At Presentation House Gallery as part of the Capture Photography Festival until October 27
Collecting objects and images is one of humankind’s most enduring impulses. Even those among us who aren’t driven to amass great numbers of like things can still be fascinated by the what, how, and why of those who do. Often, collections reveal overarching themes or interests, although such themes may not be immediately apparent when you’re looking at the old, unusual, and often anonymous photographs in the Archive of Modern Conflict.
Based in London, U.K., and Toronto, the archive was originally focused on amateur or previously unseen photographs relating to the first and second world wars. The mandate was to collect alternatives to the officially sanctioned histories of 20th-century conflict. In recent years, yet still with the intention of bringing together overlooked or forgotten ways of telling the past, AMC “editors” Timothy Prus and Ed Jones have greatly expanded the scope of the archive—and have amassed some four million photographs. The evidence of the 172 works in Collected Shadows, on at Presentation House Gallery, is that the AMC now includes everything from early astronomical, ethnographic, and botanical photos, seemingly abstract studies of lentils or stucco made by Russian modernist painters, and images of raging fires and stormy seas, to records of scientific experiments, portraits of tribal shamans and ceremonialists, and ads for films and cigarettes. A few wartime photos are also on view, including aerial shots of bombed-out dams, ports, and railway lines, taken over Europe in the 1940s.
The archive publishes extensively and lends works to other venues, but does not possess its own exhibition space. The photos at PHG range across historical techniques as well as subject matter, and include albumen prints, salt prints, cyanotypes, and hand-tinted silver gelatin prints. Their installation suggests an attendance to ideas of the elemental—earth, air, fire, and water—and also a desire to disrupt the way we usually look at images. Hung in asymmetrical clusters rather than in one long horizontal line around the gallery, the images participate in unexpected conversations with each other—and with us. For instance, Francis W. Joaque’s circa 1870 print West African King is grouped with Dorothy Wilding’s circa 1954 formal portrait of the British Queen Mother and early-20th-century shots of shooting stars and the aurora borealis. Both monarchs wear crowns and gowns, the West African king holding a sceptre, the British Queen Mum a bejewelled purse. In the heavens, brilliant lights flicker, flash, and die. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, bling to, well, not bling. Suggestions of the transience of life and the fleeting vanities of power and materialism emerge here.
Water-themed images range from John Thomson’s 1870 photograph of thronging junks on the Canton River to Axel Lindahl’s circa 1895 panoramic photo of a cold, lonely Norwegian fjord to a 1946 U.S. Department of Defense photo of an atomic-bomb test in the waters off Bikini Atoll. This silver gelatin print is weirdly hand-tinted, like a souvenir postcard from a South Seas holiday, the green palm trees in the foreground waving merrily in the atomic wind. Wish you were here.
Ideas of air and flight wing their way through photos of swarming birds and drifting parachutists, while an idea of human enterprise is amplified by adjacent photos of New Hebridean women harvesting root vegetables in 1890, and American schoolchildren applying themselves to their lessons in 1899. The relationship between abstract art and the unconscious is evoked in a 1933 photo of Sigmund Freud on his Viennese balcony; a 1935 death-bed photograph of Kazimir Malevich, the Russian suprematist artist credited with creating the first purely abstract painting, in 1915 or 1916; and a series of photo-abstractions created with colour gels by Jaroslav Rössler circa 1970.
In video interviews, Timothy Prus has said that the “strange” photos in the AMC collection are intended to make us skeptical about the ways history has been delivered to us, and also to tell us “why we are like we are”. These provocative premises make for an utterly captivating exhibition.