Tate Modern – Conflict-Time-Photography

Posted on February 6, 2015


I have been looking forward to this exhibition for some time. The concept of the exhibition has quite an overlap with my own work in East London. My own work does not deal with conflict, but does pose questions about what a photograph of a present day place can say, if anything, about what happened there in the past.

Conflict-Time-Photography is a large and ambitious exhibition — too large to take in during a single visit. I have made two visits and on one occasion went around twice. I have also gone through the exhibition catalogue from cover to cover.

Whilst I understand the concept of the exhibition structure is to present the work in order of the time proximity of the photography to the conflict event represented, I am not sure that this was what intrigued me the most about this exhibition. I was less interested in how closeness in time affects the nature of the photography – although it clearly does as photographs of recent conflicts show more obvious traces of the tragedies that have unfolded there — ruined buildings loom large. I was more interested in the wide variety of approaches to this form of ‘Late Photography’, to quote David Campany.

The work on show ranged from simple representations of ruins, devastation, blocked up walls (Berlin) and so on, to work operating through symbolic representation as in the case of the Kawada’s abstract photographs of the walls of the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima.  The work also spanned many generations of photography from early photography such as Fenton’s photographs of Crimea, through modernist black and white images to post modern deadpan representations. The exhibition is testimony to the creativity of photographers. If I learned anything from this exhibition it was that there is no single ‘right’ approach for this kind of work — inventiveness is the key. It is also very clear that for the more conceptual work on show, context is everything. For example, without the associated text captions and artists statement what would I make of Chloe Dewe Mathews photographs of places in Northern Europe where deserters were executed in World War One?

I have reviewed the work of several of the photographers in this exhibition elsewhere in this blog. These include Simon Norfolk, Chloe Dewe Mathews. I will concentrate in this post on others whose work most captured my imagination.

I found Diana Matar’s Evidence very interesting. I think that this was probably because it has a lot in common with my own work in East London. She photographed places in Libya which had been sites of political violence during the Gaddafi regime. These were juxtaposed with texts explaining what happened there. The pictures were largely devoid of people and shot at night. I was pleased to find that I found myself projecting the narratives in the texts into these empty places, imagining what it would have been like to be there when the terrible events described took place. This is how I want viewers of my work to interact with my image text diptychs. The curator had also taken the decision to frame the texts to emphasise their importance and encourage the viewer to both view the photographs and read the text.

Diana Matar Installation Conflict Time Photography

Diana Matar Evidence Installation –  Conflict Time Photography

I mentioned Kikuji Kawada above. His work The Map  was one of the highlights for me. How does one represent the effects of an atomic bomb? Kawada’s response was in a sense to avoid direct representation. Rather he presents us with a series of abstract images. We are left to contemplate the effects of war and find our own way. The design of his book is also fascinating. Many of the pages are folded inwards compelling the reader to take time over reading the book, adding to the contemplative nature of the work.

Kikuji Kawada The Map - Conflict Time Photography

Kikuji Kawada The Map – Conflict Time Photography

Susan Meiselas’s exhibit about Nicaragua was very interesting. It was in effect an investigation into the role of photography in collective memory. In 2004 she returned to the country and installed large posters around the place, showing some of the photographs she made during the popular insurrection in 1978. She then made a video about people’s response to the photographs. The responses were varied, depending in good measure on whether the person was around back in 1978. How a photograph is viewed is without a doubt dependent on the background of the viewer!  The exhibit also demonstrated how one of her images in particular, a man hurling an Molotov cocktail, had taken on a life of its own and had been cooped into popular culture and politics….meaning is created by the viewer!

Susan Meiselas Reframing History - Conflict Time Photography

Susan Meiselas Reframing History – Conflict Time Photography

Michael Schmidt’s Berlin nach 45 is a series of images of Berlin in the 1980s. They are dark, and show no people just depressing landscapes. This series of images seem to me to convey the state of mind of Schmidt (and other residents of Berlin) at the time. There is no life, just bland monotony. The way the photographs were presented emphasised this point — small photographs in cheap frames all in a long line.

Michael Schmidt Berlin nach 45 - Conflict Time Photography

Michael Schmidt Berlin nach 45 – Conflict Time Photography

Indre Serptyte’s (1944-1991) Former NKVD – MVD – MGB – KGB Buildings is a highly inventive work. Domestic homes are normally associated with security and safety. The places represented in Serptyte’s photographs are domestic homes, but they are also places used for interrogation and torture by Soviet security agencies working in her native Lithuania. She emphasises this apparent innocence by photographing wooden carvings of the buildings (She photographed the places and then commissioned a traditional woodcarver to make the models). The work shows how the secret police sought to hide behind these innocent facades. It made me think about what might be hidden in our society.

Indre Serptyte (1944-1991) Former NKVD - MVD - MGB - KGB Buildings - Conflict Time Photography

Indre Serptyte (1944-1991) Former NKVD – MVD – MGB – KGB Buildings – Conflict Time Photography

The role played by archives in shaping history is the subject of several exhibits, including work by Broomberg and Chanarin, Taryn Simon and Walid Raad. Two chapters from Taryn Simon’s A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII are on show, including one about Nazi Hans Frank, who was Hitler’s legal adviser. Simon presents a narrative by setting out a photographic genealogy of a family, texts explaining who the people are and recounting certain events that had befallen family members. An additional panel presents footnoted information. Interpretation is left up to the viewer. In the case of the Hans Frank work I was struck by two things in particular. First it was noticeable that those closest to Frank in time, had refused to be photographed. They wanted anonymity – perhaps they felt partly responsible, perhaps they were ashamed. Later generations  seemed happy to be shown – perhaps time is a healer. The second observation was about how Frank had purloined several great master paintings for his own use – war is often driven by personal greed rather than purely political motivation. I like Simon’s work. She is meticulous yet does not present a fixed point of view. She gives the reader/viewer scope to interpret the work in their own terms.

Taryn Simon A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII

Taryn Simon A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII – Conflict Time Photography

My second visit was an event organised by the Open College of the Arts. After the exhibition tour we gathered to discuss what we had seen. It seemed to me that others were much more engaged by the time proximity angle of the curator. Just goes to show that interpretation is in the hands of the viewer. We also had an interesting discussion about the scale of photographs and in particular the monumental nature of Luc Delahaye’s images. My own view on this is that scale is transformative. It engages a different response from me as the viewer. A photograph of a blown up tank in a newspaper is easy to overlook. A huge picture of a blown up tank in a gallery grabs my attention, sucks me in and forces me to question what this is all about.

A great exhibition and one that I hope to visit once again before it closes.