Friday, 12 December 2014

Conflict - Time - Photography

An exhibition at the Tate Modern

According to the blurb this exhibition “concerns the relationship between photography and sites of conflict over time…” It does this through the device of displaying images grouped by their distance in time from the original event which occurred at the site. The first image that you really notice as you enter the exhibition is McCullin’s “Shell Shocked US Marine, 1968” – which is as haunting at 4 feet high as it is in a book. It is one of the few genuine pieces of war journalism in the exhibition – not altogether surprising perhaps, and I wasn’t fully convinced that it was really comfortable in a gallery. It is accompanied by a rather more gallery friendly Delahaye of Afghanistan – instantly recognisable by what I perceive as his signature style – and rather more unexpectedly by Broomberg and Chanarin’s “The day nobody died”. The latter appeared to generate either puzzlement or apathy among the visitors – which is a shame as the underlying dig at embedded journalism asks some serious questions about the way we receive military news.

Moving on we had the famous “Valley of the shadow of death” by Fenton – both the changed and unchanged images. If the text is to be believed it is no longer clear that he moved the cannon-balls as is often claimed – which I find oddly satisfying given my relationship with documentary – a kind of “why should we believe one version over the other in the absence of corroborating evidence?” At around the same timescale we also had a moving collection of images of the ruins of Reims from shortly after WW1 (Anthony-Thouret, 1927). Much attention is paid to the trench warfare and this was a sombre reminder of the impact of all wars on civilian populations as well.

Extending the timescales slightly we have Sophie Ristelhueber’s images of the desert shortly after Gulf War 1. They are blown up large and assembled into a multi wall display which is probably 20’ high. For me these were some of the most impactful images in the exhibition investigating the left over impact of war at a range of scales from high aerial photos to close ups of shoes and clothing. Like one of those fractal images that looks the same at any magnification this is chaos all the way down.

At this stage it struck me that there were very few people in the images I had seen to date – and this was an ongoing theme throughout. On the multi-year timescales we had images of US Civil war sites alongside the Nicaraguan revolution and a number of other “lesser known” conflicts. We also began to see the first of the A-bomb aftermath and Nazi related collections – both of which were also regular themes.

By the time we reached 15-35 years the images were beginning to induce a distressing numbness – and yet they were compulsively viewable. A number of prominent Japanese works on Hiroshima and Nagasaki including images by Domon, Tomatsu, Sato and others underlined the lasting impact that nuclear weapons have on location, people and psyche This was completed by the complete set of images from Kawada’s Maps which contrasts images taken near ground zero with personal memorials from families of Japanese pilot – illustrating the difference in individual Japanese experience of the war. A little later in the exhibition this was capped off by Tsuchida’s collection n of personal objects mutilated by the explosion.

Almost every image in this exhibition is thought provoking about so I’m just going to finish with a couple more collections. Taryn Simon had two works from A Living Man Presumed Dead – the first was a photographic family tree of a family related to several victims of the Srebrenica massacre – with gaps stranding in for missing people and bone and dental fragments recovered from mass graves standing in for identified victims – chilling. In a parallel work later on she documented the descendants of Hitler’s lawyer some of whom still did not wish to be associated with him – 3 generations later. Simon remains one of my favourite artists – her use of the camera as a tool helping her probe hidden events and mysteries is something I aspire to.

I was also struck by the images of gun emplacements from northern France by Virilio and later Wilson and Wilson. Some eroded free of the cliffs into which they had been set, lie on the beach like massive dystopian bath toys.

And finally…the image I found hardest to look at was Delahaye’s picture of a forensic examination of a mass grave from the Spanish civil war. Taken from vertically above it is essentially two-dimensional and features several skeletons of people who had been shot in the head – most with their hands clasped as if in prayer, presumably because they were tied together. It was as close to a gothic etching of the dead rising from the grave as you will ever get – and it still encourages a lump in my throat and a shiver down my spine.

There are surprisingly few people in this exhibition – there are ordinary places where terrible things were done, there are ordinary places forever altered by war and there are ordinary artefacts which remind us of the horrors of war long after everyone in it have died. The whole exhibition is one huge document to human insanity and the curator, Simon Baker, deserves a round of applause.

If you can’t get to the exhibition then the accompanying book published by the Tate is surely a must have in every photography collection.


  1. I got to go to this exhibition recently. I agree with many of your points but have a couple of criticisms of the show. The idea to show conflict over time was interesting but I think the volume of images was a distraction. I think fewer images would have allowed greater focus on the notion of time and conflict. I would have like to have seen photojournalists represented more. I can see an argument against this in that journalists only take photos at times of conflict, not later on, but they could have been represented in the seconds later section. I wonder whether there was some artistic snobbery at play here? I think a similar thing happens with David Bailey. He has taken wonderful portraits but they are rarely considered art be ause they are of celebrities.

    1. Hi Mark and thanks for the comment.You're right about the number of photos being a bit overwhelming - my wife and I took two hours over this visit - if I read your blog correctly I see you'd already done a different exhibition beforehand so image overload would be a real issue :) I tried to deal with this by looking at some of the collections - Taryn Simon for example - almost as single works. Not sure it helped.
      The curator, Simon Baker, does address the issue of photojournalism in the catalogue notes. I don't believe it was snobbery as he was specifically trying to avoid the immediacy of photojournalism forcing us to see the "now" in the images in the context of what has previously happened. I agree there could perhaps have been more in the opening salvo of images but set against that we would have been restricted to relatively recent conflicts. I guess some of it is down to our personal preference as well - I'm not a great fan of photojournalism in the gallery - for me it's natural home is newsprint - but that's just me.
      The Horst exhibition at the V&A which I saw the following day left me with the same thoughts as your's on Bailey - are they art or not? And does it really matter?

  2. Good reading Nigel. so many different ways of recording/remembering the violence of the human race. I've booked for the OCA study Visit so will try to remember to take it slowly.