Currier Museum confronts war as hell in new ‘Dispatches’ exhibit
Friday, August 30, 2013
By GEORGE PELLETIER
MANCHESTER – Manchester’s Currier Museum presents the powerful exhibit, “Visual Dispatches from the Vietnam War,” now through Nov. 11.
Featuring 35 iconic photographers who brought the Vietnam War to the dinner table in every American household, “Dispatches” impactful imagery was the result of Currier curator Kurt Sundstrom’s exhaustive search through thousands of clips and photographs.
“It was sort of the confluence of many ideas,” Sundstrom said of the exhibit. “Historically, we’re starting to come upon a series of 50th anniversaries – the monk who set himself afire, the Kennedy assassination – so there’s that. But what the Currier has been doing over the last year and a half is to acquire photographs that depict major historical events.
And part of that was to focus that attention on documentary photography from Vietnam.”
Sundstrom said that because in the history of documentary photography, “it’s the only time that photographers had free reign to photograph war and send back images almost simultaneously to America. And it was the first time that Americans got a sense of what was going on back there.”
Those photographers, who include Horst Faas, Henri Huet, Eddie Adams, Larry Burrows and Don McCullin, provided the definitive visual record for one the most defining events in American 20th century history.
“It was an important period historically but also the period that documentary photography came into maturity and some of the best war photographers to this day were working in that war. Everything sort of came together,” Sundstrom said.
The challenges in putting together such a comprehensive exhibit lie in the acquisition of the war images.
“They were difficult for us to get for a few reasons,” Sundstrom said. “Several of the photographers, the best ones, are dead or were killed in Vietnam. They didn’t create exhibition images; the real problem was that the photographs that were created in Saigon, and then sent over by radio signals to America.”
Another problem that presented itself was that many of these images were simply press photos and many were not considered to be museum quality.
“They were horrible images,” Sundstrom continued. “So we had to go to the Associated Press, because they hold the copyright of all the images and we worked with their master printer, who actually knew some of the photographers, to generate exhibition-quality images. The other thing is that some of the photographers that are still alive and do own with their own copyrights, don’t like to go back to this. One photographer talked about how ‘damaged’ he was through the war and he does not like to print them anymore. But through his gallery, we were able to convince him to print some images for us. But it wasn’t necessarily easy.”
Sundstrom further noted there isn’t a real market for these images for other reasons as well.
“There aren’t collectors out there who want images of dead people on their wall – for good reason,” he said.
So the only “build-in market,” for these images remains in museums. “And museums are just now starting to collect images. Back in the ’60s or ’70s, there was no reason for these photographers to print these images because for whom would they be printing them?”
Upon reviewing the exhibit as a whole, Sundstrom said what struck him most was the “inhumanity” of the imagery.
“We wanted to show all aspects of war but we don’t have pictures of soldiers’ playing cards or downtime or anything,” he said. “We wanted to give a sense of what war is and select images that were so powerful that whether you’re looking at a dead soldier or dead Vietnamese or dead Vietcong, it’s about the inhumanity of war in general. When you look at it at a whole, you don’t take sides or pass judgement; rather you get a sense of sympathy or empathy for all of what these people went through regardless of their country of origin.”
He added now is an important time to revisit this part of history.
“There is a generation of kids who grew up who don’t even know where Vietnam is,” Sundstrom said. “They don’t know much about war itself. So I think there is an important educational opportunity if you look a high school and college offerings, there is a period of the ’60s that’s taught now because it was such an important period for music, for art, for everything.”
Sundstrom said even with two wars presently going on, we as a country have become desensitized.
“We’re in two wars now and we virtually hear anything on the news. We are so separated from what’s going on. I think people need to start thinking about this is what goes on in all wars and it’s really ugly and it’s really horrible,” he said. “And to be isolated is not right; these veterans go through sacrificing a lot.”
Ultimately, Sundstrom noted we need to educate ourselves about war in general.
“Images have that power. I don’t think the written word has that power that a photograph has. Even moving film does not have the power of a single photograph,” he said. “When you say Vietnam, you imagine the Napalm girl running down the street, or the man being shot in the head in Saigon. These images do have the power to change public perception.”
The Currier Museum is located at 150 Ash St., Manchester. Call 669-6144 for more information.