The critics are backing Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin for the prize. ‘War Primer 2’ using copies of Bertold Brecht’s War Primer (1955) onto which they have superimposed contemporary war-related pictures that came up when the words of Brecht’s original 4-line poems were typed into Google. The layered images are surprisingly powerful, the low-quality monochrome newspaper prints framing the garishly coloured low-quality digital images. The poems are still peculiarly apt almost 60 years on, suggesting that technicalities of war may change – and the means of recording it – but fundamentally human nature remains the same, and the human capacity for evil or callous acts in extraordinary circumstances never changes.
Nevertheless, to my mind this rather stretches the idea of photography. The images in both cases are second hand, downloaded from the internet or printed in a book. Technically there is no photographic skill involved in this project at all. However, it does address the ubiquity of photographic imagery, the power of the internet to transmit every image across the world in seconds, and the strange compulsion of witnesses to record an event even in the face of absolute horror. The project certainly makes an impact, in its subject matter raising highly relevant moral issues and in its method using a very contemporary approach to sourcing its imagery – and in doing so underlining how this excess of imagery available colours (or distorts) the way we perceive and understand the war on terror.
On the walls surrounding the army of delicate glass cases that display the copies of ‘War Primer’ – and making them appear, incongruously, like an esoteric display of ancient manuscripts in a library – are Christina de Middel’s collection of photographs, drawings and reproductions of letters telling the story of the ill-fated Zambian space programme. I enjoyed this piece as a quirky tale of eccentric endeavour, along the lines of ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’, the photography helping to illustrate the narrative rather than being impressive in its own right. In 1964, apparently, Zambia set up a space programme aiming to send the first African astronaut into space. It was the pipe-dream of Edward Makuka Nkoloso, sole member of Zambia’s National Academy of Science, who set up a secret HQ near Lusaka. Unsurprisingly, despite studying the stars and practising gravity training by rolling down hills in oil-drums, the project never came close to realisation, and de Middel’s photographs of figures in spacesuits of colourful African cotton, and glass fish-bowl helmets, feet still firmly planted on the African soil, bear witness to the childish hopes of Nkoloso.
Mishka Henner uses images from Google Street View. Like Broomberg and Chanarin, this source of imagery is at once very modern – highlighting the surveillence culture that now engulfs us all – and very pertinent, raising a moral issue by using the internet to link images of locations to online searches for sex workers. Thus we are presented with a series of silent, static and sun-drenched photographs featuring anonymous female figures waiting on roadsides on the outskirts of various Southern Europe cities. In themselves they would mean little, but as a series with the pretext of an investigative mission, they become a little sinister. That the subjects themselves are so unaware of being watched – and consequently of being viewed by us – makes one uncomfortable; the positioning of the viewer as voyeur is exactly what Henner intends.
As a traditionalist in photographic terms, I most enjoyed Chris Killip’s entry ‘What Happened – Great Britain 1970-1990’. Killip has investigated, over several decades, the impact of ‘deindustrialisation’ in the North East of England. The images are grouped in terms of place – North Shields, Lynemouth, Skinningrove, Seacoal, Gateshead – each cluster a small window onto a particular community undergoing fundamental change.
They are formal and austere, classic black and white prints – and deeply satisfying visually, combining compositional perfection with the capture of fleeting expressions that inject a sharp pathos into what could otherwise be pure social documentary. It is no surprise to learn that Killip was inspired to take up photography when, as the manager of a hotel on the Isle of Man, he came across a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, master of the ‘decisive moment’; he has clearly inherited the eye. Yes it might appear ‘out-of-date’ in the company of projects that are provocative, contemporary and ‘challenge the boundaries of photography as a medium’, but it all depends on how one defines photography – I have always considered the term to refer to a specific technical process involving a camera; if its bounds are pushed too far, it may be excellent investigative journalism but it it is hardly photography in either a technical or artistic sense.
From the Photographers Gallery I went on to the Atlas Gallery where there is an exhibition of Andre Kertesz’s photographs. Kertesz holds a similarly exalted place in my small pantheon of photographic ‘old masters’ as Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Munckacsi and Atget. Upstairs there were some delightful views of Paris, Kertesz’s eye caught by the geometric patterns of the everyday: shadows of cast-iron chairs in the Tuileries, fire escapes, a bird-cage echoed by the Eiffel Tower in the distance… But downstairs was revelatory. The series of ‘Distortions’ date to the early 1930s, and were created quite simply using convex mirrors. But the resulting images, though physically small in scale, have a monumental presence; the flesh is abstracted and decontextualised, transformed into the marble or bronze of a Henry Moore or Brancusi sculpture. This was an age of real photographic experimentation – of Man Ray’s solarisations and rayographs – that sought to push the boundaries of the medium itself and with spectacular aesthetic results.