Arts Desk

Reviewed: Civil War Photographs and Tim Hetherington at the Corcoran Gallery of Art

The Corcoran Gallery of Art is smart to have paired an exhibit of Civil War photographs with images from the war in Afghanistan: The artistic techniques are far more advanced than they were 150 years ago, but the battlefields they depict are timelessly grim. The Civil War collection is more scattershot—the modest-sized survey includes works by seven different photographers in a wide variety of sizes and techniques, including tintypes, ambrotypes and cartes d’visites—and the long exposure times and complicated processing then required meant that virtually all of the war-related images were staged to one degree or another. Still, the wreckage, human and physical, is evident, such as in two deservedly famous images by Alexander Gardner—one of fallen sharpshooter, and the other of burned-out ruins of the Norfolk, Va., navy yard. Another Gardner image, less well-known, is striking for its contrast of destroyed buildings with an inexplicably peaceful, glimmering river. Equally striking in their own way are a series of unstereotypical images from the period—a woman wearing a pro-secession sash, a “young, biracial artilleryman,” and a solider of Asian ancestry. Flash forward to the present and you have the documentary work of Tim Hetherington, who was embedded with Army troops in a remote region of Afghanistan for 15 months in 2007 and 2008. (The exhibit is posthumous; Hetherington was killed while on assignment in Misurata, Libya, on April 20, 2011.) His images—of resting, exhausted soldiers, of spidery smoke rising from a hillside village, of military hazing rituals—are straightforward but effective, with resonance to the World War II images of W. Eugene Smith and any number of Vietnam War photographers. But most impressive is Hetherington’s three-channel video, in which the central panel shows a sleeping soldier while the right and left screens show footage of combat operations; at times, the images overlap, suggesting a dream or, worse, PTSD.

Through May 20, 2012, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 Seventeenth Street NW Washington, D.C.

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