Phil Nesmith’s Baghdad
© Phil Nesmith
Tim Atherton has mixed feelings Phil Nesmith’s My Baghdad ferrotypes. (See the gallery “My Iraq” and P.N’s blog ). If I understand him correctly, he feels that the use of the alternative process makes us give the pictures more attention, and makes us think about war photography in a way that other contemporary war images do not. However, he’s not sure if the pictures would otherwise stand up if they were printed “straight” on bw paper. Nesmith on his part notes that he wanted to comment on the similarity of all wars by making objects that connect the present with the 1860s and 1880s. Nesmith apparently developed this project after returning from Iraq and used images he had made digitally in Iraq to produce the ferrotypes. Atherton wants to know just what is signalled by the use of the alternative process. Nesmith has an earlier, small series of tintypes called “Back Then” that is very self consciously nostalgic and intended to create a connection between the past we imagine through old pictures and a present that Nesmith remakes through a nostalgic lens. My Baghdad is a kind of next step for Nesmith, developing those ideas using idioms of war photography.
The medium in this case is clearly a large part of the message. The medium itself, the ferrotype process, is deployed as a sign as much as anything that is represented in the pictures; it’s the kind of sign that’s sharpened to a point. Nesmith’s work is quoting not war photography but images associated with war. Atherton hits the nail on the head when he notes that one of Nesmith’s pictures cannot but call up the movie poster of Apocalypse Now , and that this reference is so overflowing with connotations that you don’t even know where to begin.
© Phil Nesmith
But the rhetoric of photojournalism includes quotation and paraphrasing; new images often make their point by speaking to and about older ones, including all that is available in visual traditions. Nesmith’s work is documentary work that circulates in galleries, his work is not emphatically a report, and it calls on the viewer to begin with all of the formal properties of these pieces. These characterizations could all be applied to photojournalism but they usually aren’t, or they aren’t the first considerations. Nesmith is explicitly mixing genres (they aren’t exactly genres- but for lack of a better word) One genre is the contemporary use of alternative processes which fall so easily into the category of art; they are ethereal and evocative, they are explicitly referencing multiple traditions and histories, they address the kinds of themes that art can be good at, can be good for: linking memory and history on a canvas that demands an individual encounter with it. The other genre is of course war photojournalism. It can be all of the things that I’ve just ascribed to the artistic use of alternative processes, but it is expected to follow a different mandate and to call up different questions.
No single image made me stop hard, but I like the body of work. Many of the images are easy to read and seem to be chosen to exploit characteristics of the process. The pictures feel dusty and broken, and ne of the powerful feelings I experienced looking at these online (I wonder how they are in person) is that by calling up Mathew Brady and Roger Fenton, they seem to say that this war like all others will one day be something in the past with its textures, emotions and particularities inscribed but somewhat inscrutable. I think this work is strong as photojournalism because of the kinds of questions that it provokes even though it circulates in contexts that do not ask the work to make the kinds of claims or live up to the kinds of expectations that we have for/ of photojournalism. It draws the viewer in with the considerations that we expect to give art but the story it has to tell is something about Nesmith, something about Iraq, and something about photographing war. It’s thoughtful, if sometimes a bit muddy and over-referencing, and if the alternative process is a gimmick, it is at least thoughtfully applied.