Safety in numbness revisited (Final Version)

David Campany – Safety in numbness

I begin this essay by stating my own position with regard to the relationship between art and photography. In the four or five years since I seriously began attempting to produce images that are more than simply “it is what it is”, I have begun to clarify to myself what my actual concerns are, especially in the area of landscape photography. I have begun to realise I am more interested in the people directly affected by ’place’ and want to try to relate my work to those people in preference to the more rarified art community.

David Campany asks us to be wary of viewing ‘late’ photographs as purely aesthetically pleasing while losing sight of the context that brought about these photographs. But what are the alternatives? Is it possible to employ late photography without falling into Campany’s trap? This essay will discuss artists’ projects working in what is usually described as late photography and assess their relative success or failure in Campany’s terms.

Campany’s essay was prompted by viewing Joel Meyerowitz’s photographs of the World Trade center after the 9/11 attack. His concern is that the implicit sense of the sublime that these images present will neuter our revulsion and anger at the horrifying event that preceded them. David Bate makes the point that any reaction will be dependent on the viewer’s background. Any aesthetic detachment will be dependent on “the way that scenes have been pictured, or ’coded’, the cultural context in which they are seen, and the particular disposition of the spectator to those feelings of composure or terror” (Bate,2016:133). Campany is not critical of Meyerowitz’s photographs but is more concerned that recent photographic directions tend to favour aesthetic concerns over political ones.

Others have concurred with Campany’s concern. Simon Faulkner reiterates Campany’s concern when he says “Late photography can therefore be a means of avoiding political commitment“ (Faulkner,2014:124). Susan Sontag in her essay “In Plato’s Cave” refers to the reduced effect that images of Nazi concentration camps provide thirty years after the event. She remarks “In these last decades ’concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it” (Sontag,1979:21). Campany’s concern about the potential for a reduced response is nothing new; if Sontag is correct then what chance will ’late’ photographs have if shocking images such as that no longer have the same power? In Meyerowitz’s case he is documenting the aftermath of something so well known that any photo set will have difficulty in saying anything new. Meyerowitz’s set are documentary but not journalistic; they are not intended to illustrate a story that is unknown. His images would not tell us anything we didn’t already largely know, and this is not his intention. The images come across as both memorial and a reminder to celebrate the selflessness of those involved in rescue and recovery.

Can ’late’ photography enforce the same emotional response as contemporaneous images? There are many examples of well-known individual images of war and disaster that inspire feelings of shock and anger in the viewer. One only has to think of Eddie Adams’ photograph of a Viet Cong prisoner being summarily executed to know this. But this is not the same response that Meyerowitz provides, or that Campany is wary of. This is not the sublime in the same sense and neither is it, in Campany’s term, ’late’. Images taken at Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombs are perhaps a better comparison. Photographs showing buildings obliterated over many square miles, victims with terrible radiation burns, or shadows burned into walls where people were standing; these should – and still do – offer a reminder of the horror of a nuclear explosion. But a search online for these images, of which there are plenty, highlights that these have often been relegated to what can only be described as disaster porn. While not wishing to criticize sites such as buzzfeednews
(https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/gabrielsanchez/the-devastating-and-apocalyptic-aftermath-of-a-nuclear) or allthatsinteresting (https://allthatsinteresting.com/hiroshima-aftermath-pictures) ,as the names suggest, the intended effect is reduced dramatically when they are just part of a general bucket of unrelated stuff. Campany’s concern over the softening emotional impact of late photography is much less worrying than having these images reduced to being just part of a list of “stuff that has happened”.David Campany’s target is the more recent trends in photography for photographs taken beyond the immediate aftermath of an event but with the intention of promoting a sense of “what has been”. These are not intended as journalistic exercises but are documentary in the sense that they are a record of an event or situation. The primary evidence is no longer there, and in many cases neither are any of the affected people. Liz Wells emphasises his point in her comment “To escape the voyeuristic position of photojournalism, one may be accused of making elegant art objects out of the victims of disaster” (Wells,2009:91). Her comment can be assigned to Simon Norfolk’s project “Chronotopia”.


Simon Norfolk – The Balloon Seller, Kabul

This is a set of images from Afghanistan showing landscapes littered with the detritus of conflict. His use of colour and images of ruins is intended to evoke the same sense of the sublime that in use in 17th and 18th century French landscape painting. In an interview with Geoff Manaugh (Manaugh,2006) he refers to the paintings of Claude Lorraine and Nicholas Poussin as inspirations. The title itself refers to a place that can move through space and time simultaneously. Framing and composition, as well as the colour, emphasise the idea that this is self-declared art; indeed Norfolk himself refers describes this project as intending to emphasise the impermanence of empire. On his website he describes his work as showing “archaeological remains that are the only indicators of the appalling suffering that is modern war”. There is however an abstract quality to his images that detracts from his aim to connect these to the human suffering. They perhaps lean more towards the “elegant object” than they commemorate the victims. Lucy Soutter comments on Norfolk’s (and Luc Delahaye’s) images that “rather than a polemic, they offer an aestheticized space to pause and consider” (Soutter,2007:281). This is a less harsh categorization than “elegant object” but still makes the point that they are slightly removed from those directly affected by the events concerned.

Sophie Ristelhueber in her project “Fait” documents the after effects in Iraq after the first gulf war.

Sophie Ristelhueber – Fait #20

The set contains both aerial photographs and images of abandoned items. In an interview for the National Gallery of Canada (where “Fait” is housed) she admits to a fascination with Man Ray’s “Dust Breeding”, and the muted browns of many of the images recall the sepia tints of Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins. This reference to previous photographers does suggest this indicates a closer affinity to photographic history than to actual history. Aerial photography by its very nature will add an abstract quality to an image, with a cool detachment that works against any idea of relating to the human suffering inherent in the event. The close-up of abandoned objects and clothing does add more of a human element but there is still a sense of images constructed primarily for art purposes rather than any concern for the cost of the conflict.

Paul Seawright’s project “Sectarian Murder” revisits locations of sectarian attacks in Belfast in the 1970s.

Paul Seawright – Tuesday 3rd April 1973

The photographs are taken long after the event, and each image is accompanied by a short newspaper report of the murder. Without the text the images alone have an eerie, otherworldly character. Some show signs of life – a passing motorcycle, or a running dog – but are still unnerving, not quite right. The text gives meaning to the effects and multiplies any resultant feelings in the viewer. Seawright avoids Wells’ point by deliberately not making elegant art objects; these are not images to be adapted for calendars or tourist souvenirs. But if he had not made this work would the events then be forgotten? Obviously not by anyone connected to the victims but the nature of history is that it will fade in the memory. Those of us who did not grow up in Belfast during this time may remember some of the details of events, but the individual stories get forgotten. Seawright does well to remind us all that historical events involve real people – and also that we need to all do what we can to avoid a return to those days. As well as avoiding Wells’ point his work here also avoids Campany’s suggestion that it may promote nothing more than an aesthetic response to the sublime.
My observation on the effectiveness of “Sectarian Murder” is based on viewing the work through Seawright’s website. Here he also mentions that the work has been exhibited in over twenty countries at prestigious art galleries. Responses to this – and any – work will be altered by the means of presentation. Liz Wells makes the point “Arguably, the gallery network not only offers visual pleasures but also operates to reassure a certain sense of intellectual and cultural elitism” (Wells,2009:302). It may be that viewing these images in a gallery will soften the impact and promote the “numbness” that Campany decries.

Anthony Haughey takes a similar approach to Seawright in his project “Disputed Territory”.

Anthony Haughey – Shotgun Cartridges

His photographs are of scenes that have in the recent past been the subject of conflict. Like Seawright he uses mostly mundane imagery to document what would under other circumstances be fairly unremarkable places. Unlike “Sectarian Murder” Haughey will allow some images in between the ordinariness to remind us of the reasons for choosing these places; patrolling soldiers, a pile of empty shotgun cartridges, or empty coffins. He has chosen to use scenes from two different conflicts, which has the effect of defusing any overly ’art’ feel to the work, and at the same time underlining the human impact. The project has a profound impact as a reminder of the cost of these disputes, and at the same time reduces its status as simply an “elegant object”.

Two twenty first century photographers, Donovan Wylie and Sarah Pickering, have produced works that can be compared and contrasted. Both works – Wylie’s “The Maze” and Pickering’s “Public Order” – fit well within the scope of what we understand by late photography. Both works consist mainly of empty landscapes devoid of people.
“The Maze” is a set of photographs of the eponymous former prison near Lisburn.

Donovan Wylie – Maze Entrance

The images themselves all show strong formal composition, with the same framing used for different shots. At first glance they appear to be repeated shots but in fact are all different. This repetitiveness not only emphasises the oppressiveness of the site, but also the mundanity. Different numbers painted on the walls, and the occasional watch tower, are all that differentiates on scene from another. The choice of location and subject mean there are obvious connections to Paul Seawright but here the framing, the deliberate repetition, and the consistent diffuse light, all give the suggestion of work conceived more as art than memorial. Compared with “Chronotopia” though, there is a simplicity to this set that lessens the sense of ’art’ and also underlines the human aspect of the scenes.
“Public Order” is a further step removed in that images here are not of a real place.

Sarah Pickering – Dickens, High Street, 2003

Her work is often concerned with the notion of fake, in this case training locations used by the Police. Like “The Maze” these have an unnerving quality, suggesting that some unnamed apocalyptic event has caused everyone to leave. Knowing these are not real places does not detract from the strangeness. Unlike Wylie’s work, this is purely art, but successful art in terms of Campany’s and Wells’ concern. By largely avoiding any connection to reality this bypasses any question of using victims to produce “elegant art objects”. There is a slight caveat to this avoidance; the total lack of any people does bring to mind the question “what if all the police did disappear”?

These are just a small set of photographic works that can be considered here but I believe them to be representative of the arguments for and against David Campany’s concern. I maintain that to specifically guard against this ‘numbness’ would only be a temporary reaction, and that there cannot be a definitive right answer to the question. David Bate’s point mentioned earlier describes factors affecting the viewer’s reactions that are all subject to change.

In conclusion two aspects of the works under consideration are worth mentioning. The first is that when the primary aim is to make art then there is a danger that any consideration of the effect on real people becomes far less obvious to the viewer. It can be argued that both “Chronotopia” and “Fait” fall into this category whereas “Sectarian Murder”, “Disputed Territory” and “The Maze” mostly avoid this. It can be argued that both Seawright and Haughey have found a way to avoid the trap that Campany describes. However, to return again to David Bate’s point, cultural context plays a large part in this categorisation. It may well be that the understating of pure art that makes Seawright and Haughey’s work successful (in terms of Campany’s concern) may itself eventually resolve into an art motif. The second aspect is the success of Sarah Pickering’s work, made possible by avoiding the real world altogether. The separation from reality allows the sublime aspect to come through without negating a human cost, because there isn’t one in the first place.

One further point to emphasise is that the context in which images are viewed will change over time. In June 2019 Luis Alvarez died of cancer that he contracted during his work as a ‘first responder’ in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Joel Meyerowitz’s images take on a new poignancy with the knowledge that at least some of the people in his photographs may be in the same situation.

References
Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’ – David Campany (2003) At: https://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ (Accessed on 8 July 2019)

Joel Meyerowitz’s World Trade Center Archive | Photography | Agenda | Phaidon (s.d.) At: https://uk.phaidon.com/agenda/photography/picture-galleries/2011/september/08/joel-meyerowitzs-world-trade-center-archive/ (Accessed on 9 July 2019)

Bate, D. (2016) Photography (The Key Concepts). (2nd Revised Edition) (s.l.): Bloomsbury Academic.

Faulkner, S. (2014) ‘Late photography, military landscapes, and the politics of memory’ In: The Open Arts Journal (3) [online] At: http://www.openartsjournal.org/2014s22sf/

Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. (New Ed edition) (s.l.): Penguin.

Wells, L. (ed.) (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. (4 edition) (s.l.): Routledge.

Manaugh, G. (2006) War/Photography: An Interview with Simon Norfolk. At: http://www.bldgblog.com/2006/12/warphotography-an-interview-with-simon-norfolk/ (Accessed on 8 July 2019)

AFGHANISTAN: CHRONOTOPIA (s.d.) At: http://simonnorfolk.com/afghanistan-chronotopia (Accessed on 8 July 2019)

Lucy Soutter (2007) ‘Why Art Photography?’ in Wells, L. (ed.) (2018) The Photography Reader: History and Theory. (2 edition) (s.l.): Routledge. pp.275-284

Of Fact and Fiction: Sophie Ristelhueber’s Fait (s.d.) At: https://www.gallery.ca/magazine/exhibitions/of-fact-and-fiction-sophie-ristelhuebers-fait (Accessed on 9 July 2019)

Sectarian Murder — Paul Seawright (s.d.) At: http://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian (Accessed on 8 July 2019)

Disputed Territory | Anthony Haughey (s.d.) At: http://anthonyhaughey.com/projects/disputed-territory/ (Accessed on 9 July 2019)

DONOVAN WYLIE (s.d.) At: http://www.donovanwyliestudio.com/index.php?page=work&album=2 (Accessed on 8 July 2019)

Public Order – Sarah Pickering (s.d.) At: https://www.sarahpickering.co.uk/works/public-order/ (Accessed 10/12/2019).

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