Conflict. Time. Photography. Tate Modern: November 14 to March 15

Print-scan-001Simon Baker, in his essay Armageddon in Retrospect (1),  says that Conflict. Time. Photography “takes as its starting point the necessity and value of the time taken to consider the past.” Time, and our reaction to time, is at the heart of this exhibition.

Firstly, there is the historian’s view of time, the timeline of wars from 1853 to 2010 that the exhibition spans allowing the visitor to explore warfare and photography across 160 years of conflict, recognising change and what never changes.  But, beyond that, the curator uses time to sequence the exhibits, grouping and displaying photographs based on the elapsed time between the event and the capture of the photograph with the exhibition starting “moments after” the conflict and finishing “99 Years’ later.

The curator thereby provides the context of both the time between the event and the photograph and the time between the event and now. These two timelines create a complex context where we see the photographers’ reactions to the time that had passed and judge our own reaction to the time now passed since both the event and the photograph.

It is tempting to describe this as an exhibition of post conflict or late photography, and in many ways it obviously is, but some of the photographers are unlikely to have seen their subject in this way when they captured the images now on display. For example, one of the opening prints is Don McCullin’s iconic “Shell-shocked US marine( i ). Despite being a war photograph, taken during a savage battle, the shell-shocked marine is, in effect post conflict, he is dirty, but there are no obvious physical wounds and just the merest hit of damaged buildings behind him, yet seen in the context of being a war photograph the viewer recognises that it is a study of traumatic stress, the human cost of war paid by the survivor. In an exhibition about time, this is a timeless image. A young soldier withdrawn into a catatonic state having experienced war at first hand, a post battlefield scene that must have been replicated throughout the ages.

This photograph is unusual in the exhibition both because it is one of the few photojournalist, “traditional” war photos on display and because it has a human subject. The absence of the photojournalists might be linked with the indirect representation of human suffering. Susan Sontag argued, when talking of war photography, that “images anaesthetise”, “the shock of photographed atrocities wears off with repeated viewings” (4) ( ii ) and Martha Rosler talks about “the impoverishment of representational strategies” (5) to highlight social issues. These views may, or may not have influenced the photographers whose work is on display but they have certainly influenced the art-photography world in general. This is predominately an art exhibition so, perhaps, direct photojournalistic coverage of the human cost of war just didn’t fit but  by excluding, as just one example, the ghastly evidence of the holocaust as photographed by Miller(7), Rodger (8) or Bourke-White (9) the curator excluded some of the most significant post conflict photography of the 20th century, photographs that continue to play an important educational role seventy years after they were taken. I found this surprising and it left me questioning the selection criteria, were we being shown Conflict. Time. Photography or was “Art” hidden somewhere in the title?

This exhibition is ambitious in its scale but the available wall space and the exclusion of artisans at the expense of artists left me feeling that the subject was sharply defined at the beginning and end  but less clear towards the middle of the presentation. There are several architectural studies that look at the buildings left, not directly by conflict, but by the instigators of conflict or, in the case of Ursula Schultz-Dornburg’s study of abandoned nuclear testing sites, the potential participants in a potential conflict. I recognise that the Berlin Wall was a consequence of conflict but one could put forward the same argument for the “Separation Barrier” on the West Bank or even Hadrian’s Wall. These examples and the study of ex-Nazi buildings in Munich did not harbour the ghosts of the victims of war in the way of Shomei Tomatsu’s “Watch” or Hiromi Tsuchida’s “Lunch Box” or even Chloe Dewe Mathews’ 99 years later – Shot at Dawn which is the closing exhibit.

We are offered a variety of approaches that intentionally or unintentionally address Rosler’s point, these range from Luc Delahaye’s landscapes that beautify a place of conflict and seem very much at home on the gallery wall to Taryn Simon’s poignant bloodlines  where the  survivors of Serbian atrocities are represented by a sequence of portraits interrupted by blanks or bone fragments to represent the victims. Some artists, as is the way of late photography, invite the visitor to add their own memories to the picture, although ironically, for most people, those memories are of television or photojournalistic coverage of conflict. Others present more complete images that confront the viewer with the harsh reality of war.

Susan Sontag (6) quotes the American Philosopher, William James, as saying “showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect on men. The horror makes for fascination.” And, whilst this idea is generally applied to war photography, a similar problem arises in an art exhibition. On facing the wall filled with Sophie Ristelhueber’s beautiful photographs of scars and traces my first reaction was to the photographs, my second to the display and then it registered that these scarred, Kuwaiti, landscapes are no less war graves than the battlefields of Flanders. Sontag argues that people want to see the evidence of atrocity without the taint of artistry and post conflict photography is partly driven by this accepted wisdom, but even when we look indirectly at the traces of atrocity we are uncomfortable if our first reaction is to the beauty of the scene.

The artist places this moral dilemma in our hands, they show us a juxtaposition of evil and beauty and, in doing so, they are following a long tradition of Western art, especially religious art. Asking the viewer to emotionally commit to the painting or photograph is part of the essential and fundamental nature of art.

I believe that we run the risk, through misguided political intervention, of exchanging war photography, as practised by photojournalists, for citizen journalism and Government or terrorist propaganda. Sontag is right in that we need constant reminders of the the evil humans are capable of.  The type of war photography undertaken by Don McCullin, Phillip Jones-Griffiths, Robert Capa and Eugene Smith is a vital part of the process of reminding ourselves, our children and our grandchildren but since Vietnam the photographer has been managed into a position of a controlled, not independent, observer.

The next generation might therefore be left with post conflict photography to understand the consequence of war so this exhibition is perhaps more important than is at first obvious. Art should offer an unconstrained view on the world but by its nature it is a complex view that asks as much of the audience as of the artist so I hope post conflict or late photography has the opportunity to co-exist with photojournalism. Sometimes we need to be bludgeoned by the brutal reality of Nick Ut’s (10) photograph of children fleeing from a napalm attack before we can understand and contemplate the aftermath photographers’ message.

Notes to Text

( i ) This photograph was  taken while McCullin was with the forward troops during the eleven days (2) that he spent photographing the battle of Hue. McCullin says that he is unsure what Hue taught him “beyond a new appreciation of how terrible war can be” and, whilst in his autobiography he selects a different photograph to represent the human cost of war, the shell-shocked marine has become an iconic symbol. In Unreasonable Behaviour, MCullin does not mention the “shell-shocked marine” but he does discuss his photograph of a fallen North Vietnamese soldier (http://www.vam.ac.uk/users/node/6663) (3) with his possessions spread around him. McCullin describes this photograph as “composed, contrived even”, it was published as a two page spread in the Sunday Times and it is interesting that he highlights that this picture was an exception because it was not one of his more normal action shots.

( ii ) By the time Susan Sontag wrote Regarding the Pain of Others (6) she expressed a different view and argued that we needed war photography as a statement of ” what human beings are capable of doing – may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self righteously. Don’t forget.” She goes on to say that even if photos of atrocities cannot “encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function.”

Sources

Books

(1) Baker, Simon and Mavlian, Shoair (2014) Conflict. Time. Photography. London: Tate Enterprises.

(2) McCullin, Don, (1990) Unreasonable Behaviour: 1992 Edition. London: Vintage.

(4) Sontag, Susan (1971) On Photography: Kindle version of the 1978 Penguin edition. London: Penguin Books

(6) Sontag, Susan (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. Penguin Books 2004 Kindle edition. London, Penguin Books

Internet

(3) McCullin, Don. (1968) Fallen North Vietnamese Soldier. (accessed at the Victoria and Albert Museum 8.2.15) – http://www.vam.ac.uk/users/node/6663

(5) Rosler, Martha. (1974 – 1975) The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (accessed on Martha Rosler’s official website 15/11/2014) – http://martharosler.net/photo/bowery.html

(7) Miller, Lee (1945) Buchenwald (accessed at Lee Miller Archives 9.2.15) – http://www.leemiller.co.uk/app/WebObjects/LeeMillerShop.woa/wo/9.0.3.22?0.3.22.1=buchenwald&0.3.22.3=Submit

(8) Rodgers, George (1945) The Gates of Hell: the Liberation of Bergen Belsen, April 1945 (accessed at Life Magazine 9.2.15) – http://time.com/3679103/at-the-gates-of-hell-the-liberation-of-bergen-belsen-april-1945/

(9) Bourke-White, Margaret (1945) The Liberation of Buchenwald April 1945 (accessed at Life Magazine 9.2.15) – http://time.com/3638432/behind-the-picture-the-liberation-of-buchenwald-april-1945/

(10) Ut, Nick (accessed at famous-photographers.com 10.2.15) – http://famous-photographers.com/nick-ut/

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