RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
D-Day soldiers landing on Omaha Beach. A naked Vietnamese girl running from napalm. A Spanish loyalist collapsing to the ground in death. These images of war, and some 300 others, are on view right now at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Pictures from the 19th century to today, taken by commercial photographers, military photographers, amateurs and artists. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg says these images are the evidence that remains.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: In 1945 in the Pacific, Joe Rosenthal, an AP photographer, took one of the best known war pictures of all times. Five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima.
LOUIE PALU: There's all those guys raising the flag. It's such an important and historic photograph, but I don't know who any of those guys are.
STAMBERG: The iconic Rosenthal image became an inspiration when documentary photographer Louie Palu went to make his own war pictures.
PALU: I wanted to meet the guys in that photograph. I wanted to know the name, the age, how young or how old they looked. I didn't want it to be an anonymous set of people raising a flag.
STAMBERG: So when Palu was embedded with troops in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2008, he made close-up portraits of the men. One of Palu's portraits became the signature image of this war photography show.
PALU: He's a U.S. Marine, Gunnery Sergeant Carlos O.J. Orjuela.
STAMBERG: Thirty-one years old, his face under his helmet, caked with mud and sweat and exhaustion. He'd already served in Iraq and now Afghanistan. What does this face say to you?
PALU: It says I want to go home.
STAMBERG: I'll tell you what I see. I see utter exhaustion. I see eyes that have seen everything, and within that exhaustion know that tomorrow they're gonna have to go back and see more of the same. At the Corcoran, wall after wall, photo after photo, black and white, color, by men and women famous and unknown. In this day of the moving image, on movie screens, TV screens, smartphones, curator Anne Tucker, who originated the show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, says still pictures like these remain for a reason.
ANNE TUCKER: Still photographs log into our brains differently than moving pictures, and therefore they still have power and they still connect with us.
STAMBERG: They're frozen moments. Not ever-changing blinks. They make us stop and look. You can't take your eyes off the beautiful young soldier with the chiseled cheeks and dirty clothes in a photograph taken in Vietnam in 1971. Resting for a moment, the man sits on the broken track of an armored personnel carrier he's repairing. With long, soiled fingers he holds a clipping from some weekly livestock report and stares into space. Photojournalist David Burnett took this picture of the soldier lost in thought.
DAVID BURNETT: And he almost has what they used to call the thousand-yard stare, you know. He's just kind of thinking - I don't know what he's thinking. He's reading a letter from home and it's just a picture that kind of captures him in this moment of pondering what the rest of his life was like when he wasn't being a combat soldier.
STAMBERG: David Burnett didn't know right away what a powerful image he'd gotten.
BURNETT: My film went into an envelope, was sent to Saigon, put on a plane, it went to New York, it was developed, it was edited, and the first I even saw the picture was about 10 days later when Time magazine published the photograph.
STAMBERG: Photojournalist Burnett didn't get the soldier's name, or age, or hometown, and he regrets that.
BURNETT: Every time I walk into a diner now and I'll see a couple of Vietnam vets sitting around talking, I'll just wonder, could this be the guy from my picture? I would love to be able to find him before one of us passes away.
STAMBERG: Burnett and the young tank repairman made an anonymous passage through one another's lives. And yet that soldier haunts the photographer.
BURNETT: Now, 42 years later, just to go have a cup of coffee with this guy, I'd love to do that.
STAMBERG: What's the purpose of these pictures? Image after image of men, mostly, at war, carrying guns, under fire, running from or towards danger. Killing, being killed.
JOHN MORRIS: We needed to tell the public, the public of the entire world, what war is really like.
STAMBERG: During World War II, John Morris ran Life magazine's London office. He was photographer Robert Capa's editor, and later the picture editor at The New York Times, the Washington Post. Morris says the public doesn't get to see everything, not all of war's brutalities.
MORRIS: As a picture editor, I've often had to make decisions about what the public needs to see and what is going to make the reader throw up. It's a fine line. At The New York Times I had a bottom drawer full of pictures that were unpublishable, mostly because they just - they were too much to take. One doesn't want to wipe the public in blood. One wants to get the public to learn to avoid bloodshed.
STAMBERG: Even if the bloodiest images were published, Afghanistan photographer Louie Palu says war pictures miss some important elements.
PALU: I'm not really showing what it's like. You have to imagine people screaming and moaning, the last sound before they die, I mean the smell, men weeping, the sound of flesh as people drag a casualty down a trench.
STAMBERG: No photograph can capture the full horror. You have to be there, fight the war, to get it. And war photographers have to take enormous risks to get the pictures that will make an impact. Editor John Morris, a Quaker, says most of those picture-takers, the ones who witness in our behalf, are fundamentally opposed to the very evidence they are capturing with their cameras.
MORRIS: Photographers, generally, who risk their lives are pacifists, but they sometimes question whether their work has accomplished what they hoped.
BURNETT: I think he has a point there.
STAMBERG: Again, photojournalist David Burnett.
BURNETT: The more you've seen of death and inhumanity, the more it turns you into someone who really can't stand the sight of war.
STAMBERG: This exhibition at Washington's Corcoran Gallery, "War Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath," has that effect on visitors. They walk away in silence, their heads down. The pictures, on view through the end of September, are mercifully the closest many of us will get to actual combat. Yet seeing them changes, sobers viewers and reminds us there are still men and women out there experiencing and documenting war in our behalf. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: At NPR.org you can see pictures from that exhibit. It's NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.