Photo exhibit is witness to wars

His kids call it "the wall of death."

Generations of startling war images hang in the living room of photojournalist David Hume Kennerly: the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, the execution of a Vietcong fighter on the streets of Saigon, and a screaming Vietnamese girl running naked toward the camera and away from a napalm bombing.

"Imagine being a kid growing up in this house," says Kennerly, whose own pictures from Vietnam won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

The photographs from his fellow wartime photographers are displayed throughout his Santa Monica home. Now 65, Kennerly's career has taken him from Southeast Asia to President Gerald Ford's White House to the final episode of "Seinfeld," but he says his war experience ultimately defined him.

PHOTOS: War photography exhibit

"My closest friends, for the most part, are people in the business who were in combat," says Kennerly, gray-bearded and fit, and preparing for a trip to Hong Kong within hours. "We all shared an exciting experience, a dangerous experience. It really made me who I am today in terms of my own views of mortality. I never thought I would see my 25th birthday."

Pictures Kennerly shot during that early stage of his career were among nearly 500 collected by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for "War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath," a 10-year project for Anne Tucker, the museum's curator of photography.

The traveling exhibition landed this week at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, with pictures that capture the extremes of human experience. There are scenes of death and horror, grief and survival, but also moments of warmth and humanity when the shooting has stopped.

Work on the exhibition began with the Houston museum's acquisition of the original 1945 print of Joe Rosenthal's "Old Glory Goes Up on Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima." From there, Tucker and her co-curators searched photo agencies, military archives, museum collections, and looked beyond the work of professional photojournalists to also include pictures by soldiers and civilians with cameras.

"When we said the word 'war,' we wanted the fullest understanding of what war is," says Tucker, who chose to include pictures from refugee camps, munitions factories and Saddam Hussein's spider-hole hideaway. "We wanted to tell the story as straight as we could and let people take it whatever way they wanted to go, to let the pictures speak for themselves."

When the photos were shown in Houston last year, military families were among the most frequent visitors. Vets used them to explain their experiences, says Tucker. "Some people came back to see the exhibition four and five times. People were crying in the gallery."

For the much smaller Annenberg Space, the number of prints has been culled to a tight 180. Other images will be accessible digitally, and the Annenberg also commissioned a half-hour documentary for the show, "The War Photographers," focusing on the careers of six contemporary photographers: Kennerly, Alexandra Avakian, Carolyn Cole, Ashley Gilbertson, Edouard H.R. Glück and João Silva. The Annenberg Foundation was a key funder of the original exhibition.

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War photographer James Nachtwey once said, "Any picture of war seems to be like a plea to stop it."

No war has ever ended because of a photograph, though two stark images from Vietnam are credited with shaking Americans enough to accelerate growing antiwar sentiment: Eddie Adams' 1968 picture of a South Vietnamese officer shooting a Vietcong prisoner in the head and Nick Ut's horrific "Napalm Girl" in 1972. Both won Pulitzer Prizes.

For more than a century, war photographs have brought something of the battlefield to the folks back home, and the news wasn't good. Kennerly points to the Civil War photographs of Alexander Gardner, the first to show images of American dead. Gardner's war pictures were recently part of an exhibition at the Huntington Library in San Marino. "Gardner was the first guy to really bring it home," Kennerly says, "and it really had an effect on people."

More recently, snapshots from inside Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq revealed abuse of prisoners by U.S. personnel and caused world outrage, while a simple picture of flag-draped coffins on a U.S. plane coming back to the United States from Iraq ignited a national debate on insensitivity from the media and censorship by the Bush administration, which had previously blocked the release of such images.

For Tucker, an image that haunts her captures the moment when something is about to happen: the view from above as a Japanese torpedo bomber prepares to strike "battleship row" in Pearl Harbor and ultimately sink the battleship Arizona and its crew.

"We know exactly when that picture was taken. The Arizona hasn't yet exploded — 4,000 people are about to die," says Tucker. "I can't look at that picture and not be affected by that thought every time."

A recurring image in the exhibition is known as the thousand-yard stare, seen in battlefield portraits of Korean War GIs by David Douglas Duncan, and more recently in the weary, grit-smeared face of the "Marlboro Marine" by Los Angeles Times photographer Luis Sinco, taken during a moment of calm in a 2004 attack on Fallujah, Iraq.

There are private tragedies, including Henri Huet's 1965 photograph of the last rites being given over the body of photographer Dickey Chapelle, the first female correspondent killed in Vietnam.

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Risk is the eternal factor of the battlefield. In 2011, photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed in Libya during shelling by Moammar Kadafi forces of the rebel-held city of Misurata.

"Everybody stops at some point," says Tucker of conflict photographers. "The death of Tim Hetherington made quite a number of people decide, 'OK, I'm not doing this anymore.' That was a huge loss."

Yet just last year, war photographer Don McCullin spent a week in Syria at age 77, nine years after retiring from the frontlines, during a career gathering scenes of violence and devastation that stretched from Cambodia to Northern Ireland.

Before he left for Vietnam in 1971, 24-year-old Kennerly was invited to a New York photography salon attended by war-zone vets W. Eugene Smith and Duncan, who gave the young photographer some essential advice.

"It was, 'Stick with the old sarge,'" says Kennerly, who spent more than two years in the war-ravaged country, shooting traditional black and white documentary images of Americans patrolling the devastated landscape of Vietnam, American POWs in custody, and local villagers caught amid the fighting. "It was simple advice, but it was real good advice. The idea was to hang out with people who really have been there and knew what they were doing and more likely to stay alive through their experience."

Alexandra Avakian covered warfare for 10 years, ending in 1996. Her attention has since shifted to "the human cost" to civilians grappling with the aftermath. In the exhibition is her 1994 photograph of young Israeli men and women relaxing on the beach in Gaza, with automatic rifles within reach. The picture suggests the mingling of normal life and war as a matter of routine.

"For Americans it's especially surprising because we don't see guns out in the open a lot," says Avakian, 52, who grew up in Malibu and Santa Monica the daughter and stepdaughter of movie directors. "It's something you notice as an American in a lot of countries — weapons are carried openly in prosaic situations."

PHOTOS: War photography exhibit

Avakian was based in Gaza for two years. In 1995, she was severely beaten during three days of riots by Hamas against the Palestinian Authority. In those years, there were far fewer women shooting in war zones, though an early inspiration for her was the frontline work in Nicaragua of Susan Meiselas (also part of "War/Photography"). Women are fully represented now, regularly winning Pulitzers and other major prizes for their work.

"I'm always really careful when I teach that I don't jazz kids up on this stuff, because it can look very exciting," says Avakian, who now lives outside Washington, D.C. "It's a certain combination of skills and experience that come together to make you able to get in and out of situations, to be able to shoot pictures close enough to make them good, and yet hopefully not be killed. There's wisdom, but there's also luck involved."

Los Angeles Times photographer Carolyn Cole never imagined herself shooting war when she began exploring photography in college. Cole's perspective began to expand while covering border issues for a newspaper in El Paso, Texas, and later at the devastation after the Oklahoma City bombing.

In 2004, she won a Pulitzer Prize for pictures from the civil war in Liberia for The Times. Her pictures taken while embedded with U.S. Marines during the battle of Najaf, Iraq, that same year are included in "War/Photography."

"Maybe I'm Type A, but I like to be in fast-moving situations," Cole explains. "I don't think of my work as documentary. No matter what or where my assignment is, I try to determine what is the news of the day and to make pictures that best represent that. I want people to care about what's going on in the world, as I do."

Australian-born photographer Ashley Gilbertson spent six years shooting combat in Iraq, yet had his greatest impact once he returned to the U.S. and began shooting the empty bedrooms left behind by the dead.

In one picture after another in his series, "Bedrooms of the Fallen," is evidence not of hardened soldiers like those he met in the field but of recent adolescence: movie posters, stuffed animals, Little League trophies.

He would spend up to six hours in a bedroom, searching for the precise angle that communicated the most about the soldier in a single frame or simply to wait for the most evocative light to come through a window. Gilbertson photographed 40 bedrooms, the final one just two months ago in Midland, Texas.

"Shooting the bedrooms was the hardest thing I've done," says Gilbertson, who lives in New York. "It was so emotional. On the frontlines, it's dangerous and you have to stay alive, but there's something sort of basic about it. Even in war, you have a disconnect: You can't deal with your emotions — otherwise you can break down, and then it becomes dangerous. But the bedrooms, I had to be very emotionally connected and close with the families. So I would leave these rooms feeling like I knew the kids but knowing I'll never meet them."

At 35, Gilbertson has retired from shooting war. With a wife and 3-year-old at home, he no longer feels the desire to risk so much.

"I reached a level in which I couldn't face it anymore," he explains. "Part of me still wants to do it, but a larger part of me wants to find other ways of doing this. It all comes down to tolerance. How much can you tolerate doing this?"

steve.appleford@latimes.com

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