Looking for windows
‘i’m not sure if i’ve finished yet, or whether i need to go back again,’ the french magnum photographer antoine d’agata wrote in an e-mail to carl de keyzer, curator of the exhibition The War in Pictures. de keyzer had invited ten top inter- national photographers — colleagues of his at the celebrated magnum agency — to shoot a series for the exhibition in bruges on how the first world war continues to reverberate in their countries. he chose nations that were directly involved in the conflict: germany, britain, russia, austria, italy, belgium, the united states, australia, the balkan countries and france.
‘in short,’ d’agata’s message continued, ‘i quickly came to the conclusion that there’s nothing left to document. everything that hasn’t disappeared or become inaccessible has already been catalogued or put in a museum. i visited thirty sites, from belgium to switzerland, along the 800 kilometre front or fronts. as i reread céline and cendrars, i found myself bewildered by the violence of that war . . .
my photographs therefore became a work on landscape. not terribly documentary: more expressionistic, poetic, or whatever you want to call it. black and white, one of them blurred, and hundreds of trees. it turned into a road movie with hundreds of trees, a memorial for those who refused, but above all a sense of failure: the impossibility a hundred years on of understanding what that war, that extraordinary horror, must have been like.’
what does it mean when one of the greatest photographers of our time is obliged to conclude that work relating to the first world war is bound to fail? what does that say about the role of photography in the commemoration of a war? of the very war, moreover, that is famous for being the first in which photography was so important?
photography assumed a whole range of new functions during the first world war. it was used for propaganda and espionage; to fire the emotions, as well as to sooth them. it catalogued the monuments of recently conquered territories and helped identify bodies. it documented destruction and decorated picture postcards. photography intimidated, consoled and entertained. it was a flexible weapon in
a world of noise.
what can contemporary photography add to our understanding of the first
world war? nothing. absolutely nothing. which is precisely its strength: this photography illustrates the inability to show the war or to fathom it. it mistrusts the photography that went before. it is no longer able, obviously, to show the horror of that time. it cannot even commemorate that horror. the most it can do
is commemorate the commemoration. its failure is a form of beauty, of integrity, of humble, respectful silence: if we can no longer represent the tumult, the uproar, the din and the bedlam, let us at least show the silence. the journey, the wind,
the birds and the incomprehension.
and many, many trees. not just the ‘arbres, encore et encore’ antoine d’agata wrote about, but also the trees along the code talkers’ highway in oklahoma, photographed by the american alec soth, who sought out the descendants of the choctaw indians who fought in france.
or the nocturnal trees and bushes the british photographer mark power documented in peacehaven, the little town on england’s south coast built to house british war veterans. power shot night scenes with flash, fixed lights and even a smoke machine in some cases.
and trees at the other end of the world too: the australian trent parke photographed the ‘avenues of honour’ laid out during the great war with one tree for each local soldier, regardless of rank, sent to fight in europe. parke found that the trees are still maintained — and, if necessary, replaced — to this day. any tree that dies is chipped and scattered around the newly planted replacements.
if the conflict led to the planting of new trees down under, it resulted in total deforestation around the belgian front. today there is not a single tree in that region more than a hundred years old, as shown by carl de keyzer’s futile landscapes.
some photographers sought out the places where the war was fought, if only to see that there is nothing left to see. the grandiose memorials at gallipoli in turkey refer to themselves more than to the battle for the dardanelles, which cost the lives of half a million people. the greek photographer nikos economopoulos presents them side by side with images from today’s bankrupt athens. as a reminder,
thalerhof in austria is no longer the place where an important great war concentration camp once stood (yes, they already existed then too), but a site near graz’s airport. chien-chi chang’s video takes a non-lieu and turns it back into a lieu de mémoire. ‘thousands of people died here,’ he says. this history contrasts sharply with the colourful parades that are now held here every year to commemorate the days of the austro-hungarian dual monarchy.
carl de keyzer visited ypres by night. the reconstructed city stands beneath a layer of snow as if it had never been in ruins. as if the war had yet to begin,
or was going on elsewhere. the atmosphere is at once ghostly and romantic. history shows through most clearly where it has been stashed away. de keyzer’s pictures refer to a historical aerial photograph showing ypres, utterly destroyed by bombardment, covered in snow.
mute trees and reticent places. what else is there? how might contemporary photography illustrate the impotence of commemoration even more clearly? what other perplexing windows onto the past still remain? the descendants of course.
in oklahoma, alec soth tracked down the grandchildren and great grand- children of the choctaw indians used as ‘code talkers’ toward the end of the war. they outmanoeuvred german spies by transmitting crucial messages in their own native american language, rather than english. the nineteen messengers were spread across different units of the us army and communication between them was crucial to allied military success during the final weeks of the war. the place the choctaw live today is dirt poor.
it is true that descendants are windows: but are they any more open than trees or places? what, apart from their genes, connects the living with the dead? what do the descendants of the austro-hungarian empire — the handful of habsburgs chien-chi chang was able to photograph in vienna — have to do with the illustrious but now defunct danube monarchy? and what if there are no descendants any more? the russian photographer gueorgui pinkhassov visited the castles, gardens, belvederes, orangeries, and summer and winter palaces of tsarist russia, looking for the shades of the last romanovs.
when no windows are to be found any more, some make their own. they grow a moustache, sew themselves a perfect replica uniform and spend their sundays at some battleground or other. the restaging of historical conflicts is increasingly popular anywhere you care to look. to some, these re-enactments are a source of great pleasure and historical insight, while to others they are a piece of ludicrous kitsch. the photographers thomas dworzak and alex majoli suspended their judgement and went out with a group of re-enactors.
for a german like dworzak, laden at school with his nation’s historical guilt,
it was startling to see some of his compatriots playing war games — german war games at that. he recognized, however, that it was ‘definitely wrong to suspect them of right-wing nationalism’. the group spent many weekends all over europe,
coming into contact with frenchmen, belgians and britons — even britons dressed as germans. ‘in an odd way, it’s a very european movement’.
alex majoli too detected more of the present than the past in this kind of historical reconstruction — not least, perhaps, because he staged the scenes himself. he took a small local re-enactment group in northern italy to the original trenches where, rather than deflating the illusion, he deliberately pumped it up further. irony gave way to superlative, producing images that are deliberately filmic and theatrical. the dramatic, atmospheric ‘night photos’ were actually shot in daylight, using heavy underexposure and strategic flash.
trees, places, genes and re-enacting: none of it helps. the war drifts further and further away. thomas dworzak postscripted his own photographs with several little albums of images grabbed from instagram. he found out what hashtags like ‘erster- weltkrieg’, ‘lagrandeguerre’, ‘flandersfields’, ‘poppies’, ‘poilu’, ‘kaiserschmarrn’, ‘gasmask’, ‘lawrenceofarabia’ and ‘franzjosef’ turned up today. the result is an infinite tangle of images and messy associations.
one sequence jumps out in particular: the one consisting of selfies and other portraits taken by teenagers in the trenches today. ‘having a great time in the
air raid shelter at eden camp’, one caption says. ‘me funking out the funk hole,’ another writes. ‘is this blasphemy?’ someone asks, having just taken a picture
of an old moped in the trench. others limit themselves to a few exclamations:
‘belgium trenches best friend cute good times happy’
‘so scary wow beautiful belgium family unreal history smile’ ‘wanting to go back! belgium ww1 ypres somme trench’
if we needed one final image of the impossibility of commemoration, of the gulf between present and past, of windows that can no longer be found, or turn out to have been bricked up, it is this:
‘battlefields, october 2012. missingit trenches history fun friends’.