“It is to accept that an image, though agreed as unable to achieve absolute status has many interpretive layers and one of these is the age of the viewer and his or her relation to the subject matter within the frame(s) conditioned by history, time and nostalgia…”
One of the more acutely intriguing books that I have been sent in recent months for review is Anush Hamzehian and Vittorio Mortarotti’s Most Were Silent. It is a book in which many of my own personal interests in trauma, blindness and site-specific mythological image-making form a strange new world based on historical register which is beautifully and inexplicably possible and impossible at the same time. This world manifests itself in a way not all together familiar and it deals with what I perceive as generational histories and nostalgias. I mean to implore the term generational histories as a device in which it is possible to pontificate the way in which photography/images/cultural debris and their referents affect different generations of viewers differently. It is to accept that an image, though agreed as unable to achieve absolute status has many interpretive layers and one of these is the age of the viewer and his or her relation to the subject matter within the frame(s) conditioned by history, time and nostalgia-mythical ingredients or perhaps “ingradients”. The idea is to posit that what is understood in a body of work like Most Were Silent is interpretive not only through history, but also collective memory of a generation to generation case basis which merits the enforcement nostalgia oddly found in traumatic achievement-in this case Atomic and Hydrogen testing in Nevada.
If I were to illustrate my point by asking a group of twenty-year olds what they thought of a picture of an 8track cassette, they might have some vague idea that it was an object for holding information, perhaps even audio information. This disconnect does not have to be great as the Internet is a great flattener of age-specific memory, especially with fetish objects and experiential knowledge separations. We do not need “to remember” or experience as a condition when it can be approximated to varying degrees instead-it does however assimilate an idea of memory collective or other that is not based on the experience of thee trauma itself, but rather the epoch it helps define. Assimilation of collective memory is a highly nuanced affair and altogether impossible without the aforementioned conditions of history, time and nostalgia.
Experience has layers which build memory-the smell of a new cassette tape (as similar proceeding generations from the 8-track remember) is very much experiential as it is olfactory, visual and fetish-oriented viewed from the future and though the Internet does have an odor on certain days, this particular nostalgia and memory are not ones that factor in successive generations the same generalized way due to the lapse of experienced time which conditions the collective epoch-driven memory. The sound and feel of sliding an 8track cassette by a fifty-year old into a stereo mentally, will not be the same as it is for the twenty year old focus group. The generational disconnect between memory, time and nostalgia is not overly divisive, but when it comes to images, the associations as secondary or other can be overwhelming for the under-experienced, or age-defined apparatus of nostalgia based on epoch of growing up in a later era, etc.
“Your nostalgia of everything from Ray guns to Godzilla and Chernobyl will have a different effect than those born from perhaps 1987 onward”.
And so it brings us to the discussion of what collective memory is and what collective international memory is when it comes to images and nostalgia. In Most Were Silent, a number of key images from the cover to the deftly-edited construct of the sequence itself triggers memories for me being of a certain age in which I can only ascribe as being an “80s kid” in which the triggers for political tensions as well as technological register that I observe in the images, reading list (Intelligent move) and the overall idea that I have of a place like Los Alamos are culled from my own partial collective memory of the Cold War and its artifacts, both entertainment and Real. The memories are retrieved from many places such as William Eggleston’s incredible piecemeal analogy of the American color landscape of the 70s through to my knowledge of images of Atomic testing that I have collected-vague names like Fat Man and Little Boy, through to ever-greater suggestions of hydrogen pleasantries such as Ivy Mike which were galvanized to promote an easier nomenclature, but also to perhaps upend their technological coldness. Of course, I can also remember watching Dr. Strangelove, War Games, and Red Dawn before later reading Richard Rhodes Dark Sun, a beautiful bit of poetry in which the nuclear Armageddon left undelivered in my youth would team up with my adulthood in which the atrocities both immediate and as of yet unfolding in the history of nuclear testing would combine between my childhood dreams and my adulthood understanding of horror and the technological sublime’s unholy union. From early on, I have a memory of Atomic decimation being a real possibility and though that is not specific per se to just my 80s kid generation, the way in which it worked itself into the fabric of nostalgia through entertainment culture almost specifically is. If you grew up between the 1950s and the 1980s-a very small slice of time really, you will have varying factors in which your partial memories are invoked within the epoch that defined the Cold War and the bomb itself are different than the proceeding generations. Your nostalgia of everything from Ray guns to Godzilla and Chernobyl will have a different effect than those born from perhaps 1987 onward.
Speaking as it were internationally, I don’t think things were much different for kids of my age abroad (see Threads, The Cloud) and we perhaps share an international collective memory due to age etc. in which these enforced nostalgias give our viewing of a book like Most Were Silent an unspoken affirmation of collective and traumatic memory-a wincing head nod in which the images reverberate back towards images of children under their desks or the manic picture of a man riding the bomb in popular cinematic consciousness, frightfully befitting a very possible reality. Again, though this idea of the bomb itself also belongs to a slightly older generation than my own, I would suggest that seeing an underground home lined with stocks of preserves and a vent pointing out of the earth in the backyard or an image of children sitting under their desks in rows has a certain portent to a nostalgia not shared with subsequent generations of the post-Cold War era. It is to contemplate how images factor into the nostalgia of era/epoch and how collective memory is formed in its minutiae through the experience of such images and their nostalgias. This is something that we do not discuss often when we discuss these histories of shadows.
In Most Were Silent (Skinnerboox) Anush Hamzehian and Vittorio Mortarotti delve deep into an uncanny collective memory that they are manufacturing through research, site-specific investigation, but also their own nostalgias of the culture surrounding the bomb. I posit that there is a wide perimeter or net in which the memories surrounding the bomb and the generations of nostalgia that are sprung from its mention inform the way in which the authors have mediated their images. Most Were Silent has a veil, which floats over it, a milky film that is unable to be cleared from the mental eye of the observer of the right age. Strangely, there are cinematic moments in the book with both the portraiture and the landscape images in New Mexico that add layers to how we interpret the image of the bomb or its aftermath and cultural precedents as document apart from its Cine-reality. The book flows and has a certain pace that certainly feels more like a tome of film stills than it does a photographic attempt to distill the essence of each “document” within to a still frame. An interesting inquiry would be to discover if the process of the book was culled from HDR film and edited into stills to form a photographic work or if the authors are inspired by this way of looking. It is present. Here is where the uncanny disconnect between the reality of bomb culture is conflated for the better in metaphorical and nostalgic terms.
Without crutching their work based solely on archival elements pulled from the vast repositories of the Internet or from the Los Alamos National Museum, they use their idea of memory, trauma and image to conflate (purposefully) two very important elements within the narrative.
- The Los Alamos National Labortaory
With all of that archival information at their disposal, instead of making scans of the holdings and simply regurgitating their findings ad nausea throughout the book, the duo instead opt to regard and photograph the housing of the information itself in their photographs. It is as if to condemn the “document” of the archive in the face of the subject matter itself-to say that the metric for this idea is not calculable in human perceptive terms of mere illustration and that metaphor must be engaged to understand the litany of terrible events surrounding the formation of such a repository. This is incredibly strong and perhaps even visionary in the way in which such traumatic sites and material must be handled-with INHERENT opacity-lest the author be complicit in the reduction of traumatic terms by offering a pithy “research” communicated from a position unaffected by simple regurgitation of sensational material.
On that note, I will make a hypothesis however that perhaps merely two-three of the sitters or sites found in the book may have come from the archive itself and one of those images is of an image of a hand holding the shirt of a boy intentionally pinioned to the frame for the camera that gives me some light trepidation, but when confronted with the idea of “necessary viewing” to remember radiation sickness and fallout health, I can see why they have been included, but there is a long distance between the use of two or three images and an archive project and the images are almost seemless, I could even be projecting. Another longer discussion could be had about how we use images in peril after the presumed death of its subject- as with Japanese radiation sickness patients or of Saddam Hussein, for example and what that means as an act of political representation, observation and will in a book like MWS.
- The New Mexico School for the Blind & Visually Impaired.
Both the school and the laboratory culminate in possibly half of the focus of the book. The other half though important, are not nearly as punctuating, those being the general view of the New Mexico landscapes and the color abstracts which can only be construed as the ephemeral testing images of smoke from tests or perhaps truncated images of the sky overheard of the sites found on-line, which work nicely as chapter breaks if not informative images. The images of the blind are the images that hold the most power. They inadvertently seek to combine the technological and human impact of the bomb, the horrors of the technological sublime and our consistent inability as a human species to forgo violence even when we have the capacity to incinerate the entire world in an endgame scenario.
The images of the blind were, if I am completely honest, somewhat objectionable to me when I first paged through the book, I had the feeling to shout “objectification” as soon as I saw them. As someone who has curated shows about images of the blind, faith, and visionary perception, I am incredibly sensitive to the subject-hood of the blind when it relates to photography in particular-the obvious quotient for which is their inability, even if consent is given, to see their own image. It is not easy to work around the base assumption that if you are using images of “the impaired” in any sense of the word-disability being a better way to speak on it, then there are questions as to whose benefit the images made will honor.
In the case of this book, it is clear that the authors had permission to make the images and after asking the publisher about the situation to affirm, I can only say that we should give them the benefit of the doubt. It is clear that the images were made with permission by the school and sitters themselves (reading a “pose” or “non-pose” is incredibly important here) with a book or body of work in mind. Therefore, even though I may feel a slight compulsion to recoil even then, I have to let the authority of the subjects themselves, thus granted assume privy to their own decisions on how their images are made and distributed. To counter their wishes with my own baseless bias to the contrary would also be an indemnity unbecoming of their wish for inclusion. What I purport is that in my initial reaction to the use of disabled subjects, I had forgone rational investigation to the contrary of my own desire for confirmation bias. For this cardinal sin of criticality, the authors have my apology.
Continuing the investigation of the images within the book, the whole of which radiates (what other term can be used) a character that is unfamiliar and incredibly strong. There are constant debris-floaters in the eye of the audience. Light and sources of light, either from above or from the halogen tube are made into small parables which abstract themselves from the eyes of the blind sitters (Who again are poised mostly with smiles or in a self-oriented commune with the camera) and are reminders of the idea that the shadow of history if unfolded to its atrocities would indeed blind us all. It is not just the site of Los Alamos itself, but also how the authors distinguish trace elements within the images. They effectively use ephemeral scrapes, marks, blur, shadow, fire and birds to mark what is passing in nature. I am reminded of John Gossage, but also Japanese post-atomic imagery and perhaps Michael Schmidt and the coldness of post-war German photography. These images speak on frailty of being, but also the frailty of collective memory when it conflates its ability to actively recognize cyclical patterns of violence. The authors are asking a deep-rooted question about human behavior which succinctly summed up would be-Why are we so forgetfully violent? In doing so, the authors use the history of energy, the bomb and its very human subject as a catalyst for current climes in which war has not stopped since the invention of an endgame apparatus. Why do we still have war? Why do we subsist on forgetting the dark heart of human matters only to find ourselves back in the same position only generations later and what is the human cost of this base transaction in this primitive warring epistemology? It is not an easy book in any way. It challenges assumptions about how we view technology, human behavior, memory and images themselves as complicit activators or de-activators of violent preludes. Make no mistake the book is a masterpiece. Highest recommendation.
Anush Hamzehian & Vittorio Mortarotti
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Anush Hamzehian & Vittorio Mortarotti.)