Notes from Tate Modern course Art, Politics, War (Monday evenings, Tate Modern 6th June - 11th June 2011, ticket holders only).
For the first session we explored some of the ways in which photographers communicate a moral or political stance, starting from Susan Sontag's famous claim in On Photography that 'strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph' - her claim that understanding involves appreciation of events unfolding over time, a sense of a narrative, and that individual still photographs characteristically reveal or portray moments and so cannot in themselves communicate or express a moral position [if you have access to an institutional online library you should be able to download my article 'Photographic Communication' that responds to Sontag].
[The 18th Century thinker Gotthold Lessing's discussion of the classical sculpture Laocoön could provide a way of answering Sontag to some degree on this point: Lessing argued that the visual arts are particularly good at implying narrative through the careful selection of the moment depicted - in his example, the expression on the dying man's face suggests the howl of anguish that is to follow. For more on this, see my (illustrated) brief note on Lessing from a previous Tate Modern course.]
Stuart Franklin's iconic image of the man standing in front of a row of tanks on the edge of Tiananmen Square in 1989 [illustrated and discussed here] served as an example of how much we owe to contextualisation. Much of the symbolic value of an individual standing up against a powerful force is, nevertheless, almost immediately legible.
If you want to understand more about the context of this iconic image, Franklin talks about his experience of Tiananmen Square and shows more images here, and a further video interview providing more context here. Seeing the iconic image in the context of a range of images of the surrounding events significantly affects our interpretation of the famous image. (I also interviewed Franklin for my weblog Virtual Philosopher here.) Charlie Cole, another of the photographers who took a similar image of the tank man describes his experiences of the events here. It is interesting that Cole's image excluded the large visual context of a burnt out bus and the full line of tanks.
The kind of contextualization provided by the links above explains far more about the photograph than is legible from the image alone. Without this background information the moral significance of the events that this image crystallizes is far harder to read. The scope and brutality of the suppression is easy to forget. Knowledge of the readiness of tank drivers to crush protestors makes the tank man's actions even braver than it first appears. Most viewers of the still image will have seen the BBC footage of the young man's actions too.
Documentary photographs correspond to some degree to the scene that was before the lens when the shutter fell (even if they interpret, distort, enhance or obscure). Paintings are more obviously interpretations, often incorporate symbolic elements, and, frequently are deliberately open to multiple, possibly conflicting interpretations (indeed, some would argue that a work of art that doesn't invite different readings would be a failure as art).
Picasso's Guernica (1937) probably the most famous and successful overtly political artwork ever. Emotionally there is no doubt that anguish, anger and outrage combine in Picasso's reaction to the brutal bombing and strafing of the inhabitants of Guernica by Italian and German planes. As a fund-raiser for the Spanish republican cause the image achieved a political aim through lack of ambiguity of stance. Yet at the same time, the complex image replete with symbols retains the kind of ambiguity that is characteristic of most art. There are some speculative thoughts about the meaning of various elements of the image - the bull, the horse, the woman with a child, etc., and the art historical allusions - ( in a tapestry version that hangs in the UN building) here - yet there is no simple key to its meaning that allows viewers to read off the 'true' interpretation of the narrative.
In the gallery we visited the exhibition of Simon Norfolk's 2010 photographs of Afghanistan shown alongside those of the 19th Century photographer John Burke. There is a review of this exhibition here and more about this 'collaboration' with a long-dead photographer here. The juxtaposition of an Irish photographer's take on the imperialist forces in Afghanistan 130 years ago with images of present day U.S. forces there carries a clear message of repetition of attitude and even means (many of the encampments visually echo their 19th century pre-cursors).
The video contextualizing the exhibition and revealing how some of the photographs were taken and providing a clear narrative structure within which to understand the images proved critical to most people's interpretation - view it here:
The key part of the audio of this video is from 14'10" where the photographer describes his attitude to the beauty of some of his photographs as just 'tactical' to seduce the viewer into considering his argument. He expresses his real anger and disappointment at the war in Afghanistan, the desstruction of the country, the loss of life, and 'Billions wasted, and nothing achieved. Nothing, nothing achieved.' Once you have heard the photographer's passionate statement of his position it is difficult if not impossible to read any ambiguity of moral stance in the images. It also creates an uneasiness in viewers who focus on the aesthetic aspects of some of the photographs, the beauty of the dusk light, the low horizon with two thirds sky with the recruits marching through sand towards a truck in the distance - these elements once revealed as merely 'tactical' aren't the point of the images at all, just a way of making us stop and think. Some in the group felt that there was a risk of caricaturing the events that led to American presence in Afghanistan - that visual similarity doesn't indicate similarity of cause and effect - the similarities in some visual respects between what Burke documented and Norfolk may mask important differences that may be worth exploring too (which reminds me of David Hume's point in his Enquiries: 'Nothing so like as eggs; yet no one on account of this appearing similarity, expects the same taste and relish in all of them.)