The first exhibition, and the head of the bill if you like, is Richard Mosse’s Infra. I saw this some months ago in Aperture, and I didn’t like it then, and this was based purely on a superficial look and the obvious aesthetic, rather than anything to do with the communication being put forward. Having seen the images on the gallery wall rather than on the pages of a magazine or the web, I still don’t like them on an aesthetic level, but having taken the time to more fully digest the images (or at least the handful of images on the walls in Liverpool), they’re interesting on various levels.
The photographs were in the two ground floor rooms at the gallery, in the first there were several that deserved the attention. The first is of a rather camp looking African gentleman - General Février, although on inspection and consideration of the subject matter, I think camp is far from the truth. The pose is perhaps reminiscent of the old paintings of military figures ( especially the more foppish looking French ones… ), mostly side on and with a hand on his hip. Now I had thought that this campness was largely due to the colour that the photograph has been infected with thanks to the use of the Kodak Aerochrome film, but no, I did a quick and dirty test with my iPhone at the exhibition, and even in black and white, he still looked camp:
It’s largely down to the pose, but the coloration from the film does make it feel more like a fashion shoot, something a little LaChappelle maybe? You can see there’s a look in his face that I guess indicates he’s seen things, and done things for that matter, that I would rather not know about. You only really get this from stepping up to the photograph though - this was printed smaller than the others in this part of the gallery, and from a distance I thought he looked maybe a little effeminate. This might have been the colours playing with my expectations though, affecting my more superficial first glance. Mosse has used a large format field camera in this series, so there’s no covert image taking, this has been posed and I wonder whether the directions for the pose came from Mosse with cognisance of the fact that there would be a good chance the colours would be so, or whether the man had taken up his finest military painting stance? The former would smack of taking advantage of an unknowing subject…
Another image in this first room was of a group of men looking to the right of the frame, this times with their fatigues rendered a much greyer tone, and the background of a grassy hill rendered in a saccharine pink. All of the men except the one on the track seem to be more interested with what Mosse has omitted from the frame - do they look towards a leader giving orders for some raid or other operation? Or could it be more sinister, an execution perhaps? If this would be the case, the men are all looking disturbingly relaxed and casual, but is this a numbed reaction, or a scared one? Of course I could be putting far too much into it, and their actually in a queue for lunch… It all reminds me of the “excluded elephant” that Errol Morris talks about in his book Believing is seeing, and how the choice of framing has a huge influence on how an image might be interpreted - here there is much left open for the viewer to work with, rather than say with the photograph of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing the VC prisoner during the Viet Nam war. In that image, it’s straight documentary (which Mosse is not, although it might be easy to fall into that frame of mind), and with more selective framing, the whole image changes, i.e.
(image available from wikipedia)
This is a quick and dirty edit, but with the prisoner out of frame, it’s just a man firing a gun, what at has to be invented. Similarly, with Mosse’s photograph, the fact we can’t see what the group of men see makes the viewer fill in the detail based upon what they understand about the situation in the Congo - as the article from the Guardian states, there were 5.4m deaths in 9 years, and 400,000 rapes in one year - are they looking at one of these atrocities? Or just queueing for lunch? One thing though, the one man looking at the camera draws the viewer in, they’re questioned - “what are you looking at?” - in much the same way as Olympia, although without the male as viewer undertone and replaced with something a little darker.
Something else of interest here, and in contrast with the images upstairs; I didn’t see captions for these images (was I just being unobservant? I didn’t think so). Anyway, looking at Mosse’s website there’s a caption for the images, and the photograph I’ve been talking about above is called Colonel Soleil's Boys, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2010. Now, perhaps I’m reading too much into the caption, but to call these soldiers “boys” seems to be a little irreverent, the assumption I have of them is that they will all be killers, and are at least young men not the child soldiers of some of the other photographs. Is the term “boys” something that has been given by Mosse? Is it a term that the Congolese would use? “Les garçon du Colonel Soleil” doesn’t sound right to me, but then I’m no expert. Does this then hark back to European rule over the African countries? Much was said by Barthes on this sort of thing, and many others too. Watching Simba - Mark of the Mau Mau a couple of years ago it really struck me the way the English used the term “boy” when speaking of the Kenyans, and so I guess the Belgians may have used “garçon” in the same way. Either way, I wouldn’t use such a seemingly derogatory term to describe a group of armed men…
Moving to the second room, the images were generally smaller, with one exception - a photograph blown up to life sized proportions of a youth in fatigues and with a Kalashnikov looking directly into the lens and so at the viewer. Again, thoughts of Olympia came to mind, but now the youth seems to plead with the viewer - this isn’t the face of a hardened killer (or at least this is how it seemed), but of a boy ( and I use the term without any derogatory connotations ) who would rather be playing with his friends, etc. This is easily the most compelling of the images because he is looking to the viewer in the way that he is. The coloration of the foliage forms a stark contrast, isolating the figure and therefore focusing the viewer on him, and then to his plight as a child soldier. And that’s what the use of this military film does. It focuses the viewer, makes them look again because the colours are so abstracted, so unlike what we are used to seeing - black and white is one level of abstraction, and we are used to that, but the pinks and purples of Aerochrome are something else.
I mentioned before that Mosse is not a documentary photographer, but this then asks various questions - is he trying to make war, death and atrocities seem frivolous? To the casual observer coming in to the gallery from the street, the photographs might seem like some garish fashion shoot in places, or like badly colour-popped photoshop images. The aesthetic certainly turned me off from the article in Aperture, and I guess it would do the same to others.The apparent campness of Février doesn’t install the horror of conflict. But then, as I said, this is not documentary. The use of the gamut might also seem very gimmicky, much like the use of toy camera iPhone apps in reportage, but in some ways this is the very opposite of the likes of Hipstamatic, which can be seen to bring disparate images together with a common algorithm for the aesthetic feel of the images, Mosse on the other hand has gone the opposite way. These images are pretty unique.
Simon Norfolk on the other hand uses a traditional aesthetic; black and white photographs displayed in simple black frames and with a good white mount. Moving clockwise around the room, the first ten ( ish ) images could easily be “simple” landscapes, perhaps the square format and horizon composition of some is non-conventional - straight through the middle or right at the bottom of the frame - but they are not obviously of conflict and genocide sites. A line of trees is very reminiscent of the work of Michael Kenna for example ( no idea who came first… ) and a view of Auschwitz may easily pass as a New Topographics style image showing an industrial presence in the landscape. Some will recognise the chimneys for what they were, but I did not. Not without the aid of the caption. That’s the major thing about this exhibition for me, called For most of it I have no words, a collection of photographs drawn from the Open Eye collection. The caption means so much to these images. Some explanation is required, even if it is just the opening statement and one or two words to state the location.
There was one image I found really quite powerful, and it is the one shown on the Open Eye exhibition page (linked above) of the stairs. Without having read the caption, my mind went to the stairs in my old school, which were similarly worn by years of passing feet. Reading the caption and the realisation that the left hand side of the stairs were far more heavily worn than the right, the knowledge of what this represented came home. Many Jews will have walked that staircase on a one way journey to their deaths. A sombre thought, intensified by the black and white nature of the photograph and the shaft of light from above illuminating those worn stairs; symbolising a divine light is the way I read it.
Some of the images were more ‘obvious’ in their horror though, notably those from Cambodia featuring collections of human skulls. Whilst horrific in their own right, I can’t help but feel that we, as a modern viewer and consumer of media images, will have become insensitive to this material, and in some cases find it a subject of morbid fascination rather than disgust. The photographs introduce a distance between the atrocity and the viewer, and black and white is a further level of abstraction. The photograph of the teacher training college is a case in point for me. A dog wanders through the centre of the photograph, at the back of which you can see, when closely inspecting the photograph, a mound of skulls. You can’t count the skulls, there’s so many, but if 5 skulls is more horrific than 1 skull, is 20 more so than 10? At what point do we cease to see and quantities becomes blurred, almost irrelevant? I personally find it far more disturbing to put the horror to an image myself, rather than be shown it. It works in a cinematic sense, it’s more suspenseful or scary when you don’t know what is happening than when the scene is overly graphic, and I find it the same here. My mind can be a dark place - which probably leads quite nicely into my next planned gallery visit to see the work of Roger Ballen in Manchester next month.