Photo Ops

James Nachtwey has been described--by a fellow photographer--as the Angel of Death. If you see Nachtwey in a ravaged land, and people are not dying in front of his lens, they soon will be. Amongst the dirt and blood and shell casings, he prowls with unreal grace. His hair is well groomed, his attire just so. As he steps gingerly around the rubble, you could be forgiven for wondering if he got lost on his way to a Paris soiree. It's not surprising, then, that Nachtwey's photos benefit from a similar tension between the gruesome and the elegant. He captures on film the worst the world has to offer: the starving, the diseased, the wounded and the dead. But the composition of the photos imposes a meticulous kind of beauty, and the scenes often glow in a warm, almost ethereal light.

Perhaps no book captures the horror of recent years more beautifully than "War" (415 pages. Design. Method of Operation Ltd.), a massive volume of photographs and short essays. Nachtwey and eight other top war photographers contributed to the book; all are members of VII, a cooperative agency founded in 2001. The volume opens on 9/11 of that year: as it happens, Nachtwey was at home in his apartment in lower Manhattan when the planes hit. The other contributors, including NEWSWEEK contract photographers Gary Knight and Ron Haviv, mostly bear witness--with disturbing intimacy--to atrocity, despair, heroism and humiliation in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Many of the photos are haunting: a man waving a cane in the gloom--and beating white doves into the air--in Mazar-e Sharif after the city's fall to the Northern Alliance; the otherworldly orange of Iraqi civilians surrendering in a dust storm; black-veiled women sobbing in a mosque mortuary. Then there are photos that aren't so beautiful, like the scene shot by Knight during the battle for Diyala Bridge in Iraq, where a soldier appears to have his head on the wrong way, or not at all. Those are photos you want to turn away from, which is precisely as it should be in a book called "War."