Disphotic

Probing photo murk.

Tag: museum

The Memory of History chapters

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past.

IMG_0724

This post functions as a contents page, linking to the seven chapters that I have published on the blog:

The Possession of Trauma

The Invasion of Forgetting

The Burden of Memory

The Scrapheap of Progress

The Tyranny of Time

The Nation of the Past

The Victory of Entropy

You can also now buy the book, which combines the text chapters and images from the project. Yay!

Buy the hard cover version through Blurb.com

Buy the soft cover version through Lulu.com

The Victory of Entropy

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past. Here is one of several I will be publishing on the blog.

The Victory of Entropy

‘…knowledge comes only in lightning flashes,
the text is the long roll of thunder that follows’1
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Ryounkaku tower, Japan’s first western style skyscraperTokyo 1923

Ryounkaku tower, Japan’s first western style skyscraper
Tokyo 1923

A key principle of modern physics is that, as time passes, disorder in a closed system increases irreversibly, the level of this disorder is known as entropy. Entropy can be reduced in an open system, for example by the act of arranging historical facts into chronological order entropy is reduced compared to if those facts were left unordered. However the act of ordering an open system only increases entropy in a bigger closed system, for example the universe, because the ordering those facts uses energy, creates noise, heat, produces waste and so on. This concept strangely both seems to confirm the view of time as linear because it rests on the concept of ‘the arrow of time’ that is that time is irreversible2  and at the same time seems to undermine the ideas of progress and order that are implicit in historicist views of linear time by refiguring time as a process of relentless decay.

Photography is an interesting example of some of these principles in action. Photography appears to offer a way to record and order the events of a seemingly chaotic world, but in doing so it increases that disorder. Photographic film is in a state of low entropy, but exposing it and developing it increases entropy through the expenditure of energy required to perform this act and because the relatively ordered physical structure of the film is replaced with the more disordered, silver halide crystals that appear as a result of the developing process.3  Similar issues effect a digital image, which although requiring less expenditure of energy produces vast quantities of information, perhaps thousands of pages of data per photograph. This effect becomes more profound over time, as image making proliferates and the volume of images increases. It has been estimated that as many photographs were taken in the whole of the nineteenth century as were taken last year.4

Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, a vast work on nineteenth-century Parisian shopping arcades, left incomplete at his death, offers similar insights into entropy and history. In writing The Arcades Project Benjamin was seeking to bring together the ‘refuse and detritus’5 of history and to explode ‘the nineteenth century’s conception of history [as] an endless series of facts congealed in the form of things’.6– In leaving the work incomplete he almost achieved this aim more effectively than if he had finished it, leaving behind him a work of a thousand pages of fragments, the remains of an unparalleled literary edifice, the very embodiment of the chaotic historical scrapheap he alluded to in his earlier works.

1 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Boston, 1988) p. 456
2 Huw Price, The Thermodynamic Arrow: Puzzles and Pseudo-Puzzles, accessed 3rd November 2012, available at http://sydney.edu.au/time/price/preprints/Price2.pdf
3 Robert Wright, The Entropy Distinction: or the Heat of the Moment, published 16th September 2006, accessed 6th November 2012, available at http://www.robertwrightphoto.com/writing/photography/the-entropy-distinction-or-the-heat-of-the-moment/
4 Jonathan Good, How Many Photos Have Ever Been Taken? Published 15th September 2011, accessed 10th November 2012, available at http://blog.1000memories.com/94-number-of-photos-ever-taken-digital-and-analog-in-shoebox
5 Foreword in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Boston, 1998) p. ix
6 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Boston, 1998) p. 14

The Nation of the Past

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past. Here is one of several I will be publishing on the blog.

The Nation of the Past

‘In individuals insanity is rare but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.’1
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Three German Luftwaffe pilots at the AcropolisAthens, September 1941

Three German Luftwaffe pilots at the Acropolis
Athens, September 1941

The first seats in history at European universities began to be established at the start of the nineteenth century2 at the same time that the idea of the nation state was beginning to emerge across the continent. The latter was in part a response to the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars but also reflected a trend amongst intellectual elites to investigate their native folk cultures which were disappearing under the pressure of modernity. Nationalists identified an ancient and primordial link between their nation, an ethno-cultural group, and the state, the geo-political entity they inhabited.3 Early academic historians played an important role in helping to establish and legitimise the narratives of nationhood, aiding nationalists in staking their claim to territory and autonomy, for example in the 1821 Greek war of independence against Turkey. Later Stalin went so far as to argue that ‘a nation is not racial or tribal, but a historically constituted community of people’.4

History and nationalism shared more than an approximate time of origin; they were also both borne of the enlightenment and its resultant revolutions in thinking. Nationalism was simply put, a logical extension of enlightenment concepts of the social contract and personal liberties, from individuals to entire ethnic groups.5  History, for its part, argues McQuire, could only have emerged from a major change in the concept of truth similar to that which occurred as a result of the work of thinkers such as Newton and Bacon. They instigated a change in thought which ‘came to center around the possibility of repeating experimental results under controlled conditions. This epistemological shift helped to create a new terrain for history and memory predicated on exact repetition’.6  This methodological revolution formalised processes of research and narration into what is now known as academic history, which combined with the teaching of history in emerging public school systems increasingly rendered traditional memory and folk history practices obsolete.

History and nationalism have been problematically linked ever since, with history polluted in Geary’s eyes with the ‘toxic waste’7  of nationalism. The Second World War discredited ethnic nationalism to some extent, and its remnants were subsumed under meta-national cold war ideologies. But the collapse of the Soviet Union disinterred these identities again, and they exploded violently in the Balkans. In other parts of Europe the economic promise of a continent united under capitalism was believed to have prevented this, an assumption Graham questioned in his book New Europe, in which he wondered what would happen to Europeans who didn’t fit into ‘all these promises of a new beginning facing the future hand in hand, free from the shackles of the past’.8

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886) chapter 4 line 156, available at http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/nietzsche/1886/beyond-good-evil/ch04.htm
2 E.H. Carr, What is History (Basingstoke, 1961) p. 56
3 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London, New York, 1983) p. 6
4 Joseph Stalin, Marxism and the National Question (1913) available at http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/11913/03a.htm#s1
5 Athena S. Leoussi, Encyclopedia of Nationalism (London, New York 2001) p. 57
6 Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1998)  p. 166
7 Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations (Princeton, 2002), p. 15
8 Paul Graham, Paul Graham (London, 1996) p. 25

The Burden of Memory

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past. Here is one of several I will be publishing on the blog.

The Burden of Memory

‘I did not see and therefore cannot tell’1
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

Toshiaki Mukai and Tsuyoshi Noda who held a competition to see who could execute one hundred people by sword quickest. China, 1937.

Forgetting is not always irreversible; and memory both in the physical and physiological, collective and individual senses is a resilient thing, the past may simply lie dormant rather than being lost forever, until changing events can trigger its return or rediscovery. When this occurs memories may not completely return because ‘in every remembering something is always forgotten’.2 Equally they may not reconstitute themselves predictably, but may return in strange stutters and starts. It is ‘this randomness, this lack of structure in the way we remember things and receive impressions’3 that led B.S. Johnson to write a novel of loose chapters in a box, designed to be shuffled and arranged in any order by the reader. This enables the novel to flit randomly from the distant past to a moment ago, one memory sparking off another like a line of mnemonic fireworks burning out of control.

To remember something does not mean it happened the way it is remembered, or even happened at all. The cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus found that memories were prone to distortion by suggestion, particularly in the immediate aftermath of their formation. Using conflicting text and visual evidence she planted false or inaccurate memories in subjects. This has wider significance because it means that ‘when witnesses to an event talk with one another, when they are interrogated with leading questions or suggestive techniques, when they see media coverage about an event, misinformation can enter consciousness and can cause contamination of memory’.4 Similar research has undermined the evidential value of ‘reclaimed’ memories of abuse or trauma, to the extent they are no longer accepted by criminal courts.5

National collective memory faces challenges both from the passage of time and from the fact that ‘the putative unity of the modern nation is irrevocably split by the complexity of affiliations and identifications which function in its name’.6 A similarly wide array of cultural mechanisms functions against this fragmentation to maintain a cohesive memory of national events. From monuments and symbols like The Cenotaph and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to cinematic epics like the American The Birth of a Nation and the Russian 9 Рота7  culture reinforces the official memory of the past. Because of this, memories that contradict official narrative may be sidelined or silenced. Equally these national collective memories are prone to manipulation or misremembering. Japan for example has faced criticism for its systemic unwillingness to recognise the scale or nature of wartime atrocities committed by its soldiers in occupied countries.8


1 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Purg VIII 103-105 , accessed 10th November 2012, avaliable at http://etcweb.princeton.edu/dante/pdp/
2 Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity, (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1998)  p. 164
3 Jonathan Coe, Introduction in B.S. Johnson, The Unfortunates (London 1999) p.ix
4 Elizabeth Loftus, Planting Misinformation in the Human Mind: A 30 Year Investigation  of the Malleability of Memory, published 2005, accessed 21st October 2012, available from http://learnmem.cshlp.org/content/12/4/361.full.pdf+html
5 Elizabeth Loftus, The Formation of False Memories, published 1995, accessed 21st October 2012, available at http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/harnad/Papers/Py104/loftus.mem.html
6 Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1998)  p. 204
7 The 9th Company follows a group of recruits in training for the Soviet-Afghan war. Despite misgivings about  the film’s accuracy from veterans groups the film set records for domestic ticket sales in Russia and was praised by Russian president Vladmir Putin.
8 Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Historical Issues Q&A, accessed 5th November 2012, available at http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/q_a/faq16.html#q8

The Invasion of Forgetting

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past. Here is one of several I will be publishing on the blog.

The Invasion of Forgetting

‘Every ten years a great man, Who paid the bill?’1
Bertolt Brecht, Questions from a Worker who Reads

A Royal Airforce bomber during a night raidHamburg, date unknown

A Royal Airforce bomber during a night raid
Hamburg, date unknown

Knowledge of the past is like a great continent. As time passes, people die and direct contact with its events are lost, erosion takes place leaving increasingly isolated promontories of knowledge, bearing little relation to the original geography in which they sat. The channels and seas separating them are the unknowable past, apparently lost forever. The historian, professional or otherwise, attempts to bridge these isles with supposition. Besides death, the causes of the erosion vary, but neglect and catastrophe leading to the destruction of material evidence are the most usual.

Clearly it would be impossible to preserve all that constitutes the past, as much as it would be impossible to conserve total knowledge of even a single second of the present. How much and precisely what gets preserved has a profound effect on our later understanding. Indifference to the present because of the apparent lack of need to protect or conserve it means the task is often left until after it is too late. Few people for example made efforts to record the customs and culture of Native Americans until their obliteration was almost total, the painter George Catlin and photographer Edward Curtis are notable exceptions, early examples of the ‘salvage ethnographer’.

Forgetting the past can also be a defensive measure. W.G. Sebald mused that the devastation wrought on German cities in the closing years of the Second World War produced such a sense of trauma that the ability of Germans ‘to remember was partly suspended’.2  Consequently the event was scarcely dealt with for decades afterwards because in the face of such a trauma ‘the need to know was at odds with a desire to close down the senses’.3  As a result he felt that Germans still had not truly come to terms with the bombenkrieg.

The past can also be willfully forgotten, through intentional neglect, and more actively through the destruction of things that bear witness to it. Burning books or photographs for example, demolishing statues and buildings leave gaping holes in the fabric of history that are sometimes more conspicuous than the thing removed. In Berlin the destruction of the socialist era parliament was advertised as an important stage in German reunification. Prominent East Germans however criticised it as part of a process of concealing positive aspects of East Germany and recasting it entirely as the defeated evil in counterpoint to the positive depiction of the ‘victor’ west.4

1 Bertolt Brecht, Question from a Worker Who Reads (1935)  available at http://www.marxists.org/subject/art/literature/brecht/index.htm
2 W.G. Sebald, On The Natural History of Destruction (New York, 1999) p. 24
3 W.G. Sebald, On The Natural History of Destruction (New York, 1999) p. 23
4 Staff writer, Berlin’s Palace of the Republic Faces Wrecking Ball, published 20th January 2006, accessed 16th October 2012, available at  http://www.dw.de/berlins-palace-of-the-republic-faces-wrecking-ball/a-1862424-1

The Scrapheap of Progress

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past. Here is one of several I will be publishing on the blog.

The Scrapheap of Progress

‘Woe to the vanquished’1
Livy, Ab Urbe Condita

Göring, Heß, von Ribbentrop, and Keitel on trial Nuremberg, 1945-46

Göring, Heß, von Ribbentrop, and Keitel on trial
Nuremberg, 1945-46

History in the west has tended to be conceived of as a linear path of events progressing inexorably towards the future, an idea traceable at least as far back as ancient Greece.2 This view of history was attacked by Walter Benjamin in his essay, Theses on the Philosophy of History, written shortly before his death in 1940. In particular he criticised the tendency of historicists to use this view of time as progressively improving as a justification for death, destruction and suffering in the present as a necessary price to be paid for a future ‘paradise’.

Benjamin called for a return to a more metaphysical conception of history, using the Paul Klee etching Angelus Novus as a visual metaphor for the angel of history Benjamin wrote that, ‘Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet’.3  The Angel would like to reconstruct and make whole this destruction but ‘a storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress’.4

At the time this was read as a critique of the historical narratives deployed by totalitarian states, but the strength of Benjamin’s writing is that its crypticity allows it to be constantly reinterpreted and reinvented, for Benjamin’s ‘admonitions to come to life they must be critically rethought’.5 Baer for example reads the Theses as an ‘exhortation to rescue the dead from the clutches of the victorious’.6 A more literal reading of Benjamin’s metaphor might be that the scrapheap of history is just that, an almost meaningless pile of facts, their order and their very survival no evidence of their historical significance.

Historians, in turn, are like tinkers scavenging through the remains for anything that appeals to their individual fetishes. The scrapheap is still subject to the relentless storm of progress, which as well as continuing to pile on new material, potentially burying earlier strata of time, is continuously altering the substance and meaning of what is already there. A historical fact or artifact unearthed today is almost always viewed in an entirely different context to that of its making, and while historians attempt to understand these objects in terms of their past, elements of that context will be irretrievably lost or distorted by the knowledge of the present.

1 Titus Livius Patavinus, Ab Urbe Condita, Book V, avaliable at http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/livy/liv.5.shtml#1
2 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 3
3 Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt (London, 1999) p. 249
4 Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt (London, 1999) p. 249
5 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 128
6 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 128

The Tyranny of Time

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past. Here is one of several I will be publishing on the blog.

The Tyranny of Time

‘Here we are…trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.’1
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Jean-Marie Le Bris’s flying machine1868

Jean-Marie Le Bris’s flying machine
1868

Time is an almost universal human concept and a central one for nearly every culture.2  Competing models of time have co-existed for millennia sometimes within the same society, for example Baer references the ancient Greeks as viewing time both as a flowing river (from Heraclitus) and a vast rainfall (Democritus).3 More recently western models of linear time co-existed with eastern ideas about its cyclicity in countries like India and China. Gradually however one model has come to be almost absolute: the historicist view of time as linear. This is an idea which according to McQuire ‘saturates the modern concept of progress, conditioning belief in the endless growth of productive capacities and intellectual capabilities, the march of progress as cumulative, the order of time as successive and irreversible’.4

This model of time as progress creates the demand for a narrative into which memories, histories and artifacts can be neatly slotted to explain the world as it is and, even more problematically, where it is going.  At the same time, it safely isolates the past and absolves us from responsibility for shaping the future. The linearisation of time and its connection to progress also have the effect of promoting the pursuit of speed which in turn has the result that ‘technological developments which regulate social velocity to an unprecedented degree have themselves become subject to shorter and shorter lifespans’.5 From the daguerreotype to the digital smartphone, photography is just one of many examples of the surging speed of human experience, one which gets closer to a physical and perceptual terminal velocity with each innovation.

However, progress and speed have also helped to undermine the narratives that made them possible. Baer suggests that photography was complicit in this, because as much as reinforcing the idea of time as ever passing, its unique way of seeing and showing things also ‘seems to reveal a world in which time is fractured, splintered, blown apart’.6 Similarly McQuire compares the invention in 1765 of the first clock accurate to a second a day, to the latest atomic clock accurate to a second in three hundred thousand years, and suggests that the ‘perceived failure of the “grand narratives” is not only a crisis of reference…but also of dimension: the continual hemorrhaging of orders of magnitude, the blurring of micro and macros, the telescoping of near and far’.7

1 Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade, (New York, 1991) p. 55
2 But not all, the South American Piraha tribe for example are believed to be one of the very few with no conception of numbers, time, or creation myth: Elizabeth Davies, Unlocking the Secret Sounds of Language: Life Without Time or Numbers, published 6th May 2006, accessed 29th October 2012, available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/unlocking-the-secret-sounds-of-language-life-without-time-or-numbers-477061.html
3 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 3-4
4 Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1998)  p. 114
5 Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1998)  p. 114
6 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 4
7 Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1998)  p. 118

The Possession of Trauma

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past. Here is one of several I will be publishing on the blog.

The Possession of Trauma

‘to be traumatised is precisely to be possessed by an image or event’1
Cathy Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory

A young German soldier during the Battle of the Somme, 1916

Trauma is a ‘disorder of memory and time’2 a type of psychological damage which results from extremely distressing events experienced individually or collectively. Such events fundamentally violate a person’s understanding of the world, creating a sense of insecurity and making memories of these events difficult to integrate into a broader context. As a result of their inability to be contextualised as memories of the past, these episodes intrude into the present as ‘hallucinations, dreams, thoughts or behaviours stemming from the event’.3

The mnemonic anomaly of trauma offers interesting insights into the functioning of photography and time. Freud characterised memory in terms of a camera, suggesting the unconscious served to store memories until they ‘are developed, like prints from black-and-white negatives, into consciously accessible recollections’.4 Similarly Scott McQuire has argued that ‘memory necessarily implies selection, ordering, narration, perspective’,5 much in the same way as a photograph or series of photographs. Expanding this further, Baer suggests that traumatic memories and actual photographs of traumatic events function in broadly similar ways, resisting the need of the viewer to place these images into familiar narratives. In most photographs and memories ‘the viewer is supposed to be safely grounded in the present over here while the photograph is assumed to refer to a prior moment that can be kept safely apart over there’.6

Some images and memories, however, refuse to exist in the past and instead deliver what is termed an ‘illusion of the real’ directly into the present, a mesmerising effect that transcends the viewer’s knowledge that what is shown is now past in the same way that a traumatic memory overcomes the normal defences of memory. This, Baer argues, exposes ‘as a construction the idea that history is ever flowing and preprogrammed to produce an ongoing narrative’.7  Photographs like Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies of people with disabilities walking on crutches or crawling on all fours, or those taken by Zdenek Tmej while he was performing forced labour in Nazi Germany. These are images which explode myths by refusing to remain in one place and which instead appear to stand apart from the time and context in which they were originally made.

1 Cathy Caruth, Introduction in Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore, 1995) p. 5
2 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 9
3 Cathy Caruth, Introduction in Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore, 1995) p. 4
4 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 9
5 Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1998)  p. 164
6 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 2
7 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 1

Review: Light From the Middle East at The V&A

Next on the roster of exhibitions I’ve dropped into is Light from the Middle East, a regional survey of contemporary photography on at the Victoria and Albert museum. First off I’ve got to say I’m always a little suspicious of exhibitions that bill themselves as surveys of a particular parts of the world. I’m not sure exactly why, perhaps it’s the slightly orientalist idea that there is some way to get to the essence of what makes that place different, or perhaps it’s just because in most cases the place the photographer comes from is far less interesting than the topics they tackle and how they approach do it.

The subjects are those you’ll be familiar with like the Arab spring, the Iranian revolution, and those you probably won’t be, like the disorientation felt by the returning Afghan diaspora or the oldest Muslim community in Britain. Similarly the media and methods used to document these subjects range vastly from fairly standard reportage and set up images, through to hand tinted portraits, photomontage, and prints directly attacked with fire and blades. For me perhaps the most exciting part of the show was the sheer diversity and inventiveness of the work on show, and that all these ideas could comfortably inhabit the same space.

What helped to make the disparate pieces on show work together was that the exhibition was nicely subdivided into three categories that made a lot more sense than the overall title; Recording, Reframing and Resisting. Recording was the most straightforward, kicking off with the work of veteran photojournalist Abbas, but it still managed to ask some interesting questions about how the camera records what it sees and what that image means. For example in the work of Newsha Tavakolian who photographed the mothers of young men killed during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war holding photographs of their sons, permanently fixed as twenty year olds.

Reframing was an immediate jump into more conceptual territory. Youssef Nabil used the type of old fashioned, delicately hand tinted portraits one typically associates with old studio portraiture from middle eastern countries like Egypt to document men from one of the oldest Muslim communities in Britain, creating quite beautiful, fragile portraits. Also great were Ahmed Mater al-Ziad’s images of a square black magnet ringed by iron fillings, visually impossible to separate from the image of pilgrims circling the Kabah at Mecca. As well as the artist stating it was a work about the magnetic pull that many Muslims feel towards Mecca, these images also threw up interesting ideas about the relationship between scale and perception, and the way particular images become ingrained into our visual memory.

Resisting was probably my favourite section, and represented a further conceptual step. Almost every piece of work in this category is worth noting but favourites were Nermine Hammam’s photomontages displacing tired looking Egyptian soldiers from Tahir square to idealised landscapes, the slopes of Mount Fuji or a Swiss pastoral scene. Equally striking was Sadegh Tirafkan’s ‘Persian rug’ constructed from identity photographs, billed as a comment on Iran’s growing population but as with much of the work on show easily open to more than one interpretation. Lastly I’ve got to mention Atiq Rahimi’s beautiful, spectral photographs of Kabul, taken on the type of pinhole camera often used by street portrait photographers in the city, and intended to evoke his sense of loss and confusion on returning to the city after years in exile.

Again I have to question the geographical bracket, and wonder whether the collected work is interesting because of the culture and traditions of the Middle East or because from a news perspective it’s been such a flashpoint over the last forty years. It’s interesting to note that particular nationalities dominate within this exhibition, at least from memory there seemed to be more Iranian artists and photographers than others which poses more interesting questions. Also I have to wonder if this exhibition is as it slightly implies a survey of the state of Middle Eastern photography. It feels much more geared to the art side of things with only a few nods to photojournalism, no bad thing in my opinion but perhaps not for everyone. In either case it’s great, it’s free, and it’s on until April 7th 2013. Make time for it.

Review: Diane Arbus @ Tate Modern

Although Diane Arbus stated that her desire as a photographer was to ‘photograph everybody’ her work is inextricably linked to the freakish side of humanity, in two ways. Firstly in the sense of the pejorative label applied to people on the margins of society, the abnormal, the disabled, people living in contravention of social norms. These were the people Arbus made her name photographing. Secondly freakish in the sense that even when Arbus turned her camera on ‘ordinary’ people she managed to capture them as abnormal in their own way. She feared she would be remembered as a photographer of freaks, but her greatest strength was in showing that in a sense we are all freaks, all abnormal, and that this is normal.

Arbus was born in New York in 1923 to wealthy Jewish parents who were heavily involved in the arts. She married aged eighteen and set up a commercial photography business with her husband, but by the end of the fifties her marriage and her work in commercial photography ended. Instead she moved towards portraiture and documentary photography and worked on assignment for magazines until 1963 when she was awarded a Gugenheim fellowship to investigate ‘America rites, manners and customs’. Arbus’s work was typified by a strong relationships with her subjects, quite at odds with the shoot and run approach of many photographers of the time. She spent time getting to know them before photographing them, and stayed in contact with many of them for years, often rephotographing them.

It’s hard to pass comment on such a diverse collection of images, although they can be loosely broken down into photographs of normal and abnormal people, and the contrast between these two types of subjects is what struck me most. Untitled, a series of photographs she took of people with learning difficulties is particularly remarkable. In several taken around Halloween her subjects wear masks, and it’s hard viewing these images not to read all sorts of subtexts into them. The mask as an analogy for false exteriors and false perception, hiding the internal reality. The masked patients are strange, frightening, wild. In one image they huddle together almost like a herd of some unknown animal. The contrast with the following images of them without masked is profound, in these images they laugh and smile and play, they are completely and unquestionably human.

Arbus is invariably sympathetic in the way she photographs people who are outside of the mainstream. By contrast ‘normal’ people seem to be depicted far more harshly in her images, perhaps because in her photographs they often appear more as symbols than as individuals. One particularly iconic photograph shows a young man holding an American flag and wearing a patriotic badge reading ‘I’m proud’. His face is caught contorted, his eyes gaze off into the distance. The whole image suggest someone caught in paroxysms of patriotic ecstasy, so taken up in membership of the nation that they are unable to act as an individual or as an agent of their own destiny. Another famous image shows a young boy, posed in a contorted and unnatural way, and clutching in one hand a toy hand grenade. Taken in 1962 as the first American troops were arriving in Vietnam the message is unmistakeable.

What is also interesting is that Arbus’s abnormal subjects frequently seem so much more confident than her normal subjects. Perhaps used to the harshly curious, interrogating gaze of other people, the giants and dwarves she photographed seem to regard the camera’s gaze as familiar and unthreatening. Most of them appear totally natural, almost self-confident. One image that exemplifies this shows a semi-nude man, his smiling face, pencil moustache and jaunty hat exude confidence. Looking down the frame it becomes clear his body is tiny, he is a dwarf. By contrast many of her normal subjects appear caught off guard or nervous. Some shield their faces, others look surprised. There are relatively few straight portraits of the normal.

Arbus suffered lifelong depression and killed herself in 1971. As I mentioned at the start of this blog she said she feared being remembered only as a photographer of freaks. The tragedy of her work is that it still does all too easily become a sort of photographic freak show. I was slightly shocked to overhear three people make fairly unpleasant remarks about several of her subjects in the half an hour I was in the gallery. For all that her photographs do to show that we are as humans essentially all the same, and for all the changes in attitude since the period when she was photographing, for some people her work seems to have more merit as a photographic compendium of the abnormal.

The Diane Arbus exhibition is on in the Artist Rooms at the Tate Modern until November 6th 2011.

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