986), where pairs of babies are laid out head to toe in three adjacent cardboard boxes. It’s possible that the six infants are all asleep, but in the context of the surrounding imagery they look dead. After another refugee shot from Africa by Salgado, Edelman’s final image sounds an equivocal note of hope. In Webb’s Brooklyn, September 11, 2001–perhaps the most peculiar photo in the exhibition–a mother on a rooftop tends to a baby against the backdrop of a vast, gray plume of smoke looming over lower Manhattan. Spared the catastrophe just across the river, they look only at each other–their lives go on, however uneasily.

Many photojournalists welcome the chance to exhibit in a gallery, where their work will not be disfigured by cropping or distorted by captions. But there are risks when a photojournalist strays into the terrain of fine art. One photographer Edelman wanted to include in “Killer Shots” replied by e-mail: “There is no way I could be part of a show with your title! I find it objectionable in the extreme.” He also complained that her exhibition didn’t sound sufficiently “anti-Bush.”

The purpose of such a show is not obvious. In the exhibition brochure (illustrated by an awkward, almost disrespectful collage of fragments of eight photographs), Edelman urges: “We must ultimately find better ways of communicating to avoid wars and their lingering effects.” But by asking both photojournalists and their audience to consider the gallery wall as an alternative to the newspaper or magazine page, she also provokes a reconsideration of our viewing practices in both places–and perhaps a reconciliation of the two. Even reportage that’s become iconic through overexposure–Eddie Adams’s Vietnam Execution (1968) and Nick Ut’s Kim Phuc Running Down a Napalm Bombed Street in Trang Bang (1972), both included here–can be interpreted anew. “Killer Shots” also offers concerned news consumers the opportunity to buy a print and help these shooters keep shooting.