Dresden Richard Peter Dresden After Allied Raids Germany 1945 © SLUB Dresden / Deutsche Fotothek / Richard Peter, sen.

A thought-provoking exhibition at Tate Modern uses photography to remember 150 years of our war-torn past. Review by Mike Quille

What happens to memories of devastation and war, over time? How do we deal with the pain, the loss, the scars that such conflicts leave behind?

The photography exhibition currently showing at Tate Modern addresses these questions through an original and highly effective approach. Instead of simply displaying chronologically photographs of the many dreadful wars, massacres and other destructive attacks on people and property that have happened over the last century and a half, the exhibition is ordered through the act of looking backwards at those events.

So near the beginning we encounter a blown-up print of Don McCullin’s famous image of the shell-shocked American soldier in Vietnam, taken straight after battle. Then come images made a few days after battles, such as used cannonballs scattered across empty roads in the Crimea, from the 1850s, and images of Communards from 1871, probably the first time – but certainly not the last – when photographs were used to help victorious reactionary powers identify and execute defeated revolutionaries.

Then come images made weeks and months later, such as a series of photographs of the bombed-out buildings and cathedral of Reims, and other documents of the damage done during the First World War. These are echoed and extended by the 1949 images of the results of the saturation bombing of Dresden. Gradually, the exhibition becomes richer and more complex as it develops, making us aware both of the cumulative growth of destruction and damage across the world as history moved forward in the twentieth century, alongside the persistence of grief and loss from looking back at the century’s conflicts.

Then there are images by photographers and artists made long after the events they depict. Here we find images of the mass graves of Spanish Republicans, discovered 50 years after the Civil War, and of Holocaust survivors in the Ukraine, taken in the last few years. Like so many of the photographs in the exhibition, the survivors’ smiling faces say more about what is not in the image than what is there.

Finally, there are some eerie landscape photographs, taken in 2013, of the places in France where shellshocked British soldiers – including many teenagers – were executed for desertion and cowardice in 1915. These men, you realise, were just like Don McCullin’s traumatised US marine.

For some events, like the devastations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, there are examples across time, ranging from the billowing, mushrooming clouds in photos taken twenty minutes after the bomb was dropped, to haunting images of blinded and deformed children taken in the 1950s, or of a watch that stopped when the bomb was dropped, found and photographed in the 70s.

And in some parts of the world, conflicts seems to have been relentlessly present. One series of photographs from Afghanistan shows historical layer upon layer of ruination, damage and death, inflicted by various invaders at different times, like different strata of rock.

So the device of looking backwards works brilliantly, not only not to evoke the horror of the original event, but to show the years and years of trauma and suffering that follow such conflicts, and the ongoing absences, wounds and scars in landscapes, minds and memories. It thus overcomes one of the limitations of photographs, which for all their potential power are often timebound, freezing history into particular images, with no past or future.

It also works as a powerful reminder that the extraordinary destructiveness which the richer nations have unleashed on peoples and landscapes across the world over the last 150 years. In so many of the images in the exhibition there is a subtle but constant, nagging sense of human loss and emotional pain, a ghostly ache from all the torments, scars and wounds left by conflicts and atrocities.

The sombre and meditative tone of the exhibition is only interrupted by a kind of sideshow in one of the galleries, which has been overcrowded with irrelevant military curios and memorabilia, presented with little or no artistic purpose by the Archive of Modern Conflict.

Apart from that distraction, this is a provocative, moving and brilliantly arranged exhibition, whose images will linger long in your mind after leaving. It is honest, human remembrance of conflict of a kind we needed more of last year, during the WW1 commemorations.

Afterwards, I walked along the banks of the Thames, then crossed the river and walked up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, through one of the most militaristic collections of public artworks in the world. Statues, busts and plaques are everywhere, all singing the same hymn of glory and praise to the ‘valour’ and ‘heroism’ of the violent generals and admirals who led British suppressions of rebellion, ordered imperialistic adventures, and organised global conflict.

What a strange and striking contrast there is, between the art in the exhibition, produced freely by photographers and artists responding compassionately to the terrible suffering resulting from human conflict, and the public art commissioned by the rich and powerful to glorify the carnage they have caused.

Conflict, Time, Photography is on at Tate Modern, London, till March 2015. Tickets range from £11.30 to £14.50.

Mike Quille

Mike Quille had a long career in the Probation Service and is now a poet, freelance journalist and political activist living on Tyneside.

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