This exhibition that is accompanied by a catalogue which has been shortlisted for an award in Paris, is being held at The Photographer’s Gallery in London (among other places). The relationship between photography and science has interested me of late; this exhibition is more concerned with forensics as well as the power of the photograph to tell the truth.
War From Above: the section that shows photographs from the First World War that were made for reconnaissance purposes
I arrive early before the crowds and while entry is still free. Reading the catalogue and watching a video in which the curator who is from Le Bal in Paris is quite a good introduction. This exhibition is as much about the unreliability of photographic evidence as the use of photographs in criminal cases and elsewhere as testaments to the truth of what happened. Photographs can tell a story but their ability to prove that story is circumstantial rather than authorative.
There are a number of different presentations within this exhibition, all of which give a different interpretation of the exhibition’s theme which is an interesting examination of the veracity of photography.
images from the Alphonse Bertillon collection
The first one that is visible on entry concerns Alphonse Bertillon who laid down ground rules in the early days of forensic photography; there was a certain way to photograph a corpse that involved a camera with a wide-angled lens being held directly above the body and a series of measurements being made. The photographs on show are quite gory, typical of much that follows in this exhibition. Knowing these photographs are not staged but actual records of murder scenes adds a sensational element that the viewer might not enjoy yet possibly be fascinated by.
The next section involves the work of Rodolphe A. Reiss, another pioneer of police photography, who made meticulous photographs of possible evidence such as finger prints. His work reveals precise attention to detail which rather characterises the clock-making Swiss.
images about the Turin Shroud
The Turin Shroud is the one exhibit I had heard of. The evidence is impressive particularly in the way a camera has been used to draw out evidence that the eye was not able to perceive. However, it was carbon dating that exposed the religious fakery behind this “miracle” by dating the cloth to about 1,000 years later than Christ who many hoped was the figure depicted.
Images of Conviction: First World War aerial photographs
War Seen from Above is a series of photographs showing the destruction wrought by Allied bombing during the First World War when such reconnaissance began in 1914, as well as some more recent examples. At this time, photography was “considered objective, exact and immediate” in regard to military manoeuvres yet the photographs especially those from 1914 seem very difficult to interpret.
The great terror in the USSR consists of projected portrait photos of a few of the over 1 million people who died under Stalin between August 1937 and November 1938. One cannot help but question the authenticity of these photographs yet their impact is unavoidable.
Images of Conviction: The Great Terror in the USSR section
The Nuremberg Trials are shown in a booth which features movie footage from the time. Another harrowing experience that brings home the horror of the Second World War.
There is quite a lot in this exhibition shown about current problems in the Middle East which includes an attack on Gaza, the persecution of Kurds as well as a drone strike on Pakistan.
Mengele’s Skull: photographic document of reconstruction of face from skeleton
There is an interesting review in Time Out magazine by Ananda Pellerin which states that the exhibition relies a lot on the effect of it’s harrowing nature rather than a conceptual understanding of what is being shown. I am not sure I agree! Certainly the show is harrowing, the film of the Nuremberg Trails is one example as is the exhumed skeleton of the world’s most wanted Nazi criminal Josef Mengele who died of natural causes before he could be brought to justice. However, there is a lot of text to accompany the photographic imagery as well as the catalogue which contains a couple of essays.
What perhaps muffles one’s appreciation of this exhibition is the political import certainly of later work as we are again reminded of what today is so often in the newspapers notably the war against IS and the problems of what was once known as Palestine. While this is all grist to the mill, my interest is to see photography and an examination of the photographic process as well as the way that photography can be used as evidence today, rather than political arguments; this exhibition does that rather well.