October 16, 2012 4:00 AM EDT

War/Photography, on view from Nov. 11 to Feb. 3, is a magnificent, wide-ranging exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. As chief curator Anne Wilkes Tucker explains in the sumptuous catalogue, that slash in the title is important: this is not a show simply of photographs of war. It’s a demonstration and examination of the relationship between the two and how that relationship has changed over time. There are plenty of images of combat, but the catchment area extends way beyond the battlefield–both in space and in time–to include preparations for war, refugees fleeing its consequences, damage to property and the physical and psychological aftermath of conflict. Taken by some of the most famous photographers—more than 280 are showcased—in the history of the medium, by aerial reconnaissance units and unknown combatants and civilians, the pictures are drawn from the archives of photo agencies such as Magnum, military archives and personal family albums. It’s a stunning show, full of well-known pictures, surprising new ones and—if one consults the catalogue—surprises about well-known pictures.

More than a few of the featured pictures have been either faked or staged. That is to put it too simply, for the slipperiness of the distinction between “real” and “arranged”, or “genuine” and “fake”, turns out to be one of the themes of the show. The problem crops up right from the get-go, with Roger Fenton’s famous pair of pictures of the Valley of Death (1856) from the Crimean war—one of which shows cannonballs strewn more abundantly than the other. (slide #1) The scholarly war over which picture was taken first continues to rage. I thought this question had been definitively settled by Errol Morris in his book Believing is Seeing but John Stauffer argues in the catalogue for precisely the opposite conclusion. The “Dead Rebel Sharp Shooter” in Alexander Gardner’s famous image from the Civil War (slide #2) was dragged to the place where he is seen to have died and arranged in such a way that the rifle — not his own but a prop carried by the photographer — added extra pathos.

As with the Civil War, so in the First World War: it was impossible to take pictures of actual combat. One of the reasons why the famous footage of soldiers going over the top at the Battle of the Somme is faked is because it is on film. Filmed at a training ground, it shows a soldier who is shot, falls down, looks at the camera — and folds his arm before dying. Among the most spectacular images of the war, James Frank Hurley’s “An Episode after the Battle of Zonnebeke” (c.1918) (slide #3) seems like a composite expression of our idea of the Western Front — because, it turns out, it is a composite print made from multiple negatives. As Siegfried Sassoon wrote in his poem “Cinema Hero”: “It’s the truth/That somehow never happened.”

The complexity of Hurley’s image is in stark contrast to Wesley David Archer’s photograph of a pilot who has bailed out of his burning plane (c.1933) (slide #4). It is a picture full of suspense because we don’t know whether the parachute is going to open. What we do now know, courtesy of his widow, is that it was done with a model airplane. Armed with this knowledge you go back to the original and… it still looks amazing! You don’t feel cheated so much as admiring of someone who could create such a truth after (or independent of ) the fact.

Everyone is familiar with the doubts that continue to swirl around Robert Capa’s picture of the “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman” (1936) (slide #5) in the Spanish Civil War. No one can agree on exactly the circumstances in which it was made. And so, ironically, while photography is generally assumed to be strong as evidence but weak in meaning, Capa’s photograph has come to resemble painting, of which the contrary is held to be true. Joe Rosenthal’s image of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima in 1945 is an especially complicated case in that it was widely assumed to have been staged, faked, rigged or something like that, even if we can’t remember exactly what is supposed to have gone on because it’s all a bit muddled up with memories of the Clint Eastwood film about what happened.

The full story, as narrated in the catalogue, is that the flag was raised twice — not for Rosenthal’s benefit but, in the words of the Lieutenant Colonel who ordered it to be done, “so that every son-of-a-bitch on this whole cruddy island (could) see it.” (slide #6) How do we know this is accurate? Because there are photographs – i.e. photographs of the sequence of events that led to Rosenthal taking his photograph – to prove it. (see below) In any case, the success of Rosenthal’s image was due to the way that it not only recorded a moment and event but, in doing so, expressed a truth of enduring – even mythic – proportions about the Marine Corps. The same could be said of Len Chetwyn’s iconic picture from the North Africa (1942) campaign: a photograph which proves, at the most basic level, that this was indeed a battle waged by men in shorts! (not shown). The fact that a detail from it is used on the cover of a beautiful Australian edition of Alan Moorhead’s African Trilogy highlights the way that documentary veracity and imaginative truth are mutually supporting. The surprising thing – which turns out not to be so surprising if we consider how perfectly the picture is composed and lit — is that it’s the photograph that provides the imaginative half of that equation. Smoke grenades had indeed been deployed, but for pictorial effect rather than combat effectiveness.

You might be scrambling to come up with a new password after news Tuesday of a vicious software bug that leaves our bank information, credit card numbers, emails, passwords and other sensitive and supposedly protected information vulnerable to being exposed. While Heartbleed's danger lies in the fact that it can grab information like passwords and credit card information while you're typing it in, it can also pluck usernames and passwords for decoding as well. But while our brains are powerful and arguably more flexible than computers, there are certain things that silicon-based programming does better than the cells and nerves that make up our three-pound "hard drive." Generating and remembering passwords is one of them. Ideally, it’s best to have a different password for every account that contains private information: emails, bank accounts, and your favorite online shopping sites. The best passwords, we're told over and over again, are alphanumeric, and not based on something that hackers can use as leverage to break your code, like birthdays or wedding anniversaries or addresses. Random number generators that require you to punch in a different number each time you log in are probably the best passwords around. MORE: Change Your Passwords: A Massive Bug Has Put Your Details at RiskPosts But practically speaking, your brain doesn't work like that. The brain is more like a detective, using clues and prompts to pull up things from our memory banks. “The brain is designed to remember things that mean something,” says Dr. Glenn Finney, chief of behavioral neurology at the University of Florida and member of the American Academy of Neurology, and “forget things that are useless or don’t mean anything, which is the opposite of what we’re told to use in generating passwords.” Blame evolution. Before the age of encryption and logins, nurturing irrelevant information wasn’t a benefit to survival. In fact, doing so could crowd out other, more relevant information, such as where those life-threatening tigers liked to roam. So we’ve come to remember by association; the more salient and meaningful something is to you, the more likely you are to remember it. Not only that, but the memories that the brain stores are also malleable, modified ever so slightly by your experiences, past and present. “Items that you already learned can interfere with what you are trying to learn if there are similarities or differences between them,” says Dr. Barry Gordon, professor of neurology and cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University. “And what you are learning now can interfere with older memories in retrospect. All those factors conspire to be the exact opposite of what you want in remembering a strong password.” MORE: How to Protect Yourself Against the Heartbleed Bug Hackers know this. So if you’re trying to diffuse the next Heartbleed Bug (and you know there will be one), don’t fall back on your brain. Think more like a computer instead. You can take something that means something to you, like a phrase or favorite object, but try turning it into symbols or numbers. At least that way you aren't fighting evolution -- but the code won’t be entirely random.
Louis R. Lowery / Bob Campbell / Bill Genaust — The Museum of Fine Arts Houston

So there is a delicious irony, in a show that is so scrupulous and judicious in its investigation of the relationship between real and doctored pictures that the catalogue seems, in one instance, to have fallen victim to a booby-trap in its midst. John Filo’s photograph of the killings at Kent State in 1970 shows a distraught woman kneeling over the body of a dead student. Unfortunately it so happened that a pole in the background looked like it was coming out of her head. Since this pole was aesthetically unpleasing, it was removed from the picture as published in Life magazine and elsewhere. Amazingly this clumsily doctored version – you can see quite clearly how the pole has been erased – is the one printed in the War/Photography catalogue! (slide #7)

Beyoncé's better half dropped three very important things this year: his 12th studio album, his stake in the Brooklyn Nets and the hyphen in his name.
Courtesy of Jeff Wall

As we move into the contemporary the distinction between art and documentary becomes increasingly hard to sustain—or to put it the other way around, the No-Man’s Land between the two grows ever larger—as shown in works by color photographer Luc Delahaye (slide #8) and photojournalist Damon Winter’s Gurskey-esque view of a plane-load of troops “Flying Military Class” (slide #9). In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag argued that Jeff Wall’s “fictional” image “Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan)” was among the most successful war photographs of recent times. (note: Wall’s image is not part of the War/Photography exhibition) So perhaps Peter van Agtmael’s well-known shot of a line of U.S. troops sheltering from the downdraft of a helicopter in a rocky grey landscape in Nuristan, Afghanistan, in 2007, works on us powerfully for two reasons. (note: van Agtmael’s image is not part of the War/Photography exhibition) First because a compositional similarity to W. Eugene Smith’s shot of Marines sheltering from an explosion on Iwo Jima in 1945 (slide #10) establishes its place in the heroic and noble tradition of documentary photography. Second, because an uncanny resemblance to Wall’s image tacitly acknowledges that the fictive now sets a standard of authenticity to which the real is obliged to aspire.

We're guessing Rascal Flatts wishes they could rewind their Sunday night performance of "Rewind" — the award-winning trio admitted to poorly lip syncing at the Academy of Country Music Awards, which didn't come as a surprise to fans. The group posted a statement on Facebook and Twitter on Monday, saying: “After having performed several shows earlier in the week, Gary lost his voice. So instead of canceling our commitment to do the show, we made a last minute decision to lip-sync. We’ve never done it before, and obviously we’re not very good at it. We look forward to singing live again in the very near future!” Watch the video above to see what happened.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum

The relationship between Wall’s large works and the scale and ambition of history paintings has often been remarked on. But Gary Knight’s picture from Dyala Bridge, Iraq, 2003 (slide #11) achieves an even more remarkable relationship with the art of the past. A photograph taken in the immediate aftermath of fighting, it combines the documentary immediacy and evidential power of the best photojournalism with the epic grandeur of history painting.

Geoff Dyer is an award-winning writer and journalist. See more of his work here.

WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath will open at the Museum of Fine Art Houston on Nov. 11, 2012. The exhibit will then travel to Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and Brooklyn Museum through February 2014.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

EDIT POST