New York

Larry Burrows

Laurence Miller Gallery

Even when they were made, Larry Burrows’ photographs of the Vietnam War seemed anachronistic. Burrows, who photographed in Vietnam on assignment for Life magazine from 1961 until his death in 1971, worked in the heroic mode that photojournalism had borrowed from painting and periodically updated. This style, in which war is hell but of a noble, macho sort, received perhaps its fullest expression in David Douglas Duncan’s gung ho photographs of the Korean War, but it can be found equally in official historical painting of World War II; a more recent example is Frederick Hart’s statuary group of American soldiers in Vietnam, erected in an attempt to clarify the ambivalent message of Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial.

For obvious reasons this grandiose approach is most apparent in Burrows’ early pictures from Vietnam. In one, eager South Vietnamese troops tumble out of a helicopter during an operation in the Mekong Delta, while an American advisor watches from inside the hull; in another a similar patrol is framed by figures standing inside the door of a helicopter. Burrows continued to work in the same vein even as the war turned bad. The result was to strain the conventions of the style, but even disaster could be made to seem elevated. In one of Burrows’ most famous images, for example, of ammunition being airlifted into Khe Sanh in 1968, a bright red Marine pennant flutters valiantly in the foreground, while a picturesque haze of smoke surrounds a howitzer in the distance.

Burrows took the kind of photographs that Life, and probably most of the American people, wanted to see. Life loved to splash his pictures across double spreads, and while the events he depicted were often horrible in themselves, when they were given the full memorializing treatment of the heroic style and the magazines heroic presentation in glorious color they became more than a little unreal—medallion images. Here this quality of the photographs was emphasized, with a press release describing the pictures as “classically composed and disturbingly beautiful.” The gallery is even publishing a portfolio of 18 of them.

These are certainly beautiful photographs, but because they had to be “official” in the way that Life had come to see itself as official, they’re inadequate to the confused complexity of Vietnam. The images that best give a sense of what the experience of the war was for those who fought it were the snapshots made by soldiers and Marines of themselves and their friends as they struggled to survive. And the most accurate reflection of the whole queasy compound of abstractions, rhetoric, and dumb brutality that made up the war was provided not in photographs but on the nightly news.

Charles Hagen