Tate Modern’s current exhibition focuses on the passing of time and the photographic charting of conflict over the past 150 years. Hannah Dunleavy took a look.
Leading off with a spiel about Kurt Vonnegut’s decision to never look back after completing Slaughterhouse Five, the Tate Modern’s new exhibition seeks to do just that, gathering photographs taken after various conflicts – starting from the immediate aftermath, to those taken in the days, months, years and decades that follow.
In truth, it works better in some places than others; in general, the closer to the events they were shot – the destruction wrought on Dresden, Nagasaki and Rheims, for example – the more evocative they are.
First among these is Don McCullin’s Shell-Shocked US Marine, taken in Vietnam in 1968. Even its familiarity does not reduce the impact of standing in front of his thousand-yard stare and feeling him look straight through you. (There are some other excellent McCullins from a divided Berlin elsewhere in the exhibition and together they are a reminder of what a remarkable photographer he is.)
Inevitably, as time moves on, and life returns to some degree of normality, the need to know what many of the photographs are actually depicting becomes paramount. And, if the exhibition is busy, a bottleneck forms around the information points, making it tempting to drift on without ever knowing what it was you were looking at.
In some cases this would be fatal. Shot at Dawn, a series by Chloe Dewe Matthews depicting the spots where the lives of deserters were snuffed out in the First World War, are, without context, modest landscapes at best.
A few pictures suffer from their positioning, including some that are either too small or too high, or too many, which is clearly symbolic but doesn’t encourage much further exploration.
Most impactful are the shots of people, particularly a section on Susan Meiselas’ iconic and much copied photograph of a Nicaraguan Sandinista throwing a Molotov cocktail. A documentary, on a TV frustratingly positioned near the entrance of this small section, tells the story of a Meiselas’ project to identify the people in her extraordinary pictures of the conflict, hang those images in the exact locations they were taken and talk to them about their feelings. It’s a huge rush of humanity that leaves you looking at other photos on display and saying, “Yep, that’s an exterior of a concrete bunker that’s no longer used” and moving on.
There are also some gems, including pictures of the reconstruction of the South after the American Civil War. One shot of Atlanta is fascinating, not for showing what had been lost, but for how one-horse-town what remained seemed.
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.