Tim Hetherington’s soldiers: ‘You never see them like this’

Tim Hetherington’s soldiers: ‘You never see them like this’

Restrepo 4

At Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery this month there’s an exhibition that pays tribute to the work of Liverpool-born photojournalist Tim Hetherington who was killed on 20 April 2011 during a mortar attack on the besieged city of Misrata in Libya, where he was covering the conflict. I went to see the exhibition this week, as well as watching  Restrepo, the film shot by Hetherington and edited with Sebastian Junger that documents 15 months during which an American company defended a remote outpost in the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan, under almost daily fire.

The title of the Open Eye exhibition, You Never See Them Like This, is a quote by Tim Hetherington talking to his creative collaborator Sebastian Junger, describing the revelation he had looking at the sleeping soldiers:

They always look so tough… but when they’re asleep they look like little boys. They look the way their mothers probably remember them.

The soldiers portrayed in the images on display at Open Eye are, for the most part, barely out of their teens.  The morning after seeing the exhibition I opened the Guardian to read this introduction by Blake Morrison to a poem he has written for a new anthology to mark the centenary of the First World War, in which poets respond to poetry, letters and diary entries from the war years:

I’ve been shocked by the tender age of some of the British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan: would armies exist if no one under 25 was allowed to fight? Wilfred Owen has poems that touch on this theme, but I’ve chosen something less well known that I came across in a 50-year-old anthology – Ewart Alan Mackintosh’s ‘Recruiting’, which dissects the jingoistic doublespeak used to persuade young men to go to war. My poem was partly inspired by its plain speaking – but much more so by the death of a young man my son was at school with, Mark Evison, and by the book that his mother Margaret as written about her struggle to discover how and why he died.

Blake Morrison’s poem Redacted (follow the link to see the poem displayed for full impact) is, like Ewart Alan Mackintosh’s ‘Recruiting’, a bitter critique of wars that are instigated and directed by men considerably more advanced in years than the teenagers who fight them:

As to claims that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable,
That teenagers are being used as cannon fodder and that
Their deaths serve no purpose whatsoever –
To comment would be inappropriate.

The concluding lines of Ewart Alan Mackintosh’s ‘Recruiting’ might be an epitaph for the American boys killed or wounded at camp Restrepo during the time that Tim Hetherington was embedded with them:

Lads, you’re wanted. Come and learn
To live and die with honest men.

You shall learn what men can do
If you will but pay the price,
Learn the gaiety and strength
In the gallant sacrifice.

Take your risk of life and death
Underneath the open sky.
Live clean or go out quick –
Lads, you’re wanted. Come and die.

Sleeping 2

Young soldier sleeping, camp Restrepo, Korengal valley, June 2008

Teenagers, lads, wanted for gallant sacrifice, to die.  Hasn’t it always been so, from the Trojan Wars to the trenches, from Vietnam to Afghanistan?

‘Mother,
You said that you and God were friends.
Over and over when you were at home
You said it. Friends. Good friends. That was your boast.
You had had me, your child, your only child
To save Him from immortal death. In turn,
Your friend, the Lord our God, gave you His word,
Mother, His word: If I, your only child
Chose to die young, by violence, far from home,
My standing would be first; be best;
The best of bests; here; and in perpetuity.
And so I chose. Nor have I changed. But now –
By which I mean today, this instant, now –
That Shepherd of the Clouds has seen me trashed …’
(from the opening of Christopher Logue’s War Music)

Sleeping soldiers

The centrepiece of Open Eye’s exhibition of Tim Hetherington’s work is not a photograph but a three-channel video installation entitled Sleeping Soldiers. The work juxtaposes images of the young American soldiers asleep at camp Restrepo with video of intense conflict and fighting that appear on the two flanking screens, sometimes bleeding into the image of the sleeping soldier as if they are haunted by the scenes replaying in their dreams. It’s a powerful and deeply moving work that emphasises the fragile vulnerability of these men who, in Hetherington’s words, ‘look like little boys … the way their mothers probably remember them’.

The still images on display here have all been selected from the period which Hetherington in the Korengal Valley, recording the arrival of a US contingent tasked with establishing an outpost in this remote north eastern part of Afghanistan. Like many of Hetherington’s photographic projects, his work with the Restrepo contingent highlights his preference for establishing close relationships with his subjects through long-term observation, and his interest in narrative.  The Periscope interviewed Hetherington after he and Sebastian Junger had returned from Afghanistan where they had shot footage that would form the feature-length documentary Restrepo:

I was brought up pretty much on the move. We lived in 12 different pl aces growing up. My parents by nature they moved around a lot. It gets into your blood. Then, in 1992, there was a recession in Britain and there was no job, so I left the country and started travelling. I got into photography because of that. I have travelled to about 70 or 80 countries. Around 2005 and 2006, I lived in West Africa and worked in 25 to 30 countries in Africa. That is because while I travel for assignment work, people ask “Will you go do this?.” But I am not interested in being a war photographer who flies from hot zone to hot zone. That is not what I do. My work is in depth. So my personal work is focused on long-term projects and for that, I’ve lived in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and now Afghanistan.

Really my works are narratives, I am really interested in stories. I find different visual ways to talk about narratives, political narratives. My work is about conflicts and politics, but links to a very intense kind of intimacy like soldiers sleeping. I am interested in getting very close to my subjects, and I live how they live, and share things with them.

Hetherington’s images speak of days of intense conflict broken up by long periods of boredom, waiting for the next contact. They explore how the soldiers cope with an emotionally intense and draining existence, looking at how they build up resilience and manage their feelings. Hetherington documents the strong ties of brotherhood forged during the year at the forward post:

I feel awkward when I kind of get into a subject, because I am on the outside. So the question is how you get onto the inside? You have to learn how to connect with people. And I think honesty is the most important thing. You can see someone being honest in their work. You can sense it. People also sense the honesty when you deal with them. We are humans, we pick up all sorts of subtle body language. If you drop me in a foreign country anywhere, I will survive OK because I will adapt.

Sleeping 3

Soldier sleeping, camp Restrepo, Korengal valley, June 2008

For 15 months, between 2007 and 2008, Tim Hetherington, and reporter Sebastian Junger shadowed these men. The journalists compiled their work in a documentary, Restrepo, and a book of photography, Infidel, documenting the time during which they shared food and sleeping quarters with the soldiers, and joined them on patrols. Hetherington told the Independent:

The book and film are about the intimacy of war. That’s what I see when I see the photographs of these guys sleeping. We are used to seeing soldiers as cardboard cut-outs. We dehumanise them, but war is a very intimate act. All of those soldiers would die for each other. We’re not talking about friendship. We’re talking about brotherhood.

Reviewing the book for the Independent in 2010, Rob Sharp commented:

Their sleeping beauty belies the danger of their situation. In a tiny outpost built on a steep hillside in north-eastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, these men could be attacked at any moment. US troops nickname the Korengal the “Valley of Death” because, by the end of September 2007, one-fifth of all the country’s fighting had happened here. In early 2008, Battle Company’s Second Platoon, part of the Second Battalion of the US army’s 503rd Infantry Regiment, built “Outpost Restrepo” to draw enemy fire away from soldiers based at the bottom of the valley. The fortification was named after Juan Restrepo, their platoon medic, killed during the first two months of their deployment.

Korengal Valley, 2007 3

Afghanistan, Korengal Valley. A soldier from 2nd platoon rests at the end of a day of heavy fighting at the Restrepo outpost, 2007

After Hetherington’s death, Micahael Kamber wrote:

His books – Infidel and Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold – are genre-bending meditations on masculinity and violence. His revolutionary images communicate the horror, the banality, and the humanity of war with incomparable immediacy. His video installations – Diary and Sleeping Soldiers – transcend boundaries between journalism and art, engaging new audiences by portraying war with unprecedented intimacy.

Restrepo 1

Sergeant Sterling Jones of the 2nd Battalion Airborne of the 503rd US Infantry practises his golf swing while on deployment in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, in April 2008.

Restrepo 7

Korengal Valley, Kunar Province. July 2008. Specialist Tad Donoho watches while other members of 2nd Platoon look at porn in their hootch at the main firebase in the valley.

In the images displayed at Open Eye it is easy to sense the fascination that Hetherington had for the way young men become enamoured of war, and the powerful bonds it creates between them. His photographs explore answers to a question he asked himself: ‘what is it about war that really draws men?’  What many of these images reveal is an addiction to the thrill of violence and conflict – something to which he was not immune  himself: ‘Which way is the front-line from here?’ he asked, just hours before he was killed.

At the same time, Hetherington’s images highlight the close physical bonding between these young men.   ‘War,’ said Hetherington, ‘is the only place where young men can openly show affection for one another without it being misinterpreted as something sexual’.

Korengal

Mock fighting at camp Restrepo

There are reminders here of the lines on the opening page of Matterhorn, the novel of the Vietnam war by Karl Malantes:

From the skipper right on down, they all wore the same filthy tattered camouflage, with no rank insignia, no way of distinguishing them.  All of them were too thin, too young, and too exhausted.  They all talked the same, too, saying fuck, or some adjective, noun, or adverb with fuck in it, every four words.  Most of the intervening three words of their conversations dealt with unhappiness about food, mail, time in the bush, and the girls they had left behind in high school.

Or, indeed, Kevin Powers’ fiction informed by his experience of serving as a machine gunner with the US Army in Iraq, The Yellow Birds, a novel I only got round to reading last month. The title is taken from a marching song he learned with the army:

A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
my windowsill.
I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head.

Korengal 2

Soldiers at the Restrepo outpost pass the time with a mock fight.

Kevin Powers wrote his brilliant novel (it received the 2013 PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction and the Guardian First Book Award for 2012) as his own attempt to answer the question, ‘What was it like over there?’ It’s an exploration of the first conundrum of war: how can you retain your humanity when sacrificing it might be the only way that you could survive?

As with the poets, so with novelists: warfare has served as a source of great literature. From The Iliad to All Quiet on the Western Front, from Hemingway and Mailer to Michael Herr’s Dispatches, writers have been determined to portray the brutality and ultimate futility of combat.  Kevin Powers’ extraordinary first novel sits easily alongside these great examples of war literature.

Korengal Valley, 2007 2

Tad Donoho pictured after he was given a ‘pink belly’, a traditional slapping of the stomach administered by other members of the platoon on someone’s birthday.

In The Yellow Birds, two soldiers barely out of their teens bond during basic training, but only one survives service in Iraq. Bartle is a young US soldier, haunted by the death of his close friend, Murph, during the war, especially after making a promise to Murph’s mother to watch the younger man’s back. Powers cuts between the present, with Bartle, disturbed and isolated, back in America, and events that took place in Iraq that Bartle is trying to make sense of. As you might expect, the novel is graphic and brutal in parts, but there are also unexpectedly poetic passages, such as the novel’s superb opening passage:

The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.

Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all colour from the plains. The sun pressed into our skin, and the war sent its citizens rustling into the shade of white buildings. It cast a white shade on everything, like a veil over our eyes. It tried to kill us every day, but it had not succeeded. Not that our safety was preordained. We were not destined to survive. The fact is we were not destined at all. The war would take whatever it could get. It was patient. It didn’t care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the would have its way.

The war had killed thousands by September. Their bodies lined the pocked avenues at irregular intervals. They were hidden in alleys, were found in bloating piles in the troughs of the hills outside the cities, the faces puffed and green, allergic now to life. The war had tried its best to kill us all: man, woman, child. But it had killed fewer than a thousand soldiers like me and Murph. Those numbers still meant something to us as what passed for fall began. Murph and I had agreed. We didn’t want to be the thousandth killed. If we died later, then we died. But let that number be someone else’s milestone.

John Burnside, reviewing the book for The Guardian, wrote:

Kevin Powers was a soldier in Iraq for two years, serving in Mosul and Tal Afar. In a brief preface he says that The Yellow Birds began as “an attempt to reckon with one question: what was it like over there?” However, he quickly decided that he was unequal to that task, because “war is only like itself”.

This is a perennial problem in trying to describe those experiences that relatively few share: war, madness, extreme violence or suffering, spiritual visions – all of these are only like themselves. But the fact is that, while they cannot be fully conveyed in words, the work of bearing witness – to create what Powers calls “the cartography of one man’s consciousness” – is essential; and while few will have expected the war in Iraq to bring forth a novel that can stand beside All Quiet on the Western Front or The Red Badge of Courage, The Yellow Birds does just that, for our time, as those books did for theirs.

In the creation of his three principals, moreover, Powers has given us a highly sensitive and perceptive portrayal of men at war: the mysterious, vulnerable Murph and the brutal but enormously damaged Sterling are wonderfully delineated, and it is no accident that the central character’s surname makes us think of Melville’s Bartleby, another man numbed to the point where, in the end, all he can do is refuse to perform the few simple acts that would preserve him.

No doubt it will seem rash to make such references in praise of a first novel, but they are difficult to resist after a close reading of this extraordinary work: the final vision alone, in which a young man’s tortured and broken – but also transfigured – body is washed away by the slow current of the Tigris is both highly risky and beautifully accomplished, the mark of an artist of the first order.

Sebastian Junger (left) and Tim Hetherington

As this exhibition amply demonstrates, Hetherington was a master of many mediums: audio, film, video, and photography. He was, colleagues observed, not interested in being labelled. He was neither a film maker nor a photographer. Rather, as he himself expressed it, he was working at ‘transjournalism’, a multidisciplinary approach to getting the message to as wide an audience as possible: ‘If you’re interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer” he told fellow photojournalist Michael Kamber.

We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something, in terms of mass communication, that is past. I’m interested in reaching as many people as possible.

So Hetherington shot both still images and video footage.  The video was featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo, a collaboration with journalist Sebastian Junger. The same work produced the photographs in his award-winning book Infidel, while he combined both media to create Sleeping Soldiers, juxtaposing chaotic scenes of combat with still images of soldiers at rest.

Korengal Valley, 2007

Korengal Valley. 2007. US bomb insurgents who are attacking from the northern positions in the village of Donga with phosphorus.

After the sequence of still images of Afghanistan, the exhibition ends in the upper gallery with Diary, a 20 minute video that blends fragments of fearful moments from stories that Hetherington had covered – Liberia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan – with very personal video footage – of his family in an idyllic, sun-kissed England, and of himself, the war photographer constantly on the move from one location to another, on the phone in hotel rooms, waking to a stirring fan or mosquito netting shifting in the morning air.

There are glimpses of moments of terrifying violence: on a street in Sri Lanka a man is being pushed around before being noticed by a group of armed who drag him away to certain doom, his eyes blank with fear and terror.  Hetherington described Diary as:

An experimental film that expresses the subjective experience of my work … a kaleidoscope of images that link our western reality to the seemingly distant worlds we see in the media.

This short film represents a powerful and moving attempt by Hetherington to come to terms with his own conflicting thoughts on the impact that ten years of war reporting was having on him.  There’s one scene in a hotel room where he is on the phone, presumably being interviewed about his work. Responding to a question about images he’d shot, we hear him defend their validity, his words trailing off into silence:

I make the pictures to try to understand the situation for myself.  If you say suggest there is no hope, then I…, I…

Subjectively probing deep and unconscious memory, Diary doesn’t follow any chronology or tell a consistent story. But the density and complexity of the images that form this short film are clearly the result of a deliberate artistic process, and suggest that Hetherington’s work might have taken an interesting direction had he survived.

I didn’t use any selection criteria. If anything, the criteria was that I wanted it to be like a dream, like a stream of consciousness. There is no set criteria in a dream.

Stephen Mayes, photographer and friend of Tim Hetherington, has written the following introduction to the Open Eye exhibition:

In his cruelly short career Tim Hetherington helped shape a change in our understanding of conflict reporting. Working with an expanded vision that stretched far beyond describing the drama of action, he invited his audience to place themselves in a world that is continuously connected from viewer to protagonist.

Often described as a conflict photographer, Hetherington’s mission was never so simple. “Trying to understand my own fascination with conflict and war has become something that started to focus on what it means to be a man. What is it about war that really draws men?” Never selfishly obsessed but always acutely self aware, Hetherington was intensely focused on understanding the issues underlying the subjects he investigated and with sharing his insights with the wider world. “My work is all about building bridges between me and the audience” he said shortly before his death in 2011.

We see him work through this process in the trajectory of this exhibition. His mission in Korengal Valley starts with the direct reporting of conflict: guns, munitions, action and stress, but across the year he spent with Second Platoon of the 503rd US Infantry at Outpost Restrepo the tone mellows and the more intimate and surprising aspects of conflict begin to emerge. Boredom, play and daily routine begin to fill the frame.

I became less interested in photographing combat and more interested in the relationships that existed between the soldiers. I saw that there was a special kind of bonding going on – something forged by the extreme circumstances. Someone once told me, “Only in war is it possible for men to demonstrate their love for one another.”

By the time he left the Korengal, Hetherington had immersed us in the dreams of the Sleeping Soldiers, stripped of their hardware. In so doing, he invites us to reflect on the fine line that separates vulnerability from aggression, and consider the public role that these men play. Hetherington’s intimacy with the men is only a symptom of a more profound exploration. In effect, Sleeping Soldiers is a reflection on masculinity that looks deeper than the role-play and performance of war and strips away the familiar iconography of conflict to contemplate the origin rather than the consequences of aggression. Tim stated:

The truth is that the war machine is the software as much as the hardware. The software runs it and the software is young men. And in some ways I’m part of the software. I was a young man once. I’m not so young any more but I get it, I get the operating system. I am the operating system”

And finally we see Diary, where we are drawn into Hetherington’s own experience of the stories he reports. This ultimately immersive reportage stands as his last finished work, a manifesto for a different way to see, feel and understand the world we live in.

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Korengal Valley. 2007. Captain Dan Kearney, head of Battle Company.

In preparation for the Open Eye exhibition, I watched Restrepo, the documentary photographed by Hetherington and directed by him in collaboration with the writer Sebastian Junger. It’s an impressive film, aptly described by the New York Times as ‘a blunt, sympathetic, thorough accounting of the daily struggle to stay alive and accomplish something constructive.  It documents the 15 months an American company fought in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley, described by  CNN as ‘the most dangerous place in the world’. The soldiers were under almost daily fire and tasked with establishing a new forward outpost, eventually named Restrepo after Juan S. Restrepo, a medic who was killed early in the deployment.

The young soldiers dig rock and construct their shelters whilst also engaging in regular skirmishes with the Taliban and simultaneously attempting to win hearts and minds in a local village amidst harsh and desolate terrain. At weekly meetings with local elders and in other, informal encounters, the soldiers, led by Captain Dan Kearney, try to overcome suspicion and resentment, and persuade the locals that the presence of American soldiers will bring jobs, a new road and other good things. I thought Roger Ebert summed up this aspect of the film perfectly in his review, describing the local elders as:

A group of men who could not look more aged, toothless and decrepit if they tried. A portrait of one would be all you needed to suggest the poverty of the region. One elder complains he has lost a cow. It’s explained that the cow became tangled in razor wire and had to be put out of its misery. He is offered compensation: The cow’s weight in rice, beans and sugar. He wants cash. His heart and mind are not won.

Restrepo 6

A US Apache helicopter fires off flares to deter surface to air missiles after completing a gun run.

As with the still images shown at Open Eye, it is clear from Restrepo how much Hetherington was preoccupied by individuals and what made them tick, whether during combat (filmed with hand-held camera as the soldiers are pinned down on the mountainside and being fired upon by the Taliban at extremely close range) or during long periods of boredom between fire fights. The soldiers rarely speak of the wider politics of their mission; instead the film portrays their bravery as an eagerness to do the job and return alive.  The film reveals their concern for each other, their professional response in combat, and the means they adopt for fighting off long stretches of boredom and dealing with primitive living conditions.

Restrepo 2

Korengal valley, July 2008: soldiers with guitars at camp Restrepo.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is the decision by Hetherington and Junger to intercut the location footage with debriefing interviews with the survivors conducted soon after the mission has ended and they have been flown out to Italy. There is a sense of powerful emotions left unstated or understated, the deaths of men who they fought with  almost impossible to speak of. The memory of Restrepo lived on in the name given to their outpost, in the guitar lessons he gave fellow-soldiers, and his book of flamenco songs.

But the most telling moment comes as Captain Kearney justifies the mission as necessary and as a success: ‘we really made a difference in the Korengal’. At the film’s close, a caption informs that the US military closed Korangal Outpost in April 2010, after which the valley reverted to Taliban control.

The film makes no overt point about war other than its pointlessness and futility.  The reality it depicts is far from the propaganda of military or political leaders: simply soldiers putting their lives on the line, getting little thanks for it, and returning from the fire damaged and vulnerable.

Battle Company

Korengal Valley, April 2008: drawing inside Restrepo base.

‘We’re making our living out of death, that’s the truth,’ says Junger. ‘God forbid the tragedies of the world don’t get reported. But for the people who do that there’s an accumulated moral burden.” After Hetherington’s death, Junger gave up war reporting for good.  But he has explored the moral questions of war reporting, in a new documentary about Hetherington’s life, Which Way is the Front Line From Here? soon to be released in Britain.

Junger’s documentary shows how Hetherington learned his trade photographing the human rights repercussions of the Liberian civil war, which ended in 2003. Born in 1970 in Liverpool, Hetherington studied literature at Oxford University and Photojournalism at Cardiff University. Throughout his career Tim Hetherington photographed the experience of war from the perspective of the individual, mostly in West Africa and the Middle East. When he died, his friend and collaborator Sebastian Junger wrote:

Tim was 40 years old when he died and had devoted most of his professional life to documenting the human cost of war. On April 20, in a bombed-out section of Misrata, a single mortar shell made him part of the cost. He was hit in the groin with shrapnel and bled out in the back of a pickup truck while Guillermo Cervera, a Spanish photojournalist he had just met, held his hand and tried to keep him awake. Hours earlier, amidst fierce shelling by Qaddafi forces, Tim had sent what was to be his last message on Twitter: In besieged Libyan city of Misurata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.

Restrepo: trailer

Restrepo: edited clips from the film

Which Way is the Front Line From Here? trailer

Which Way is the Front Line From Here? Discussion with Sebastian Junger

And then I saw Murph as I’d seen him last, but beautiful. Somehow his wounds were softened, his disfigurement transformed into a statement on permanence. He passed out of Al Tafar on the slow current of the Tigris, his body livid, then made clean by the wide-eyed creatures that swam indifferently below the river’s placid surface. He held whole even as the spring thaw from the Zagros pushed him farther downstream, passing through the cradle of the world as it greened, then turned to dust. A pair of soldiers watched his passage while resting in the reeds and bulrushes, one calling out to the battered body while the other slept, not knowing Murph was ever one of them, thinking that he must be the victim of another war of which they likely did not feel they were a part, and the voice rose softly through the heat, and it sounded like singing when he said, “Peace out, motherfucker,” loud enough to wake his friend, but the body that he called out to would have been, by then, little more than skeleton, Murph’s injuries erased to the pure white of bone. He reached the Shatt al Arab in summer, where a fisherman who saw him flood into the broad waters where the Tigris and Euphrates marry unknowingly caressed his remains with the pole that pushed his small flat-keeled boat along the shallow waters of the marshes. And I saw his body finally break apart near the mouth of the gulf, where the shadows of the date palms fell in long, dark curtains on his bones, now scattered, and swept them out to sea, toward a line of waves that break forever as he enters them.

– the concluding paragraph of The Yellow Birds


Like leaves who could write a history of leaves

The wind blows their ghosts to the ground
And the spring breathes new leaf into the woods
Thousands of names thousands of leaves
When you remember them remember this
Dead bodies are their lineage
Which matter no more than the leaves 

– from Memorial, Alice Oswald

See also

E. Chambre Hardman: Landscapes at Open Eye

E. Chambre Hardman: Landscapes at Open Eye

The Copse

I’ve been along to the Open Eye gallery to see the small exhibition of landscapes by E Chambre Hardman that’s currently showing there. Open Eye is the appropriate place for a display of Chambre Hardman’s work – after all,without the intervention of Peter Hagerty, Open Eye’s Director at the time, Hardman’s entire photographic output would have been lost.

In 1979, Peter Hagerty got a call from a social worker concerning the plight of the retired photographer, now in his eighties, increasingly frail and living alone in his large Rodney Street studio and home, had suffered a fall. In his introduction to E Chambré Hardman: Liverpool Through the Lens, Hagerty writes:

What a revelation awaited me, his home and studio were filled with early twentieth century photography, an entire collection of photographic prints, negatives, cameras, lights, darkroom equipment, letters and studio records.  Although much neglected, a number of ceilings had collapsed in the intervening years, every room was crammed with photographs and ephemera and complemented by the more domestic scenes in the two rooms and small kitchen where Hardman and Margaret had lived.

It was clear to Hagerty that Hardman’s work must be protected, and since Chambré had no living relatives to assist, friends and supporters came together to form the E.Chambré Hardman Trust. During the following years the trustees worked to secure funding and support from English Heritage and Liverpool City Council which allowed essential repairs and a conservation programme to begin, but it was not until 2003 when the National Trust took over the administration of the house and opened it to the public that Hardman’s legacy was secure.

More than twelve thousand of Hardman’s photographs have been catalogued as a result of the Trust’s work, and in the last 30 years the scale of his artistic achievement has gradually emerged.  It was at Open Eye that the first retrospective exhibition of Hardman’s work was shown in 1980, followed by a major exhibition E. Chambré Hardman Photographs 1921-72 organised by the Walker Art Gallery in 1994.

Chambré Hardman, who was born in 1898 and died in 1988, is still perhaps best known for his photograph The Birth of the Ark Royal (1950). For half a century from 1923 he and his wife Margaret ran a highly successful commercial portrait studio, first on Liverpool’s Bold Street and, from 1949, on Rodney Street in the premises now owned by the National Trust. While the  studio specialised in portraits, increasingly Hardman turned to photographing Liverpool’s great buildings, as well as scenes of shipping and the Mersey docks.

From the early 1930s Hardman began to develop his passion for picturing the varied British landscape, and some of these images are now displayed at Open Eye.  Taken together, these photos might be taken as an evocation of a lost era of hay ricks, country lanes and open countryside.

The Rick
The Rick, 1936

But Hardman wasn’t exclusively drawn to pastoral subjects: the first image that greets you in this exhibition is ‘Power Station Lister Drive’, taken in 1929.  In its own way, this is as much an image of a lost world as ‘The Rick’: an era of coal and of giant power stations in the heart of urban residential communities.

Power Sation Lister Drive, 1929
Power Station Lister Drive, 1929

‘The Quarry, Wales’ from 1937, also depicts an industrial landscape, but at the same time is a study in light and shade and patterns.  The tracks of wagon ways splay out towards the viewer like crow’s feet.

The Quarry
The Quarry, Wales, 1937

‘Suilven, Sutherland’ (1935) is a complete contrast, an image of a bleak and empty landscape taken in Suilven, south of Lochinver and Loch Assynt.  Another study in light and dark, it contrasts the shaft of light falling on a remote mountain tarn with the dark of the mountains brooding beyond.  Like several photos in the exhibition, it is also a study of the cloud formation which fills the sky and half the frame.

Upper Glen Affric
Suilven, Sutherland, 1935

Another rural image, taken much later in his career, is ‘Hill Farming Country’, from 1965.  The photograph was taken in Wales, and looks as if it could have been captured in the 1920s or 30s, with its scene of fields full of corn stooks. What I really like about this image is the way that Hardman has captured the evening light, with the trees that border the fields casting long shadows across fields etched into the landscape by the hedges that border them.

Hill Farming Country
Hill Farming Country, 1965
The Hardmans made their living primarily from portrait photography.  But, while landscapes were less financially rewarding than portraits, landscape photography dominated competitive exhibitions and professional galleries. From the 1920s onwards Hardman was a frequent exhibitor at annual exhibitions, including the Royal Photographic Society, and in 1927 won first prize in the American Annual of Photography Exhibition for his picture of the quiet French fishing village Martigues. This was one of the many photographs Hardman made in France during 1926 that included the popular ‘A Memory of Avignon’ which depicted in soft focus the sleepy ambience of a street cafe where his friends are relaxing after lunch.
The Copse
The Copse, 1935

My favourite photograph in this exhibition is ‘The Copse’ (1934) which shows a small copse on a hill surrounded by sweeping fields.  I thought it might be somewhere like Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire, painted repeatedly by Paul Nash.  Surprisingly, however, this is a scene from Galloway, in Scotland. The image is another cloud study: the towering clouds dominate the upper two thirds of the composition.

Paul Nash, Wittenham Clumps
Paul Nash: Wittenham Clumps, 1913
During the 1930s,  Chambre and Margaret would take time off running their busy portrait studio and spend weekends and holidays exploring the British countryside. Using trains and bicycle they appear to have travelled the length and breadth of Britain in their search for new landscape photographs. The black and white photographs from this decade have a sharper focus, stronger contrast that emphasises the drama of mountain landscapes such as ‘Suilven, Sutherland’ (above) or the elegant description of trees and clouds in ‘The Copse’.
An Old Lancashire Lane
An Old Lancashire Lane, 1965
Close to home – and taken much later, in 1965, is ‘An Old Lancashire Lane’, taken in Parbold, near Ormskirk. The focus of the composition is the bend in the country lane bordered by stone walls, which draws the eye towards the farm building beyond.  The composition is reinforced by the strong parallel lines of the ploughed field on the right, edged by the curving line of tractor tracks.
Other photos in this excellent exhibition are: ‘Late Afternoon in Borrowdale’ (1936), ‘A Dusting of Snow, Kerry Hill’ (1955), Near Northrop, August’ (1950), and ‘The Roman Wall’ (1937).  The exhibition will move to the Hardman House on Rodney Street after the Open Eye run ends next month.

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Liverpool: Days in Eldorado

The point of El Dorado is not only the dream of gold but the value of dream.  Its treasure is an image of a hope that we’ll find something surpassingly precious in our lives.  And the deepest humanity is finding that in other people.
– Ruth Padel

I’m grateful to a follower of this blog for alerting me to a new collection from the Liverpool photographer Pete Hagerty, called Days in Eldorado.  I wrote the other day about Open Eye’s new gallery in Liverpool: in 1979, Pete Hagerty was the first creative director at the Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool’s foremost gallery devoted to photography. In 1989, he initiated a successful campaign to establish a charitable trust on behalf of the Liverpool photographer Chambre Hardman and to keep his unique collection of photographs in Liverpool. Today, Hardman’s House and Studio is one of three National Trust properties on Merseyside, visited by tens of thousands of people every year.

Introducing Days in Eldorado, newly available as a self-published book online, Pete Hagerty writes

Pieces from this work were originally shown at various galleries, sometimes in a more complete form than at others. The present piece is the complete body of work. Liverpool, my native city, provides the background to this narrative made circa 1987-89.

I have never felt drawn to follow the practices of contemporary photographers who record, and perhaps exploit, other people’s lives. Photographs are inherently a reflection of the photographer’s view and often bear no relation to ‘truth’. …  In describing my attitude it would be expressionist rather than documentary, while remaining faithful to the practice of an art which finds the seen world stranger than fiction. In seeking to exploit the given I have, consequently, no interest in post production.

‘Back Canning Street’ (above) was taken in 1989, and I like it because, to me, it is suggestive of what meaning might lie in the collection’s title.  Navigating Liverpool as a ‘lost city of gold’, you might encounter this alleyway, just off Catherine Street.  The angle from which the photograph is taken, the teasing rear end of what looks like one of the iconic cars of the 1980s – the Vauxhall Cavalier as driven by Gene Hunt in Life on Mars – and the sense of something inviting just around the corner – it all adds up to something that seems highly evocative. Turn that corner at that time, stroll down the cobbled alley, and you would encounter gold.  There was a little warehouse where fresh coffee beans were ground (the smell would greet you as soon as you turned the corner), there was an urban farm where animals and vegetables flourished, and at the end of the jigger was the Art College where John Lennon learned to draw, and the pub where he and his mates had hung out three decades earlier. Truly a lost city of gold.

I suppose this is what Pete Hagerty means when he says, ‘My concern has been to investigate the overlap between the photograph and the viewer’s response … without the viewer there is nothing’.

‘Blue Car, Bentley Road’ (above) might have many meanings, but for me it captures the feel of Liverpool on those days when the mist rolls in off the river, and of a street trod many times – to visit the flat of student friends, or, across the road (and hidden in the fog) a consultation with my GP at the local health centre.  There’s a sense here, too (the lamp post, the blue car), that you get from the photographs of William Eggleston of the unintentional absurdities of the urban landscape.

And here, in the laconically titled ‘Public transport’, is the bus stop outside the flat I lived in for the first few years after university.  Gold of a sort there, too, with art college lecturer Steve Hardstaff  spinning out his designs for LP sleeves for everyone from Led Zeppelin to the Icicle Works on the ground floor.  There’s something eerie about this image: with its complete absence of vehicles of any kind it feels like a dream.

And here’s another car parked mysteriously beside a lamp post – curiously entitled ‘Horsepower’.  This was once a street lined on both sides by Victorian terraces whose denizens were students and all the other flotsam that washed up on the sandbanks of this inner city shore.  Now it’s orderly and busy, especially on Fridays when the faithful assemble at the Mosque for Friday prayers.

Jim Morris has written of these photos:

If you are local, some of it, at first glance may seem obvious. ‘What’s so special about that?’ You may ask. ‘I could have taken that photograph. I could have done that.’ So some images seem artless but that is an art in itself, to make art from an apparently artless material.

This collection is tremendously varied, ranging from these empty, ‘artless’ street scenes (that have something of the mood of George Shaw paintings about them – two more below) to shots that catch people on the street in slightly surreal moments (see, for example, ‘Man in a Gold Suit’ at the top of this post). There are intimate shots of family and friends, a quizzical self-portrait, and interior shots of golden sunlight and shadows (for example, a lovely composition of a shaft of sunlight falling across a kitchen wall). There are expressionless shots of cars, many of them blue. There is an inexplicable shot of a man in a field whose head appears to have exploded. There are images of the natural world – a pond, a clump of dandelions forcing their way through a crevice in the pavement.

Several images feature changing views from the same window. In ‘Autumn Rain’ (below) a sudden shower of  rain is beautifully lit by slating sunlight; in another, the same scene is revealed in winter sunshine and snow.  ‘Easter Monday’ is an evocative image of Arthur Dooley’s crucified Christ, arms raised in blessing, caught as a small child passes by.  ‘Sleeper’ is a surreal scene – a man indeed appears to be asleep, stretched out on bare concrete in an urban wasteland; a broken, bright yellow vehicle barrier offers stark contrast.  ‘3am’ is Egglestone again: a brightly-lit petrol station photographed in the pre-dawn darkness.

It’s a great collection, and will be appreciated by those who have found their Eldorado here in Liverpool –  as well as those who recognise great images from a photographer with an eye for the eccentric, the visually striking or simply beautiful in quotidian ordinariness.

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