If it is true that history repeats itself – first tragically, and then farcically – the implications are not good for the legions of civilian combatants whose weekends are devoted to the faithful re-enactment of battles and military manoeuvres. Judging by the work of photographer Jim Naughten, currently on show in New York’s Klompching gallery, tragicomedy stalks the latter-day gunners, Cossacks, Panzermen and Home Guard.
WW1 British soldier ©Jim Naughten
Naughten worked for two years in southeast England, picturing the role players as they posed for him in a small wedding tent that functioned as a mobile studio. They appear one by one – photographed square-on or oblique, three quarter length - against a neutral backdrop onto which they appear to cast the hint of an airbrushed shadow. They are, then, removed from the field. Incongruously deprived of incident and context, the pictures force attention onto the uniforms, faces, and demeanour of the participants, whose attention to period detail is made manifest. The tunics and webbing, boots and breeches, insignia and accessories all look, to the untrained eye at least, to be historically faithful.
Red Cross Nurse ©Jim Naughten
By definition, of course, their battles and military operations are exercises in a specific form of anachronism - sanitised, secure, and ideologically somnolent. Put another way, not all that is historical qualifies for recreational re-creation. Sometimes history has not been well enough rehearsed. When the Bolsheviks re-staged a heroic ‘storming’ of the Winter Palace, a mere three years after the considerably less dramatic occupation of 1917, there were pressing contests still to be fought. And such were the enduring issues and stakes of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike that Jeremy Deller’s 2001 re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave reportedly threatened to result in real, unchoreographed violence.
SS Obeerschrfuhrer ©Jim Naughten
So it is significant that Naughten’s ersatz troops are all too young to have witnessed the events they playfully fabricate; for despite their commitment to re-living the past, surely only a degree of wilful historical amnesia could legitimise the leisurely use of the badges, decorations and cap skulls of the SS. Naughten’s work raises but does not explore such issues. Indeed in an interview last year he made clear that, “We met plenty of characters, as you can imagine and it was particularly strange seeing people from all over the world dressing as Nazis. I knew from the outset that I didn’t want to get involved in the debate, at least not with this project. I love the fact that questions are raised but I do not attempt to answer them. The German uniforms still retain an extraordinary ‘power’.”
Soviet advance (detail) ©Jim Naughten
Naughten describes the project as ‘documentary portraiture,’ but that term perhaps belies the work's convincing and astute fusion of the 'straight' and the rehearsed. The strikingly frozen arrested poses, the evidently ‘unreal’ backdrops, the studio lighting and controlled drained palette all position the images in the terrain that lies between the mediated and the direct. The notion of documentary is pushed even further in the elaborate, grand scale, choreographed pictures of war games in progress. Here, Naughten’s post-production work enables him to place carefully posed studio shots of individuals into previously photographed landscapes. The resulting staged vistas are compellingly detailed, assiduous and mannered fictions. Fraudulent even - but what better way to picture the might of the Red Army, dressed for a Russian winter, as it advances on a hazy summer afternoon across a field in the Garden of England.
Jim Naughten's book, Re-enactors, is available to purchase in the Foto8 online shop.
Re-enactors is on at Klompching gallery in Brooklyn, NY until 18 December.