Collected Shadows: The Archive of Modern Conflict / Reviewed by John McDougall / 19.02.18
Sitting in Edinburgh’s Stills, surrounded by some two hundred images of varying ages and styles and all taken from the vast collection held by the Archive of Modern Conflict, I find myself drawn to The Holy Bible.
Broomberg and Chanarin’s 2013 collaboration with the Archive, a standard Bible containing underlined passages and pasted-in images of aggression, sex and violence is perhaps more pointed than the selected images which surround it, but it serves as an indicator of the menace which bubbles just below the surface of this exhibition. The Bible as a vessel for their message provides an illustration of humanity’s ability to follow creation with forms of destruction so ubiquitous that they become almost banal, a warning that we must pay close attention if we are to follow and change the patterns.
Set in a swirling salon style hanging arrangement upon dark purple walls, Collected Shadows is an unsettling prospect which holds a similarly complicated pattern of technological advancement and social destruction. A stitched, panoramic image of the moon created by the Soviet Space Agency sits alongside similarly created panoramic images of London and Marrakesh as though claiming the moon’s surface as part of mankind’s territory a full three years prior to the Apollo 11’s successful landing there. On the opposite wall sits a series of photographs by an unknown German photographer depicting the destruction left in the wake of Hitler’s forces as they invaded Russia during World War II. Directly above them, as if by way of punctuation a mushroom cloud erupts from a French nuclear test on the island of Tahiti in 1970. Yet none of this seems shocking, at least in the immediate way we often associate with such imagery. Instead there is a sense of banality, of the repeated rhythms of highs and lows which make up human existence; it is the slow realisation of our interconnected realities that the exhibition reveals to its viewer.
Collected Shadows is in some ways a history of photography, which in turn becomes a document of our need to portray every element of our time on earth. Moments of wonder such as Frederik Carl Størmer’s 1920’s studies of the Northern Lights or personal emotion as portrayed in Ema Spencer’s 1902 cyanotype ‘On The Longed For Hobby Horse’ begin to mesh together with depictions of a world record parachute jump attempt in the 1930’s, photographed by Willi Ruge. The moments of happiness, bravery and achievement creating an emotional foil which breaks through the cold stare of the mechanical lens allowing for a human experience of a Hindu cremation, or judicial evidence of a Belgian crime scene.
Over a century of cultural, political and personal moments are mapped out in Collected Shadows: The Archive of Modern Conflict, creating tangible links between seemingly unrelated sets of contexts and circumstances with each event, imagined or otherwise, becoming a part of the other. It is a surprising effect that springs from the darkness of conflict and destruction, that although we are able to commit untold horrors upon ourselves and our environment, we also become connected in moments of joy and wonder.
– reviewed by John McDougall
Collected Shadows: The Archive of Modern Conflict continues at Stills Centre for Photography, Edinburgh until 8th April 2018.
Stills Centre for Photography
23 Cockburn Street
Scotland EH1 1BP