Here you can see, as an installed artwork, the picture I showed you yesterday. So what did you make of this? What did it make you think about? How did it make you feel?
The first thing you should know about it is that it is an art piece, and it's totally contrived. It's by Eric Baudelaire, a young American artist who lives in works in Paris. It was shot in California, on a Hollywood backlot. All of the people in the picture are actors.
The title of the piece is "The Dreadful Details," dated last year. It's a diptych, more than six and a half by twelve feet in size, and was commissioned by France's Centre nationale des arts plastiques. Some of the inspiration for it comes from the American Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner: the depiction of the dead sniper under the wall at the left edge of the right half is an homage to Gardner's "Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter," also called "Sharpshooter's Last Sleep" ("Dead Confederate sharpshooter in the Devil's Den, Gettysburg, Pa."), and the picture's title comes from the caption to plate 36 in Gardner's Photography Sketchbook of the War, 1865-1866: "Such a picture conveys a useful moral: it shows the blank horror and reality of war, in opposition of its pageantry. Here are the Dreadful Details! Let them aid in preventing such another calamity falling upon the nation."
I should mention before going on that the diptych will be on view at the tenth "Mois de la Photo à Montreal," a photographic event running from September 6 to October 21 in Montreal. Selected photographers from all over the world will have their work shown at one of 27 exhibition sites.
I'm told that French art criticism doesn't translate terribly well, but the accompanying text on Eric Baudelaire's website, an essay called "The Fresco of Icons" by Pierre Zaoui, makes a persuasive case for its points. Although not nearly as bad as a lot of art crit I've read over the years, it does make use of some of the language of philosophy, which can make it seem like hard slogging. (I mean, really, how far can you trust a piece that begins by saying that the work of art "engages in a subterranean exchange with Gilles Deleuze"? Although maybe it does.)
If you've a will to, however, I encourage you to give Zaoui's essay a go; I found it very thought-provoking. Zaoui's central point is that "In a world submerged in images, art images can exist only through merciless battle with clichés," where "the term cliché must be taken seriously, in the sense of ready-made images, devoid of affect because they are already known and pre-digested." He points out that despite its currency, war photography never get at the essence of the experience of war, which is unknowable except through the experience—which then cannot be communicated. They (that is, the war photographs) are almost always about something surrounding battle, chiefly the preparations or the participants or the aftermath. I'd have to think more about this, but it seems provisionally true to me when I think about the most moving and distressing war photographs that I've seen. (Capa may be the big exception, although even his famous blurred D-Day shot is such a token that it amounts to something more like a symbol, and I think of David Douglas Duncan's War Without Heroes, a great book that's the very soul of "embeddedness," as another exception. What's probably true is that the immersion experience of war, its immediacy, confusion, and peril, is exactly the opposite of what photography allows, which is the contemplation of a moment out of context at a comfortable remove.)
In this context, images aren't just images—they call up all sorts of archetypes that we're already aware of, from Goya to Abu Graib, that serve to insulate us from the directness of new images. Zaoui's interpretation of what Baudelaire is saying is that only an art piece can successfully overcome all the clichés and become "just" an image of war, immediate and direct.
It's a novel claim*. But, in fact, that's how I experienced "The Dreadful Details" when I first saw it. So he may be right. The trouble, of course, is that now that I know what it is, I see it as a frieze of poses by actors, an elaborate set-piece, and as such it adds to the layers of clichés rather than cutting through them. But maybe that's the price to pay. At least it does so in a memorable way; this is one work of photographic artifice I'm unlikely to forget.
*At least in the realm of still photographs. We accept it naturally in the case of films, which however do have the means to provide far greater narrative capacity. Nobody watches, say, "Black Hawk Down" and complains that it's a recreation. It can still be a harrowing and moving experience.
Featured Comment by Alex a.k.a. Zenndott: "After looking at the enlarged image, I couldn't help but feel this is some kind of tableau vivant (a staged representation of an event in which a number of people don costumes, and pose together. This was a very popular form of entertainment in 18th and 19th century elite homes). It is too perfect: too neatly posed and shot. The subject matter is grim, but the image is strangely “clean.” Given the potential of digital manipulation, and the diffusion of many potential sources of imagery, perhaps we should now consider a new genre of photography: the tableau digitale, if you will (add a French-like accent to taste)."
Mike replies: A "tableau digitale"! Love it. Great coinage, Alex.