Romantic Birds

17 November 2014

1. Very colourful craft store song birds resting on tree branches in various natural landscapes is what American artist Paula McCartney displays in the artist book ‘Bird Watching’ from 2010.

The work deals with the idea of a constructed landscape, partly natural, partly artificial. McCartney explains, “I love going on walks and hikes. When I do that I always hear birds… Birds exist for themselves not for my entertainment, you never get a good glimpse of them, they blend with the landscape or they stand too far away. So, I decided to put fake birds exactly where I wanted them. My photographs are an idealized scene.”

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Vermilion Flycatchers | © Paula McCartney

2. Since its invention, birds and other animals have been great subjects of interest within photography. Until the 1870’s, it was effectively impossible to record moving subjects as photographing required long exposures due to the low speed of light sensitive materials. During this period, the most frequently photographed animals were those that could stand still: cats, dogs, horses and caged birds. Wild animals could be photographed whilst asleep, in captivity, or dead. The compositions of deceased animals were often represented as trophies, or made into still life.

In the 1850’s, John Dillwyn Llewelyn, from Wales, attempted to simulate live environments by photographing stuffed birds and mammals in a natural habitat. The taxidermy suggested a degree of authenticity to the images created and according to historian Margaret Harker, “reactions to Llewelyn’s photographs were quite fascinating. When they were brought out of the archives after many years and exhibited in the 1960’s in the Royal Photographic Society’s House, they were accepted by most viewers as photographs of live animals.”

Professor Matthew Brower argues that “Llewelyn’s images can’t be understood as wildlife photography.” Brower reminds us that “in Victorian landscape photography, animal and human figures were used for compositional accent and emotional overtone.”

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Piscator No.2 | John Dillwyn Llewelyn

3. Japanese artist Yohei Kichiraku bought an old ornithological guide at a flea market. Part of the illustrations in the book had been cut-out by someone, prompting Kichiraku to make more cuttings and place them in forests and tree branches, which he then photographed. The resulting body of work, from 2012, is called ‘Birds’.

Unlike Llewelyn, or even McCartney’s photographs, Kichiraku’s images won’t seduce anyone into believing that they are looking at real birds. Kichiraku’s work speaks very little about the scientific. It has essentially an aesthetic quality of beauty, seduction, novelty.

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© Yohei Kichiraku

This text has also been published on Animalia Vegetalia Mineralia, a publication written in English and Portuguese dedicated to ecomedia and ecocritical studies animaliavegetaliamineralia.org

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17. November 2014 by Joao Bento
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The Artist that Looks Like a Tree but is Not a Tree

13 August 2014

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TREE WITH BROKEN LIMB | © Paula McCartney

I believe that it was in 2008 that The British Journal of Photography featured an article which included a photograph of a colourful bird resting on the branch of a small tree. On closer inspection, it became clear that this seemingly quiet bird was in fact a fake bird. What! Photos of fake birds in the landscape, who did this? The answer – Paula McCartney.

Last year I acquired the artist’s latest book called ‘Book of Trees – Both Native and Introduced.’ I was curious, what should I expect from this – fake trees? Well, yes and no…

McCartney has always been interested in the natural landscape. Her work is either about natural landscapes or about partly natural landscapes. One of her early projects, ‘Bronx Zoo’ (1998), shows caged, exotic birds surrounded by walls painted with foreign landscapes and treescapes. More recently, the project ‘A Field Guide to Snow and Ice’ (2011), gives us an account of snow and ice formations that might not be what they seem. The work of Paula McCartney is invested with illusion and some humour too.

Humour is not particularly popular with photographers and curators. In spite of this, in ‘Book of Trees’, McCartney appears in the photographs minimally dressed like a tree – with brown trousers and green top, or brown trousers and red top (in the autumn). The wooded landscapes are accompanied by captions that absurdly describe Paula as “Evergreen”, “Deciduous Tree”, “Tree with Sapling” or “Tree with Burl”.

In the book, McCartney’s images are evenly interspaced with short texts written by Andy Sturdevant, such as:

They had a word in the old days for people that hung around forests, looking like trees. Often they were also described as being covered in bark and leaves. “Woodwose” was the best-known designation in medieval Europe for the so-called wild men of the woods. But there were types of wild ladies of the woods, too. In German, these wild ladies were called “Fange.” or “Fanke.”

Another text reads:

It is worth taking a closer look at the Victorians if we’re going to discuss people dressing as trees. A Victorian would not dress like a tree. This isn’t conjecture; it’s a pretty well documented fact. The Victorians had many opportunities to dress like trees, and passed on every single one of them.

The texts provide a broad cultural background that speaks about our changing perception of, and attitude towards, trees – through changing time and in different places. Viewed on their own, the photographs and captions confirm what we already know – McCartney is not a tree.

‘Book of Trees’ is the first time Paula McCartney appears in front of the lens. The book projects the image of the human as a failed construction, incapable of fully integrating into the natural landscape (as a tree). This raises questions about the definition of what is natural, what is a tree and what is to be human?

In the last photograph of the book, McCartney exhibits an injured arm. The caption says “Tree with Broken Limb”. Do you think McCartney really had a broken arm? I know the answer… but I am not telling you!

This text has also been published on Animalia Vegetalia Mineralia, a publication written in English and Portuguese dedicated to ecomedia and ecocritical studies animaliavegetaliamineralia.org

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EVERGREEN | © Paula McCartney

Please visit Paula McCartney’s website www.paulamccartney.com

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27. August 2014 by Joao Bento
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Jochen Lempert – The Photographers’ Gallery

18 June 2014 . Written by Tristan Hooper

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Perhaps more so than anything else, Jochen Lempert’s exhibition makes apparent the degree of separation imposed by the traditional approach to framing photographs. By allowing the viewer to contemplate photographs in their most basic and natural form, the exhibition fosters a fresh sense of intimacy quite removed from the often sterile gallery experience.

It is easy to see why Lempert’s work has been nominated for the Deutsche Börse. The exhibition operates successfully on a number of different levels; playful and thought provoking juxtapositions, a cleverly unrefined method of production which is somehow more refined and the physical presentation of the work which echoes the predominant themes.

The wet printing, the apparent texture of the paper – the lack of retouching or doctoring – this is perhaps the fundamental science of photography in its rawest form. Stripped of gloss, prestige and pretension. This is not to say that the pictures lack value, quite the opposite – their naked fragility imbues within them a renewed sense of value, they are less like photographs and more like naturally occurring organisms – plucked from their habitat and displayed for people to study. There is a tangibility to the photographs, a sense of process which seems to really indicate the various reactions that take place in order to produce a photograph. Viewing the work, I find it almost impossible to envisage how such a body of work could have been achieved through the use of digital technology.

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The various photosensitive films and papers are employed as an alchemist would ply the materials of his vocation. The subjects captured seem to have almost made contact with the materials, in some cases they quite literally have. One large image is simply tacked to the wall with pins, at first it’s difficult to tell what it depicts – it could perhaps be a small crop of a larger image, enlarged to such a degree that we can only see the grain of the film emulsion. The image is engrossing, almost hypnotic; it draws the eye into its dense texture. Under closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the image was achieved through actually distributing a quantity of sand onto the surface of the photographic paper, exposing it to light and subsequently developing the sheet as one normally would in a darkroom. This method of production establishes a direct relationship between an aspect of the photographic process and nature. The effect is quite startling – a rich and complex image made without a camera, a filter or Photoshop.

Juxtaposition plays a big role in the work. Lempert creates connections between different subjects which are often very droll and almost always thought provoking. In one such pairing, Deadly Nightshade is likened to the eye of a squirrel, in another pair the freckled skin of girl is positioned next to a triptych depicting algae. These combinations of pictures as well as the photographic approach work to enrich one other, forging strong links that the audience are invited to discover.

A number of the images are presented with glass cases – drawing parallels with museum exhibits, this seems to perpetuate the idea of the photograph as an object in its own right, an artefact – something precious. Indeed, there’s an unmistakeable undertone of fragility that reverberates within the small corner of The Photographers’ Gallery that the exhibition inhabits. Whilst I’m certain that the images would sit quite comfortably on the pages of a book, this work should be seen on the gallery wall.

In comparison to this year’s other Deutsche Börse entries, Lempert’s work appears somewhat understated. This subtlety however, is key to the works success, a quiet contemplation is instigated and one is left with a lasting impression of photography’s role in the way we see the world around us and indeed our own special connection to nature.

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All images © The Photographers’ Gallery

Tristan Hooper is a British writer and photographer currently based in London
Website: www.tristanhooper.com blog: www.tristanhooper.tumblr.com

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26. August 2014 by Joao Bento
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And the winner is…

05 June 2014

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Image from ‘Ghost Cats’, 1st Prize on the Nature Stories category of the 2014 World Press Photo | © Steve Winter

“Cougars, once in decline, have for the past 40 years been making a comeback across the western United States — though they remain extremely elusive. The cats are protected in California and Florida, but prized game in 13 other states. The success of the recovery in cougar numbers depends in part on where the public will tolerate them, and on strategies for dealing with the difficulties of interaction between humans and cougars in populated regions.”

Steve Winter’s website: www.stevewinterphoto.com

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30. May 2014 by Joao Bento
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Joan Fontcuberta – The Fictional and the Fantastic

08 May 2014 . Written by Tristan Hooper

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Joan Fontcuberta’s most recent book looks and feels like it was published in a past era. With a soft, deep green cover and a fire-coloured serpent running up the spine, the book seems to incorporate many of the decorative features so often forgotten in today’s publications.

The Photography of Nature & The Nature of Photography is a composite comprised of six well known series – produced in conjunction with the Hasselblad award and presented to Fontcuberta in 2013. The book, published by MACK, is quite a triumph. The binding, sequencing and presentation are considered and engaging. The independent projects are brought together in unison and sit comfortably alongside one another. The publication exhibits the feel of an exploratory journal – something autobiographical; an ambitious record compiled through extensive studies and findings sourced from apparently far reaching locations. Flipping through the pages, it’s difficult not to become nostalgic; reflecting on childhood days spent peering at encyclopaedias of the weird and wonderful.

Over a career spanning some 20 years, Fontcuberta has established a reputation as an intelligent and witty artist through his works that examine photography’s rather tenuous relationship with the concepts of truth and objectivity. This book charts Fontcuberta’s career and in doing so traverses an ambitious range of topics, including flora and fauna, the natural landscape and even astronomy.

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© Joan Fontcuberta

At first glance, the book appears to be a treasure trove of interesting facts – intriguing and informative couplings of pictures and text. However, viewers should be careful not to take everything they see on face value – instead they would be best advised to pay very close attention because nothing is quite as it seems with Fontcuberta’s work – and it is only through closer consideration that the true nature and depth of his practice comes to light.

The history of photography is strewn with hoaxes and prevarication. Right from its invention up to the modern day – as technology has developed, so has the deception and the level of sophistication behind the trickery. Fontcuberta’s projects allude to this particular evolution; his work simultaneously addresses the concept of photography’s reliability and the development and trends inherent in the medium.

The book opens rather quietly. An early project, Herbarium, features images that would be at home in a botanical study of some kind. Various weird and wonderful plant specimens are photographed in a clear, clinical manner – black and white, against a plain backdrop. As viewers, we are invited to scrutinise even the minutest details. The pictures are even accompanied by denotative captions – providing the Latin name for each species. These studies, however, are not quite what they appear to be. They are in fact intricate, near flawless imitations of plant forms, achieved through the meticulous construction of various materials – ranging from household items to common domestic rubbish. The pictures are incredibly convincing and as viewers we are left with the distinct and somewhat unnerving confirmation of photography’s uncanny ability to show us something that purports to be one thing but is in fact something entirely different. Herbarium provides an appropriate introduction to the book and indeed Fontcuberta’s modus operandi.

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© Joan Fontcuberta

What follows is a journey of startling ambition and scope that leads us not only through the career of a photographer, but through a multi-faceted exploration of science. As the title implies, this book is as much concerned with photography as it is with nature. As Fontcuberta’s gaze shifts from subject to subject, his photographic approach changes also. Over the course of the book, we see Fontcuberta make use of the picture essay, the archive and ‘found’ photograph, digital imagery and more primitive methods such as the photogram.

His work pulls into sharp focus the significant role that context plays in the presentation and reception of photographs. For example, it is easy to draw parallels between Sirens and the type of article made famous by magazines such as the prestigious National Geographic. Through the conventions of reportage photography, Fontcuberta weaves a tale of startling discovery where the subject, certain fossilized findings, hint at the very stuff of myth and legend – mermaids and mermen. Despite the rather dubious subject matter, the coupling of pictures and text is very persuasive. The register of the language and the ‘straight’ manner in which the pictures are composed work together to build an overall air of authenticity. It wouldn’t be difficult to concede that someone could be ‘duped’ by such a story. However, as in many of Fontcuberta’s pieces, if one looks a little closer then it’s easy to notice various humorous statements imbedded into the work, hinting at its farcical nature.

Fauna draws upon the archive and found image. In a fictitious account, Fontcuberta details the discovery of a treasure trove of extraordinary species and findings, including field drawings and notes, photographs and even specimens stored in formaldehyde. The fact that these items are apparently ‘found’ affords Fontcuberta a certain distance from the material, the authorship is transferred away and he instead becomes more of a guide – leading us objectively through a myriad of bizarre findings. Through the accompanying text, we learn of the German doctor, Peter Ameisenhaufen, and his incredible encounters with a multitude of intriguing creatures, including a serpent like species with eight legs, a monkey with wings and a two legged fur ball with the head of a tortoise. Do these creatures belong to a hidden link in the evolutionary chain? Looking at the photographs and eyewitness accounts, you could almost be forgiven for thinking so.

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© Joan Fontcuberta

A written account detailing various mountain expeditions introduces the next project Orogenesis – the most recent example of Fontcuberta’s work included in the book. The imagery presented in this portion of the book is breathtaking, but attention should be paid to the use of the term imagery as opposed to photography. Here, Fontcuberta makes use of the digital terrain modelling software Terragen. The program interprets data, producing detailed images that mimic natural landscape forms. Interestingly, these ‘landscapes’ seem to adhere to visions of an idealised landscape – beautifully lit scenes that depict epic terrain, void of human presence. They are beautiful and idyllic enough that you almost find yourself wanting to believe them.

The Star-Catcher directs our gaze towards the heavens, or so it would seem. Each full-bleed image depicts the blackness and sporadic, speckled lights associated with pictures of the night sky. Some images seem to show light trails – which we naturally assume to be the result of the long exposure times required to capture the stars. Short captions offer coordinates and classifications for the ‘star systems’ or ‘constellations’ that we are being shown. Of course, these pictures are not showing us space, they aren’t even made using a camera. They are in fact the products of one of the oldest techniques in photography. Fontcuberta made the images by placing photographic sheet film onto the soiled windscreen of his car and shining a light through the glass, exposing it and creating a photogram. The epic constellations depicted are in fact splattered insects and other debris. This project is perhaps most successful in the fact that it exploits or makes apparent, photography’s uncanny ability to show the apparently insignificant, unnoticed or even grotesque, as something different, something quite beautiful.

In what is surely a continuation of the thematic sequencing that really seems to underpin the book, the next project is entitled Sputnik. Here, Fontcuberta creates a fictitious account of a little known Russian space mission, undertaken by a man and a dog. The astronaut, Ivan Istochnikov, is depicted at different stages of his life and career – again in using a number of ‘acquired’ photographs, a certain sense of credibility is created. In addition to these found images, the piece incorporates more examples of the trends associated with contemporary photographic practice, including the staged image, the manipulated image and even, in a sense, the self- portrait – Fontcuberta does indeed appear to be playing the part of Istochnikov.

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© Joan Fontcuberta

Many of the photographs are quite reminiscent of cold war propaganda – a proud countryman in full uniform, surrounded by adoring citizens, faces full of admiration. Sputnik seems to operate with acute historical and thematic relevance. The space race has long been the subject of scepticism and even outright disbelief – one need only browse the Internet to find a wealth of conspiracy theories relating to the first moon landings for example.

Looking at the book, it’s difficult not to simply feel impressed by Fontcuberta’s achievements – the breadth of his practice and the inherent complexities, the questions raised and the messages therein. The Photography of Nature & The Nature of Photography perhaps really comes into its own when viewed by an audience with no prior exposure to, or knowledge of, the man who is Fontcuberta. One isn’t sure what to believe. You could easily forgive someone for taking everything they see as plain fact – in the past; many have reportedly been guilty of this.

To flick through this book is to waste it. In order to fully appreciate the content, one should pore over the photographs and text, affording equal attention to both. Fontcuberta’s work is satirical, multilayered and above all, playful. A wonderful compendium of falsities.

Tristan Hooper is a British writer and photographer currently based in London
Website: www.tristanhooper.com blog: www.tristanhooper.tumblr.com

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08. May 2014 by Joao Bento
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The Frozen Wolf

27 March 2014

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© Ricardo Cases

Words by Ricardo Cases extracted from an email exchange about the project ‘La Caza Del Lobo Congelado’:

“Working on ‘La Caza Del Lobo Congelado’ was an emotional cocktail. Until then all my work had been made in urban areas. It was the first time that I photographed in a natural setting. It was interesting and encouraging to see how the photographs looked in this new environment, the colours were crazy! It was also an exotic experience because I had never been on a hunt and I did not know what the role was of dogs in this game.”

“Maybe this photograph, out of all of them from the project has been the one that has raised the most interest from the people who have viewed it, because it’s hard to determine if there is a problem with the animal or not. The dog looks happy but his face is covered in blood. I always think about this photograph when I question my role in this context.”

“I love my dog Quatre, I spend all day with him. I often take him to work but I don’t consider him a working dog, rather a hedonistic dog! Jokes aside, I think the relationship with dogs changes substantially when you’re with a working dog. This can be understood by their more independent character.”

To see more photographs from ‘La Caza Del Lobo Congelado’ please visit Ricardo Cases’ website on www.ricardocases.es

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27. March 2014 by Joao Bento
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‘Veins, Rivers’

19 March 2014

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‘Veins, Rivers (cyanotype, 2014)’ from the upcoming series ‘Forget Me Not’ by Marta Giaccone

Marta Giaccone’s website: martagiaccone.com

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19. March 2014 by Joao Bento
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Knife Reflections

01 March 2014

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Canyon Suite, 2004. Type C prints mounted on aluminium, 21 1/4″ x 27″ x 2″

Words by Laura Parker extracted from an email exchange about her work:

- ‘Canyon Suite’ is a single piece of work composed of four separate photographs printed from negatives, all floating on different planes (each photograph is mounted on aluminium and the whole is held together by a hidden substructure). In addition to being photographic, the work is sculptural, as it has physical depth.

- I have been hiking at a place called Eaton Canyon for most of my life, (I love hiking and the local mountains I grew up with; my husband and I actually just recently moved to the canyon’s edge!), so I titled the piece ‘Canyon Suite’, as it is very much about this particular place that has been so important to me; a sort of refuge from the rest of Los Angeles. Also, both a canyon and a knife have an edge, no matter how blunted, and I am indeed interested in the dangers of the everyday.

- The knife reflections was an accidental discovery made during a breakfast I was having outdoors. I saw the oak tree above reflected in my knife and forgot about breakfast! It created an interesting perceptual rift due to the double plane of focus: the knife-on-the-table itself, and the reflection coming from far away.

- A significant amount of my work has originated in and around the use of household objects: from the burners of a stove, to pot bottoms, to all sorts of cast-off domestic materials. I would say I am interested in the dangers (knives, burners, electrical appliances) and subversions of domesticity… (I really resonate with some of Mona Hatoum’s sculptural installations) but I am also interested in having something utterly mundane trigger a transcendent experience.

- I am interested in working with issues of perception and exploring ‘thresholds of visual legibility’. The writer Buzz Spector once wrote that I had “conjured up a kind of photogrammar that encourages viewers to read the process through the image. So everything from my ‘Rubbings’ to ‘Knife Reflections’ (going all the way back to ‘Prime’, 1992) plays with ways that a photograph can become a highly ambiguous object. It’s both about the nature of surface and the push/pull between two and three dimensionality.

- Also, there is an undercurrent of being obsessed with the elements of nature in all of my work. It affords us a more primal reference point that challenges the linearity of language and other human constructs.

Laura Parker lives and works in California. Laura’s career spans more than three decades and her work has been widely exhibited. To see more work made by Laura Parker please visit her website: lauraparker.com

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05. March 2014 by Joao Bento
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Ali the amazing sheep dog…

15 February 2014

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‘Ali’ | © Julie Fischer

Please visit Julie Fischer’s website: www.juliefischer.fr

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01. March 2014 by Joao Bento
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Richard Mosse – Infra

01 February 2014 . Written by Tristan Hooper

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Vintage Violence, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2011 | © Richard Mosse

The Congo has long been in the public eye. For many years, the mainstream media has spread images of genocide, famine and human rights violations to audiences the world over. Yet, despite the extent of reportage, the situation in the Congo endures as being somewhat enigmatic.

Driven to explore some of its hidden mysteries, Irish photographer Richard Mosse took the opportunity to make a number of trips to the country. Over a three-year period he captured the Congolese and the vast landscape that they inhabit. But whilst Mosse’s pictures could certainly be described as war photographs, they are rather unlike what one usually sees in contemporary conflict photography.

Mosse elected to make use of a discontinued form of infrared film for his work in Infra. Originally designed for use in aerial surveillance by the military, this specialised film was made to render camouflage useless. Natural vegetation and foliage – normally visible to the human eye in various shades of luscious green – are instead depicted in tones of magenta, verging on the psychedelic. The overall effect is quite startling; the images are both striking and curious.

These large-scale landscape photographs depict the region in a way that one feels to be looking upon some kind of alien terrain. A facile interpretation could perhaps relate the colour to that of a landscape stained with the bloodshed resulting from years of conflict. But perhaps we should look beyond the obvious and consider the more subtle possibilities inherent in Mosse’s Infra.

His decision to use this particular film is of real interest – not only because of its unique effect, but also because of its original intended purpose: designed to make the invisible visible, to show what is normally obscured and hidden from view. In employing this military technology, Mosse is perhaps attempting to peel away some of the ambiguity surrounding the region and its troubled history – in turn helping us to view the Congo differently.

The strange colour palette coerces the viewer into pondering the natural landscape – it places emphasis on the topography and fertile nature of the country. An interesting perspective as the Congo is home to an incredible glut of precious natural resources, attributes arguably at the root of the country’s problems. Despite the vast quantities of uranium, rubber and copper present in the region – providing the possibility of establishing the Congo as one of the world’s wealthiest nations – these reserves have only contributed to the state of unbalance.

Another captivating aspect is how many of the photographs depicting people within the landscape seem to perpetuate a divide between the inhabitants and the land. Often the Congolese appear at odds with the landscape, almost as if superimposed upon it.

Infra represents a potent and pronounced departure from the norms of photography concerned with war. It has often been commented that war photographs have contributed to what is known as ‘compassion fatigue’. Pictures depicting the horrors of conflict are so readily available that people have ceased to be affected by them. We are all only too familiar with the black and white reportage spawned from the Vietnam War, and more recent colour photographs from the Gulf and Afghanistan.

Mosse’s photographs demand attention; they show us something new, something to arouse our curiosity.

Tristan Hooper is a British writer and photographer currently based in London
Website: www.tristanhooper.com blog: www.tristanhooper.tumblr.com

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10. February 2014 by Joao Bento
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