Something clicked with Madison photojournalist Michael Kienitz when he saw images of children navigating bombed-out Lebanese neighborhoods during the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. "Nothing had changed," says an astonished Kienitz, who'd snapped pictures of kids in nearly the same landscape during the first Lebanon war in the 1980s. "Everything looked exactly the same."
That grim eureka became the genesis for "Small Arms - Children of Conflict," a new show at the Chazen Museum of Art that collects photographs Kienitz took of kids a quarter century ago while covering war and other scenes of adult-generated strife in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Central America and the U.S. Some of the photos, such as one that shows a curious Nicaraguan boy meeting the gaze of Kienitz's lens while his friends inspect a table laden with decapitated bodies and severed human heads, are shocking and unforgettable.
But some are more subtle. A stark shot of a tiny boy dressed in a grime-smudged sweater and pants walking in front of a collapsed brick building could be just another artful study in the textures of urban decay. That is, until you're informed that the rubble was an impromptu bomb factory that blew up by accident, a fact that even Kienitz didn't know until he returned to Northern Ireland earlier this year to track down and re-photograph the grown-up children he'd committed to film half a lifetime ago.
Much of the work at the Chazen was snapped in color while Kienitz was working on assignment or shooting freelance for U.S. News and World Report, Der Spiegel, The New York Times, The Capital Times and dozens of other periodicals. And while Kienitz always recognized his pictures of children as some of his most powerful work, they often weren't the kinds of shots his employers were looking for.
"Most of the time, they wanted the bang bang!" he notes. "You know, 'What about our troops?' But the most compelling shots were always of children and the elderly, the people most affected by war."
Despite their obvious power, Kienitz had never thought seriously about displaying the "Small Arms" pictures in a gallery setting. Indeed, for a long time, he thought "museums were god-awful places to view photojournalism." But an evolution in his thinking (he now sees museums as "good places for people to ponder"), along with interest from Chazen director Russell Panczenko, convinced him that a full-scale Chazen show was worth the effort. With help from Panczenko, he culled shots for the exhibit from his large archive. And as the project developed, he digitally converted everything to black-and-white, which he feels arrests the eye's tendency to dart around a color image.
Kienitz is pleased with how the exhibit has evolved. He's especially excited about the large blow-ups of several of the photos that were rendered by Great Big Pictures, and he's taken pains to turn the book that accompanies the exhibit into "more than a catalog."
But he also makes a point of noting that "Small Arms" really isn't meant to shine a light on his long career as a photojournalist. "I would hope that people would come away with the idea that 'Maybe there's something I could do to make the world a better place.' If they also find the photographs artistic or esthetically pleasing - well, that's great."
"Small Arms - Children of Conflict: Photographs by Michael Kienitz," Chazen Museum of Art, through Oct. 28. Reception: Friday, Sept. 7, 6:30-8 pm. Kienitz lectures at 5:30 pm