Thursday, January 10, 2008

Tintypes from Iraq

This is the second set of photographs tied to the war in Iraq I have come across (via Susana Raab) that utilise some kind of alt-process - the first being Ellen Susan's wet plate collodion portraits of US soldiers.

These being from Phil Nesmith, a photographer from Washington DC who photographed in Iraq in the course of his employment as a civilian defence contractor and produced work in a series called My Baghdad.

I must say I'm in two minds about this approach. On the one hand, on many levels they do work. The remain on most levels a photographic image, with all that involves and implies, but by utilising the anachronistic process they take a step back in a sense and manage to pause the never ending stream of images that flow over us every day. We also stop and pause and look - and perhaps look a bit more closely.

But on the other hand, they can seem a bit of a gimmick. Without fail, Brady and the Civil War photographers are usually invoked somewhere along the line - in some way giving an anointing to the photographer and - if one were to take the most cynical view - in some ways also doing the same for the conflict; giving it a sort of nobility of purpose. They also evoke a sense of dislocation in time. The war - and those pictured - becomes less immediate. Echoes of 19th Century photographic surveys in colonial India or Arabia or Palestine are triggered. And then there are the pictures themselves. If one were to take most of them as say straight forward black and white photographs printed on good old Ilford paper, most really probably wouldn't catch our attention. So the process really becomes essential to the picture and that brings me back to the sense of a gimmick (and yet, the same could probably be said about the choice of straight black and white over colour for example).

And then the photograph here of the Chinook and the low sun does nothing if not invoke the film Apocalypse Now with all that movie said about a failing and futile colonial war and the men fighting it. So there are many conflicting, ambiguous and mixed messages and emotions that these pictures seem able to contain (which probably means that ultimately they are quite successful in what they are trying to do...)

So, as I say, I remain in two minds about them - while still allowing that they certainly did catch my eye and they did draw me in.

Interestingly, Nesmith didn't lug a around a Full Plate camera, with it's bellows and tripod and heavy film holders, but appears to have used some kind of hybrid process whereby he took digital photographs in Iraq - giving himself more freedom of movement and interaction - and then producing Tintypes/Ferrotypes or Ambrotypes from those. Overall it seems to give very good looking results (although noticeably missing is the often distinctive narrow depth of field and/or blur that often results from using the larger negative with older lenses).

Nesmith has a show of his work at Irvine Contemporary. And there is a brief review here.


PD Nesmith said...


Thanks for taking the time to write about my work. I want to say that you are right on with many things that you feel and say about the work.

I would like to say that the multiple emotions or thoughts that you wrote about are exactly what I was trying to do in regards to those issues. It was important for me to fond a way to show the millions of emotions that I had while in Iraq, and to stay out of the pro/anti war debate. Each viewer will see what they want (which is true with all photography). Although confusing, that is what the situation is and I am happy that at some level that is coming through in a less "in-your-face" way.

As for the idea of the process being a gimick....I would guess true...but as you point out any method could be viewed that way. My choice in process is to cover around 150 years of photographic history in one object....object being the key here. In each image, elements of popular photography from the present day, 1880's, and 1860's are contained. The idea is not only to cover photographic history in each piece, but to also collect war photography elements of the same time.

Im tired of throw-away images that fill our life so I wanted something with a special physicalness. The use of a hybrid tintype/ambrotype process was perfect for this.

As you can see....and as you felt...there is many things going on in this work. Some may not like having to think about it too much, but I am not a simple person, who experienced a complex, and this work is the result. Time will tell if it is successful.

Again thanks for taking the time to look at my work, and to write your thoughts about it. The fact that you were moved to say something shows that things are working. I hope that you can see the work in person at some point, as the full object is much better than a scan ever will be.

Best Regards,

Phil Nesmith

julian said...

I think there is something inherently dishonest in this work. The choice of medium is making a claim to a nostalgia that distances the viewer from the reality of war. The subject matter appears almost incidental to the graphic and romantic aspects of the images. You can't distance yourself from being pro or anti war. The photographer was there, had feelings about it, and people live or die. How can one justify creating a distance from this, from negating essential facts that of the subject matter? I'm sure however, the images will sell well, and all credit to the photographer for being there in the first place.

tim atherton said...

Dishonest photographs - an interesting thought. I think that's also the same sort of twinge I often get with the sort of beautiful/landscapesque photographs from war zones or disasters. It's a hard one to judge - honesty and/or dishonesty in photographs

julian said...

too true. I think in this case the dishonesty is in the intent more than the images - to cover 150 years of photo history in one object with war as the topic. You can't ascribe this kind of meaning to medium and thus try to divorce the medium from the content. I'm already feeling guilty for bashing someone's work publicly on the internet, but I have a knee jerk response to this conflict! Too many people have died.

Unknown said...

"Too many people have died." ironically I believe, making this statement lends itself to the work being successful as an object. Are you forming an opinion of the object based on the politics of the subject matter? It's almost a shame the artist gave us a glimpse of context by commenting here. I happened to find the work interesting based on the aesthetic of a hybrid process, gimicky or not rather than the Statement made by the artist, or the subject matter dipicted. I suppose any and all points / opinions are as valid as the next.

Andy Frazer said...

I have to disagree with Julian's comment that, "The choice of medium is making a claim to a nostalgia that distances the viewer from the reality of war."

For me, the choice of a "historical" medium is so effective precisely because it anchors the reality of war in the historical record, and in effect, distances me from any "this war is different" rationalization.

What I'm trying to say is that by avoiding the appearance of 2000's digital imaging, we can step back from our personal associations of this war (e.g., Bush, Cheney, Halliburton, Hussein, Al-Qieda, etc.) and look at the event in the context of other conflicts (e.g., Vietnam, Korea, WWI, WWII, etc.).

In that vain, I think the photographer was very successful.

Andy Frazer

Glenn Twiggs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Luis said...

War is almost impossible to photograph. Carnage and horror inevitably tend to look generic. As Gene Smith and many others found out, if you get too close, people can't stand it, and look away, or fall into the chasm of sentimentality.

There's a comfort range within which people will look at photographs. Perhaps this is why the current practice leans towards aftermath photography. I do not think Gilles Peress' or Simon Norfolk's work is any less honest, or effective, just different.

If I see any dishonesty in Nesmith's work, it's this: Millions of emotions do not fit into the Princess's slipper of neutrality regarding this war. It's an untenably safe position, IMO.

The "gimmick" is effective in that it forces us to view the present in the light of history. That long view changes perspective on Iraqistan considerably.

--- Luis

John Ellis said...

I think that this succeeds or fails depending on whether the pictures make one stop and think: what are these pictures of? The most interesting response would come from someone younger than, say, 25; certainly younger than the generations that saw live images of Vietnam. That pd nesmith had a technical agenda shouldn't necessarily undermine what the photos are about. I love b/w, particularly the images from the '60s that inculcated that love; but recently I have come to question b/w from an intellectual standpoint: we have b/w because that was the only process available in the early days of photography, so does it inherently bestow a false approach now that we have colour or is it a continuing valid branch of the medium? I leave the question unanswered! To return to the tintypes: my feeling is that they do make one stop and think. What is there in common with previous images? The monochrome does slow down the action, as it were. But I think that the whole thought process in the original post is correct.

Anonymous said...

Forget the naysayers, you have done a most interesting thing....linking back to the Civil War is almost inevitable when viewing war images...dave

julian said...

"Forget the naysayers, you have done a most interesting thing....linking back to the Civil War is almost inevitable when viewing war images...dave"
only if you are North American. and believe it or not 'photographic history' is wider than the US perspective.

Hollis said...

Gimmick? I think so. These are shot digitally and then made into tintypes in the darkroom. There is no way that you would be able to stop the rotation of the helicopter blades because tintype's are so slow (iso 2 - ish) that you can't shoot at fast shutter speeds.

tim atherton said...

I'm not sure that really matters - many of the best workers in alt processes today are using digital negatives etc.

They are still tintypes. Just not your great grandmother's tintype...