Occupying Brecht: Broomberg and Chanarin’s War Primer 2 – David Evans

“To use Brecht without criticizing him is a betrayal.” (Heiner Müller, 1980)

War Primer 2 exists in various forms, most notably as an exhibition, a limited edition book, and an application that can be freely downloaded for use on mobile devices like smartphones and tablet computers. There are affinities between the gallery wall, the book page and the electronic screen, certainly, but also real differences. An exhibition or book has a physicality that an application lacks, for example, but the latter has the potential to reach large audiences beyond the relatively specialized world of photography galleries and bookshops. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin reflect continuously on the migrating image, and they treat War Primer 2 as an experiment that tests the viability of old and new outlets for photography.

Broomberg & Chanarin, Installation at The Photographers' Gallery © KateElliott

Broomberg and Chanarin, War Primer 2 installation, The Photographers’ Gallery © Kate Elliott

In all of its forms, War Primer 2 occupies the pages of a book by German writer Bertolt Brecht. His Kriegsfibel first appeared in East Berlin in 1955; an English-language version, edited and translated by Brecht scholar John Willett, was published in London in 1998 with the title War Primer. Kriegsfibel or War Primer is mainly a collection of photographs dealing with World War Two that Brecht regularly clipped from newspapers and magazines, and to which he added four line verses – alternative captions that registered his Communist-oriented political perspective. He called his scripto-visual combinations ‘photo-epigrams’, a deliberately paradoxical formulation linking the modern press photograph to a type of verse that was invented in the Ancient World to be inscribed on stone monuments. In other words, his new invention confronts ephemerality and eternity, modesty and monumentality. Cumulatively, Brecht’s ‘photo-epigrams’ aim to prime readers on modern warfare; but also on visual literacy, based on his assumption that the meaning of a press photograph is rarely transparent.

(For unknown reasons, War Primer omits an important statement at the start of the East German first edition by Brecht’s collaborator, Ruth Berlau, in which she compares press photographs to hieroglyphs, in need of decipherment. She might be on to something with the reference to Ancient Egypt. Perhaps photojournalism is less modern than we imagine!)

From Berlau and Brecht to Broomberg and Chanarin. One: a couple of years ago they got hold of a hundred copies of War Primer from its English publisher, Libris. Two: from the Internet they downloaded a wide range of low- resolution photographs dealing with the so-called War on Terror. Three: they selected and sized eighty-five images to go with Brecht’s eighty-five ‘photo-epigrams’. Four: eight thousand five hundred screen prints were generated. Five: with the help of assistants, all of the prints were pasted by hand into the one hundred copies of War Primer, subsequently published by MACK in print and electronic versions.

Broomberg and Chanarin's War Primer 2, page 6

Broomberg and Chanarin, War Primer 2, page 6 © The artists and MACK books

Most obviously, War Primer is a product of the age of mechanical reproducibility; War Primer 2 of a new age of digital or electronic reproducibility; and we are invited to contemplate different eras. Brecht’s project emerged in the mid-twentieth century, the golden age of the illustrated press when professional photojournalists risked life and limb to get their scoop. In contrast, Broomberg and Chanarin work at the start of the twenty first century. The Internet is now the dominant source of information, and many of its most famous images relating to current conflicts are rarely the work of professionals, who have been marginalized by CCTV, drones equipped with cameras, or amateurs who happen to be carrying some form of digital equipment at the right place and time. Emblematic of the earlier era is Robert Capa’s blurred photograph of D-Day landings in 1944 that Brecht saw in Life and subsequently used for a ‘photo-epigram’; current equivalents, used by Broomberg and Chanarin, include un-credited downloaded photographs of the Twin Towers attacks in New York, abuse and torture in Abu Ghraib jail, and the execution of Saddam Hussein.

Significant breaks, then, but also continuities. A famous ‘photo-epigram’ by Brecht presents a press photograph of Hitler enjoying a traditional German stew with a supposedly typical, contented, family of the Third Reich. The image is covered by a newer photograph of President George W. Bush ostentatiously presenting a Thanksgiving Day turkey to American troops in Iraq. Brecht’s epigram now relates to the American President:

You see me here, eating a simple stew

Me, slave to no desire, except for one:

World-conquest. That is all I want. From you

I have but one request: give me your sons.

Parallels, to be sure, but Broomberg and Chanarin are not interested in crude political jibes, presenting Bush as a latter-day Hitler. Rather, they want us to reflect on what are now termed “photo ops”, the visual clichés that continue to inform the self-promotional activities of world leaders of every political hue.

War Primer 2 is a significant addition to a range of innovative projects by Broomberg and Chanarin that deal with what political scientist Fred Halliday termed the “arc of crisis”. Their own images, often made with unwieldy large-format equipment, deliberately avoid the melodrama and sensationalism regularly sought out by photojournalists in war zones. Instead, they favour studied understatement that invites close scrutiny, brilliantly demonstrated in their exploration of contemporary Israel called Chicago (2006). A typical section presents their photographs of young forests that convey a mood of calmness and serenity, only to be disrupted by a matter of fact caption noting that many trees were systematically planted on land and property expropriated from Arab villagers in 1948. A similar calculated obliqueness informs Red House (2006), a study that powerfully evokes the cruelty and tyranny of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by concentrating on the graffiti that the incarcerated scratched on their cell walls. With The Day Nobody Died (2009) they were the guests of the British army in Helmand Province and directly exposed photographic paper to the sun. Camera-less photography, then, inspired in part by a desire to draw attention to the compromised nature of most photographs that result from an embedding process. And Afterlife (2009) has as its starting point a photograph of Kurds being executed by revolutionary guards in Iran, 1979, a classic instance of the ‘decisive moment’ that gives the viewer the dubious pleasure of being able to identify with both the firing squad and their victims at the same time. It is now known that this anonymous winner of a Pultizer Prize in 1980 was made by Jahangir Razmi. Recently, Broomberg and Chanarin met Razmi in New York who gave them permission to use his original contact sheets. The end result is a series of photomontages that deliberately convey an “indecisive moment”. No signature style, then, but underpinning an apparent stylistic eclecticism is an ongoing dissatisfaction with mainstream documentary and photojournalism.

Broomberg and Chanarin, The Day Nobody Died (detail), 2009

Broomberg and Chanarin, The Day Nobody Died, 2009 © The artists and Paradise Row Gallery

In many ways, Broomberg and Chanarin are re-opening debates about Brecht and radical photography that were particularly lively in the seventies and early eighties. The debates were complex and international, but what they shared was a hostility to photographic naturalism and the assumption that the approach to theatre of Brecht, or the adaption of these ideas to cinema by Jean-Luc Godard, especially, offered a way forward. In Britain, the debates were often conducted in journals like Block, Camerawork, Screen and Screen Education. And the annual Photography / Politics: One (London, 1979), published independently by Jo Spence and Terry Dennett, gave the first British platform to American writer-photographer Allan Sekula, re-printing his polemical essay of 1978 in which he relates Godard and other radical filmmakers to the “critical anti-naturalism” of Brecht that “stands as a guide to the ideologically self-conscious handling of image and text.

For Sekula, writer-photographer Martha Rosler offers an exemplary demonstration of alternative ways of working with photographs that takes on board the lessons of Brecht and Godard. In particular, he is impressed by her series The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1975). One of the “inadequate descriptive systems” is a set of photographs of Bowery walls and storefronts; the other is a complementary set of panels that present the slang terms associated with alcoholics and alcoholism. Sekula perceptively observes that many of the carefully composed images appear to be deliberate “quotations” of Walker Evans, and the texts are “found poetry”. In other words, in deliberate opposition to the “find-a-bum school of concerned photography” that merely provokes uncritical identification, Rosler offers two types of appropriation to encourage reflection and activism.

For some time, the debates around Brecht and photography have been dormant, although every now and again someone re-quotes his cryptic statement from the early thirties that a photograph of a factory tells one nothing, so something has to be set up. The extraordinary achievement of Broomberg and Chanarin is to almost single handedly re-open these debates, most remarkably with War Primer 2, a project that re-works Brecht’s unique sustained engagement with photography that was rarely mentioned in the seventies! In War Primer 2, Broomberg and Chanarin are embedded with Brecht  – impressed, but not overawed. They understand Heiner Müller.

This essay was commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery and originally appeared in the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2013 catalogue, available from the gallery’s bookshop both online and in the building.

David Evans is a writer and picture editor, based in Bournemouth. Recent works include Appropriation (Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, 2009), László Moholy-Nagy: 60 Fotos (Errata Editions, 2011), Critical Dictionary ( 2011) and The Art of Walking: a field guide (2013), both with Black Dog Publishing.

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