Conflict, Time, Photography: Tate Modern's powerful portrayal of the lasting effects of war

By Ben Miller | 10 December 2014

Tate's survey of photographic responses to war shows the lasting consequences of conflict

A black and white photo of a soldier's helmet on a floor with a crack in it
Shomei Tomatsu, Steel Helmut with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki (1963)© Shomei Tomatsu - interface. Courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo
Tate’s huge display of photographers portraying war stems from an inventive premise: rather than simply presenting these works chronologically, curator Simon Baker takes his cue from Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical 1969 novel about World War II, a book which was partly influenced by the author’s own experience of the firebombing of Dresden but largely filtered through the reflections of a fictional soldier, Billy Pilgrim.

Vonnegut’s narrative is non-sequential, flashing back to specific memories of the war, and the exhibition follows suit by basing its path around time elapsed. So Toshio Fukada – a teenager with a camera always poised, staying at a nearby army barracks when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima – provides one of the first works, seeing the apocalyptic mushroom cloud just moments after it blackened the sky over Japan in 1945.

A greyscale photo of two robed priests standing among rubble in a ruined cathedral
Pierre Antony-Thouret, Reims After the War (1927). From Reims after the war. The mutilated cathedral. The devastated city© Private collection, London
Hrair Sarkissian, an artist known for his Execution Squares series showing the spots where public executions took place in Damascus, Aleppo and Lattakia, reflects from the widest expanse of time.

In 2011, almost a century after his grandparents fled what he grimly terms the “systematic extermination” of Armenians in Eastern Anatolia, Sarkissian visited the history sections of libraries in Istanbul, finding stories of the Ottoman Empire and the forced resettlements affecting his and many other families before Turkey was fully formed. Rows of shadowy shelves prove as eerie as the smoke of a crippling explosive.

This is an exhibition about memory, the power of time and our shifting perceptions of the trauma of conflict. Much of the time no-one is present in these pictures, a strange sensation given that those who are, such as the pair of priests in pristine black robes sombrely surveying the rubble of Notre Dame a few months after the end of the First World War, enhance the sense of place and time.

The cathedral and its city, Reims, were repeatedly bombarded from the nearby front line, illustrated by the architect Pierre Antony-Thouret, who assembled a “luxurious portfolio” of photos he and other artists had taken, publishing them in 1927 and putting the profits towards the resurrection of the ravaged cathedral.

Holy sites, with their silent echoes of former communions, are some of the saddest here. Simon Norfolk describes the “different layering” of destruction in Afghanistan.

He points to a place where, unlike Dresden or Hiroshima, architectural annihilation has been strewing the landscape for nearly 30 years.

A photo of a crumbling building in a desert with goat-like animals in the foreground
Simon Norfolk, Bullet-scarred apartment building (2003). Building and shops in the Karte Char district of Kabul© Simon Norfolk
King Amanullah’s Victory Arch, built to celebrate the 1919 Independence from the British in Kabul Province, could not look less triumphant, still intact but its top cracked and shelled.

Norfolk’s work, too, has layers, produced in an anachronistic large format which creates a beautiful immediacy.

The ghostly feel of a government building close to the former presidential palace at Darulaman, destroyed by fighting during the 1990s, only becomes truly apparent upon deeper contemplation.

Bunkers, conversely, seem alien, and there’s a wider debate over whether they should be left as they are or removed from the coastlines of northern France, where Jane and Louise Wilson picture them in black and white, huge and incongruous upended blocks.

Jerzy Lewczynski, the Polish photographer who was consistently compelled by history and celebrated for his distinctive creativity, takes tiny photos of Hitler’s Wolf Lair, set up in occupied Poland and pictured 15 years after the Second World War.

Observed as archetypal post-war ruins, the hideaway where an assassination attempt occurred a year before the end of the war takes on an archaeological fascination. So do the bunkers seen Europe-wide by Paul Virilio, the urban philosopher who produced a book on them.

A black and white photo of a soldier in uniform carrying a gun looking upwards scared
Don McCullin, Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue (1968). Printed 2013© Don McCullin
Seven months after the end of the Gulf War, in 1991, Sophie Ristelhueber went overhead. Her aerial photography has an even colder chill in the age of drones: cinnamon skeletons of dismembered vehicles are stuck in sand, potholes pock fields, lines and chasms intersect the charred landscape.

During the 16-year Lebanese Civil War which ended in 1991, 245 car bombs were detonated. Walid Raad catalogues the engines which survived each attack in an installation which chiefly stands out thanks to the absence of any women in the pictures.

Don McCullin’s portrait of a shell-shocked US Marine, rendered momentarily unhuman in Vietnam in 1968, is instantly recognisable from the Imperial War Museum’s exhibition two years ago, and still feels like a brush with death and a work of photojournalism so rare it is almost incomparable.

Another incredibly influential photographer, Shomei Tomatsu, has his best-known work, Melted Bottle, displayed as part of the aftermath of the atomic assault on Nagasaki.

A photo of a snowy forest landscape with tall, thin trees
Chloe Dewe Mathews, Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen (2013). The photo commemorates four soldiers executed on December 15 1914© Chloe Dewe Mathews
Taken during the 1960s, Tomatsu makes us flinch at faces ripped and pulled, the skin of victims warped and twisted – conflict portrayed at its most gruesome.

Chloe Dewe Mathews, a British artist, responds more poetically, leaving more space – Matthews went to the locations where British, French and Belgian soldiers were executed for cowardice and desertion on the Western Front, finding huge ravines and withered trees across snow carpets.

War, these barren scenes shout, has explicit consequences for decades and centuries to come.

  • Conflict, Time, Photography is at Tate Modern, London until March 15 2015. Open 10am-6pm (10pm Friday and Saturday, closed December 24-26). Tickets £11.30-£14.50 (free for under-12s). Book online. Follow Tate on Twitter @tate.

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