This rather startling magenta pink is the result of using infrared surveillance film to take ordinary photos. It’s the work of someone called Richard Mosse, and yesterday I was at a study day in which we saw two exhibitions that concerned themselves with the subject of war and genocide. This isn’t my usual cup of tea when it comes to photography; I don’t really need it pointed out to me that there’s a lot of misery out there in the world and I’d prefer to be reminded about the better qualities of humankind – it’s easy to forget about those.
But anyway, that’s what we went to see. Thing is, these images left me untouched and decidedly bored, which is not (I’m fairly sure) the effect they were supposed to have. Other people seemed to be getting a lot out of them, but after five minutes I was standing there wondering when the coffee was coming. We had a little discussion over the coffee when we eventually got some, and after some mild internal panic about whether or not I could think of anything sensible to say, I managed to pull something out of the hat. In case you’re interested, it went like this: the predominant pink colour is Barbie pink and reminds you of girls, and dolls, and toys and Walt Disney, and as this is so very opposite to the masculine world of war depicted in the images, it sets up a certain visual tension. I knew my philosophy degree would come in useful some day.
But you know, I don’t really think this; I don’t think these photos worked. Certainly not for me. I felt nothing looking at them, nothing at all, except a desire to move on to something more interesting. Janet made a good point over the coffee table – ‘why’, she said, ‘is this pink colour not just a gimmick? If we submitted something like this for an assignment, we’d get hammered and accused of just that.’ Gareth looked thoughtful. ‘Well’, he said carefully, ‘Richard Mosse is an established and famous photographer and doesn’t have to explain himself; you’re just a student.’ Those weren’t his words, you understand, and he’s considerably better at being tactful than this would suggest, but that was the gist. ‘And it’s not really a gimmick’, he went on, ‘because he’s making a point by using film that played a role in the conflict itself’. Ok, there’s a bit of cleverness there, I guess – but only a bit.
Upstairs was another exhibition by Simon Norfolk, called For Most of It I Have No Words – brilliant title. He was looking at various sites throughout the world where genocide had taken place, and photographing the traces left there. These images were stunning in themselves, but more than that, they made me feel something. One that touched me was a simple image of some stone steps, with the light coming down from above and highlighting the indentations in the steps made by thousands of feet over time. So what, you might think, until you read the caption and understood that these were prison steps at Auschwitz. Photographically, you’re at the bottom of the steps looking up; standing in darkness and seeing light above, but the tragedy is that you may move up into that light never to come down again. The history of the place is held in the stone of the steps, and it’s very moving.
I’m hopelessly biased, I know. I’ve said before that I need an image to be visually satisfying in order to pull me in. This is something so fundamental to me that I know I’m never going to change in this respect, no matter how much art education I’m subjected to. I loved Simon Norfolk’s photos, loved them. I thought they were beautiful in themselves, and profoundly moving when read in conjunction with the captions. They’re quite old now, in art terms, and are much ‘safer’ than the Mosse images. I’m aware of this, and I like to be challenged, and I’ll do my best to appreciate something that doesn’t have immediate appeal. But Norfolk’s photos are what I relate to; they make me feel something while Mosse’s left me unmoved. Mosse’s had shock value and I sometimes think that a lot of modern art relies on this for any effect it has. Norfolk’s were quieter, subtler, and to my mind all the more powerful for that. ‘Ah well’, said Fiona as we walked out, ‘it’d be a boring world if we all thought the same.’ And so it would.
Both Richard Mosse and Simon Norfolk are on exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, until 10th June.