Study Visit: Current Conflicts

I was not really sure what to expect from this study visit. The cover picture on the entry on WeAreOCA appeared to be of a soldier asleep, grabbing a few moments rest from the stress of warfare, the description spoke about the constancy of war, the essay linked from it had as its subject how the castration of war zone photojournalism has diluted its effectiveness almost to the point where it is merely part of the propaganda machine. What attracted me to the day, however, was the promise of the artist’s talks and the seminar.

The exhibition gave us a view of war from a number of different perspectives. None of the contributors were front line photojournalists but each had a contribution to make. Here is a summary of their exhibits and the talk they gave.

Matthew Andrew – Constructs

Matthew described how his interest in photographic truth has led his photographic journey. He opened with a slide showing this famous photo by Roger Fenton (was it or was it not staged?):

clip_image002

He then went on to describe some of his staged photos, recognisable objects made from alternative materials. He showed a picture of personnel controlling drones, drawing an analogy to computer war games, then arrived at the subject of his contribution to the exhibition. “Constructs” is a project documenting war games, not the computer kind but real life simulations. He portrays the landscapes and people involved and describes how realistic they can be made to appear. To my untrained eye, they could have been from a front line war correspondent. He pointed out that some of the landscapes can appear boring but have a hidden and subtle meaning.

It was a trigger to consider how endemic war is hardwired into the human psyche, that adults can find war games and simulations so interesting.

Olivia Hollamby – Homefront

Olivia’s contribution was a collaboration with her partner. When he was posted to Afghanistan, she armed him with a camera and gave him a short briefing. He was to photograph his surroundings, simultaneously she was at home photographing his belongings. The result was captivating. She commented on the contrast between his snapshot aesthetic and her more considered staged works. She had published a photobook on the project and this was available for review.

I found, the more I looked at the pictures, the more I was drawn into the concept. As well as the obvious anxiety, there was estrangement on both sides.

Richard Monje – Bullets

Unfortunately Richard was not present to talk through his display of retrieved bullets from Afghanistan. These pictures of distorted ammunition had been photographed to be aesthetically pleasing. Being carefully lit against black backgrounds to an extent hid their brutal purpose and there was some debate about whether this was an effective way of showing them.

Les Monaghan – From the Forest

Les explained how he grew up in a forces environment and decided the regimented, institutional life was not for him. But he explained that you “shoot what you know” and showed us pictures of forces cadets that supported his decision.

In the project “From the Forests”, he followed services personnel on extreme survival training. The prints are very dark, the dark physical space leaves room for the viewer’s mental space.

In his talk he discussed the difference between photography for newspapers, where the subject has to be very obvious, and art photography, where the meaning can be ambiguous.

clip_image004

Jamie Simonds – In-transit

Jamie is a commercial portrait photographer. It was while he was on his way to his honeymoon that he was grounded for 6 hours in Atlanta airport in company with some US soldiers en route to Iraq and Afghanistan. He only had a compact camera with him, but asked if he could take their portraits with it. The result is a set of pictures of a group of people on a very different journey to his own. Their faces tell their own story.

Jamie explained his approach to portraiture where he typically takes his subject against a plain background. In this respect he is heavily influenced by Rineke Dijkstra. This removal from context places the focus on the subjects and allows them to express themselves better.

clip_image006

Christopher Down – Visions from Arcadia

Arcadia – a mountainous district in the Peloponnese of southern Greece. In poetic fantasy it represents a pastoral paradise and in Greek mythology it is the home of Pan.

Chris followed three real soldiers, either preparing for a tour or during rest and relaxation breaks. By contrasting these soldiers with idyllic pastoral scenes through four seasons, he is exploring the paradox of trying to obtain peace through war. Stylistically, it is a melding of two genres, landscape and portraiture.

I admit that at the exhibition I did not understand the message, but on researching what Arcadia means, I can now thoroughly connect with it.

clip_image008

I had two main points to take away from this study visit.

Firstly, it showed that you do not have to be a front line photographer to picture war. There were 6 different photographers, all with something slightly different to say and all providing more background to the act of going to war, and what war can mean. Together, they showed a picture of war that is never reported in the media. At times, this was a much more personal picture, with an impact much closer to home, with a potential to carry more meaning to us who are so distant from the “theatres” of war.

Secondly, I found it most instructive to hear direct from the artists, their thought processes, their work process, explaining how they came to the particular project, what it means to them, what difficulties they faced.

Landmark: The Fields of Photography

I can’t imagine anyone with a camera in their hand and confronted with one of nature’s majestic vistas, hasn’t wanted to capture it for posterity. This is the traditional notion of landscape photography; the style for which Ansel Adams is so well-known. This exhibition at Somerset House showed that landscape photography today means so much more. In the words of curator, William Ewing: “Landscape photographers have exposed the wounds and scars of the world, or shown regions that have so far escaped the heavy hand of man. Some photographers seek out the remotest parts of the world in search of the vanishing sublime, others travel to the most trodden and abused zones in search of the ridiculous. Some are content with the pastoral and the picturesque; others share nightmarish visions of a degraded and violated earth.” This, even without mentioning the photography of outer space, sums up the broad sweep of the exhibition’s intentions.

With 170 photographs from 70 photographers, the exhibition was big; too big to do justice to in a single visit and certainly too wide ranging to describe effectively here. But I can give a few short notes on the pieces and artists that had the most impact on me.

One photographer that stood out for me was Simon Roberts. His series, “We English” was the result of a journey across England in a motorhome with a pregnant wife and a two-year-old daughter. He favoured an elevated position, often using the roof of the motorhome to seek out the vantage point. These three examples can almost be considered Landscapes in the traditional sense. but they all contain people as significant compositional elements; they portray the people interacting with the landscape.

clip_image002

South Downs Way, West Sussex, 8th October 2007

clip_image004

Camel Estuary, Padstow, Cornwall, 27th September 2007

clip_image006

Amerta Movement Workshop, Avebury Henge, Wiltshire, 2nd June 2008

This image, taken from “XXX Olympiad” seems to stretch the definition of landscape somewhat. Apart from the sky, there is nothing of nature here, everything is man-made.

clip_image008

These two by Harry Cory Wright would rightly be called seascapes. They are from his series “A Place in Mind” which also includes more traditional landscapes, church interiors, cities, even the cockpit of Concorde.

clip_image010

Lands End, 2010

clip_image012

English Channel, 2010

There were some examples of more classic approach to landscape, one of which is “Trees-Clouds” by Mitch Dobrowner

clip_image014

Trees-Clouds, 2009

One of the values of visiting exhibitions is seeing the prints as the artist intended. Colour and tonality in a printed book or the internet are only an approximation to the real picture. Size is also important. The pieces from Simon Roberts above lose a lot of their impact being reduced in size. Amrut Nagar #2 by Robert Polidori is another. This photograph of a ramshackle shanty town so typical of Mumbai is detailed enough to take the viewer into the lives of its inhabitants.

clip_image016

Amrut Nagar #2, Mumbai,

Environmental damage is an important issue in today’s society so it is not surprising many photographers have turned their lenses towards it and it was an important topic in the exhibition. In some pictures, the message is obvious. Tailings is a series of pictures by Edward Burtinsky portraying the damage caused by uncontrolled effluents from industrial processes. This pair of nickel tailings pollution in Ontario is an attractive diptych, a photographically pleasing pair and their message is obvious.

clip_image018 clip_image020

Nickel Tailings No 34 and 35, 1996

The message in the two examples from David Maisal’s Lake Project is not so obvious. Faced with this picture alone, you would wonder what it was; a martian landscape, an elaborately conceived abstract, an extreme magnification of some human tissue? It needs words alongside it to explain and to elaborate the meaning.

clip_image022

The Lake Project, 2001

The exhibition also took a look at how photographers manipulate reality. Nasdaq 80-09 by Michael Najjar is a photograph of Mount Aconcagua in Argentina which has been digitally altered to mimic how stock markets move over time.

clip_image024

Nasdaq 80-09, 2009

The last image in this short account brings me back almost to where I started. Ansel Adams is the icon of landscape photography and he created a lot of his work in Yosemite National Park. El Capitan is one of the park’s iconic peaks.

clip_image026

El Capitan, 1999

This picture of it by German photographer, Thomas Struth, differs from something by Ansel Adams in two important respects. The mountain is overexposed (the highlights are blown) and there are cars and people in the foreground. Overexposing the mountain, the very subject of the picture, focusses our attention on the people.

At the exit of the exhibition is a quote from Guillaume Apollinaire: “Without poets, without artists, men would soon weary of nature’s monotony. The sublime idea men have of the universe would collapse with dizzying speed. The order which we find in nature, and which is only an effect of art, would at once vanish. Everything would break up in chaos. There would be no seasons, no civilization, no thought, no humanity; even life would give way, and the impotent void would reign everywhere.”

This says two things; mankind needs artists to interpret nature and without mankind (and by inference the interpreting artists) there will be no nature.

Somerset House have produced an education pack which points out that a major shift in landscape photography is to include people in the imagery and asks why this shift has occurred. Much of the thrust of the exhibtion was not so much about landscape photography but about the photography of man’s interaction with the environment.

Pictures of environmental damage are a way of feeding our collective guilty conscience, a kind of self-abasement. Pictures focussing on our interaction with the environment are a way of saying that the environment only exists for our enjoyment. Either way, we are giving the message that the only important thing in the environment is mankind. We can do as much damage as we like and if we wiped ourselves off the planet tomorrow, the world would go on turning, life would continue. The damage we have done can be measured against the damage nature inflicts on herself; tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes, even the ice ages. But mankind only measures all of this with respect to its impact on mankind.

I have been considering a project based on this for a few months now. This exhibition has given me considerable food for thought as I continue to plan it.

Study Visit: Light from the Middle East and Laura Letinsky

Light from the Middle East

It’s an impressive task to attempt to encapsulate the photography of an entire region in one exhibition. In the introductory wording on the V and A’s web site:

Light from the Middle East: New Photography presents work by artists from across the Middle East (spanning North Africa to Central Asia), living in the region and in diaspora.

The exhibition explores the ways in which these artists investigate the language and techniques of photography. Some use the camera to record or bear witness, while others subvert that process to reveal how surprisingly unreliable a photograph can be. The works range from documentary photographs and highly staged tableaux to images manipulated beyond recognition. The variety of approaches is appropriate to the complexities of a vast and diverse region.

Light from the Middle East is divided into three sections, Recording, Reframing and Resisting, each of which focuses on a different approach to the medium of photography.” (more…)