Contemplation and a thorough interrogation of what it is to actually remember something have generally been lost amidst this year's onslaught of First World War memorialising. Tate Modern looks set to inject some much needed philosophy into proceedings with its exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography, which brings together photographers who have looked back at war from seconds after a shot was fired, to 100 years after a war has ended.
The photographs will be grouped based on how far after the conflict they were taken. In doing this, time becomes the focus of the show, while also becoming unstuck. The roll call of featured photographers includes Don McCullin, Roger Fenton, Shomei Tomatsu, Simon Norfolk, Chloe Dewe Mathews, Kikuji Kawada, and many more. To find out more about the intention of the show, I went to Tate Modern to talk to the gallery's photography curator, Simon Baker.
VICE: What was the origin of the show? Was it the anniversary of the First World War?
Simon Baker: It wasn't actually. That's a good coincidence but we didn't set about to make a show for the anniversary. It seemed a very good time to do it. The origin of the show is discovering this equivalence between Slaughterhouse-Five [Kurt Vonnegut's novel] and the difficulty of looking backwards.
We started off with a question: why is that between 15 and 25 years after the Second World War, there is so much amazing photography about it? As we tried to answer that question we realised that now there is quite a lot of amazing photography about the First World War.
We then started to piece together these perspectives and think about what would happen if you put a bunch of things that have the same remove - but don't share the same subject or conflict – next to each other.
Don McCullin's famous photograph of a shell-shocked U.S. marine is part of this show. How do these kind of works break away from traditional war photography?
We really wanted the show to depart from photojournalism. People understand war journalism and this show is about something quite different. It's about alternatives to that. It's about thinking about war in the longterm and how it affects people. It's also about artists and photographers as people who think about the subject over a long period of time and really take on that question of how we remember things and how we reflect on them.
There's a great film about Don in which he talks about how this image couldn't be made now. For him, it's acquired more importance as time has gone on because when he took it, it was just one of a number of in-the-moment pictures. Now, this is the kind of image you just can't make because the American or British army would not allow an image of someone completely traumatised to come out.
Do you feel like the distinction between a journalist and an art-photographer gets made too much? McCullin, for example, is hard to categorise...
Don's in the show three times. He's there in the beginning, with the shell-shocked marine. Then, 16 years later, there's his first foreign assignment, which is when he went to Berlin in the 1960s. It looks like the war is still going on, even though it's 16 years after it ended. At the end of the show, one of the last works is by him. It's his photograph of the Somme, which he made in 2000 and is very poetic and very tied up with memory. You can kind of tell the whole show just by Don's work because it's three different ways to think about conflict.
Also, the Berlin series is important because it insists that conflicts don't end when peace is declared. They carry on affecting people for long periods of time. A lot of the works in the show are about both the landscape and the inhabitants of places where something has happened where they are still being affected, whether that's radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the division of the city, or the total destruction of the landscape, these are the long affects that this show really engages with.
I know you've done this around the World War I anniversary but British troops are also pulling out of Afghanistan. Is that something you had in mind?
Some of the first pictures in the show are Roger Fenton's pictures of the Crimea in the 1850s and then suddenly the Crimea is back in the news. There's a series of work at the end of the show by Stephen Shore about Ukraine and now there's fighting in Ukraine. These things are going round in circles. And in fact, Simon Norfolk's work about Afghanistan was made during the early part of the war in 2001 and what he actually found were traces of previous conflicts. Even in one body of work, you've got that circularity.
© Chloe Dewe Mathews
There are a lot of photos that are abstract and you can look at them without knowing they're connected to war, like Chloe Dewe Mathews' haunting photos of sites where First World War deserters were shot at dawn – though they are of empty pieces of landscape, you project the whole scene onto them...
It's really noticeable as time goes on because there are less obvious things to photograph. Kikuji Kawada, who made The Map (1965), one of the most famous Japanese photobooks of the 20th century, went to Hiroshima with a documentary photographer, Ken Domon, and while Domon was looking around for things to photograph Kawada noticed these stains on the ceiling of the cellar of the hypocentre, which was where the bomb landed. He started having nightmares about these stains spreading and then he photographed them extensively.
As the years go on, photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki become a lot more graphic, a lot angrier, tougher and more determined. In Shomei Tomatsu's 11:02 Nagasaki,you have the famous pictures of keloid scarring, melted bottles, bone fused into a helmet and the watch that stopped at 11:02, when the bomb hit. The affects of the radiation were so long lasting that you could be a documentary photographer and go to Nagasaki in 1970 and still find people struggling to live on a daily basis, with problems relating to the bombings.
This is something that's key to the show. You have the notion of a conflict and you have the notion of it ending. And then you have these things that continue to echo. Most people think of photography as being about the moment but actually photographers are commonly engaged in much more research-based and longer-term practices that become a whole book rather than a five-page spread in a magazine.
You talked about the anger that builds in the work on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A lot of people think of anger in relation to war, how much anger is there in this show?
We're not proposing that there's no judgement to be made about the events but we're stepping back and presenting the artists' points of view. So where an artist has a particularly strident view about something, we are presenting that in terms that are appropriate.
We started with Kurt Vonnegut andSlaughterhouse-Five, which is an angry book but also a very funny book in which the anger is displaced in very interesting ways. Vonnegut's inability to write the book is the most important thing about it. It took him 24 years to write it and he says that he must have written 5000 pages and thrown them all away. The introduction is really interesting because it's all about him trying to travel back and remember – but he can't really – and I think that the anger, such as there is in Vonnegut, is a self-excoriating sense of self-consciousness.
What do you think of the memorialising of the First World War this year?
I think, as with anything like this, it tells us a lot about the current state of cultural memory and how cultural memory operates. There have been a lot of memorials that are to do with these stories of individuals, through genealogy and learning about what happened to individuals and this psycho-biographical sense of what happened to one person who was standing for something bigger. This kind of memorialising, which is to do with the internet and the fast-flow of information and how people now research things, is not so much about the actual process of remembering, but more about giving us a lot of detail and information.
We thought that photography works in quite a different way, in that it's quite open and it deals with things in an emotional way and in a reflective way. We wanted to think about the mechanics of memory: how do we remember? Vonnegut says people aren't supposed to look back. The first thing you read when you come into the show is his line, "People aren't supposed to look back". He says that if you look you become frozen "like a pillar of salt" but actually his book is a masterpiece, it's completely not a frozen narrative; it's super-innovative and Avant-garde.
And I think that experimental, artistic approach is present in your show because it looks at conflict in such a different way
We're trying to show different kinds of images about the same kinds of places. A lot of the earlier First World War photos are about battlefield tourism, which is an unusual way to look at it. We're thinking about the Second World War primarily in relation to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Berlin. There are very few dead bodies in the show. There are very few soldiers in the show. There are a lot of images that deal with the affect on civilian populations and on places.
Is that because we've seen a lot of dead bodies?
I think it's also because we're interested in showing artists and photographers who have a longer term, reflective practice. We could have done a photojournalism show, which would also have been interesting, with all of the same conflicts told through pictures of action. But that is not what we're interested in. We're interested in what it means to look backwards and whether it's possible and how photographs can do it.
Conflict, Time, Photography runs from 26 November 2014 – 15 March 2015 at Tate Modern
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