In J.J. Long’s essay “Paratextual Profusion: Photography and Text in Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer” Poetics Today (Spring 2008) pp 206 he states:
“Under capitalism, then, the ubiquitous forms of the commodity and the photograph are highly complex because they conceal the true nature of social relations beneath an almost indecipherable surface. Brecht’s War Primer sets itself the explicit task of undoing this obfuscation by providing the reader with a method for deciphering the meaning of photographs. And in line with the theoretical reflections on the medium that we find in the writings of Brecht and Benjamin, the technique it employs is the caption: the mystifying power of the image, which easily deceives the clueless (nichtsahnend) viewer, can be countered only by a recourse to language.”
I had read this essay again on the journey to The Photgraphers Gallery to look (again for me) at the Deutsche Borse prize finalists for 2013, and so, I suspect, it’s resonance stayed with me as I reflected on the work I had seen. I have written about one of the finalists before here, so I won’t consider that very much more. One of the questions we, as students, was asked, was about the prize winner – and I suspect therefore to some extent the other finalists, felt about the work in relation to contemporary photography.
The work on the fourth floor was that of Chris Killip and Mishka Henner, the one of the 1970’s/80’s and the other a contemporaneous series. Killip has been part of the British photographic scene for the best part of half a century, so it may seem curious that his work has been selected, more so still, that the work is situated in the North East of England of the ‘70’s and 80’s working class of the North-East. Strange as well for people in the room, whom most may not have been born when this work was created and more so again that when they were delivered on this planet it was on another continent. It’s like someone of my generation looking at Strand’s or Evans’ work – displaced by a generation and a culture. That Killip was influenced heavily by both of these twin American photographic pioneers indicates the narrowness of the genre is perhaps, no more than interesting.
This work exhibits to this viewer a depiction of an epoch, a way of life that was already in a state of collapse at the beginning of the series and by the time the ‘80’s came, the writing was literally on the wall of Wallsend. I wrote in my note-book about the aesthetic of the monochrome image, gritty and grimy – a ‘mirror’ of the industrial, heavy industry, heritage of the North-East; that it had all but dissipated by the end of this work couldn’t have been predicted, but then no-one had predicted Thatcherism.
I continued: “Avowedly working class – we can see by looking backwards to the ‘rise’ of the destruction of the working class, and the inevitability of the commodified society.” I think this notion of the commodification of the avenues of society is something that I felt through these three finalists, Broomberg and Chanarin, Killip and Henner.
The Killip images were beautifully printed and displayed, but somewhat disparately, as some were digital inkjet prints and others seemingly silver gelatin prints, the latter prints had a soft warm tone, reminiscent of Agfa Portriga, perhaps Brovira. I suppose there was a good reason for this, maybe Killip didn’t have the digital files for some images, so he offered extant gelatin images? It wasn’t a big issue; the tonal disparities were only slight and didn’t jar.
On the same floor was Mishka Henner’s work – “No-man’s land”. At the Leeds study weekend in 2012 Henner presented and discussed this work, so this the third time I had viewed it, and the words of J. J. Long came to me most strongly when I reflected on this work.
Henner doesn’t offer a great deal of text with his work, just a title that indicates where the picture was taken. Again, from my notes. “ (Henner) forces us to confront these images, challenges us (the viewers) to reflect on how these images came about – come about in the sense of why these women are here – that they may be there because of Google view – that the communication systems of the internet and commerce that drive infrastructure to create “highways” that commodify their trade.”
Henner didn’t randomly look through the billions of images that Google view produce and luckily come upon these images; as he explained in Leeds, there are internet sites that promote places where travellers might happen upon prostitutes, and these sites discuss the sorts of things a truck driver, a travelling salesman, a punter might be able to find. Henner simply looked ‘through the prism’ of Google view and found these images. The Internet provides both the place for the uninitiated and initiated to come upon these places. It is the ‘home shopping channel’ for sex workers and beggers the question: ‘would those sex workers be there without the ability of the Internet to advertise their wares. The vernacular here is common to both the trade and the means by which the trade is consummated; highways, commerce, traffic, routes, hubs.
Of course the images also ask other questions, about the vulnerability of the women, about the projection of the viewer’s family perhaps into the position of these women. About the role the male gaze in art of any kind and indeed life in general.
And whilst Killip’s work was about the telling of a specific geographic story of an epoch (or perhaps an end of an epoch), the reportage/documentary work of both Killip and Henner was similar in my perception. Both these photographers delivered to this viewer a narrative that caused me to consider a great many responses to these images. My response to Killip’s work had some resonances as my mother’s family come from the mining community in Durham, forced south in the depression – I’m not sure whatever bike’s were available in the mid ‘80’s that many were able to get on one…. And to Henner’s it was about the commodification of women in a trade as old as the hills but kept contemporaneous by the advent of technology. Both sets are moving accounts of what a society can do to a fragment of itself and we are left to gaze at the resultant images from the safe environs of a gallery wall.
Upstairs was Bloomberg and Chanarin’s work War Primer 2. It is difficult to know why or how a work has an effect, but these images had an immediate effect on me when I first saw the work. I found it deeply moving and the more I have researched the work the stronger the work seems to get for me. It could be the apparent simplicity of the piece. To take a previously published work that had challenged the Western dogma, delivered by the democratic ‘free’ nations on the ‘winning’ of the Second World War, re-presented with a Marxist perspective. And then re-present that piece of work with one that discusses the West’s preoccupation with the notion that it is at war with an adversary whose value systems are at odds with it’s own; notwithstanding the West’s need for stability in a region that holds considerable mineral wealth. However, leaving aside those political issues, this work presents the viewer with a number of dilemmas: How is it that Brecht’s original quatrains seem as apposite today as they did 50 years ago? Broomberg and Chanarin don’t attempt to re-appraise or re-vitalize these four line verses for a contemporary audience; what they did, seemingly, was to find images that worked against the text, as J.J. Long suggests the caption provides the ‘undoing of the obfuscation of the image’ The words will direct the viewer, much as Brecht was intent on doing, Broomberg and Chanarin want to propose an alternate view from the commodified version of the ‘facts’ that we are fed with on a daily basis from the news channels, the majority of which are owned by Western corporations who are vested in the notion that the ‘democracy’ that is enjoyed in a ‘free western civilization’ is valuable enough to send troops half way across the globe to safeguard it’s existence.
I have been, for some time, thinking that the directional power of text is highly important. This visit, or at least the study of the works, and in particular that of Broomberg and Chanarin, continue to emphasise that artistic device. Henner’s almost absence of text, is, for me, the absence of the presence of text – which I don’t feel is a ‘cop-out’ on my behalf because the context of the means of creation allows/enables me to welcome the challenge that Henner seems to offer me when viewing this work. It is a responsibility that I accept, to work out what my reaction is to these narratives that ensure that I confront from my position as a male, in a western capitalist society, the worth of these road-side objects. With Killip, I feel that with his statement about not creating a document regarding history, but by ‘telling it as it is and leaving the viewer to contextualise the images with the viewers ability to ‘fill-in the narrative is a means of its time and so, despite it being a strong piece of work, it fails to deliver anything more than a history; albeit beautifully delivered.
Whereas the Broomberg and Chanarin work will continue to deliver more and more, like the proverbial onion, the layers of meaning and substance will reward the viewer’s endeavour in studying this work. The prize was well placed.
Here’s another view of the prize http://www.disphotic.lewisbush.com/2013/06/17/broomberg-and-chanarin-and-the-politics-of-appropriation/
Adam Broomberg can be heard here discussing his work http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b02x62sr towards the end of the programme.