When I first saw Luc Delahaye’s photographs including his much applauded Baghdad IV, 2003, in London at the Photographer’s Gallery in the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, I was underwhelmed. And seeing his recent exhibition at Galerie Nathalie Obadia, my critique of his photographs seems to remain in tact. Standing before these massive C-prints, admittedly not in the most flattering of displays, I was left wondering why they have been so celebrated. The gallery press release claims the photographs harbor a series of “formal tensions”, tensions that complicate and fascinate the huge images. However, for me, the absence of tension is the very problem.
It is true that these photographs of admittedly unsettling spaces, places and events, usually in the wake of war and injustice, are huge and overwhelming. It is true that their visions of demonstrations, disasters, wars and genocides are from perspectives not ordinarily given us by the press. However, as a photojournalist, Delahaye continues to take photographs that are characterized by their journalistic documentation. The result is a distance and a coldness that prohibits me from accessing the devastation and the trauma whose remnants are left, whose after-effects are felt, in these conflictual spaces.
Adding to the coldness of what are ultimately, in my eyes, glorified photo-journalism, the way they are hung by Galerie Nathalie Obadia is not complimentary. Their exhibition further alienates them, further removes them from the scarred battlefields they supposedly complicate. One image, The Glue Sniffer, 2010, which could have been very touching, is placed under direct light, resulting in the fact that the only thing I could see no matter where I stood was my own reflection. Many of the images are in fact two photographs blown up and joined together. And what separates Delahaye’s work from the art of Jeff Wall (as the obvious example) is the fact that he does absolutely nothing with that split. I think of Wall’s work with its dissection, not necessarily because two photographs have been joined together, but at times this is the reason. Wall often uses the rift as an opportunity to muse with characteristic brilliance on the nature of representation, on photography and its relationship to centuries of painting, on the place of reality in that history of visual representation. And Wall’s rupture of the photographic space and time is unsettling, provocative, and ultimately, what makes his work fascinating. But none of this is the concern of Luc Delahaye, whose primary focus appears to be to capture devastation in the wake of war, disaster and political conflict. I am not convinced that it is necessary to celebrate these works which at times only stand out because he happened to be there, in the war zone.
There are a couple of photographs that I really liked: Ambush, Ramadi, 2006 shows in the hazy distance surrounded by a sky filled with the dust of debris, a US marine patrol ambushed by insurgents in Ramadi, Iraq following the explosion of an IED. The photograph is suggestive of the fallout of war, and its subtlety comes in its suggestion, failing to show what is really happening, while the disturbing nature of what is really happening becomes caught in and behind the dirt. I also liked Les Bois de Calais, 2007, a photograph in which illegal immigrants apparently return to their shack in the woods near Calais. This image appeals because it is anonymous: we don’t know who they are, what they are doing there, and the hints of Calais in the background could be anywhere in the industrial world. The image captures the alienation and the clandestine, stigmatized nature of life as an immigrant in France as the two workers walk, surrounded by dirt, mud, in a landscape not made for people. Others such as Karni Crossing Demo, 2008, of a demonstration against the Israeli blockade of Gaza are less convincing because they seem to lack ambiguity. It is not only the content, but the huge (sometimes 300 cm x 150 cm) dimensions, the glossy surface, the pristine glass behind which these images sit and the clean white walls on which they hang, that robs them of sentiment and power. Their presentation creates out of them one big spectacle with no enigma, packaged and sold for the gallery.
Much of the celebration of Delahaye’s work has been for its difference from photo-reportage, mainly because of his process of not taking hundreds of photographs, preferring to take one or two as would an artist, his manipulation of the image to create impact, and so on. And the blurbs always announce that he takes photographs from previously unrevealed perspectives, thus opening our eyes to a darker side of war. But for me, neither of these is enough to elevate Delahaye’s photojournalism to the status of “ambiguous and provocative art.” That said, more reputable art critics than me have praised this work. Michael Fried for example compares it to the profound works of Jeff Wall, and Andreas Gursky. So because I don’t see the deeper connections, does not mean they are not there. I did come away disappointed, but nevertheless, open to the idea that I might need to see Delahaye’s work more appropriately hung, together with his more devastating images, if I am to recognize its invitation to my own participation, if I am to experience the tension where at the moment, there is a cold detachment from the scene of the crime.
--Frances Guerin, film historian and writer living in Paris
(See Frances's blog: FX Reflects)
(Images top-bottom: Luc Delahaye, Man Sleeping, 2008; Baghdad IV, 2005; Ambush, Ramadi, 2006; Les Bois de Calais, 2007; Les Pillards, 2010. All courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris)