Book Review Hello Camel By Christoph Bangert Reviewed by George Slade "The two-page, full-bleed spreads teem with surprising, unanticipated details: travel posters offering vicarious transport, usually to more aquatic climes; a cardboard, plastic-lined German toilet, situated in the middle of nowhere[...]"
Reviewed by George Slade
Photographs by Christoph Bangert.
Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany, 2016. 96 pp., 40 color illustrations, 9½x13¼".
War Porn (reviewed here by Karen Jenkins, August 7, 2014)? In case you didn’t see it, the earlier volume features a selection of, as Jenkins put it, “the most horrific images he has made, on the criterion of past omission rather than aesthetic judgment”—transgressive images, in other words, that defy the norms of contemporary visual culture, hyper-vivid images with a hint of the taboo. War Porn is, as Jenkins writes, a “deeply personal book.” Yet one might, at the same time, say that the images are completely hollowed out or depersonalized; Bangert acknowledges that he can’t remember taking some of them, “as if someone had pushed an erase button in my head” to obliterate the moment of exposure and deny the impulse that led to it.
Hello Camel, by contrast, features a lot of humor, a quality most civilized people would never assign to War Porn. There’s an Elliott Erwitt/Burk Uzzle/Jeff Mermelstein kind of absurdity here, based on anomalies and irony, on situations that seem impossible—yet there they are. “I’ve never laughed as hard as I did in war,” Bangert writes. “Never before or since have I witnessed anything as absurd or strange as armed conflict.” Soldiers standing in the middle of a marijuana field blowing up an abandoned building, the cloud of which might afford a contact high like none other. Two photographs later, a casual cluster of warriors and a pair of legs attached—one assumes, given that these are the non-bloody pictures—to a body shooting in prone position off stage right, the desert setting of this firing range like a scene from Star Wars, complete with a decrepit vehicle on the horizon. In the photograph it’s a burned-out Russian armored vehicle, but the resemblance to a Bantha-II cargo skiff hovering over the Great Pit of Carkoon is remarkable. (Yes, I had to Google that reference.)
The two-page, full-bleed spreads teem with surprising, unanticipated details: travel posters offering vicarious transport, usually to more aquatic climes; a cardboard, plastic-lined German toilet, situated in the middle of nowhere, or what appears to be nowhere, which might actually be somewhere in the disputed territories of Afghanistan (the Bundeswehr, Bangert writes in his pithy end captions, “might be the only force on earth that brings toilets to a battle”); a life-size plastic palm tree and Barbie-sized camel figurines; satellite dishes and a rotary dial telephone; a tattooed female soldier on the edge of a swimming pool wearing what Bangert says “may be the first and only bikini ever worn in Southern Afghanistan”; an Iraqi human pyramid pages after an odd pyramid of five rifles, what appears to be the centerpiece of several hundred parade-resting soldiers’ attention in the midst of an airfield.
Throughout, an undeniable scent of transience prevails. Who wants to stay here? What’s the point of all this energy? What is war good for?
On one level, these photographs are as psychologically and emotionally empty as those in War Porn are full to bursting. Concave and cool, as opposed to super-heated convex. But a side-by-side viewing of these two books suggests that they have a great deal in common, and that their design reinforces the nature of the images.
Both books highlight incongruity. It is as hard to rationalize quixotic figures directing tank traffic, peering into rifle range targets, or selling chances to a Fourth of July rubber-duck pond as it is to comprehend the unrelenting violence enacted upon the bodies of War Porn. There is yin and yang to this equation of war. One type of absurdity flows into the other. Remember, tragedy carried to extremes is melodrama, while comedy taken too far is tragic. Bangert serves us well by having produced both volumes.
As presented in the book, War Porn’s images are scarcely large enough to fill two palms. Given the subject matter, one might be grateful for the reserve. Being twice as tall and wide, the new book has and fully utilizes four times the picture area. Although Bangert’s horizontals are laid out one per spread in both books, in the earlier volume they are framed with white margins, as though isolating viewers from the gory reality of those images. In Hello Camel, the images spill out from all sides, flowing into the space of your lap or your desk. But there is something arid about the work, niched as it is in the calculated, mental realm of the ironic. There’s as much distance in this work as there is intense presence in the other.
Bangert closes his introduction with an admission. “The pictures in this book,” he writes, “are not only documents that I hope will give you a glimpse of the profound absurdity that is war, but they are also my own personal cry for normalcy in times of chaos. Ultimately, they are a testimony of my own survival.” As much as the photographs may resemble those of more urbane image-makers, they still reflect an undeniable personal commitment. This is the central shared truth of Bangert’s books. —GEORGE SLADE
GEORGE SLADE, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant. He can be found online at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/
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