Steve Mumford Interviewed by Reuters

“FEATURE-Embedded artist gives another perspective on Iraq war.” / Reuters News / Claudia Parsons / January 10, 2005

NEW YORK, Jan 10 (Reuters) - The world has seen more images from the war in Iraq than of any conflict in history, from film of tanks advancing on Baghdad to digital pictures of prisoner abuse, but artist Steve Mumford is offering something else.

The 44-year-old New Yorker, whose previous works include pictures of wolves in a forest and sharks underwater, seems an unlikely heir to the man he cites as a hero, Winslow Homer who documented the American Civil War for Harper's Weekly.

With no official links to the military, which has its own combat artists, Mumford decided to travel to Iraq independently within days of the U.S.-led invasion.

He reported back only to an arts Web site called artnet.com, writing a "Baghdad journal" about his experiences illustrated by his drawings and paintings that have since been shown in a New York gallery and which go on tour early this year.

Mumford explains his decision as a logical extension of his interest in conflict in nature, which developed into a fascination with the Vietnam war in the year before the Iraq war. "Suddenly it occurred to me I'm interested in war, the story of war. I'm not sure why," Mumford said in an interview.

"I'm also very interested in combat art which has been this genre for a long, long time though it's slowly died since World War Two. So I thought, why don't I just go."

ARTIST AS WITNESS

He borrowed tens of thousands of dollars to buy a flak jacket and helmet, satellite communications gear and other equipment. Mumford, who grew up in Boston, traveled to Iraq via Cairo and Kuwait in April 2003.

"Since I'd never been to a war zone before I thought maybe I'll just freak out when I get to Kuwait City and fly right home," he recalled. Instead, he reached Baghdad and has now made four trips to Iraq, staying several months each time both "embedded" with U.S. troops and living and working independently.

"What really interested me was returning to the idea of the artist as witness, having a first person encounter with an event and describing in very personal and subjective terms what that event is all about," he said in his New York studio.

The earliest installments of the journal include pictures of ordinary life in Baghdad - backgammon players in a teahouse, salesmen on a street corner. Others record the time he spent with the military in Tikrit, Baquba and Ramadi - cities whose names alone conjure up images of violence.

MIXED REACTIONS TO SUBJECTIVE VIEW

"The drawings have attracted a lot of attention though the attention is mixed," Mumford said. "Most artists are pretty strongly politically against the war so there's been criticism that the drawings seem too neutral."

He says he felt no compulsion to be objective since he was an artist rather than a journalist.

"If I was with a military unit and I felt like these guys were doing a good job ... and they were good guys, I tended to identify with them and be supportive of their mission."

"At the same time if I was with Iraqis, especially my Iraqi friends, I would try to reflect that subjectively too."

On his most recent visit from June to October last year, Mumford joined a unit patrolling part of Baghdad.

His journal tells of cramming into Bradley armored vehicles with soldiers, creeping up to a rooftop during a gunbattle to make his daily phone-call to his wife and lying flat behind a U.S. sniper to sketch him as he came under fire.

His art has been on show in New York gallery and will appear in Michigan at the end of January and in Miami in April. A book of 200 to 250 pictures is due out in September.

While military families might seem the obvious buyers of his work, Mumford says the price tag of $1,500 for a fully worked up painting may be too high for many of them.

"These drawings are not only a rare record of the stuff that I did over there, but they're also an important part of me making a living," said Mumford, whose wife is also an artist.

Mumford said he had grown progressively more pessimistic since his first visit because security has deteriorated to the extent that he said Iraq was almost in a state of civil war just weeks before elections at the end of January.

He is still in contact with several Iraqi friends as well as a few U.S. soldiers, but he has no plans to return.

"Being in a war zone is a very high adrenalin experience ... almost like a drug, but I felt every time I got in a Bradley the risk was going up a little bit more," he said.

Document LBA0000020050110e11a00ezk

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