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From Traces to Faces: Crisis Photographer Richard Mosse Lectures at CMA

In 1839, chemist Louis J.M. Daguerre’s innovative daguerreotype process producing images on silver plate launched photography.  In 1853, photographer Roger Fenton founded Britain’s Royal Photographic Society; that same year, Britain and France allied with Turkey and Sardinia in the Crimean War to contain Russian expansion into Europe’s Ottoman territories.  In 1855, publisher Thomas Agnew and Sons commissioned Fenton to record the conflict, the first time news coverage informed the public of daily war activity.  Photojournalism was born.

Given reports of a bungling military leadership, harsh winter, squalor, and cholera, patronage under Queen Victoria and Prince Albert effectively charged Fenton with capturing footage geared toward assuaging Britons’ fears for their troops.  Over 150 years later, conceptual documentary photographer Richard Mosse (b. 1980) bristles at such predetermined agendas straining historic fact and often constraining artistic expression.  Selected for the Venice Biennale 2013, Mosse spoke in September at Cleveland Museum of Art about his large-scale analog work upending photojournalistic conventions to represent invisible, allusive traces of global fears and violence.

Dublin-born Mosse earned a B.A. in English Literature from King’s College, London and a Master’s of Research in Cultural Studies from the London Consortium.  As if picking up Fenton’s Balkan trail, Mosse’s dissertation examines remembrance and photographic representation using his films of the former Yugoslavia’s postbellum ruins.  Before receiving in 2008 a Master of Fine Arts in Photography from Yale and a Leonore Annenberg Fellowship, Mosse shot stills of Iranian, Pakistani and Haitian earthquake-ravaged cities.  That year he also introduced “Nada que Declarar,” his project seeking signs of illegal immigrant flight for the Mexico-U.S. border.

His potential human subjects evasive and their traffic obscured by night, Mosse snapped resonant tableaux of their belongings hastily discarded on parched earth.  In “near Tecate, east of San Diego,” a backpack nestles a pocket book, garment, toothbrush, and toothpaste but has spilled all from canned goods to keys.  “Laredo, Texas” freezes the moment a toddler’s playthings dropped en route to arrest or deliverance: a little sneaker, ball, and two dolls frame a stained, rumpled page promising friendly river transport at the Yellow Brick Road’s end.

In relics small or sizable, Mosse merges the cinematic magical realism of his fellowship tutor, photographer Gregory Crewdson, with themes of memory and decay from his literary muse, the academic W.G. Sebald.  Embedded in 2009 with U.S. troops in Iraq, Mosse featured this disquieting fusion in his “Breach” and “Nomads” series.  In “Pool at Uday’s Palace,” a “Breach” view from the pleasure-dome of Saddam Hussein’s brutal eldest son, fairy-tale-turquoise walls offer not recreational water but invasion rubble.  A lounging American soldier seems more oppressor than liberator, his arms outstretched as if claiming despot spoils.

From the “Nomads” series, “Space Wagon, Mosul” and “Grand Voyager, Sunni Triangle” each portrays a time-forgotten, desert-forsaken family car so bullet-blasted it caves in yet anthropomorphically evokes its departed occupants.  These sculptural vehicular corpses, like Giacommetti’s haunting, attenuated figures, both disturb and appeal.  So do their enshrouding dust-storm ethers, repulsive yet luminous.  Hence provoking the viewer’s voyeuristic delectation of human suffering – a consummate journalistic taboo – Mosse’s vision concretizes an ethical dilemma as intangible and real as its absent dead.

Mosse’s highly aesthetic program challenges anaesthetizing mass media and compels engagement with current events and catastrophe, as it exists in our cultural imagination, particularly since 9/11.  In “Heathrow, 747,” 2007, from the “Airside” series depicting somewhat toy-like air-disaster simulators, the spectacle of sprinklers rehearsing to douse jet flames ritualizes our shared nightmares.  The staggeringly beautiful “C-47 Alberta,” 2009, epitomizes “The Fall” series of remote, downed aircraft abstracted into our collective unconscious.  Like Arctic ice’s ship-swallow in Caspar David Friedrich’s “Das Eismeer” (1823-4), wintry Yukon wilds consume modernity’s dismembered juggernaut-turned-castoff and our sense of progress and control.

Via such “accidental monuments,” as Mosse says, his psychic shock is Friedrich’s Romantic Sublime. In Mosse’s sensation-causing 2010-11 series “Infra,” the ineffable fascination and terror that the Sublime excites surface with the eastern Congo’s otherwise hidden human rights apocalypse.  Therein, systematic sexual violence surges, as do underreported fatalities already in the millions from decades of disease, starvation and civil war.  The Congolese army and rebel militias, fighting for control over rich natural resources, massacre silently by machete then vanish into dense jungle.  In this bivouac realm, not even crumbling architecture exists to evidence the evil.  

In Mark Twain’s satire “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” (1905), the nineteenth-century Belgian monarch having maimed and killed millions of colonized Congolese laments the power of the lens in disclosing his atrocities to the world: “The kodak has been a sore calamity to us.” Cue Mosse, hauling on foot his hefty 8”x10” field camera and tripod along unpaved sub-Saharan roads,while bribing for his passage with ebbing fellowship funds.  Thus did Mosse flush out the region’s concealed chaos with Kodak Aerochrome, an obsolete infrared film designed for military aerial detection of camouflaged enemies. The resulting series’ title “Infra,” meaning “below,” references that technology and the notion of getting beneath, perceiving the imperceptible.       

Since chlorophyll reflects infrared light, which is lost to the human eye, infrared film yielded images of the Congo’s lush green landscape startlingly aglow in magenta, lavender, and crimson.  Some photojournalists fault Mosse’s vibrant palette as an artifice, which mocks the dark crisis it portrays. However, as Mosse viscerally intones, “Naturalism is no greater claim on veracity than other strategies.”  Indeed.  His surreal chromatic effect exposes the alien, incomprehensible nature of forests, pastures and peaks alive in perpetual war-hemorrhage.  In “Nowhere to Run,” sweeping mountains, home to exiled paramilitary, certainly offer no escape from their teal-tinged fuchsia fever.

While candy-colored panoramas draw back the curtain on this tragic theater, vivid close-ups in the underbrush expose its actors.  In “Vintage Violence,” an abandoned hell manifests: two juvenile, gun-wielding conscripts, shoulder-deep in vermilion vegetation and all but dead in life.  The background youth, oblivious to the camera, takes aim as tentacle-like leafstalks camouflage his beret and gloved hand while blurring about him.  Not as submerged in that menacing miasma, the foreground youth relaxes his weapon and stares at us, unforgettably, a spectral yet solid truth. 

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