In exhibition, Mosse ART ’08 goes beyond war photography

NEW YORK — How can an artist take war-related photographs that aren’t defined by tragic emotion? Richard Mosse ART ’08, for one, focuses on landscape, or rather, what landscape has become.

Mosse’s new exhibition, “The Fall,” currently up at the Jack Shainman Gallery here, consists of a video and 12 photographs that the artist took in remote areas from the Patagonian Andes to the Yukon Territories and with the United States military in Iraq. Though one might expect his photographs to be emotionally charged because of their locations and subject matter, Mosse manages to document changing physical environments, rather than tragic war zones.

Mosse’s pictures are superficially tragic, but underneath they offer compelling depictions of altered natural environments.
Richard Mosse
Mosse’s pictures are superficially tragic, but underneath they offer compelling depictions of altered natural environments.

Despite the undeniable beauty of the images — they are blown-up to a large scale, and many of them have striking location-specific lighting — it is easy to assume quickly that this show is the work of a photographer-gone-military-embed exploiting tragedy to make art. Fortunately, this isn’t the case.

Walking in, the viewer is immediately confronted by a photograph of a Plymouth (the car), completely destroyed by bullet holes and explosions. (Mosse took the picture in Iraq for a News article printed last spring.) Though Mosse was a military embed while taking his pictures, the Plymouth he photographed looks less like a freshly bombed car than one long embedded in the desert. It isn’t a reminder of or a reference to something current and horrible; rather, it is a depiction of an altered natural landscape.

One of the other photographs in the show depicts the nose of a plane that, like the car, was perched in the desert for many years before Mosse arrived. Dated and irrelevant with respect to any modern conflicts — this type of plane has been obsolete for some years — the image also seems more concerned with the way the landscape has changed and the way nature has been redefined by physical remnants of past conflicts.

The dated quality of many of the objects makes the photographs impersonal for a younger audience. Because the cars, planes and locations were visibly destroyed decades ago, they don’t play to contemporary war-inspired sentiments. As a result, the vehicles and locations look like they were meant to be photographed for the sake of the art and not to evoke pity.

Mosse’s work becomes more about the mechanical forms he has found in nature than about any sentiments attached to them that he would not be able to control. Even the soldiers who appear in two of the photographs do not trigger emotion. In their army suits and high-tech gear, they are merely visitors, people who demonstrate how modernity clashes with the unmoved remnants of past destruction.

Though the photographs remove the viewer from the immediate tragedy of war, they also raise questions about the past.

After walking twice around the show, the images unavoidably take on secondary meanings. They become shrinelike and iconic — neutral but pointed reminders of events that are alien to the viewer. Slowly the viewer begins to wonder why Mosse chose to photograph these specific objects and how he might be mapping out an unknown moment in history.

While it is possible Mosse moved around with the troops searching for any and all wreckage to photograph strictly for the sake of beautiful images, the alternative possibility that he is mapping the unknown adds an interesting dimension to his work.

Mosse’s new show is a success. He has taken beautiful photographs that do not depend on external reference in order to be meaningful and that manage to elicit an unforced response from the viewer.

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