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Book Review: Memory of Fire


Book Review Memory of Fire Edited by Julian Stallabrass Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Memory of Fire: Images of War and the War of Images is a collection of critical essays and interviews first compiled as part of the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial by curator Julian Stallabrass. With its publication delayed, it is now a somewhat expanded take on the biennial theme of photographic depictions of war and the ways in which photography is used as a weapon of war.
Memory of Fire. Edited by Julian Stallabrass.
Photoworks, 2013.
 
Memory of Fire
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

Memory of Fire
Edited by Julian Stallabrass, essays by Coco Fusco, Stefaan Decostere, Sarah James, Rita Leistner and Julian Stallabrass.
Photoworks, 2013. Softbound. 224 pp., 250 color and black & white illustrations, 8-1/2x6".

Memory of Fire: Images of War and the War of Images is a collection of critical essays and interviews first compiled as part of the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial by curator Julian Stallabrass. With its publication delayed, it is now a somewhat expanded take on the biennial theme of photographic depictions of war and the ways in which photography is used as a weapon of war. While relevant images illustrate its texts, a broad visual survey it is not. For that purpose perhaps the 2012 Museum of Fine Arts, Houston exhibition catalog WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath will fit the bill. What Memory of Fire does exceptionally well is consider the changing nature of the photographer's practice in the context of modern warfare. The role of both professional photojournalist and amateur photographer-soldier and (to a lesser extent) photographer-civilian are considered in all their opportunities and constraints, biases and relationships to fact. Stallabrass and others establish the Vietnam War as a historical counterpoint to the contemporary wars in Iraq. In the former era, the photograph is seen as a vehicle of social change and anti-war sentiment in the hands of photojournalists (see the interview with Philip Jones Griffiths) and a problematic, but relatively private trophy in the hands of soldiers. Whereas in the present Middle East conflicts, the volume, and speed and scope of dissemination of war photography is unprecedented and there is a sea change in terms of its use, trustworthiness and impact, from magazine to blog, jacket pocket to cell phone message.

Memory of Fire, by Julian Stallabrass. Published by Photoworks, 2013.
Memory of Fire, by Julian Stallabrass. Published by Photoworks, 2013.

The book looks closely at the practice of embedding photojournalists within Coalition military units in Iraq. The fundamental pros/cons are considered by Stallabrass and photographers who've had this experience, including Rita Leistner and Ashley Gilbertson. They question whether a system that on one hand offers relatively protected access to spectacular events of war may also encourage an overly sympathetic depiction and a necessarily narrow perspective. Alternatively, while working independently may allow for a broader (darker) depiction, inclusive of the point of view of civilians or resistance fighters, they concede that it also, through insufficient safety or funding is increasingly less likely to happen at all. Leistner, who has worked both independently and with a US Army unit, is thoughtful about how her civilian subjects perceive an embedded photographer – whether as a complicit, intrusive extension of the military itself, a reassuring, autonomous witness or some other complicated iteration thereof. Trust takes on a different meaning when a subject's participation is not voluntary, and in this examination of war photography there is an interesting contrast with the "embedded" social documentary projects of Gordon Parks or Nan Goldin. Coco Fusco and other contributors also look at the complicity and overt participation of the soldier-photographer in the arena of torture, including the use of female sexual aggression as one of its modes.


Memory of Fire, by Julian Stallabrass. Published by Photoworks, 2013.
Memory of Fire, by Julian Stallabrass. Published by Photoworks, 2013.

The 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial was comprised of ten exhibitions among other events, and Stallabrass and his fellow contributors to Memory of Fire also consider the museum display of war photography. Stallabrass's qualms about the curatorial process of aestheticizing and arranging difficult images of death and destruction echo the companion issues of historical staging of battlefield corpses and cannonballs as well as the military's contemporary staging of entire wartime events – the crafting of shock and awe moments where photojournalists and reporters are given a protected, controllable front row view. An essay by Sarah James calls war photography intended for museum display, by artists such as Simon Norfolk and Sophie Ristelhueber, a "medium of the aftermath." The temporal detachment of such photography finds an alternative in the spatial divide of Trevor Paglen's work taken via special lens from a great distance of hidden military sites. War photography is also discussed relative to the sublime landscape tradition, given the "unfathomable, awe-inspiring and horrific nature of today's globalized, technologized warfare." Also fascinating is the book's examination of the ramifications of the current capacity for near instantaneous global transmission and sharing of photographs – for both the professionals and so many amateurs armed with cell phone cameras (see Geert van Kesteren's book, Baghdad Calling). There are many timely resonances between the content of Memory of Fire and current media culture (the recent dismissal of the entire photography staff of the Chicago Sun Times among them); it is a well-considered, often stirring take on not just war photography, but the evolving, and arguably fraught, state of photojournalism in the twenty-first century.—KAREN JENKINS

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KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.

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