Thursday, July 26, 2007

Pictures of stuff that isn't there anymore

I've come across a number of examples of photographers who have taken pictures of places where something happened in the past, but that you really can't see any evidence of anymore - crime scenes long after the crime was committed, or battlefields decades (or even centuries) after the battles were fought.

I've always been intrigued by this. But I'm also intrigued be the way some people react to such pictures. I've come across an almost violent reaction against them - that such pictures are stupid, meaningless, pointless - how can you take a picture of something that isn't there any more!?

But then I'm the sort of person who can stand on the Iron Age earthworks of Maiden Castle on a grey windy autumn day and almost smell the previous inhabitants or who grew up with the remains of a D-Day Mulberry Harbour (that never even made it across the Channel), visible at low tide from my bedroom window), and who could imagine the convoys of ships forming up and preparing to cross to France.

So for me, it makes perfect sense to photograph a place where something significant has happened - even if there is barely a trace - or even no visual trace at all - remaining. For me, these pictures can still hold something of the aura of the physical place - if we let them.

A couple of examples that come to mind are Joel Sternfeld's book On This Site - Landscape In Memoriam which documents places - many years after - where some tragic event in recent (and a few not so recent) American history occurred. The picture postcard beach off Rockaway where ten Chinese immigrants drowned.... the street where Cari Lightner was run down by a drunk driver (leading her mother to found MADD) etc

From an essay by Linda Levitt:

Without the context of their accompanying text, the photographs in Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam could easily be misread as what they only appear to be: serene images of the urban, suburban, or rural landscape. Each of the fifty photographs is placed on a right-hand page of the book. Sternfeld’s concise, sometimes terse text is placed on the facing page of each photograph, contextualizing the image as a site of tragedy. Some of the images, like the corner of Austin Street in Kew Gardens where Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in 1964, are hauntingly familiar. Others are more obscure, and the viewer is at a loss to make meaning beyond the significance of the image itself.

The first photograph Sternfeld made for the book is an image of the crab apple tree in Central Park under which Jennifer Levin’s body was found on the morning of August 26, 1986. The photograph appears to have been made at dawn, and the scene is awash in warm morning light. Although not centered in the frame, the tree itself is the focal point of the image. Sternfeld says he “went to Central Park to find the place behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art where Jennifer Levin had been killed. It was bewildering to find a scene so beautiful…to see the same sunlight pour down indifferently on the earth.” There is no visible trace of the horror that marks this site; Sternfeld’s perception of the space is colored by the memory he carries with him to Central Park. The viewer too is confronted by the beautiful scene Sternfeld captures: how the photograph comes to mean depends on whether the viewer is, like Sternfeld, haunted by the specter of Levin’s murder. “As the fascination that photographs exercise is a reminder of death, it is also an invitation to sentimentality,” writes Susan Sontag. “Photographs turn the past into an object of tender regard, scrambling moral distinctions and disarming historical judgments by the generalized pathos of looking at time past.” If the past is “an object of tender regard,” then we bring a dual sensibility to Sternfeld’s photographs: a kind of nostalgia for the familiar, but one that carries with it a trace of the familiar as catastrophic. more

Another is the work of Markus Neis who photographs European Battlefields (his project "Folgelandschaften") - Verdun, the Allied invasion sites in northern France.

Bart Michiels is another who works in a very similar vein and whose work really grabs me (Thanks Adam)

(Waterloo 1815, The Fall of the Imperial Guard , 2001)

(Anzio, 1944, Yellow Beach, 2004)

Then, while thinking about this post I came across (via Greg Wasserstrom) a link to Christian Pattersons new work Out There where he undertakes "an exploration of the landscape connected with a series of murders committed by a Nebraska teenager in the 1950s.
"When I started following my map, I found things that I never imagined I would find nearly fifty years after the murders took place. There are very few things that remain, and they are very hard to find, but I found some very interesting things that will show up in the photographs. My research and imagination are helping me to fill in the blanks.""

There is an excellent interview, including a number of pictures, with Christian on the project at making room.

And then, of course, there is the grandfather of them all, Roger Fenton


f:lux said...

Simon Norfolk might interest you too then?

In particular 'For most of it I have no words: Genocide, Landscape, Memory'.

artstarz said...

In addition to Norfolk's work on concentration camps, Serbia, Afganistan etc., you can check out Bart Michels, who shows at Foley Gallery, and photo European battle sites.

tim atherton said...

Thanks Adam

that's one I was defiantily thinking of

f:lux - I'm meaning to do a seperate post on Norfolk (and maybe Michiels too)

Stan B. said...

I saw the most amazing exhibit on this subject in the eighties, taken with a WA pinhole camera of murder and violent crime sites. Unfortunately, don't remember name, but it succeeded because the pictures themselves (even w/o the accompanying info) were darkly eery, foreboding and dramatic compositions.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tim,

One of the earliest, if not the first (Roger Fenton - Crimea ?) to do this type of image making was George N. Barnard (1819 - 1902), who photographed scenes from and the aftermath of Shermans campaign in the American Cival War.
One in particular is titled 'Scene of Gen. McPhersons death'. With only the skull and bones of a horse lying by some woodland. Photographed well after the event.


fartin on thunder said...

This idea has been in my consciousness lately. It is quite an amazing concept, but to understand it, one must know more about the images that they are looking at. If they understand and know the context that photograph can succeed, if not, the photographs may not be strong enough to stand on their own.

tim atherton said...

The thing is, an awful lot of good photographs depend on context - either personal/cultural or historical and in a way, us knowing the many words that have been written about what they depict.

If you take any of those "10 greatest photographs" type threads - an awful lot of them don't actually stand up that well if you had know idea what they were about

tim atherton said...

thanks seoras - if I were to write a more extended post, I'd probably take it back to there.

I've always been impressed by Fenton's work and some of the civil war photographers. Of course technology generally forced them to make their (at times quite powerful) photographs of war without actually being able to show it.

Luis said...

Welcome back, Tim, you were missed.

The absorbency of The Earth is a salient point in these pics. Life goes on. Human meanness, pain and stupidity come and go. They, too, are ephemera. The Earth will outlive us.

Conceptually, these images work as visual captions for things we know about mostly from text, mug shots, or pictures of the deceased.

This is a reversal from the usual order of things, wherein a photograph has many floating potential histories until captioned. Here, the text has had many potential visual histories until now.

The photos collapse that into one, and illustrate that this relationship between words and seeing is commutative.

--- Luis