Just saying or reading the words War is Beautiful feels like a betrayal of all the ethics and morals I have as a photographer and sensitive human being. David Shields follows an unsettling instinct to review hundreds of images from the covers of the New York Times, that seem to glamorize war. The forward in the book sets out the context of the papers history and approach,
‘Throughout its history, the Times has produced exemplary war journalism, but it has done so by retaining a reciprocal relationship with the administration in power.’
By the second page of reading we can clearly see the contextualsing Shields has undertaken in this curation of the Times war imagery,
‘The paper of record has become the paper of record by being so integrated with the highest levels of authority […] that it knows precisely what truth the power wants told and then prints this truth as the first draft of history’. (Shields, 2015 p8).
The book is structured in chapter headings from Nature, Playground, Father, God, Pieta, Painting, Movie, Beauty, Love and finally to Death, and each is preceded with a contextual quotation. The connection between the chapter titles and images works well and offers a more critical reading of the images taken from their original context of newspaper cover images.
Nature gives the viewer a sense of the landscape, impact of the presence of armed forces, and the incongruousness of the war and nature juxtaposition. Playground offers a dual message in the sense of killing time before killing, also of the sense of waste of young soldiers, primarily men, whose lives and purpose gamble with dispensability. In chapter IV. GOD, the first two images reinforce the naming and position of an armed occupying force and the relationships between occupier and occupied, emphasized by the angle of view and dominant perspective.
Mohammed Abed/France-Agence-Presse- Getty Images
In terms of the awful sense of beauty in imagery, VI. PAINTING, as well as VII Movie, come closest to glamorizing and distancing us as viewers from the reality that is being documented and represented in the photographs. Ranging from painterly approaches and devices, our eyes are reading the images visually yet the content is jarring and at odds with the framing, tonal range or visual impression of the photograph. For many of the images there is a sense that time is available to take and compose the image, to frame and focus in a manner of contemplation not traditionally associated with, for example, the gritty imagery of Don McCullin.
Having grown up in and lived through the ‘troubles’ of Northern Ireland, I have a sensitized awareness of the media’s use of imagery for a good story, of the jettisoning in of highly charged journalists and photographers to highly charged situations, and still I wonder whose story they told.
This is a well-constructed visual argument that lays out its controversial position for the reader. It’s a message that is raw, real and very current, a timely intervention in the apathy of observing the pain of others. Any frustration with the book is the desire to see more examples of imagery, in wanting this I question whether I want to participate as a voyeur in this difficult argument or simply want more depth to the discussion. It is such a powerful topic and observation and therefore worth a greater range of content for the astutely named chapter headings, approach and moral debate it presents.
I spent a few days this week at Orangefield School, Belfast. Very bizarre, no one there apart from the security guy and me. Got to wander through corridors I haven’t walked through for over 30 years.. played solo snooker in the staff room before photographing it and generally scoped the place for interesting images. Not easy in a standard looking 1960’s building which is now looking worse for wear and abandonment, yet not abandoned enough to be elevated to a memorial.
I’ve said in the bumph about the work that I aim to explore collective memory yet all I can really do is recapture images of artefacts, space, rooms and areas that have been inhabited and experienced by others as well as myself and give them the opportunity to reimagine themselves there or invoke memories of these spaces.
(There seems to be a corridor missing which led to a new block.. memories eh..)
I particularly liked the art work on the back of the store room door by some more recent pupils who loved Mr Cooper (I never had the pleasure of knowing him) but he seems to have inspired a loyal following.
In the same room are a pair of mens shoes and I wonder if they too are part of Mr Cooper’s absent presence. What caused him to leave a pair of perfectly good leather shoes in the store room, it’s as though he’s just stepped out of them? Mr Cooper if they are yours and you are looking for them they are still there (this week anyhow).
So back in Cheshire now and processing the images I’ve taken to make to 3d for the exhibition, the idea being that to create space around space in a more three dimensional way allows a different perspective, it makes our eyes and brain respond slightly differently, we realign literally, physically and perhaps emotionally.
Here’s the same stage I played the rat (thanks Miss Fulton), I also at one point did a reading to assembly from the Bible where much Gnashing of teeth was mentioned, I emphasise the ‘G’ as a hard ‘G’ as I pronounced it like the name of a small African village. Van Morrison is set to play in this very space next month.
BTW you will need red and cyan 3d glasses to see this one properly, then sit back in your seat and give it a second 😉 (click on the image to see a larger version)
and another one from the gym..
The exhibition will be part of Eastside Festival at the school and other areas of East Belfast in August. (3D glasses will be supplied!)
Post Christmas but the veg have come back to life. I took some of these images over a year ago and have had a few days to start playing with ideas again. Check them out in the Gallery Section under ‘The Veg Plot’. Www.lynneconnolly.co.uk
Following on this theme of revisiting – I’ll amend my previous blog comment to say I’m now integrating image and textile, as well as text.. updates to follow. If there is a point here it is to say that there’s a real pleasure in revisiting ideas that started off and maybe never followed through. It is reassuring to know that little germs can germinate nicely..
Challenging, unsettling and not easily categorized: Ballen’s work has the capacity to provoke questions, responses and emotions – it both engages and challenges on many levels.
Originally from New York, Roger Ballen has lived in South Africa for over 30 years. This UK exhibition takes us on a journey through several series of his work: Dorps, Platteland, Outland, Shadow Chamber, and Boarding House. The work moves from early documentary, distanced observation (white poor, marginalised South African’s - ’A hidden wound in white South Africa’), through to more complex evolved interactions. Images often include people, animals, fragments of fragmented lives. In moving through this exhibition the viewer becomes aware of an emotional and intellectual metamorphosis taking place – in the work, the photographer, and the viewer themselves.
Semantics play a role in deconstructing this work; objectivity is not possible – Ballen has stated that the camera is a recording tool, therefore not capable of objectivity. The camera is indeed an object but it is the use of the tool that brings subjectivity. He questions the term subjects yet leaves a gap in place of a definition that might enhance this understanding. Participants is one that perhaps comes in the later work, where constructions, performances and set creations move towards theatrical staging. A performance and trust built over time. Oddly this work seems more contained within the frame, drawing us as viewers into a world we fall into rather than move through. Ballen is aware of the discomfort of viewers and in a talk at The Manchester Art Gallery, referred to viewer’s unease as something that may belong to them – recognition of something we’d rather disown. The work seems to expect responsibility in our gaze for the visual representation that is portrayed – it is what it is. Yet Ballen has chosen to photograph it and we become complicit in a voyeuristic viewing of it. Ballen challenges any notion of passive viewing; on showing the image Dresie and Cassie, Twins.., (Platteland, 1993), he suggests that viewers find this image disturbing for the reason that when we look at it, it is ourselves we see. It is easy to draw immediate comparisons with Diane Arbus, whose work engaged with outsiders, those marginalized and labeled ‘Freaks’. Arbus claimed to have developed close friendships with those she photographed, seeing them less as subjects and more as actors in her constructed documentation. Ballen too has developed a unique way of interacting with those involved in the construction of these images. It is still hard to get away from a sense of illicit viewing in both of these photographers works.
Staging is another term in dispute, images here are ‘un-staged’ because they cannot be repeated, that moment cannot return. Yet the set is there, the backdrop, the actors/participants. The core of this ethos seeming to be about a fluidity of moment, not easily repeated and therefore not staged. He cites Samuel Beckett as a key artistic influence. The connection can be seen in the method, a reductive and minimalist approach of the respective art forms. You may not be able to stage an emotional reaction, but you can set the scene for one.
In Girl in white, (Boarding House, 2002), a corner room squarely frames the figure of a young girl; the eye immediately drawn to her as a light and centralized figure in the image. She is wearing a white dress, no shoes or other accessories. A child-like drawing of a large head sits to the top left corner on the otherwise drab and marked wall. It is not a room you want to spend time in. The girl touches the wall as though trying to escape, staring at a mark, a trace of something thrown perhaps, circular with dripping tendrils. It is not so much what it might have been as what it represents: the juxtaposition of the girl, white dress and stain is enough to unsettle. Metaphors of innocence and inquiry mingle with traces of the Other, our imagination does the rest.
These images are active – they constantly question the viewer’s perceptions, knowledge, prejudices and fears. The viewer may experience a range of responses throughout the exhibition, from fascination, disturbance, repulsion, through to hope and despair – all of which fluctuate. The beauty of Seed Pods, (Boarding House, 2002), lures us in like a John Blakemore still life. The beautiful silver and black tones of dried seed pods and textures, and yet still a shadowed gash dissects the lower third of the frame, the dotted seeds, gaps, eyes and mouth gape and stare back – the relief is temporary. If earlier work is reminiscent of Arbus, later work seems to draw on visual associations in primitive versions of Keith Haring drawings, particularly in Asylum, whilst Shadow Chamber has echo’s of Joel Peter Wilkin’s work. This is not to draw comparison but rather to locate the work in a context of referenced practice. For Wilkin’s work is blatantly shocking in a visceral and highly constructed way, Ballen’s more complex in why his images may disturb us: yet both touch on a dark area of the psyche we usually try to avoid.
As a presenter and photographer Ballen doesn’t reveal too much of his own role in the construction of these works. Contradictions seep out, it is as though the gift/burden of awareness is passed on to us the viewer. As an artist Ballen has brought something dark into the light – it is guaranteed to provoke thought and discussion, but ‘like’ may not be the word that falls from your lips, it is too complex for that simplicity.
To date eight participants have come forward to get involved, fantastic stuff. Four are in Lancashire, two in Cheshire and two in Northern Ireland. I’ve also linked in with Age UK and will be meeting some creative groups in a few weeks time and hope to gain some interest there too.
The interviews are insightful, can be emotional and are a privilege to be involved in. Images will slowly start to build on the website and will be a collaboration of ideas so watch the space. Interview material will take a while to transcribe and process and will be approved by each contributor before being available to the public.