Conflict, Time, Photography @ Tate Modern

A major exhibition of art photography about war and warzones, what’s not to like? The images come ready-made with all sorts of poignancies and pathos.

To mix it up the curators tried something radically different from the predictable chronological order, namely arranging the images by the length of time after the event they are addressing took place.

Hence the importance of time in the title, and hence the rooms are titled ‘Moments later’, ‘days, weeks later’, ‘Months later’, ‘1-10 years later’, all the way up to ’85-100 years later’.

An overabundance

There are a lot of photographers and a lot of wars. Helps to have a good working knowledge of the conflicts in the ‘century of atrocity’, Mankind’s most shameful century so far (but who knows what’s round the corner?) though there were some displays of work from select wars of the 19th century:

(Nothing from the Boer War or any of the small colonial wars the European nations waged against native peoples during the ‘Belle Epoque’….)

Even so the information panels next to each set of images are packed with facts about the individual photographers (almost none of whom I’d heard of before) and then about their ‘project’ or relationship to the subject matter, and then about the nature of the conflict or war in question, often itself dense with historical and political complications — An awful lot of information to take in.

I paid assiduous attention to the first third, skimmed the next third and, I admit, was too full of facts & fights by the end to do anything except just react to the pics…

The surfeit of material was epitomised by the images around Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The very first images in the show come under the heading ‘Seconds after’ and were a few photos taken ‘seconds after’ the Hiroshima bomb exploded, by a Japanese man working in a lab nearby, who ran to the window in time to catch the growing mushroom cloud. (In fact, theyre not particularly good photos, and don’t look anything like the famous mushroom cloud.)

But about half way through the show there was a mass of images on the subject: a display case containing 13 or so photo-books of images from various sources, by numerous photographers, above which was hung a selection of photos each by different photographers, and then another wall of images from ‘one of the most important photo books of the century’, The Map (1965) by Kikuji Kawada. I found it difficult to react to any but the clearest and most striking images…

Shomei Tomatsu, Steel Helmut with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963 © Shomei Tomatsu - interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

Shomei Tomatsu, Steel Helmut with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963
© Shomei Tomatsu – interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

There were some familiar and iconic images of war, namely Richard Peters’ shots from Dresden just days after the fateful air raid, or Don McCullin’s combat-shocked American GI.

Don McCullin, Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968 © Don McCullin

Don McCullin, Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968 © Don McCullin

It is photography’s bad luck to have become so easily assimilable. We are surrounded by images and will be in ever-increasing amounts as the internet tightens its grip on our lives. Possibly, what were once termed ‘raw’ and ‘graphic’ images had an impact at some nominal golden age in the past, maybe in the 1960s and 1970s when this kind of photo-journalism first came in. But we’ve had fifty years of ‘graphic’ images of wars, plus the steady stream of jihadist terror since 9/11, as well as a brutal new level of graphic violence in war movies and TV (Saving Private Ryan (1998), Band of Brothers (2001)) – all of which, I think, has diminished their aesthetic, and moral, impact.

Therefore, some of the other types of engagement, some of the more tangential approaches to the subject matter on display yielded a different sort of feeling, less at risk from horror fatigue. For example, the series of large colour photos of locations where World War I deserters were executed, located and photographed by Chloe Dewe Mathews.

Chloe Dewe Mathews, Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013. Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy. Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil. Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani. Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed ben Ahmed. 17:00 / 15.12.1914  © Chloe Dewe Mathews

Chloe Dewe Mathews, Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013. Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy. Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil. Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani. Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed ben Ahmed. 17:00 / 15.12.1914
© Chloe Dewe Mathews

Favourites

Like everyone these days, I also take photographs (showcased on my walking blog) and from doing it myself I’ve evolved a favourite style or approach and way of seeing: I don’t do people (they move, they want permission) and prefer to do either natural features or buildings framed square-on, with space around the subject so you see it in its entirety and, ideally, warm sunshine on a clear day, which helps pick out the detail and gives contrast and depth to an image.

That background explains why I liked what I liked in this show.

1. Simon Norfolk made a portfolio of images titled Chronotopia of Afghanistan. The name refers to the way this wretched country has endured 30 years of almost continuous fighting and therefore why the buildings and landscape contain multiple layers of devastation. Norfolk’s images are big and bright and clear.

Simon Norfolk, Bullet-scarred apartment building, 2003. © Simon Norfolk

Simon Norfolk, Bullet-scarred apartment building, 2003. © Simon Norfolk

2. Jane and Louise Wilson I came across their photos at Tate Britain’s hit-and-miss Ruin Lust exhibition. Here again they had three of their enormous black-and-white photos of the Nazis concrete bunkers and defence system along the coast of France – the Nazi subject matter is totally familiar (no reading up required), the buildings are starkly charismatic, they are framed in the classic way I love.

3. Sophie Ristelhüber is awarded an entire room full of really big photos showing the impact of the First Gulf War on the desert landscape in Kuwait and southern Iraq in 1991, titled Fait. Enormous and in glossy colour, like Norfolk’s, they are consistently high quality and imaginative – each image carefully composed and framed. Very powerful.

4. Ursula Schulz-Dornberg was represented by a sequence of black and white photos of the bare, abandoned remains of the Kurchatov nuclear test site where over 480 detonations took place, photographed 22 years after the final test, in 2012.


There’s a lot more from conflicts in Africa (Congo, Namibia – nothing from Biafra), South America, China, the Armenian genocide, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Holocaust survivors and so on, a relentless and depressing testimony to humanity’s inability to live in peace.

Powerful though many of these images are, there is always something clinical and detached about a glossily printed static image hanging on a white gallery wall. I think the complex emotional aftermath and meditation about conflicts and wars is done better by other arts, music sometimes, but poetry…. there’s a case for arguing that poetry commemorates the dead best of all.

Sophie Ristelhüber’s photos, in particular, with their wrecks in the desert, reminded me of Keith Douglas’s poem from the Desert campaign in World War Two.

Vergissmeinnicht by Keith Douglas (1942)

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

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