February 17th, 2015
Brian Dillon on Conflict, Time, Photography
This article first appeared in Issue 1 of the Aperture Photography App: click here to read more and download the app.
The title of this conceptual survey of war-derived imagery does not exactly describe a thematic cluster, rather a strict chronology: the event itself, a certain duration, followed by the act of photography. The image is captured at a greater or lesser remove: from two minutes after the fact to a distance of almost a century. The works at Tate Modern were organized according to their immediacy or belatedness: rapid responses at the start of the show, slowing by the end to examples of distant historical recovery or invocation.
In the first room were Toshio Fukada’s photographs of the mushroom cloud at Hiroshima, taken just twenty minutes after the detonation of the atom bomb. They show a raging mass, framed by leaves and branches in the foreground, that is quite unlike familiar test-site imagery. At the furthest temporal remove from historical reference, Chloe Dewe Mathews’s series Shot at Dawn (2013) records the places where soldiers were executed for cowardice or desertion during the First World War: nondescript stretches of misty early-morning countryside, once soaked in blood and shame.
Such extremes might imply that Tate curator Simon Baker’s chronological schema was simply a way of pitching photographic immediacy—the sort of reportorial proximity for which war photographers are often celebrated—against the long, slow translation of catastrophe into memory and monuments. In fact, the curatorial device had the effect of confusing timescales in surprising and resonant ways.
Historical distance may bring greater intimacy: Hitler’s headquarters in occupied Poland reveals itself as a bright and bristling ruin in Jerzy Lewczyński’s Wolf Lair series of 1960. Hiroshima and Nagasaki return time and again in the works of Japanese photographers such as Shomei Tomatsu and Kikuji Kawada, who recast the original trauma in terms of landscape, portraiture or still-life studies from the archaeology of disaster. In the late 1950s, architect and urbanist Paul Virilio photographed the sci-fi wreckage of the Nazis’ Atlantic Wall fortifications; the same structures return, filtered now through the fiction of J. G. Ballard and the history of Brutalist architecture, in large-scale photographs by Jane and Louise Wilson.
For the most part Conflict, Time, Photography dealt in series and not in the single compelling or appalling image. (Exceptions included Don McCullin’s Shell-shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hué (1968): photographed, as the exhibition’s wall text reminded us, ‘moments later’.) Many of the pictures were drawn from well-known books: Ernst Friedrich’s War Against War (1924), Richard Peter’s Dresden: A Camera Accuses (1949). Between these earlier photobooks and later conceptually minded grids of uniformly formatted images—such as Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s blown-up fragments from a Belfast archive in People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground (2011)—there was a sense of unsettling stasis across the historical span of the exhibition: from the Crimean War to contemporary Iraq and Afghanistan.
It was a textural shock, then, to enter a portion of the show drawn from the holdings of the Archive of Modern Conflict and find that the curators of this vast and eccentric collection had exhibited mostly discrete, often absurd, and energetically salon-hung works. There were German helmets piled by a canal in apparent homage to Roger Fenton’s famous Crimean cannonballs, Frank Capa’s skewed and monstrous studies of soldiers in training, and a hilarious Rolex magazine advertisement featuring none other than Don McCullin, posed in the sort of heroic snapper mode that Conflict, Time, Photography had calmly undermined.
Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet and teaches critical writing at the Royal College of Art. His most recent books are Objects in This Mirror: Essays (2014) and Ruin Lust (2014).
Conflict, Time, Photography runs at Tate Modern through March 15.