Krakow Photomonth 2017

The War From Here

Exhibition review by Duncan Wooldridge

We are encouraged to perceive of it as a striking, spectacular occurrence, but war is not one eventful instance of violence: it is the layering of multiple small violations that accrue and erupt. Thus conflict is sustained until one side is so dominant that any attack it makes is no longer legitimated by the promise of a reciprocal threat. It is a longer proposition than the spectacle of conflict: it begins before a gun is fired, and is felt long after. The political theorist Carl Von Clausewitz infamously stated that war is the continuation of politics by other means: not just a means of getting your way through violence, and the sign of a political project that goes beyond typical coercion. It emblematises an antagonistic, immovable politics, getting its way.

If war is the continuation of politics by other means, then the reverse must also be true: in our everyday politics and interactions, instances of war are also played out. There is war in forms of nationalism and patriotic fervour that posit the supremacy of a nation amongst more than 200 others; and there is war in the gains we seek over each other in the neo-liberal workspace. Violence can be tracked back from the site of armed conflict, to our sofas, and our devices, and our material wealth. That we do not draw connections between our material wealth and the conflict or exploitation it requires is one of the great achievements of capitalism.

The War From Here, curated by Gordon Macdonald as one of the keynote exhibitions of Krakow Photomonth 2017, is an exhibition of five artists who approach war from a different set of proximities, setting it much closer to us. They choose to be distant from the ‘theatre’ of war: they seek not theatricality, but origins, traces, and consequence. As such, it is one of the most striking exhibitions of war in recent times, because it resists the ‘over there’ condition of photojournalistic tradition, stressing tangible experiences, scars, and roots of violence.

At its entrance, Sophie Ristelhueber’s Eleven Blowups teases and undermines the reportage photograph, and acts an initial disruption of our expectations for the image. Installed as large-scale prints directly mounted to the surface of a phalanx of walls, they problematise photography’s rhetoric of de-authored transparency. This is the image not as a window, but as blockade: montaged from multiple images of bomb craters, some of which are Ristelhueber’s own and others that are drawn from media outlets, a composite real is made that brings together the image’s connection to the place it depicts, with its place of reception and encounter.

Nina Berman works within a recognisable documentary tradition, but uses it to show the domestic manifestations of America’s war on terror, challenging the way that that country’s militarisation is figured in daily life as elsewhere. Her project Homeland captures the full extent to which life is laced with military simulation and rhetorics of American power. One image shows B2 Stealth Bombers passing over beaches of Atlantic City. They participate in a celebratory display of military might that is triumphalist but exposing of the silent, lingering threat of a secretive military industry. Berman also depicts the militarisation of labour, as ordinary Americans are employed to act as Iraqi ‘terrorists’ in emergency drills. The war’s relationship to home is revealed by Berman as a series of constructs that produce the image of state power at the same time as constructing personal-imaginary images of terrorists and otherness. Here, war is a fantasy that displays little concern for that which exists outside of an American sense of might: documentary is suddenly a form that has courage to show a view beyond the generic humanism of the eyewitness.

At the centre of the exhibition is Martha Rosler’s Bringing The War Home. Rosler’s montages directly equate the purpose and trauma of conflict with the luxury of the western home. Rosler makes clear that it is a largely exploited international labour force that extracts and forms the products of domestic luxury, which conflict maintains through its expansive project of installing democratic capitalist nation states. Rosler’s montages use the technical surfaces of the home (phones, televisions, pictures, and glass windowpanes) as openings to this conflict, as scenes that are mistaken as distant apparitions, but which are closely interlaced in a luxury that we have come to see as a desirable and freeing. Her later montages draw upon our various bodily postures with our mobile devices: laying upside down on a sofa, checking our pictures in our phone screens.

In a convincing and clear-sighted diversion from the usual obsession with war as a space of heroic individualism, Macdonald’s exhibition is unrepentantly social: it understands that war impacts upon a people, a multitude. As Ristelhueber, Berman and Rosler reveal how representations of war have been used to frame and limit our understanding, Lisa Barnard and Monica Haller evaluate the impacts of war through research upon the short and long-term experiences of conflict, whatever its ‘physical’ distance. Haller’s Veteran’s Book Project is structured around the first-hand encounter. 50 books present individual accounts from war, reclaiming the notion of the war veteran to include not just soldiers and military personnel, but also Iraqi and Afghan survivors. Each presents their own experience, an account that is always moving between the past and its impact upon the present. Some accounts are harrowing in places of course, but they are human and relatable first and foremost. Haller’s collection of a plethora of voices has a distinctive effect that repels the conventional desire to defer the war to some other place: it takes place between humans, as Judith Butler reminds us when she recalls the precarity of each human being as underwriting the necessity of the social. Haller posits that an array of voices can displace the dominant narratives of conflict and their contest the drive towards individual gain, and the illusions of a consequence-less accumulation.

As Haller also suggests that we need to place the human back into the field of conflict, Lisa Barnard explores the military strategy of drones (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, UAV) operation, one manifestation of a technological war without the human (at least, this is what is claimed by its manufacturers and agents). The industry of war’s technological development – what Manuel De Landa calls the ‘machinic phylum’, feeding technological development that makes it to the consumer thereafter – seeks to displace the human in the place of machines, with a simplistic comparison between machinic efficiency and bodily fatigue. Barnard shows that the human effect remains.

As Adam Greenfield argues in his book Radical Technologies: The Design of Everday Life, the adoption of machinic and technological systems produces human effects in each of its manifestations. In Barnard’s work Whiplash Transition, an opening is found in the 40 minute drive between the military base and a drone pilot’s home. Whiplash transition is a term used by UAV pilots to describe the rupture between the locked-down enclosure of the drone mission, and the all-too-nearby comforts of the American city. In her installation, Barnard draws potent connections between the machinic vision of military devices, or the flying patterns of drones in strategic formations, and the fantasy-world of Las Vegas. In another part of the installation, a shipping crate displays a map of an arms fair on its top side: the uncomfortable meeting of armaments and basic human needs (food service counters, restrooms and cafes) is starkly revealed by the diagram.

Photography, with its concern for a slice of the action, is a common agent in the compression of war as something distant and unthinkable. The War From Here is an extraordinary call to see how it occurs right in front of us. Photography is capable of something more contextual, more critical, more enduring and penetrating. In this, one of the most convincing exhibitions about conflict and its reaches, we are called to see how war is something that surrounds us.


Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also Course Director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Image credits:

I-Opening of The War From Here at Bunkier Sztuki/Krakow Photomonth 2017, curated by Gordon Macdonald featuring Lisa Barnard, Nina Berman, Monica Haller and Sophie Ristelhueber.

II-Lisa Barnard, Lawnmower, from the Mapping the Territory series © Lisa Barnard.

III-Lisa Barnard, Object #3, from the Primitive Pieces series © Lisa Barnard.

IV-Lisa Barnard, American Flag, from the Not Learning from Anything series © Lisa Barnard.

V-Nina Berman, Bomb Iraq, Times Square, New York City, from the Homeland series, 2003 © Nina Berman | NOOR

VI-Nina Berman, Stealth bomber, Atlantic City, New Jersey, from the Homeland series, 2007 © Nina Berman | NOOR

VII-Monica Haller, The Veterans Book Project (VBP), library of 50 books, print on demand, page length varies, 2009–2014.

VIII-Monica Haller,Page spread from book by Ehren W. Tool, 2010.

IX-Martha Rosler, Cleaning the Drapes, from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, 1967–1972 © Martha Rosler.

X-Martha Rosler, Gladiators, from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, New Series, 2008 © Martha Rosler.

XI-Martha Rosler, The Gray Drape, from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, New Series, 2008 © Martha Rosler.

All images courtesy of Krakow Photomonth.

Darren Harvey-Regan

The Erratics

RVB Books

An incongruous gap exists in how we conceive of humankind and matter, as if the two were inextricably separated. On a wall in his studio, Darren Harvey-Regan has a crop of Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I next to another reproduction of René Magritte’s Invisible World. Both show a de-territorialisation of the rock as an object of nature. Rocks are an incongruous motif in Magritte’s painting: they appear frequently, defying their usual properties, as so many objects in his world tend to do. Some float in mid air: one maintains an occupied castle at its summit, whilst another independently compares itself to a cloud. In Invisible World a rock finds itself indoors. Here it resides by the window, looking out to sea, caught in a moment of wonderment. Dürer’s Melencolia too contains a rock, but here it is by contrast a smooth polyhedron, a mysterious quasi-mathematical object, amongst tools and signs of knowledge, measurement, and culture. The image of the Dürer in Harvey-Regan’s studio is cropped, focusing in upon the polyhedron. Its composition is almost identical to that of the Magritte. They appear side by side at the back of Harvey-Regan’s book, The Erratics, published by RVB Books.

The Erratics is a body of work comprising photographs, sculptures, now a book with an artist-written parenthetical text, which focuses upon stone formations and sculpted chalk, taking as its subject the process of making as well as, if not more than, the what is made. An early crossing from the raw into the technological emerges. Harvey-Regan begins with dry and totem-like stones in the desert, drawing attention to matter and the smooth, sometimes-peeled surfaces of some of the stone. Rocks attest to the forces of wind, water, temperature and time, and here reveal sections of surfaces that appear so defined as to have been mechanically altered. We can think of these objects, continually changing with a duration beyond our comprehension, as objects in-formation. They are also objects that act upon us. On the following page, a sliced piece of chalk, cut cleanly in two, figuratively carves away at our imagination of natural formation, pointing to matter progressively shaped as sculpture, as architecture, as the creator of space and spatial perceptions.

From here, Harvey-Regan introduces and alternates the ‘found’ sculptural stones with images of the sliced forms the artist has made in the studio. Resting on a pristine white plinth, a chalk sculpture extends the hard edges of the plinth’s vertical lines, whilst possessing the same hard black shadow on its front face. Each has a delicate precision, sensitising vision whilst taunting the line between actuality and illusion. Each work in chalk requires the artist to balance not only the spatial consonances of the sliced chalk on its plinth, but the lighting of the space and the placement of the camera in the same environ. From material that might have appeared so immanently natural, Harvey-Regan constructs a network of dialogues between object, tool, artist, camera and receiver; The Erratics presents a series of photographs and photographed sculptural works, which draw together the rough and the formed. Like its surrounding text, which moves in and out of focus, it seems specific, and yet frames a much bigger subject, a technics of time.

Duncan Wooldridge

Images courtesy of the artist. © Darren Harvey-Regan

Richard Mosse

Incoming

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

 

Judith Butler, in her book Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? poses an important question: “What is our responsibility toward those we do not know, toward those who seem to test our sense of belonging or to defy available norms of likeness?” How, Butler asks, are we to respond when we encounter a condition beyond our own life experience? What is our responsibility?

Irish artist Richard Mosse has developed a body of work looking at military testing, conflict and the technologies of photographic imaging, most notably in his lauded project The Enclave. The follow up is Incoming, a body of work comprising video in multiple formats, stills as a book, and large-scale prints about the mass-migration of refugees from Northern Africa and the Middle East, at the thresholds of Europe, in Turkey and Greece, and at the borders of Iraq and Syria. Mosse uses a military grade thermal camera to make his videos and photographs: his imagery spans from close up details of human interaction, fragments of group crossings of the Mediterranean, landscapes of war including missile launches, to the holding camps for refugees. Much of this footage is montaged into a large three-screen video projection (recently presented at the Barbican, London) and a parallel book; panoramic footage of the temporary camps are reconfigured into large scale prints – sometimes called Heat Maps, alongside a video installation that resembles a bank of CCTV cameras, panning left to right continuously in a dizzying sense of searching.

Although the effects of the thermal camera are not entirely unfamiliar to us (used by the police force, and utilised in both factual and fictional television and cinema, in photographic projects, and even as add-ons to a smartphone), it is important to establish what a military-grade thermal camera does and does not see. What distinguishes the camera from other equipment is its distance and precision of vision, being capable of detecting the human body at 30.3 kilometres. Although it’s primary purpose is to identify heat, it continues to register detail in a lower, flatter range of greys, unlike many thermal devices since the camera is black and white, and not in colour. Mosse’s prints retain a photographic language even if they are also at once unfamiliar. It is possible to differentiate spatial planes and surfaces, textures, and script clearly. The recognition of a figure is possible, although identification is slower and loaded with doubt. It is an image, but one that we are not entirely comfortable with. The thermal image prompts an alienation from the immediate transparency of the reportage image, even if the project retains a documentary scope and purpose. The refugee, already identified as other by the state, is transfigured again by the strangeness of the camera.

Suffice to say every camera dehumanises. In rendering the body into two dimensions, a photograph is lossy and reductive. But our familiarity with this property of the image has caused us to quickly forget and come to terms with the image and its compromises, accepting the trade off of the arrested and flat image for its portability. Yet criticism of Mosse’s project in this regard seems to conflate the technology with its use. The dehumanising of the body is of course continuous with the technology and operations of the state, which we understand as intermittently picking out and targeting the human subject with reasons that power justifies under the rhetorics of the war on terror, national security, and as Eyal Weizman has recognised, the chilling but pervasive moral logic of the ‘lesser evil’. If this is disturbing, it should be, though it is not Mosse’s doing, as he investigates its properties.

Mosse has stated clearly that his aim is to use state and military technology in order to know and use it, seeking new purposes for it. And in our slower observation of his imagery, the thermal camera reveals the state’s tendency to abstraction, to render the refugee as ultimately perishable, under a condition that the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls ‘bare life’. It is also, as Judith Butler writes, the very construction of a difference (nationality) that allows the ‘refugee’ or ‘foreigner’ to be perceived as a threat. We are barely conscious of this fact in our short encounters with the technology elsewhere, where voice-overs for police chases re-inforce the messages of law enforcement. Its estrangement when isolated is surprising, but Mosse sets out to do undo it, using the camera for cinematic effect, and to construct slow and pensive images. Mosse, like the state, often operates at a distance from his subjects – but does this automatically render the result of Mosse’s investigation complicit or continuous with a global order – and by extension, a flow of global capital, as has been suggested?

We must look at the project in detail rather than arriving at rash judgements. The camera continues the western project of producing ‘visibility’. We know that the camera extends human vision, seeing heat rather than light. And we know the purpose of this function already: it is to identify a body or object that attempts camouflage against the eye or standard lens. The lens therefore functions in a manner akin to much of photography’s post-industrial ‘program’ – to extend the range of the visible, to make a world saturated in visibilities. Significant also is its range: the camera provides an ability to see at extraordinary distance, and to see whilst remaining hidden – a logic of power identified by Foucault in his studies on surveillance and the prison. But this is also to state that the camera operates as any device under power: it provides an advantage that increases the visibility of its object, whilst removing of its own capacity to be seen. And Mosse, crucially, turns his camera towards what has been concealed. A similar attempt to wrestle back control of the visible emerges in Trevor Paglen’s Limit Telephotography project, customising cameras to see into US military sites – both occupy high and distant to positions to see sites that are concealed in some manner by the state. Mosse turns his camera to the structural logic of the refugee camp, showing it at a distance, alongside other images within the documentary devices of closely cropped individuals, though it must be noted that the distant images are far more revealing, and affective, because they defy a humanist photojournalistic norm.

In one image, it becomes clear that refugees are housed in and amongst shipping containers. Their equivalence with freight is telling, cold and statistical. But worse still, they remain unequal even in this comparison: it is substantially easier for the container to pass into Europe than it is for the fleeing refugee. How frequently is such a structural marginalisation made apparent?

Mosse is not always effective, however. His large-scale three screen video projection, whilst attempting to show the proximity of conflict and the dangers of the sea crossing, is narrative, dramatic, and as a result overly spectacular. Mosse gets too close to this structure of entertaining and theatricalising, and an accompanying musical score for the video here reveals a pandering rather than a challenge to the conditions of viewership. Mosse’s intention to make the structural logics of the thermal camera, and the experience of the refugee visible, is made apparent in a pensive image; it is obfuscated when it moves towards spectacle.

If the body is the subject of a dehumanised gaze under a military use of the camera, does the body remain a target under Mosse’s use? We have seen that the thermal camera alienates our view of the body in a way that typically functions under the logic of enhanced visibility, but can we say that its operator is programmatically or unconsciously positioning the refugee as other, extending their distance from us? Mosse’s images are affected by the conditions under which images are made, namely changes in climate: in the footage of his large three-screen projection and book we see blackened figures, with heat emerging around the top of the skull and mouth. It is cold and windy, and the temperature difference between the air and the body’s sweat picks out details on the skin. By contrast, In Mosse’s wide landscapes (of the Hellinikon Olympic Stadium in Greece, for example), the body is wholly illuminated, its warmth dramatically changing the body to white. If a military-grade thermal camera saw in colour as do other thermal devices, the body would be blue when cold and red when hot. Such a responsiveness to climate undoes the notion that the body is differentiated or cast as one race by the camera or its operator, as has been asserted elsewhere. But it also undoes a total flattening of difference, as has also been stated at the other extreme: the camera does not conceal the differing presentations of the body, how the body is dressed, marked or conditioned, at least for an observer prepared to look at the image in detail, beyond the estranging effect of the thermal sensor. But such observations distract from the main potency of the image and what it presents to us, leading to outraged claims at one pole, and hopeful but false universalities on the other – both are loud and reductive, when the experience of the refugee surely calls not to be caught in the crossfire, but to be paid attention to, to be seen and heard.

The presence of the live body affects us, as the camera isolates it. In our pause in front of the image, its strangeness causes us to see that warmth is the bodies strength and its very weakness, its similarity to us (however politically and economically removed). And here the flattening effect of the thermal camera is telling at last: it is hard to identify the difference between the military guard, aid worker, or volunteer, and the refugee. What unifies is more evident than what separates, at least for a moment. If we must perceive the refugee as a target under the night vision camera, so too is the aid worker and each member of military personnel. Perhaps this is because, as Agamben is so keen to point out, we are all determined by the conditions of the state. It is also because the body’s heat is its very force, and its very vulnerability: this is also shared by the refugee and the soldier, whose lives are equally fragile, however much we are conditioned to deny it.

As Judith Butler has stated, such realisation of the very fragility of life is the possibility to realise our interdependence upon each other. When we produce difference, and articulate otherness, it can be perceived that we in no way depend upon that life, in fact, are threatened by it. She states that: “Th[e] interpretative framework [of nationalism] functions by tacitly differentiating between those populations on whom my life and existence depend, and those populations which represent a direct threat to my life and existence.” Such a notion of non-dependence is structurally untrue of course: any analysis of the wealth of western nations could not fail to include the resources and labour extracted from the rest of the world. It is simply that trade conceals by abstraction, concealing where luxury comes from and how wealth is obtained.

In actuality, we are each dependent upon both the refugee and their legal mirror, the migrant, for our luxuries, but also for our lives: by producing and enforcing forms of otherness that dehumanise or delegitimise, we produce conflict. This conflict begins with an article and its rash claims, and ends with an enforced difference, a creation of margins, alongside a demarcation of the speakable and unspeakable, represented and unrepresented. What can we do to re-instate our proximities to the refugee? We must reveal our own dependency, and how our life is equally precarious. It is here that Butler is most persuasive: “the call to interdependency is also, then, a call to overcome this schism and to move toward the recognition of a generalised condition of precariousness. It cannot be that the other is destructible while I am not; nor vice versa. It can only be that life, conceived as precarious life, is a generalised condition, and that under certain political conditions it becomes radically exacerbated or radically disavowed. This is a schism in which the subject asserts its own righteous destructiveness at the same time as it seeks to immunise itself against the thought of its own precariousness.”

What is our responsibility then? Richard Mosse’s Incoming attempts to look at how the body is figured in the technological devices of power. His turning of this camera, towards the sites through which refugees pass, has seen how the body of the refugee is dehumanised, situated as a problem ‘incoming’ to the shores of Europe, which Europe has variously responded to, lashed out against and ignored. And we are implicated in it, are in fact, dependent upon it. It is a glimmer of human life that calls us. This might not lead us to see the refugee in a deep and personal light, but to see our relationship to all notions of otherness through the shared interdependence that underwrites human relations, and to see that the delineation of difference through exclusion exacerbates, and does not reduce our own security.

Mosse moves between spectacle and contemplation, and this project reveals the sharply different affects that such modes of address might engender. And here, precisely is our responsibility: to consider our mode of address, our mode of encounter, and to think it through thoroughly, without recourse to further exclusion, or diminishment. If a dialogue is in any way to propagate a more equal and tolerant consideration of “those who seem to test our sense of belonging or to defy available norms of likeness”, it will need to know no distance, near or far. It begins by setting aim at common ground.

*

In attempting to produce a detailed and critically nuanced account of a project that has divided its audiences, it seems necessary to address two notable criticisms of Incoming – that Mosse has little right to produce his project, and that he profits from it through the structure of the gallery system. That I do so is not to defend Mosse but to respond to criticism that pulls on the heart strings whilst arriving at problematic outcomes that run counter to their claims. I have chosen not to address such criticisms head-on in my essay on Incoming, seeing it as an attempt to see the work in a way that attempts to bring out a constructive possibility within Mosse’s use of military technology. I have, however, chosen to comment on these criticisms after, perhaps in advance of the plausible criticism that I have neglected their claims, but more significantly, to demonstrate that whilst I think their broad positions (on the ‘whiteness’ or non-representation of minority voices in art and its criticism, and on the problems of a political art’s relationship to money) are valid and worthy of debate, their application to Mosse seems driven by something else, which undoes the seriousness of those subjects at hand.

Mosse, like the American painter Dana Schutz, has been the object of strenuous criticism surrounding how we depict those we do not know. Both artists have been attacked for representing the lives and deaths of others. Schutz’s painting Open Casket, at the Whitney Biennial, has been criticised for its representation of the death of Emmett Till, whilst Richard Mosse has been criticised for his representations of the refugees arriving on the shores of Europe (though strangely, not for his previous project). It must be said that this criticism comes with both valid and invalid claims, which we must separate to reach a place of substance and criticism worthy of the name.

Let’s note the valid first. Criticism about racial representation has at its origin a concern to address the lack of diversity of critical voices and there remains a deficit in both art and photography. Such a lack is not simply the lack of a black voice (as was argued in the Schutz debate), but a truly global one, consisting of voices from genders, races, nationalities and social statuses alike. Such a position must rightly set only a global equality as its goal, but I suspect that attacking a white European artist for documenting a refugee crisis is not effective. Not only does it destroy one voice in favour of another (which it is to say it is antagonistic), but it also fails to remedy the problem by escalating tension about who can and cannot be represented.

It also follows that an experience of inequality or trauma in a community necessarily would be most tangible, empathetic and perhaps ‘authentic’ when communicated from within that experience. And no doubt there should be scope and audience for a photographic project that emerges from the experience of being a refugee – though it seems a position of luxury to assume that a refugee has the energy to focus on anything beyond survival. But I would also stress that Mosse never claims to speak on behalf of the refugee. He does, however, correctly point to our implication in the refugee crisis, something for which we need to see the consequences beyond our own mediated vision, and which calls for the project to be made visible to us. Such a criticism of Mosse can easily take the place of real reflection. Mosse’s logic to see how power sees is neither unreasonable nor without some gained knowledge. Yet it seems as if conventional demands of reportage are applied to Mosse by his critics, privileging some unspecified quality of ‘authenticity’, ‘immediacy’ and ‘fidelity’ which aims to humanise and affect the viewer into change. This is striking considering our nearly universal awareness that this method of ‘objective-and-yet subjective’ photography is barely possible, reductive and ineffective: Susan Sontag, Martha Rosler, and Allan Sekula critiqued the manipulations of straight photography some time ago. The efficacy of such ‘unmediated’ images are doubtful at best, and it is a relief to encounter an image of conflict that does not always attempt to reduce the complexity of human displacement to pulling on heart strings.

What is most problematic is that a destructive logic follows a desire to increase the representation of critical voices – a closing down, that argues we must speak only of our own experience, and not attempt to relate to another. This argument leads to the opposite of diversity, of course. As was declared directly and indirectly at both Mosse and Schutz in many of the critical articles that have surfaced, we must not intrude upon, and are ultimately excluded from, the experiences of others – one skin type disqualifies from any experience of another, and one experience of gender from that of another also. We should be cautious in the assertion that one’s validity automatically disqualifies another, not least because it replicates conditions of exclusion. This position emerges from wanting to clear the way for a new voice, but it counter-intuitively results in a stand-off and poses an impossible problem with consistently moveable markers – who is excluded, and who excludes?

It is undeniable that Richard Mosse’s work is increasingly expensive, and this must result in a flow of capital that benefits both the artist and his gallery. Both the photography and art worlds are increasingly industries in which the economic value of projects takes a symbolic value that affects and alters what is displayed in public spaces. And whilst there is no doubt that the exchange value of art needs discussion and actual change, it seems that the raising of this question in relation to Mosse serves not the purpose of addressing the economisation of art but rather the attempt to diminish his project in order to reinforce a criticism that a critic might otherwise sense is incomplete. An investigation into the economics of this artist’s career is yet to be done, but it is also let quietly rest in too many established careers to turn the attention on the work of a young artist. We might also bring a critique into being by celebrating projects which redistribute money or engage in alternative forms of exchange, which are no doubt quieter than the channels of debate of media usually permit. Such a criticism requires a search for its remedy, not a casual and unqualified accusation since rhetorical addition cuts off debate. What Mosse does with his success will of course be telling, and we might indeed hope that he supports critical and investigative research and affects political change. Yet it also seems a little too early, three projects in, to take aim at Mosse and discredit his work on the economic demand that a project comes to make.

All images courtesy of the Barbican. © Richard Mosse. Installation views © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images.


Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also Course Director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Sofia Borges

The Swamp

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

The spine of Sofia BorgesThe Swamp reads: ‘REALITY AS MUD AS DENSE AS AIR’. Caught in the pursuit of something – unexplainable, authentic, actual, real. Inevitable though it may be, it evades us, repeatedly. It torments.

Borges stalks the spaces of natural history museums, zoos and study centres – sites of interaction with the specimens of the world. And what she encounters there are images: not objects, so much as the ciphers and projections of histories past. Display haunts the condition of the museum: it must show to us, but also more than that, it must explain and present. In its fervour, it wraps objects up in dialogues and scenarios, in narrative and facts. It produces elaborate fictions that appear like reality – dioramas that are spatial and textual.

The diorama of course is a technology, invented by Daguerre before he moved onto photography. Both the photograph and the diorama are markers of modernity – machine production meeting new sciences, emerging leisure classes, and the production of a culture obsessed with the visible – flâneurie, technological vision, spectacle, and an ever more emergent media and world of printed matter. It’s no surprise that Borges operates in these spaces – they are spatial analogues to the camera: modernity of course remains photography’s biggest subject. Borges wants to see if this can be shaken loose.

The images of The Swamp show the illusion of display whilst being set in a disorienting and discomforting arrangement, where an interest in surfaces and textures disallow a broader sense of context. In groupings, we move from what are clearly specimens and portraits to opaque surfaces and infrastructures, displays and details and to the strange, seemingly anomalous items and oddities that populate these sites. Our understanding is partial at best. A fragment of a model, a set or a label, taunts in its opacity; pipes and frames are detached from unknown and unseen trophies. Many of the photographs are elusive: images are unrecognisable, seen up close as details. Museum visitors might recognise a combination of fiberglass, natural fabrics, and paint familiar from lo-fi dioramas that pepper Borges’ project, but getting up close against those surfaces, details blur with the soft, matte and spotted paper and image grain. Even the paper seems to suggest a depth before flatly resisting such an illusion.

Amongst the occasional ruptures, the artifice of space shows itself. Borges captures the white metal nuts, which fix synthetic black stone in place, and sees the highlight reflected back in a vinyl photograph of two girls in traditional dress (strangely their backdrop itself looks painted, artificial – or does it?). But if this Brechtian turn usually promises a revelation of sorts – a realism – Borges refuses it. She also turns her lens towards objects that look increasingly unreal. Specimens of Opal, Opale Gras/Opaal Vettig sit next to each other, their labels a mixture of languages, one fatty, one greasy: in their reflections they look increasingly, tantalisingly synthetic, like fabricated Japanese model food, which is made to be eaten by the eyes but not the mouth. Suspicious under the glare of the light, there seems to be no exit sign beyond the illusion of the image.

If we despair of the confusion wrought by the treacle of images, we need to return to problem of reality itself. Would we know reality when we saw it? Thick and viscous, though evanescent, it is the product of what seems like contradiction. Borges acknowledges this when she points a camera in its direction. “I intentionally wanted to learn how to distinguish the difference between mimesis, meaning, image and matter. Paradoxically, I was seeking to do that by the use of photography.” Borges might lay representation upon representation, blocking rather than revealing the elusive real. But she suspects that moving toward that paradox might unravel it, reveal it for what it is. She senses that to untangle, we have to get closer but somehow distance ourselves – as if representation were a finger trap, which closes upon us, the more we attempt to extricate ourselves from it. We must try new strategies.

Borges finds a revelation in front of cave paintings: “we cannot signify reality. And we have been trying forever.” Just at that moment, it comes flooding back: Andre Bazin’s description of the ‘mummy complex’ of the image – its desire both to show, but also to wrap up; to display but also to cover over. It can be suffocating. At its origins, the image-maker builds a complex web of rituals, motives, and associations, concerned with the past but preserved for a future unspecified. S/he produces complex codes to disentangle, percepts and affects to absorb and sense. These are not reality, nor are they signs of it. We do not make images to show the world, we make them to show how we have responded to it; they reveal not the world itself, but what we are curious about and what we value. If we seek reality in the image, we displace our own reality for that of another. It is strange to think that we expect reality to show itself – to reveal itself to us. We need to find it. And so it is that representation replaces the world it claims to make visible. If we approach a representation passively, it remains a paradoxical object that confounds our understanding. But if we approach it with a sense that reality will not be ‘found’ within it, a sense of what the swamp is made up of becomes ever more tangible. Borges, by thickening the mud of reality and forcing us out to find our own way, strangely begins to show a path to try out.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Sofia Borges


Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also Course Director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Forensic Architecture

Saydnaya: Inside a Syrian Torture Prison

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

With the widely remarked upon image saturation of our culture, it is easily overlooked that the production of visibility, through technologies and networks, produce a parallel world of the invisible and unrepresented. As Ulises Ali Mejias has written in Off The Network: Disrupting The Digital World, the nodes on a digital network are trained to recognise only other nodes. In the network, an object that does not appear to be a node simply does not exist. Such is the network’s blindspot, recognising only itself. And so it is for our positivist relationship with visibility, with a world that is continuously imaged. The history of photography is laden with such notions: that the world exists to be photographed; that an object/place has not been truly seen until there is a photograph of it. We are largely unconscious that our regime of visibility, dependent upon the photograph as it is, also produces a world of invisibility, with objects, places and peoples that seemingly do not exist.

It is necessarily the case that if a culture is built around an apparatus like photography and the exchange of photographic images, a parallel culture will emerge where photography is resisted (perhaps to return to privacy) or prohibited (in order to construct alternative regimes of power). Such a world might be a respite from the unrelenting flow of media, information and chatter, but it might also conceal a deeply choreographed programme of violence. How would we bring such a world into view?

The research organisation Forensic Architecture explores the gaps between images. It produces analytical evidence to participate in the production of both political and juridical facts, relating to areas of conflict and sites of humanitarian crises. Using archaeological and forensic tools first developed to generate evidence and demonstrate the course of decades-old war crimes (see Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman’s Mengele’s Skull), Forensic Architecture has merged forensic procedures with new combinations of images sources and data analysis tools, to reveal how buildings both produce and bear the scars of control, and how these affect human subjects. Weizman describes this process as expanding the juridical process so that objects themselves can be sources of information and effectively placed within the context of a trial. One project, entitled A Drone Strike in Miranshah: Investigating Video Testimony, exhibited in the 2015-16 exhibition Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence assembles uploaded civilian photographic and video recordings to produce real-time 3D-mapped and geo-tagged verifications of drone attacks in Palestine.

Forensic Architecture projects counter government accusations of digital manipulation – an open but hard-to-refute claim made by numerous government forces – and strategies of hiding or concealing, by using multiple images as an accumulation of information which can be abstractly mapped. In using a combination of archaeological, forensic and photographic tools, Forensic Architectures demonstrates new expanded strategies of documentary practice, interlinking the documentary mode of ‘witnessing’ with analytical research, whilst providing real, juridical evidence.

Saydnaya: Inside a Syrian Torture Prison begins, however, at the very limit of photographic evidence. Saydnaya Prison is located 25km north of Damascus in Syria, and has been the site of civilian tortures since 2011. The prison remains out of view however: A single satellite image reveals nothing of what happens inside, and no images are known to exist of the site (in part because no independent visitors have been permitted to visit). The operators of Saydnaya have restricted all acts of photography to conceal any disclosure of the treatment of inmates, a strategy that is further facilitated by the conditions in which prisoners are held and moved around the site in continual darkness.

Without even a partial photographic record, Inside a Syrian Torture Prison nevertheless constructs a new body of imagery to make Saydnaya visible. The project responds to the difficulties of obtaining photographic documents by re-establishing the value of human experience as a source of evidence and information, advanced by a forensic focus upon detail. As a reconstruction based around the oral accounts of ex-prisoners – seen through an interactive model of the prison interspersed with interview extracts and video footage of the model’s assembly – it becomes clear the body and mind witness beyond the purely narrative account of the subject. The body and mind trace the site, are imprinted with it. Extensive interviews, where the prison structure and operations are discussed, compared and mapped with architects, form a picture of the building. But with darkened conditions as standard, information is not taken from general or emotive impressions, but from the specific relationships of the body to those architectures, in relation to the size and textures of cells, and the architectural particularities of the site. In one interview, a man recalls a hatch, which corresponds to the size of his skull (through which the inmate was forced to insert his head, sideways, so as to be beaten). The space, in turn, can be measured in reverse, its position towards the floor located by the bodily memory of the witness. Each body maintains the physical residue of the architecture, but the senses similarly maintain a sense of space: the material properties of spaces were reconstructed through acoustic modelling.

Forensic Architecture’s account of Saydnaya begins with an outline shell, but populates the prison with intense details emerging from the human subject. Sense experience is transformed into visible mappings of the site. And temporarily without photographic input, the forensic reconstruction of site and experience re-situate the human agent as a reliable, in fact, valuable witness. Photography could learn from such methods, progressing beyond a notion of fact, or indexicality, to one of testimony for its claim to relevance in the world. If we find ourselves blinded by our dependence upon the image, we find in the human who testifies a key.

All images courtesy of Forensic Architecture. ©Forensic Architecture and Amnesty International


Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also Course Director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Federico Ciamei

Travel Without Moving

Book review by Duncan Wooldridge

It has always been photography’s prerogative to show worlds just out of reach. Even though it seems unusual today, we might remember that, in their heyday, picture magazines commissioned photographers and writers on long-term projects, embedded in far flung countries and cultures that were unfamiliar to occidental eyes. Written accounts were sent back, describing the world without images, and written in a prose that was necessarily descriptive and evocative. The very subjects were cultures and peoples – a picture of the world was to be formed through those images and descriptions.

As much as many of those projects were humanist in intent, today they understood in part as a colonial project. But in the globalised and networked present, they also appear as the beginnings of networks and assemblages. Edward Steichen’s Family of Man brought together images from around the world to show mankind’s similarities by placing hundreds of images in one exhibition and publication. In its grand tour as an exhibition, however, and its multiple printings as a catalogue, Family of Man showed not only a specific view of the world, but also, just as importantly, how photographs continued to move, after Benjamin’s description of mechanical reproducibility, away from the subject and towards the recipient. The Family of Man described – enacted even – a passage of information. It was, in its own way, an illustration that complemented André Malraux’s conception of an Imaginary Museum, or Museum without Walls, in which the artworks of the world could be collected as an institution on the printed page. The world exists in the home of the reader-viewer – it is compressed in each of our own museums.

Photography’s recent use of the satellite and networked image, as a material for visual and critical practice, corroborates this early movement of the image. From the comfort of the home, images of the world can be presented to us. But more than this: progressively, the very collections of major museums – the preserved holdings of institutionalised knowledge as the projects of generations of curators, collecting policies and ideologies – have become available through great projects of scanning and digital reproduction. Their images enter the algorithmic soup of user-generated photographs and selfies present online.

Federico Ciamei’s book Travel Without Moving published by Skinnerboox presents the pre-photographic representations of the once-exotic landscapes of distant lands, to meet the now-familiar templates and formats of the digital image file and the screen of the computer. The book begins with extracts from traveller’s diaries, in a small selection of texts affixed neatly to the cover. Each fragment recounts the approach to or departure towards a new place. The expeditions diaries suggest the many social interactions that formed the body of the explorations themselves – gossip about what was to come, and tales of what had occurred. Each undoes the scientific distance at which new cultures were often measured and described formally. Inside the book, images sourced from the digitised archives of travellers and explorations make up the majority of Ciamei’s material: maps, drawings, and written indices, combine with photographs to produce a hybrid reality.

Present in many of Ciamei’s images are the coloured flickers of the digital screen as it continually updates – many images are re-photographed in this way, and reflexively bounce the reader back from the image’s representational content. At the same time, wild landscapes and images of distant civilisations emerge as backgrounds upon which the multiple windows of image files are easily overlaid. Ciamei suggests that the image is one that underwrites what we know about the world, and is at the same time subject to being altered as it is displayed. He often makes subtle alterations to the image as a window on the world, bring two images into conversation (an image of a bird finds a home on the branch in the background of an image showing a pair of monkeys), whilst at other times, he overlays satellite images of the river over its hand-drawn analogue. Images are continuously in play with each other, making sometimes clear and at other times elusive correspondences.

Ciamei’s book presents the work of explorers and collectors, but presents it in a manner that destabilises the facts of exploration and geographical specificity. The reader is left with no clear sense of what is accurate or inaccurate, plausible or implausible. If the originary function of the museum was to collect the world’s knowledge, such resources are now available to users everywhere, but emerge as fragments organised by the logics of digitisation and the search. As such, their coherent narratives and threads are undone. As David Joselit has written in his book After Art, new forms of image and object production emerge from this “epistemology of search” – the knowledge available according to the algorithms of databases, which maintain what is knowable and unknowable, visible and invisible. It seems no coincidence that Ciamei provides a spread of links and references to many of the files, showing that he has mined many university and museum databases and public records. This parsing of digital information is the very practice that progresses from an archival impulse to the digital subjectivities that make us all knowledge-workers.

In Travel Without Moving, Ciamei folds space and time upon themselves, in an acknowledgement that such images are not only subjective, but are also subject to continual change. Opening multiple windows, of the same file, repeatedly, so that they cascade densely upon the screen, we see the expansion of the image file. Existing no longer in one moment or in one place, they multiply. Such plays reveal the power of images, and their abilities to transport the distant and make it proximate. Today, we not only produce images of ourselves, but share sights and texts that are not even part of our own, lived experience. In a large part, we experience the world vicariously, and the image-world meets the world that was once the subject for the nomad-photographer. But it also seems fitting that Ciamei takes the extraction of digital information to its logical extremes and reveals their subjectivities also. More than re-representing, he composes a world and its new culture from the images he finds. This seems to have always been a potential of both image and text, but one that is rarely deployed. It has textual origins in Raymond Roussel’s 1910 Impressions of Africa written from Roussel’s room, as a work of imagination, and Italo Calvino’s 1972 Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo describes an infinite variety of cities, drawn from the microcosm of just one place, that being Venice. Ciamei’s Travel Without Moving finds a photographic analogon for this very possibility, drawn from the archives of our image-world digitised online.

All images courtesy of Skinnerboox. © Federico Ciamei


Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also Course Director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Thomas Demand

New Photographs

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

Matthew Marks Gallery, Los Angeles
24.01.15 — 04.04.15

In the beginning was the model. And the model demonstrated that the idea worked, at least on paper. And what began on paper, was in turn mediated by it, and has returned to it, becomes it. In most accounts of his work to date, we have known Thomas Demand for his paper sculpture, and what we might also think of as his constructed, or staged photography of these objects. We are familiar with their laborious production, their 1:1 scale, and their origins in pre-existing photographs. Such contexts inspire a wonderment – upon the first viewing of Demand’s project we are drawn to its labour and spectacle, and perhaps justly so. But for those who return, what of the strange balance of familiarity and the novel? Is a different set of longer lasting questions at work?

It is strange that we might account for the role of paper in the work of Thomas Demand, and not that of the model. Apparent in Demand’s most recently completed work, in his exhibition at Matthew Marks in Los Angeles, is the evolving status of this very object. The philosopher Vilém Flusser wrote, in a lecture to L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie, in Arles, France, that photographs were models. He stated: “The true photographer intends to make pictures which may be used as models for the experience, the knowledge, and the evaluation of their receivers.”

The photographer, for Flusser, did not simply accept the apparent ‘realism’ of the image, but actively constructed it. For Demand, the model is a unifying theme, which brings together the artist’s method and subject matter. He is at once the maker of physical models, and the surveyor of photographs as models of meaning and information.

On the one hand, a model might be retrospective: it is an historical image existing as a blueprint. It functions as a marker or trace, the flicker of an event whose significance is only now becoming fully apparent – in Atelier, the brightly lit studio of Henri Matisse is represented at a late and overlooked stage of the artist’s career, at the moment of his cut-outs. Coloured paper is strewn on the floor, as if we were witnessing the moment after they were formed from their paper – just as they were made, and about to go out in to the world. More than simply a product of the artist’s age and ill health, which usually attempts to explain his move from painting, the cut-outs suggested a different strategy of art-making, made of paper and scissors, rather than brushes and paints. They point to reinvention, and the quick joy of assemblage over the slow process of painterly construction. In Demand’s hands they seem to return us back to one of the artist’s core obsessions: paper as material. Paper is both the material of proposition and the tool of historical record.

If Demand often portrays scenes from the past, so too are recent events made visible. Backyard represents the side steps up to the house of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the suspects of the Boston Marathon bombings that took place in 2013. It is a work reminiscent of many of Demand’s accounts of recent history, presenting banal or familiar spaces – kitchens, homes, bars and gardens – loaded with the weight of the events that haunt them. This image of Tsarnaev’s home presents the vernacular wooden architecture of the Boston suburbs. The proximity of each house to the next suggests both density and community, but also sets a stage for a certain honest or straightforward living. Such an idyll is disrupted by objects strewn across the little patch of grass. These signifiers, in a culture in which one’s garden is often manicured to maintain the social contract, allows the portrayal of Tsarnaev to quickly form his status as an outsider.

It is worth noting Demand’s taste for criminals and their stories, not so much for the language of the crime scene photograph – as has so often been remarked upon – but for their subjects’ clearly defined and quickly formed place in our historical consciousness, as evil, unimaginable, other. Tsarnaev was crafted as a kind of model, or anti-model. Not interrogated for motive so much as simply represented to the public, he is held up as the very antithesis of reason, of sense. Caught in a context in which his immigrant status prefaces his brutal acts, Tsarnaev is suspended in history as an abstraction, as are many of Demand’s villains.

Thinking historiographically – rather than historically – permits a view of history subject to alteration, to the will of its authors, and to its casting and re-casting. Demand’s reconstruction of Matisse’s studio is similarly appropriate. It falls at the time of a re-evaluation of the artist’s collage in exhibitions at Tate and MoMA. At the very moment the viewer comes face to face with the notion of Matisse as a master collagist, history is recast, recomposed. Matisse himself becomes a model – an object of study, and a means of projecting into the future.

Usually, we think of the model as a forecast, as a form of pre-visualisation. A sleight of hand, which turns photography from an object obsessed with the past, into one concerned with the potentiality of the future, Demand began in 2011 to photograph the architectural models of John Lautner. The rough, scuffed and annotated cardboard structures in Model Studies showed the anticipation of an architecture yet to be built (of course, some of an architects’ models are realised, whilst many are not). Demand’s new photographs show working models by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of celebrated Japanese architects SANAA. Shaped and crumpled, and cut out by hand, what emerges are overlapping, opening and compressing volumes. Cleaner than Lautner’s models, they produce an architecture as space, and envisage the model as a vision of a built environment yet to come. They are as real as images of space as are photographs of architecture itself, for Demand is something of a realist, despite or perhaps because of, his paper constructions.

And so what is the status of the model after Demand’s treatment? It might be clear that – beyond our initial wonderment – the model is something that is made, crafted and forged, though it is not simple labour. The model is history written and brought into being. It is not a passive object, but a process of shaping: hence Demand’s distinctive matching of the model as process and subject of enquiry. Realism is the model that we opt to manifest.

All images courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery. © Thomas Demand


Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also course director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

The Archive of Modern Conflict

Photo Jeunesse

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

Accident, as artist Moyra Davey has observed, is the lifeblood of photography. When a photograph speaks to us, it does so through the spark of accident that ignites the image and holds us interested. But accident’s cousin, excess – that surplus of information, and fullness of detail that seeps into the image – is just as important. As technology progresses, as colour, detail and speed transform our experience of photography, the more excess it seems to allow. Lee Friedlander reflected upon that which went beyond his initial gaze and intent as an image-maker: “I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and seventy-eight trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.”

Cameroon’s earliest colour photo studio, Photo Jeunesse, served several functions when it opened in the capital Yaoundé in the 1970s. Like many studios, it brought affordable photographic images to a local audience, offering formalised, staged and painterly portraits, identity photographs tightly cropped from a larger image, and stamped out from the photograph, and leisurely masquerading depictions in the studio. Although colour photography emerged in Cameroon in the 1970s, black and white remained familiar through to the 1990s, and studios often juggled between the two analogue modes. Many, Jacques Touselle, resisted digitisation as if to hold on to an opportunity to retain a sense of that which comes about through the chance and accident. The Photo Jeunesse archive, which is now part of The Archive of Modern Conflict’s collection, represents a record not only of Cameroonian society, tracing tradition and globalisation. But in its loose ends – the details of its painted sets, and the playful activities of its sometimes quirky sitters – it tells an alternative story of the photo studio, and its ability to represent not only the formal and dignified version of the sitter, but the very excess that surrounds them, which paradoxically leads us to something that feels like what Jacques Lacan would call the real.

When a photo studio is archived and its story told, its narrative is often cautious and selectively preserved – from a vast quantity of imagery it is a restrained formality which usually sees the light of day, as if historians and archivists sought to ensure a desaturated dignity for their subjects. The studio of Photo Jeunesse is different. From the beginning, its variety resists sociological or anthropological categorisation. Hipsters in suits and sunglasses mingle with brothers and sisters in choreographed clothing. Boxers spar dramatically, while sitters hide behind foliage or interact with the studio backdrops. There is a feeling that the wealthy or well-to-do mix with some of the more eccentric characters of Yaoundé. The fashionable meets the kitsch meets the everyday. Furthermore, there is no edit by the studio of its mistakes or aberrations either. Figures exit scenes at the moment of exposure and groups are caught off-guard. There are no fixed rules or dogmatic go-to devices. There is well-behaved portraiture, of course – and it functions as a useful social record – but Photo Jeunesse provides something more at the same time: sociability and escape, not simply in costume or cinematic fantasy, but in an informality that the studio seems to look for, to seek out.

The photographs do not isolate and extract so much as make possible any number of different takes, alternative versions. They welcome the studio into the image as its own protagonist, rooting the subjects of the photographs in that place, rather than elevating them to transcend a world around them. Each image seems to ask for more people, more space, more information.

Of the African portraiture that has emerged so far into a western-centric historical narrative of photography, from Malick Sidibe to Seydou Keita, a tighter, formal, dignified, even somewhat classical edit is usual, and a well-behaved edit of Photo Jeunesse would of course be possible. But the studio presents a different, positively excessive photography. Shot with the widest of framings (each exposure would be made with a wide angle, cropped if the subject required), the images capture the full happenings of the studio and its operations. Because colour is added, this effect is heightened ever further. What we see is not some idealised representation of the clientele, but details, spaces and gestures, which makes each individual human, possible, plausible.

It is as if that which would be incidental in black and white is suddenly visible in colour. The synthetic meets the concrete. What we see is both artificial and actual, something that can only be considered an excess, producing a rupturing sense of the real beyond the staging of the portrait. It reveals the individuality of each sitter against the standardisation of the studio and photography itself.

Crimson curtains and the green of apple tres, pale painted backdrops, carpet and floor tilings; household plants in colourful pots and ironmongery. We can only guess at which props belong to the studio, and which are brought in by the sitter, just as we might attempt to read each object for its symbolic value. But we cannot ignore their colour, their sense of both the actual and imaginary. While their details may be significant, something else is at stake in these images. For in colour, they provide that flash of generosity which photography usually resists. It is excess, and accident, which give us a way in to the clients of the Photo Jeunesse

All images courtesy of AMC. © Photo Jeunesse/The Archive of Modern Conflict


Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also course director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

EJ Major

love is…

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

Between 2004 and 2011, as part of her wider practice investigating representations of women and expectations of femininity, EJ Major took love as a subject. Using existing cultural material as a starting point, she painstakingly took an image of each frame from Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 film Last Tango in Paris, printing 7000 postcards. On the verso, in the upper left hand corner, Major included the prompt ‘love is…’, the title and rhetorical lead for Kim Casali’s series of widely syndicated one-frame cartoons. Recipients of Major’s cards – strangers, distributed across a variety of geographies – were asked to return them, with or without response, to a freepost address, printed on the right hand side of the card’s reverse. In her resulting book, which shares its title with the cartoon, both sides of the postcards, returned to Major, are reproduced, the responses both tellingly generic and profound. Bertolucci’s film, controversial and partially censored upon its release (and the subject of continual revision about its own ethics as a production ever since), meets its opposite: a contemporaneous, yet sharply uncontroversial, saccharine cartoon.

Their respective differences seem to embody not only different philosophies about love, but fundamentally different choices about how to act. Between enthusiasm and indifference, or between kitsch or romantic naïveté, and intellectualised distance, we cannot fail to have both singular and culturally conditioned responses to love. We may of course seek to downplay it, or declare it as truism, but much of what we think love to be is determined by the images of romance that are laid on for us through photography, television, literature, film and illustration. And what do they tell us? Often they demonstrate hackneyed themes of soap opera dramatics and idyllic seclusion from other events in the world. These mediated expectations are experiences with a sweeping narrative, packed with dramatic tension: they depend upon last-minute moments of intense, spectacular visuality. For something so intangible, the need for concrete representations (visual or linguistic) is striking. Major’s project takes on the ambiguity of both clichéd and resolutely anti-clichéd approaches to a frequently depicted subject that seems to resist representation.

Considering the linguistic and visual representations as prompts, being given a card by Major, each participant holds in their hands a single fragment of Bertolucci’s film – and Casali’s ubiquitous and unchanging text on the reverse. Placed into dialogue, both components, with their alignment of picture and language, produce continuity and disruption, impacted by the image, which becomes the projects variable. Some combinations appear to illustrate love effectively; others demonstrate the assumptions of the textual anchor as explaining something that cannot be readily identified in the image. In a Baldessari-like play on the arbitrariness of the relationship between a signifier and signified, images of steely-eyed indifference, become scenes of longing, others seem impenetrable in their associations. Everything in Last Tango in Paris, however indifferent, is transformed by the newly inserted linguistic anchor, but are ultimately modified by the variations in the visual event to which they supply a caption. Major draws our attention to this variability, and to the structuring of love as a prevalent subject in mass media.

As the book develops, the changing images come to contest and fracture the innocent language of the text. Laid out in their original filmic sequence (comprising over 450 of some 7000 frames, more than sufficient to reconstruct the film’s structure and events), the film’s narrative develops in front of us, initially haunted by the text’s recurrent questioning. The protagonists’ casual relationship, played out between Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, develops its friction of anonymity and emerging personal knowledge, with only occasional, knowing acknowledgement from the card’s respondents, who sometimes recognise the film or its status as a found filmic still. Their responses, for the most part, are short and economical – many are general, while others are generic or idiosyncratic in their removal from context. But as Last Tango in Paris’ most notorious scene takes place, Brando laying over Schneider, butter in hand, the responses from Major’s audience shift noticeably. Here, commentary is directly impacted upon by the image, and seems to respond to it (recognition of its source or not). The stark distinction between the saccharine love is… and Last Tango in Paris is jolted by the deep ambiguity that sex plays as part of an exploration of love. A series of kneejerk defences of love result from these scenes, the now-seemingly-ironic love is… perhaps taunting the receiver of the card. Without any alteration, both image and text have the effect of goading responses out of language’s usual passivity. Together, the two elements serve as representational prompts in Major’s project, though here, in a rare instance, the image slowly overturns the supposed innocence of the text.

The short aphoristic meditations which Major receives, in their accumulation, might form a census or poll that the project’s formation has made possible. A questionnaire of sorts, we might look at love is… as an object of research, as an anthropological or sociological document – are we willing to talk about love? And if we are, what are we saying? Are we able to say something about it that comes from ourselves and not from cliché? Can we negotiate mediated representations of love towards something that is meaningful and singular?

Ultimately, Major’s method is one of delicate alteration. Without altering her filmic or written source material, she brings about a transformation occurring through variation. Her comparatively hands-off method transforms her relationship to those dominant poles of appropriation and participation, through which so much artistic practice uncritically traverses. With its multiplicity of voices, Major’s project seems to find a way into engaging our own responses, negotiated but only partially informed by the voices of mediation.

All images courtesy of the artist. © EJ Major


Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also course director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.