As we look back over 100 years since the end of the First World War, the Tate examines the - often uneasy - relationship between photography and conflict.
Conflict has an immeasurable impact on civilisations, landscapes, countries, cities, towns, loved ones and our memories. So a photographic exhibition about war might not strike you as an engagingly rewarding blockbuster show. But this enlightening and thoughtful survey is exactly that. Through images taken moments, days, weeks, months and years after the event, the effect and trauma of war is re-evaluated from the reflective viewpoint of artists and photojournalists without relying on explicit imagery.
In the first gallery, four grainy black-and-white photographic prints of pillowy cloud formations are displayed opposite a peaceful landscape devoid of activity, but for a few puffs of grey smoke. If you didn’t read the wall text, you’d be unaware of the importance of these seemingly incidental moments. The fluffy mass is in fact the mushroom cloud from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and the photo was taken by Toshio Fukada some twenty minutes after the event. Similarly the dusty vista by Luc Delahaye captures the moment after intensive bombing by the US of the Taliban in Afghanistan. These images are an abstract way to open a show about war, and successfully set it up to build a lasting impression.
There are haunting works such as Don McCullin’s photograph of a shell-shocked Marine taken post-combat in Vietnam. Clenching his rifle, he seems to stare right through you in an utterly distressed trance. Extraordinary pieces include Matsumoto Eiichi’s photograph in which the silhouette of a guard has been etched onto the side of a building, a result of the Nagasaki atomic explosion three weeks earlier. There are surprising exhibits like postcards of battlefields, produced for the glut of post-World War I tourists on ‘pilgrimages’ to see the battlefields and destruction first-hand. The ruins of war reverberate throughout the entire show, from Pierre Antony-Thouret’s images of Reims, a city reduced to rubble, to Simon Norfolk’s series ‘Afghanistan: Chronotopia’, 2001-02 which focuses on towns scarred by ongoing warfare.
Other artists have sought to reconnect the human, individual aspect often lost in the reporting of unimaginable genocides the world over. Diana Matar’s ‘Evidence’ series gives a voice to the victims who died under Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. Rather bleak, unpopulated locations are paired with harrowing facts about human-rights atrocities. Taryn Simon’s documentation of the 1995 Srebrencia massacre charts the effect on a family’s bloodline through portraits of surviving members and images of personal possessions recovered from mass graves.
Unfortunately there just isn’t enough space in this review to cover all the phenomenal projects included in this mammoth exhibition – although the Archive of Modern Conflict’s display of idiosyncratic war-related paraphernalia merits a mention.
You will feel educated and heart-broken in equal measure by these awe-inspiring photographs that challenge the way war can be portrayed, and the way we engage with photographs so that we actually see the inconceivable.
Average User Rating
4 / 5
- 5 star:2
- 4 star:1
- 3 star:0
- 2 star:1
- 1 star:0
Heartbreaking exhibition. I think it is honestly the first time I was quite relieved walking into the gift shop. All the destruction and pain, especially the portraits of the people who survived the atomic explosions brought tears to my eyes. It's a huge exhibition and there is a lot to see and try to not cry about. The mass graves, the destroyed towns and villages, that shell-shocked soldier. All I could think of was why?? How do we humans manage to this to each other? So much pain. Endless masses of it and why? Isn't life hard enough as it is? I can't start to even imagine how hopeless it must feel to be trapped in someone's war. The people who had absolutely nothing to do with why the war is going on suffer the most. As one quote in the exhibition said, as animals, we humans are pretty useless (or something in that tone).
Perhaps I didn't get it, but I was in the main disappointed. Only a few of the photos had any impact on me. The arrangement by time since taken was brave, but didn't add anything to what I felt were a lot of ordinary landscapes and historic cityscapes, with little connection to the horror of the past events. Perhaps that was the point. I couldn't relate to empty German streets and squares or Middle Eastern deserts a decade or two after the conflict that took place. There was one significant and for me poignant exception and that was the tranquil rural scenes, taken decades after, in the place where young soldiers were executed in the first world war. The photos had been taken on the anniversary of their deaths and so I could feel what the photographer must have felt. There are some classic shots e.g. Hiroshima and Dresden. However, if you want evocative war art go to the Imperial War Museum. Sorry Tate Modern, but surely there are better war photos than this. However the Sigmar Polke exhibition was brilliant.
The photos may vary visually, yet hold a single theme – the devastating aftermath of war.
From powerful images where conflict has left it’s fingerprint to objects which represent those lost,Conflict, Time, Photography takes the audience on an emotional journey.
Displayed by date taken, the exhibition begins with photographs moments after the act of violence and ends at 100 years later.
Questioning ‘what’s left after war?’, Conflict, Time, Photography displays the brutally honest answers in photographs.
A real eye opener to the legacy of war, Conflict, Time, Photography is a must see and, for me, will be a contender for best photography exhibition at the end of the year.
I could appreciate the enormity of the message. I can understand what I am seeing. But feelings so difficult to communicate to put in words. The only connotations that resonate through my experience were the words of Sontage. Funny that, the author whose text has baffled me for many weeks somehow became the voice in my subconscious that could come close to how I felt. It was also great to be in the company of Holly Woodward fellow OCA student a refreshing change to be able to exchange first impressions.
Leaving Sontage for the moment, the exhibition itself was a work of conceptual genius to start with Moments Later and progressing to 100 years on from the war was brilliant. I had high hopes. We are taken on a journey starting by looking back on conflict. This is the exemplary work of Simon Baker, the curator of Conflict, Time, Phoptography. The immediate response of Don McCullin Shell-shocked US Marine, The Battle of the Hue 1968 greets you upon entry to the haunting images of how nature struggles on to conceal past wars as in Chloe Dewe Matthews, Six Farm, Locker, West Vlaanderen 2013.
It was indeed a minefield of pictorial narrative, you could be walking around studying the images and then, bang, something will hit you. I can draw on two specific occasions. Reverse Shadows: A ladder and a person photographed by Eiichi Matsumoto was the first to stop me in my tracks. Look at the image, I’m sure you will agree. The ultimate horripilation however were the solitary images of Hiromi Tsuchida. A wall dominated by four simple images, a lunch box, coat, spectacles and a watch. Extracted from the Hiroshima bombing and reproduced with a single line of text. These personal items that shocked more than the images of the atom bomb or flattened landscapes. Why is this? What made these more heartbreaking than the actual war images on mass. An extract from Sontage’s on photography helps sum it up,To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more—and more. So, this was why. The sheer scale and endless wars providing image after image of material for photographers as again Sontage writes, But after repeated exposure to images it also becomes less real. Some of the walls of the exhibition were from floor to ceiling you could not possibly see the individual pictures, you just knew each one would be as harrowing as the next. With Tsuchida’s photographs the message was isolated. They said, look longer these were items of victims. These are personal, this is their story. It has a grounding effect a chance to really understand this was real. So was it possible that the walls of the Tate were crowded because of this understanding? Was this the intent to fill us with so much imagery to express the proliferation of war? I was disappointed.
The juxtaposition of isolated works had the impact I wanted to feel. Collectively the images of Sophie Ristelhueber were the only ones that I felt worked. Printed on aluminium I could only describe this luminescent room as beautiful. What a conflict of emotion to find war pictures aesthetically pleasing. The tiled effect of the golden sand pictures some shot from aerial perspective were a marvel. Individually most of the images did not appeal but on mass proved effective.
There were some other works of note Patio Civil, Cementerio San Rafael, Malaga, 2009 Luc Delahaye, a massive print of showing the remains of bodies hands in pray, chilling. I appreciated the irony of An-My Lê’s Lucky Strike cigarette packet, on the one hand emulating the Japanese flag, the other a hole in the centre of the box. Lucky Strike.
I enjoyed for want of a better word the exhibition. It did however not do what I expected to. Harping back to my Nemesis text I am currently studying I wanted to feel as Sontage had; One’s first encounter with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, the prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany. For me, it was photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau which I came across by chance in a bookstore in Santa Monica in July 1945. Nothing I have seen—in photographs or in real life—ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed, it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after, though it was several years before I understood fully what they were about. What good was served by seeing them? They were only photographs—of an event I had scarcely heard of and could do nothing to affect, of suffering I could hardly imagine and could do nothing to relieve. When I looked at those photographs something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying.
I once was was privileged enough to photograph a stage production of Mala and Edek written by Mark O’Connor which is still being shown to this day, it was my first real experience of the atrocities of war. The story was about four individuals in Auschwitz with carefully selected war film footage to finish. After O’Connor’s play there was not a dry eye. My first viewing of Schindler’s List had the same effect. This exhibition sadly apart from the individual highlights did not do it for me I’m almost ashamed to say. Even more bizarrely it continued an assault on the eyes with the end room Archive of Modern conflict. This extraordinary mishmash of war memorabilia and random decoupage had a Pythonesque ring about it and I’m really not sure what they were trying to achieve. My feelings are, take an image just one, put it in a room with no distraction bring home to the viewer a personal immediacy. Take away the onslaught of image after image and maybe then it will strike home. Just because we have all these images why should we be exposed to them all? Less is more. I don’t feel bad knowing I’m not the only one that feels this way.