At war, with just a pen and brush
Steve Mumford joined the ranks of combat artists armed only with a sketch pad. He spent 10 months embedded with US troops.
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Mumford would ask before sketching a soldier if he felt he might be intruding on a private moment. Nonetheless, the watercolors and drawings in the book reflect what seem to be dozens of private moments - soldiers on guard duty in a state of suspended watchfulness, an Iraqi shopkeeper's son sitting patiently in the street, an Iraqi man staring pensively at the ground in a tumbledown neighborhood. These are moments that make up the human drama that Mumford experienced in Iraq, in all its tedium, fear, anger, patience, pride, and hope.Skip to next paragraph
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These qualities animate Mumford's work, which started as sketches that he photographed digitally in Iraq and sent home as computer files. About one-third of his pieces were worked on further after he returned to New York. "Drawing is more subtle and can tell a story better than a photograph," he says.
Although Mumford praises the work of photojournalists, he sees drawing as more finely tuned to the subjective rather than the literal. We all recall things differently, he says, and in the hour or so spent drawing, he can bring aspects to the fore for emphasis, whereas a photographer captures strictly what the lens sees.
For many combat artists, the depiction of hardware - weapons and machinery - is the key to authenticity. Mumford's work contains convincing images of razor wire, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and M-16s, but they are incidental. The real story is conveyed in a soldier's stance, an expression, or a gesture. "I wanted to capture the human drama, and props were crucial to let you know you were in Iraq," he says, "but the people came first."
The Iraq trips, which Mumford pursued as a means of building a body of drawings for the book, troubled his wife. "We had a deal that I could stay as long as I wanted on the last trip, but it would truly be the last," Mumford says. "I would call her every day, so she would know I was OK. I sometimes lied about what I was doing so she wouldn't worry too much."
Now, back at home in New York, Mumford recalls with greatest fondness the Iraqi artists he befriended. "They told me how bad things were under Saddam - the psychological damage [done] to several generations of Iraqis." Mumford did not support the American invasion, but after his visits, he says he began to separate US government policies from the actions of the military men and women who were sent there.
This view did not sit well with some in the art world who were opposed to the war. Still, Mumford's work garnered attention from ABC News to National Public Radio. Audiences responded to his evenhanded treatment of Iraq.
"He showed a constructive effort running alongside the destructive element," says Kenneth Baker, art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Mumford's art "embarrassed other politically oriented contemporary art.... The risk involved [in doing the drawings] was real. You don't see that very often," Mr. Baker says.
Mumford came away from Iraq with a favorable, though not uncritical view of the military. "It's about patriotism, about getting the job done, not about the politics. They take pride in their work, and want to be appreciated."
Soldiers responded positively to Mumford's postings on artnet.com, he says.
"They liked the grittiness and the realism, probably because I kept all the swear words," he says with a laugh.