Carl De Keyser’s new book Trinity, with its allusions to religion, art and the atomic bomb, brings together many of the themes and concerns of his whole career. While not a straightforward retrospective, it can be seen as a kind of culmination of his output to date, as it brings together much of the territory of his earlier books – religion, conflict, power, spectacle, differing political cultures – within a formal strategy he has developed over a long time: medium format with flash, and the panoramic format, all in colour in this case. Indeed, one of the key images, and De Keyser’s self-confessed catalyst for the book, dates from 1991. A tremendous picture, of fake Roman legionaries parading in Texas on a float sponsored by Coca-Cola, it displays all the pomp and circumstance of Ancient Rome, undercut by the iconography of modern consumerism. The claims of this image underpin that of the whole book, that it is a critique of the forces that shape our world, and have done so since time immemorial, the shadowy nexus of power – politics, big business, imperialism, religion and the ways in which they have exploited and devoured the weak and the poor, the populace.
While such a grand ambition is to be admired, the question is whether or not Trinity is successful in this – is its message clear enough or argued convincingly enough? And this is where, for me, the project fails. Undoubtedly there are many fine images in the book, which individually work extremely well as part of the argument. And each individual section has something interesting to say about a part of global politics. But collectively, the three sections of the book don’t really cohere.
The first chapter, Tableaux d’histoire, deals with the society of spectacle, a world of surfaces and illusions, where fakery and performance are preferred over substance and truth. The references to the history paintings of the 18th and 19th century are effective, by turning his back on the main event and focusing on the polis that both enacts and attends the spectacle, yet affording them the scale and formal respect of the larger format camera, with is extraordinary detail and depth to the image. This section mixes party politics with religion, the showmanship of military recruiting with the excesses of consumerism. Again, although there are many memorable photographs, on closer inspection there are many memorable omissions as well, and the fact that there are series of images from the same events – several from the Clinton inauguration, several from the Yeltsin elections, several from the 30th anniversary of the UN – undermines the claims that these are universal themes, the ground DeKeyser covers is just too limited to make the scale of claims he is intending.
This becomes the problem with the second part of the book, which deals with Tableaux de guerre. When you position something as a critique of the state of the world no less, the inclusion of one example and the omission of another become extremely significant. So the viewer asks, why Indonesia and why not Darfur, why Kashmir and not Iraq? And the inhabitants of the panoramas seem detached and powerless to affect their environments, able only to walk past the facades of destruction like passers-by to a narrative that they cannot control.
For me the final chapter, Tableaux de politiques, is perhaps the most successful, offering an intimate viewpoint onto the internal machinations of contemporary politics in three competing cultures, the US of pork barrel politics, the EU of wrangling bureaucracy and the China of one party rule. There are many wonderfully insightful and witty images in this section. The most recent images in the book, they mark something of a departure for De Keyser: shot on digital with no flash they are subtler and more gentle than the earlier super-saturated work, and are a more sophisticated and nuanced investigation of the scene.
Overall then, Trinity has much to commend it in the way that individual images from De Keysers’ sharp satirical eye drive forward his critique, but the sum of the collective parts is sadly less than its constituents. Perhaps a trilogy of three separate smaller books would have been better than the Trinity of one.