Monday, June 13, 2011

Burke + Norfolk, Photographs from the War in Afghanistan, Tate Modern, Level 2

John Burke, Timur Shah's Mosque, 1879
Hidden away on level 2, in a tiny gallery on the Thames side of the Tate Modern is, for my money, the pick of the temporary exhibitions currently on display: Burke + Norfolk: Photographs From the War in Afghanistan by John Burke and Simon Norfolk.
John Burke, Khyber Pass, 1878
Contemporary British photographer, Simon Norfolk returned to Afghanistan in the footsteps of John Burke, a nineteenth century apothecary who smuggled himself and his camera onto the battlefield of what was the second Anglo-Afghan war between 1878-1880. Burke’s photographs are dreamy: a wet plate collodion process that produces creamy browns and reds, a spectrum of color and movement in the photograph that has no equivalent today. The image is textured, detailed, and yet, soft and silken. There is no way to reproduce the delight of Burke’s images and Norfolk doesn’t try. Instead, what fascinates Norfolk is that Burke does not take photographs of the battlefield itself, perhaps because he does not want to show the British in a bad light, decimated by the Afghan army. Perhaps Burke shows no dead bodies and no exploding bombs because the expense of the labor intensive photographic process and prints meant there was too much to lose by taking a camera to the frontline. In the end it is not important why Burke photographs the Afghan war beyond the battlefield such that there are instances when (as my friend James pointed out) we could be looking at images of nineteenth century Texas. What is important is the immense and unending vision of the nineteenth century apothecary’s camera. 
Simon Norfolk, A dumping ground for an abandoned Russian-era bomber
that has now been incorporated into the car park of "Shamshad TV", a new media company
supported by American money
, 2010-2011
And for all of Burke’s sense of possibility and permanence as it is given to the camera by nature, Norfolk matches it with a transience and a foreshortening of the perspective to emphasize that today, in the midst of another war in Afghanistan 130 years later, the same landscape has become scarred with the detritus of man made disaster. The detritus that collects, not of war technology itself, but in the support of war – containers, makeshift buildings, camps, man made junk – scars an otherwise perfect landscape. These structures and objects as the consequence of war re-articulate a vast, once glorious landscape so that it is now one huge capitalist clutter.
Simon Norfolk, Afghan Police Trainees, Camp Leatherneck, Helmand, 2010-2011
When there is a perspective, as in an image such as one that shows “Afghan police trainees being taken to the firing ranges by US Marines, Camp leatherneck, Helmand” the line of vision goes nowhere. In this example, the column of trainees walk into the distance, across the desert, with no purpose, for no apparent reason. As is so often the case in Norfolk’s depiction of Afghans, added to the irony of an image that echoes the structure of a nineteenth-century composition, and empties that composition of all significance, the Afghans here are configured like prisoners. The visual language in Norfolk’s image is identical to that depicting trains of prisoners herded across Europe first by the Nazis and later by the Red Army in World War II Europe.
Simon Norfolk, Internet Café, Herat, 2010-2011

John Burke, Main Street Jellalabad, 1878

Simon Norfolk, Kabul "Pizza Express", 2010-2011

Norfolk’s photographs are brilliant, not inspite of the fact that he does not show the war, but because of its absence. Norfolk flattens out the photographic vision in order to underline the loss of hope, possibility, infinity as it was captured in the vanishing point perspective of nineteenth century landscape photography. Norfolk’s frontality, the use of lenses and filters, reinforces the disposability of life in a makeshift environment.  In exhibition at the Tate Modern Norfolk’s images sit side by side with digital prints of Burke’s – the same dimensions, which are themselves, no longer found in photographs today. Not only do we see photographs of an Afghanistan that look strange because of their difference from the thousands upon thousands of news reportage from the war, but the photographic form itself is made strange, of another era. In a compelling juxtaposition, Burke’s version of the main street of Jellallabad showing the covered bazaar sits in between Norfolk’s of pizza express behind of the bus station in Kabul and the Rasa internet café in Herat.  The internet café is tacky, a tack emphasized by the lenses and the printing process, the gloss of the photograph, all of which push the colored facades and the intense sunlight into the realms of the plastic and the absurd. Where once the merchants in the bazaar may have been poor, but their commerce had dignity and logic, today, the internet cafés and pizza joints of downtown Kabul and Herat are a different story. Moreover, the comparison through juxtaposition makes the trash and gloss of today absolutely frightening. The psychedelia of Norfolk’s images somehow comes to stand for the absurdity of the war that is being fought. Norfolk’s is a caustic commentary on the violence of war and colonialism.

John Burke, Landholders and LaborersKabul, 1879

Because Burke also photographed groups and portraits, Norfolk does too. These are some of Norfolk’s most disturbing photographs, again in their juxtaposition, their dialogue as he calls it, with Burke’s. The group portraits are powerful and searing in their critique because they are subtle, unsettling because they are so different from the way that war is photographed in the twenty-first century. And so they enable us to look at this war that we have seen countless times before, from a completely different angle.

Simon Norfolk, Media Operations Team, Camp Bastion, Helmand, 2010-2011
Groups of people, both Afghans and contemporary British, are proud and made regal by Burke’s camera, against backgrounds of nature that expressed their dignity. Today through Norfolk’s viewfinder, groups engaged in the war effort are awkward in their poses, disinterested in the fight they are waging, performing in a play whose script they don’t believe in. Even though they take on poses familiar from nineteenth century representations of official groups, Norfolk’s actors are placed on a stage that might collapse at any moment, and clearly have no notion of what they are doing. Norfolk’s work functions on so many different registers: it is ironic and poignant, in places revels in the absurdity of what it can see, in others it is tragic. Even though they never show the war, the photographs look its tragedy and futility in the eye, making it both innovative and highly political. 
Simon Norfolk, Pro-Taliban Refugees, 2010-2011
My one disappointment is the exhibition itself. The accompanying catalogue (with superb reproductions) indicates that only about half the series is on display in the current exhibition. This, together with its location in a tiny gallery on Level 2 of the Tate Modern is a source of considerable frustration. Upstairs, occupying prime real estate on level 4 are Taryn Simon’s photographic archives. Simon’s photographs trace the “bloodlines” of the living dead, terrorists, Nazis, rabbits, genocide victims and an array of other international curiosities. As far as I could see, the photographic series and repetitions meant to “map the relationships among chance, blood and other components of fate,” were superficial form without substance. They were admittedly beautifully presented, but nevertheless, pieces that did not penetrate the consequences of portraits in their series. Why, I wondered, was this second-rate work by an unknown New Yorker given precedence over the compelling and complex, politically acerbic, morally urgent images of a young British photographer? 

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