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Review: On the front lines with 'War/Photography' at the Annenberg

Including the American Revolution, the United States has participated in 12 major wars since the republic was founded. All but two were photographed. (The Mexican-American War of 1846-48 was the first to be documented with cameras, but just a few pictures survive.) The industrialization of war has logically coincided with the rise of machines that produce images.

Because of the camera's 1839 invention, it is a peculiarity of our nation's relatively youthful history that war photography characterizes a substantial subset of the photojournalist's art. At the Annenberg Space for Photography, a large, fascinating and often heartbreaking exhibition is the first major survey of the genre.

"War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath" includes several pictures that have become icons. Eddie Adams' brutal 1968 photograph of Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing prisoner Nguyen Van Lem in the street with a sudden bullet to the brain shocked an American audience, helping to force a confrontation over events in Vietnam.

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At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Alfred Eisenstaedt's 1945 "V-J Day, Times Square, New York" shows a sailor spontaneously kissing a nurse in the middle of a crowded street. A warrior and a healer, his clothing printed black and hers bright white, transforms a pose like Gustav Klimt's deliriously erotic painting, "The Kiss," into a compact narrative.

Joe Rosenthal's famous 1945 image of a unified group of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising a huge American flag in one continuous motion atop a peak over the Japanese island of Iwo Jima epitomized the moment when fortunes changed in the Pacific theater during the Second World War. The men, composed as an almost perfect and harmonious isosceles triangle, become a human mountain as sturdy and enduring as Mont Ste.Victoire in a painting by Cezanne. Acquisition of the classic photograph by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts prompted its organization of the exhibition, which travels to Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn after closing at Annenberg on June 2.

Icons such as these, however, are just a tiny fraction of the roughly 150 photographs in the show. (The hefty, 606-page catalog offers hundreds more.) The steady flow of images both arresting and conventional is in some ways more revealing, since they conspire to tell stories far larger and more complex than single images might convey.

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For coherence, the potentially unwieldy batch of photographs is divided into useful thematic groupings -- troop movements, leisure, refugees, shell shock and many more. (Women's faces, not incidentally, seldom appear.) Midway through, however, a unifying factor begins to emerge among the diversity.

Emblematic is "War Paint," a riveting portrait of a Marine at momentary rest during a break in fierce fighting in Najaf, Iraq, shot in 2004 by the gifted Los Angeles Times photographer Carolyn Cole. (Along with Alexandra Avakian, Ashley Gilbertson, Edouard H.R. Gluck, David Hume Kennerly and Joao Silva, Cole is also among six talented photojournalists profiled in an Annenberg documentary added to the show; it screens continuously in the gallery's central space.) The Marine -- shown in close-up and slightly off-center, which adds to the overall feeling of informality -- leans his head against his raised right arm.

His wary eyes are cast to one side, but they seem to look at nothing in particular. Casual and mysterious, the close-up portrait is characterized by extreme intimacy.

What gives the photograph dramatic resonance is the camouflage face paint, which further obscures an already anonymous soldier's face. Camouflage has one primary function -- to help make the wearer disappear. By contrast, portrait photography seeks to do the opposite -- expose the sitter. Visual tension between concealing and revealing thrums in Cole's exquisite photograph.

A military, to function effectively, must subsume the individual into the cohesive and uniform mass. (There's a reason the U.S. Army turns every soldier into a G.I. -- short for government issue.) Photographers, on the other hand, strive for intimacy -- for the closeness and familiarity that cuts through the undifferentiated aggregate.

That tension between disappearance and exposure, the many and the one, emerges as perhaps the most compelling constant throughout the exhibition, whether the photojournalist takes us to battle-weary Nicaragua, Korea, Italy or America. The erotics of war photography may in fact be its most disturbing element, as well as its most profound.

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Annenberg Space for Photography, 2000 Avenue of the Stars, Century City, (213) 403-3000, through June 2. Closed Mon. and Tue. Admission: free. www.annenbergspaceforphotography.org

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