I meet fellow student, Stan Dickinson, in the Luxemborg Gardens; after a drink we walk over to an exhibition he has noticed at the eastern entrance. Called “Fields of Battle; Lands of Peace” is a group of large colour prints that hang high from the railings of the park, so high infact that the bottom of the photographs are level with one’s eyes. Is this conscious attempt to make one look up to the images and hence possibly encourage one to rever them or just keep them out of the way of prying fingers. It may of course have been a simple decision to keep them in the middle of the railings (they are equidistant from the top and the bottom) or might be related to the way the photographs have been hung.
The massive size of the prints is impressive yet one recalls the adjunctive “make the photograph big and then you can call it art!” In fact, these images do not seem very well crafted since the tones appear rather dull, partially a result of excessive contrast. This looks like work made by a large format camera with colour negative film. However, it might have been scanned for digital reproduction when colour castes particularly those of woodland scenes, could have been removed.
Of course, what is important here is not so much the aesthetics which tend to occupy a somewhat subservient place in photography, but the content of the images. Context is all important and the captioning essential to drawing out the meaning of the images.
The photographs illustrate places of importance during the First World War. Not only do captions explain this but there are even related photographs from the time printed much smaller and placed below their much larger relations.
We learn of mud that drowned both men and horses, a compass found in a wood that certified the death of an officer reported missing in action, trenches that still stand but are now engulfed in woodland, peacefully quiet landscape views where fierce and bloody battles were once fought, farmland where troops once battled now returned to proper use … I did not make a detailed account of the different kind of images used but the range is impressive as is the message of this exhibition which is perhaps not as straightforward as it purports to be.
Essentailly, it is remembering a war that was fought 100 years ago with the historical associations outweighing any anti-war rhetoric of which there is none other than the text detailing the kind of conditions that would have been suppressed during the time this war was fought. One is struck by the inherent beauty of these images in spite of the terrifying echoes they contain; the combination of these two qualities evokes the sublime.
Stan and I both agree about the poor look of the images. Is this making a statement of some kind? Can not the photographer be allowed to make his images a little seductive in spite of their content? Perhaps we are being discouraged from seeing these images as spectacles, from indulging in the unreal, when what is actually on show here is the horror of war and the return to peace.