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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cardinal Stritch's Profound 'Face of War'

Art Review

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Photojournalists are the rare artists whose work can put them in harm's way. Some of these artists are even sent into combat situations in order to capture unfolding conflicts for the public. The exhibition "The Face of War: Vietnam Combat Photographers" at Cardinal Stritch University's Northwestern Mutual Art Gallery displays poignant, striking images from Army and freelance photographers during the Vietnam War.

The exhibition features a number of photographs by Robert J. Ellison, whose work during the 1960s graced the covers of Ebony, Jet and Time. Ellison was exempt from fighting in Vietnam because his father had been killed in the Philippines in 1945 during World War II, but nonetheless he headed overseas to prove his photographic worth. One of his final photographs would become the cover for Newsweek on March 18, 1968, printed posthumously after Ellison's plane encountered ground fire and exploded on March 6. Ellison died at age 23, as did his father. His untitled photos serve as a reminder of his art and legacy.

Ellison's color prints captured indelible images of war—soldiers praying in bunkers, a man trying to shave in a rice field, faces covered in dirt, young men scared and waiting to see what the next moment might offer.

Other artists in the exhibition include photographers from the Department of the Army Special Photographic Office (DASPO), such as Robert Lafoon, Roger Hawkins and Dick Durrance. Taped interviews with surviving photographers, played in the background, add voices to these unique visions.

The prints never sensationalize combat, but rather attempt to relay the somber realities for those who have never experienced war.

Combat, violence and the documentation of war continue to be relevant topics, as seen in this exhibition with the inclusion of a May 2011 New York Times Magazine article titled "The Inner Lives of Wartime Photographers and the Moral Burden of Putting Them in Harm's Way."

How close must photojournalists be to the action to tell these stories? While walking through the exhibition, study the eyes and faces of chaplains, soldiers, women and children—all participants in conflicts often beyond their control. The photographs offer a profound opportunity to contemplate the how, who and why through the context of art instead of political rhetoric—a less confrontational, more powerful and eternally relevant discussion.

"The Face of War" continues through July 31. A closing reception takes place 5-8 p.m. on Gallery Night, July 29.