Photographs by John Burke and Simon Norfolk.
Published by Dewi Lewis, 2011.
‘That slightly raised right boot’: a short response to Burke + Norfolk by David Hempenstall.
We will never escape concrete force protection, surveillance blimps, the connex box, Alaskan tents, hescos and the portaloo. Many generations to come will look at images of coalition camps and occupied areas from the early 21st century conflicts and see these objects appearing time and time again. Will these mundane things gain additional significance as the years pass?
Simon Norfolk’s new tome Burke + Norfolk: Photographs from the war in Afghanistan is large in its physical size and certainly in its undertaking. Many will see his name and immediately think of the grand colour photographs from early in the current Afghanistan conflict (and I admit that I made this mistake) rather than consider his wider efforts in examining the landscape and evidence of trauma, conflict and the technology of warfare.
Importantly, his name lies on the spine with equal billing to that of the photographer John Burke, who trod similar ground one hundred and thirty years before. Burke is a mysterious figure, and here only his prints speak with their sweeping landscapes and direct portraits. He is our guide who has left scant few clues and merely a few succinct directions in the form of his pictures. We have no photograph of him, only sketches showing the back of his head – though those reproduced in this book are magnificent. In one he stands like a poised dancer in his knee high boots and helmet directing the Ameer while his assistants wait patiently gently caressing the lens cap and plate holder. It is acknowledged that very little is known about Burke other than a few dates and similar dry ‘facts’, but through the efforts of the crew behind this book we are given a beautiful object through which to engage with him across the centuries.
I imagine Norfolk’s wonder and rising excitement at the time he was first exposed to the original Burke albums. What was happening in that head of his? What did he see, how did his own experiences inform his relationship with these rich prints? To ask now would be futile, for Norfolk has had time to quantify and consider what was before him… but to have spent just a few moments with those raw thoughts and emotions would be an everlasting gift.
As is my usual fault I let the book fall open at a random page to begin the relationship. This probably makes the designers, editors and photographer shudder, given the countless hours they would have spent on the sequence. And there he sat. The Amir Shere Ali Khan with his long pointed nose, rotund little figure and hand clenched firmly around his weapon of choice. That left elbow gently reaching out to the drapery and almost kissing it (but thank goodness for that sliver of space between him and the cloth – what a glorious little golden gap it is). It is a rich Burke picture floating in a sea of white paper, magic in its square shouldered strength and gentle in its intricate belt buckle and polished shoes. His curling beard and beautifully textured hat rise from the picture in their sculptural form.
Hours later, still flipping pages and ignoring the path made by the numbers at the bottom, I stopped properly on page 76 (having passed it a number of times without offering the appropriate time and effort); and suddenly the lights went on.
The image Norfolk has published of ongoing de-mining efforts is something I draw on for strength and an appreciation of an Afghan landscape not defined by a jagged horizon line. A figure clad in pale blue and wearing a transparent face shield stands facing the camera in a cold, tan dominated landscape above Kabul. It is a striking image with layered stories and high-stakes content. The immense scale of the undertaking needed to properly clear even a small amount of land becomes apparent with this fascinating picture, as does the reality of how agricultural the method is (for many of his simple tools lie within a few steps from his Kevlar, plastic and ceramic-protected existence).
Please pause with me. Look out across that stone covered slope. See the long grids laid out for reference. See the blue and red flags planted all throughout the low scratchy foliage. Notice the rising line of blue figures snaking towards a lone white clothed individual happily perched in a director’s chair with what first appears to be the Sunday papers (more than likely not, but the absurdity of his posture combined with the bed perched next to him only furthers my little farcical thought). And the third instalment in the trilogy of primary colours stands there on the apex of the ridge – a dusty green connex box possibly serving as shelter, work space and refuge.
How boringly repetitive is this mine clearing? Is the work as inherently dangerous as I imagine it to be or does the seasoned professional consider it challenging but ‘reasonably’ safe? I stare in wonder and cannot imagine the long, cold and cramped days spent crouched over, searching for the little buried bombs designed to maim and kill… anyone. It is a sad photograph. I do not see rehabilitation here, no positive step, no heart warming accomplishment; only a slow, limited undoing of the tragically ongoing manufacture and use of these weapons.
In stark contrast to this grand open landscape are the small diorama pictures Norfolk made inside ‘The Museum of the Jihad’ in Herat. One of the reproduced images shows us a recreation of a violent uprising against the Soviets. The passion, tragedy and violence portrayed and the flamboyant gestures of the figures all combine to create a glorious picture that not only speaks to a version of revisionist Afghan experience but also the wider history of the photographic medium. My own sensibility refers me to the museum pictures of Hiroshi Sugimoto as a touchstone. But Norfolk brings his coloured eye to this effort rather than the glowing silver tones of Sugimoto, and we are stronger for it. Norfolk’s diorama exists as it is; a plaster, clay and paint creation. It is not being transformed by a surreal treatment where you could almost be convinced that the people or animals were indeed breathing in front of the camera. The puppet-like figures, heavy inappropriate shadows and action-without-pause in every corner keep me staring at this picture. My own fascination with these physical objects, these items that so many museums and institutions not only build but collect for their archives, may play an overly heavy hand in my joy at this photograph.
And there, on the open page beside the diorama photo, is a Burke picture with a similar scale of reproduction, showing real men from the British forces standing in a snow covered landscape, their features obscured by distance, waiting for the imminent attack by Afghan forces. The bending trench line encloses the shape begun in Norfolk’s colour snap, pulling the two scenes physically together in the spread. The pensive, tense moment of Burke stands beside Norfolk’s violently uncoiling spring of an image – and yet their shared eye is apparent, the photographers’ own decisions providing an anchor or a reduced set of facts from which we can gain our understanding.
The spectre of re-photographic work is often raised when this book is spoken about, and Norfolk is quick to be on the front foot in quashing this charge by addressing it in the opening few paragraphs of the conversation that precedes the pictures. The charge is really an overly lazy and misguided attempt at pigeonholing this project; for if we were honest then Klett’s work (and its clones) would be properly considered before using a rubber stamp to bash this new effort into a comfortable box. I agree with Norfolk in his assertion that he does not recreate scenes or try to find the tripod holes left by Burke; that he used Burke’s creations as a point of reference for an approach to geography and a point of entry for his contemporary investigations rather than a result to mimic.
But this is where I also find a persistent itch that will not leave me. Norfolk’s modern black and white portraits have attempted to address the old ortho response of Burke’s wet collodion process and the tone of his albumen prints… and at this point I truly ask ‘why’?
Norfolk is mighty strong when he wields a big bit of colour film… so why the effort to suddenly turn and mimic the old process? Why take (justifiable) swipes at the frighteningly process orientated kitchy workers of today with their heavy handed brush strokes and borders only to trip over yourself in trying to mimic the blank skies and open shadows of days and methods gone by? Surely using the strength and inherent nature of his contemporary materials better serves the photographic relationship between Norfolk and Burke, the experience of the audience and the historical record. I sit and feel like these pictures are less than what they could be, slightly crippled by a forced tilt toward nostalgia.
This reaction of mine is fed by both the photographs and the opening conversation. A stronger writer and smarter reviewer would be able to effectively engage solely with the photographs in the space provided here… but my own limits mean that I must count on all the content provided by the living photographer in this large book. The conversation between Paul Lowe and Norfolk is up front and bold in its conviction, so to ignore it or lessen its standing would make this reaction to the book even less relevant.
Burke’s group picture showing the Khan of Lulpura and his followers is mute and defiant. The notes in the rear of the book made me aware of the British political Officer Robert Warburton crouched in the rear of the picture wearing a turban and large moustache (for without that note I would never have picked him out when staring at this photograph). All prepared with firearms and blades, comfortable in the steep terrain and hardened by conflict (though a number of youthful faces made me pause with concern for their fate), these men address the photographer comfortably and without hesitance. During the recent war against the Soviets the photographers who made it into the country had no trouble finding proud Afghan fighters happy to pose with their rifle and fighting garb; it seems that this proud engagement with the snap maker reaches back across a large slab of time in a country that at one point in its recent memory banned photography (though the underground studios continued with brilliant floral results).
I have no doubt that I would spend countless hours standing quietly in an exhibition of this work. To see the original Burke prints hung in a contemporary setting (if they can be safely removed from their albums) would be a treat. Norfolk’s own prints are often very large and I imagine being down with my nose close to the print (with my usual dumb grin plastered across my face) marvelling at little things such as the soldier sweeping dust off the chipboard path or the sightly raised right boot above a cargo net covered load (a glorious gesture). There is enough breathing space in many of these pictures to allow us a place to make further enquiries, to find small contained events and things (often unrelated) within a wider setting. I would see them without the intrusive bend of the book gutter obscuring his compositions and breaking the ‘smooth’ nature of his open colour pictures. And yet it would be a mistake to be only peeping at details and playing hide and seek with little ironies or subtexts when these larger questions that Norfolk and Burke have asked are hanging on the wall waiting for us to attempt some sort of answer (or, more importantly, to walk away with further questions and headaches).
DAVID HEMPENSTALL (b.1979) began photographing in the sea as a teenager.
His photographic endeavour is precariously balanced between working on the collections of large cultural institutions and his own impulses to run around in the sunshine making silly little personal snaps.
In a former life Hempenstall’s photographs documenting the aftermath of mass killings of Iraqi Kurds and Shi’ites were presented as evidence in the Iraqi High Tribunal at the trials of a number of prominent Ba’athists including Saddam Hussein and Ali Hussan al-Majid. In more recent years he has pursued a project examining the post-conflict/pre-referendum landscape of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville and the history of his own family on the island. This work is ongoing.
Hempenstall is a member of the collective brokenbench and bases himself in the Australian Capital Territory.