The Camera Goes to War
This is War! Robert Capa at Work – Gerda Taro: A Retrospective On the Subject of War: Paul Chan, Omer Fast, Geert van Kesteren, An-My Lê – Barbican Art Gallery 17th October 2008 – 25th January 2009
Review by David Evans
Upstairs, work dealing with wars in the 1930s and 1940s; downstairs, recent work about current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Through juxtaposition, the viewer is encouraged to reflect on the various ways in which the camera has gone to war.
The two historic shows deal with Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, respectively. Capa (real name Endre Friedmann) was born in Budapest in 1913 and pursued university studies in Berlin. When Hitler took power he moved to Paris, a city that became the capital city of anti-Fascism by the mid-thirties. Capa’s American-sounding pseudonym (Capa / Capra) was adopted in Paris to help him advance in the cutthroat business of photojournalism. His assignments were diverse, ranging from Trotsky in exile to the Tour de France, but his reputation is based on war work, dealing with conflicts like the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese invasion of China and World War Two. He was killed by a landmine in 1954 whilst covering the war in Indochina.
Gerda Taro (Gerta Pohorylle) was born in Stuttgart in 1910. She also left Germany in 1933 and met Friedmann in Paris the following year. They became lovers, professional collaborators and political comrades, marked by the Popular Front culture of mid-thirties France and Spain. Like Capa, she used a pseudonym with hints of Hollywood (Taro / Garbo) to secure photographic work. They first went to Spain together in 1936, and Taro was killed there the following year.
The two exhibitions and the tie in books were created by the International Center for Photography, New York, which possesses an unrivalled collection of vintage material, mainly donated by Robert Capa’s brother, Cornell. Taro gets her first solo exhibition, confirming that she was more than a footnote in the biography of Robert Capa. However, the main aim is to present Capa and Taro as two important figures in the history of the illustrated press, a phenomenon that emerged in the early decades of the 20th Century, peaked in the 1930s and 1940s, and lost out to television in the 1950s and 1960s. Wisely, the Capa show concentrates on a small number of key episodes, like his coverage of the D-Day landings of 1944, that permits a generous presentation of the raw materials that were worked on to become the published picture story. Appropriately, magazines like Life, Picture Post, Regards and Vu are prominently displayed, relics from a world we have lost.
Paul Chan, Omer Fast, Geert van Kesteren and An-My Lê are the four contributors to the exhibition downstairs called On the Subject of War. They wouldn’t all be happy with the label ‘artist’, yet they fit fairly comfortably into a gallery setting. Paul Chan is a political activist and journalist based in New York whose contribution is Tin Drum Trilogy (2002-05), three films that present the Iraqi War from opposing perspectives. The Casting (2007) by Israeli Omer Fast is a double-sided video projection on two screens that merges documentary and staged material. Dutch photojournalist Geert van Kesteren is represented by two projects involving books and exhibition prints: Why Mister Why? (2003-04) and Baghdad Calling (2007). The first project is about Iraqis dealing with the American invasion of 2003; the second involves Van Kesteren as editor, sorting through amateur images made by Iraqis with their camera phones. Baghdad Calling is displayed as an imposing grid of seventy five images – hints of the Bechers, but with a violent, diverse content that is the opposite of their ordered, crafted typologies. An-My Lê was born in Vietnam but has lived in the United States since 1975. She shows two sets of images made with a large-format camera. 29 Palms (2006) depicts the military rehearsals in the Californian desert that preceded the invasion of Iraq, and Events Ashore (2005-08) is about American attempts to police the oceans of the world. Rather than action or aftermath, her photographs deal with the anticipation of war.
There is no catalogue for On the Subject of War unlike the solid and stimulating ICP books on Capa, Taro and the illustrated press. Instead the organizers have provided a study room with a little library of books and internet access to relevant blogs and websites. At this point, then, the aim is to provide a platform for discussion. Most obviously, the Barbican exhibitions encourage reflection on the decline of the illustrated press and the photojournalist as participant-observer. Yet Paris Match, one of Capa’s outlets, still exists; so does Magnum, the international co-operative of photojournalists that he co-founded in 1948; and a present day member like Luc Delahaye still finds magazine outlets, even though he now has an eye on the art gallery or museum for his images of war. Nevertheless, the diversification of Delahaye, or Van Kesteren, registers the dramatic demise of the illustrated press as a popular source of news.
The juxtapostion of historic and contemporary material also encourages consideration of different political contexts. Certainly Capa and Taro assumed that they were part of a broad, popular alliance against Fascism that began tentatively in the mid-thirties and appeared vindicated by 1945. In contrast, what is especially striking about On the Subject of War is that it contains no contributor who endorses the official view that current conflicts are comparable to World War Two, with Western, democratic civilization now taking on its Eastern, Islamofascist enemies. On the contrary, scepticism about the aims of the so-called War on Terror is pervasive in the United States, Britain and elsewhere, fed in part by the amateur images from Abu Ghraib that have probably circulated more widely than even the best known photographs of Robert Capa.