Dead bodies on the street, photographed from a car. The maker of the photograph cannot be revealed. Victims are mostly kidnapped and then murdered. Bodies are thrown on the street as warning or terror. Some militias prohibit family members to pick up the dead bodies. Sometimes it proves be a booby trap.
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Frank Hurley at Charleston

13.10.08 | Richard Howells

It came as quite a surprise to see Frank Hurley’s images of World War One hanging at Charleston, the home of the Bloomsbury set in Sussex. In many ways, Charleston was the antithesis of the 1914-1918 war, yet at the same time owed its existence –or at least its Bloomsbury significance- to it.

While young men in their millions were dying in horrific circumstances in the trenches across the English Channel, Charleston was a seeming oasis of aesthetic calm, artistic sensibility, intellectual endeavour, and human value. A farmhouse in the countryside near the village of Firle, Charleston was also a balm to wartime London. From 1916, it became the home of painters Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, together with associated children, friends and lovers in sometimes baffling and certainly bohemian combinations. Among the Bloomsbury luminaries who frequented Charleston were Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey.

But the year 1916 had a double significance –this was the year that the British government introduced subscription for military service for all men aged between 18 and 40 years old. Clive Bell was exempt on medical grounds and Roger Fry was a Quaker, but Duncan Grant and his lover David Garnett became conscientious objectors. After both a tribunal and an appeal, they were eventually exempted military service on condition that they worked on the land. Virginia Woolf, already resident in Sussex, recommended Charleston to Vanessa Bell. Farm-work was found for both Grant and Garnett, and the house rapidly became the centre of Bloomsbury life outside London. Grant continued to live there until his death in 1978.

This sense of context adds a symmetrical poignancy to Hurleys’ wartime photographs: they were everything Charleston was not, yet at the same time are testament to its raison d’être. But the irony of the setting should not be allowed to eclipse the images themsleves, as they are clearly worthy of exhibition in their own right, especially as part of a Biennial dedicated to memory and images of war. Hurley, an Australian, is not very widely known in the UK, so this exhibition dedicated solely to his work is particularly welcome. It works well in the Charleston space (not the main house but in an associated gallery), and the information supplied by curators adds to their interest without overwhelming them.
 

 

Looking at the images, one is drawn to a number of symmetries and tensions in addition to their location at Charleston. For example, many of the photographs may reasonably be described as “beautiful” despite the awfulness of their subject matter. This is something that critics of the medium have sometimes (mistakenly) claimed that photography is unable to do. It’s a creative dichotomy of content and form with which contemporaries such as Sebastiao Salgado, for example, are able to challenge the viewer. Hurley is also able to unsettle the comfortable viewing positions of 1914-1918 by showing not just the gallant Australian soldiers, but also the enemy dead. This he does, for example, in an image from 1917, underlining the complexity of the issue with the title “The Price of Victory”. In 1968, Don McCullen was able to photograph “Fallen North Vietnamese Soldier with his Personal Effects Scattered by Body-plundering Soldiers”, but public sensibilities had changed during (and partially because of) the Vietnam War, and a sympathetic depiction of the “enemy” (with implied criticism of one’s own allies) was possible if not universally popular. During the considerably more Chauvinistic First World War, however, these aspects of Hurley’s work must have taken considerable courage to present in public.

Importantly, as curator Julian Stallabrass makes clear in his supporting material, many of Hurley’s images (such as “Over the Top” from 1918) are in fact montages: composite prints of various negatives, thus not strictly reportage or “documentary” photographs in the simple sense. They involve much more creativity and aesthetic judgement; they are works which meld the raw material of reality with the compositional imagination. They are not literal but creative memories of the war.

Of course, we know that all photography is to some extent authored, interpretive, mediated and creative, but this composite work is much more so than is often thought appropriate for the historical record. It certainly struck Hurley’s bosses in the Australian government as deeply worrisome, especially for an official war artist. Yet there had at the same time been a long tradition of war artists working in fine art, especially painting, within which authorship creativity and interpretation were considered both acceptable and inevitable. The artists of the Bloomsbury set would not for a moment have considered otherwise.

In this context, Frank Hurley: Photographing the Great War serves therefore as articulate evidence not only of the battlefield, but perhaps more so of changing attitudes towards war and tensions between memory, art and photography as visual evidence.

Richard Howells

Richard Howells is Reader in Cultural and Creative Industries at King’s College, London.