Photography and Its Troubled Histories

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Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Magic and the state #4, 2012, Collage, Hand print on fiber based paper, approx. 8 x 10 inches, Unique

The exhibition ‘To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light’ by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin is currently on display at Paradise Row in London. The exhibition title is derived from a phrase that was used by the photo manufacturer Kodak to describe the capabilities of a new photographic film released in the early 1980s. The awkward yet rather poetic phrase camouflages an underlining dilemma for the photographic industry as film stock historically performed poorly in capturing black skin. A photograph of Kodak’s ‘Shirley’ vividly illustrates the industry’s racial bias as film was calibrated to capture the white skin of an imaginary proto-subject. Here, the ‘dark horse’ is in reference to the film’s supposed ability to transcend this bias and photograph black skin with equal detail.

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Shirley, 2012, print on c-type gloss paper, 19 x 26 cm

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Magic and the state #5, 2012, Collage, Hand print on fiber based paper, approx. 8 x 10 inches, Unique

The majority of the work on display seeks to confront photography’s troubled relationship with colonialism and the representation of the Other. In response to a commission to ‘document’ Gabon, Broomberg and Chanarin photographed young children playing in the water in the series Magic and the State. Referencing the fallacy of photography as accurate representation of man (especially while bridging a cultural divide), the young children’s bodies are cut out to reveal another image of lush nature beneath the black and white print. The children are not as much captured in the photograph as they are represented by the shape of their bodies in relation to their natural environment. The series, like many projects on display in the gallery, has a strong conceptual and aesthetic affinity with French surrealism.

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Untitled (165 portraits with dodgers), Detail, Unique Photographic Hand Prints on Fiber Based Paper, 8 x 10 inches each, 2012

A large installation of 165 portraits similarly seeks to dismantle and disrupt the notion of a photographic truth. For this work, Broomberg and Chanarin photographed mostly black men and women who pose for the camera wearing an intriguing mixture of ritualistic body art and more conventional clothing. Importantly, every portrait is, quite literally, overshadowed by the imprint of a dodging tool – a device used in the photographic darkroom to make certain parts of the print lighter. Rather than applying the dodging tool to brighten the subjects’ face for instance, the artists consciously included the outline of the tool to deconstruct the inherent role of photography in creating racial cohesion and difference.

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Untitled (165 portraits with dodgers), 2012, Wall installation: 165 unique hand printed black & white photograms, each 10x8in. Installation dimensions 145 x 720 cm.

While displaying this wall installation in a strict grid format, the work can be read as a commentary on the historical role of photography in categorizing, classifying and archiving man as ‘types’. From the photographic archive of Victorian era criminals to Western anthropologists seeking to document South American tribes at the dawn of colonialization, the grid formation also evokes the power of photography: not the power of the image to communicate, but the power of the photographic archive to promote, maintain and even enforce the laws of a social system. Here, the exhibition critically addresses a post-colonial discourse in relation to photography’s historical investment in maintaining social, biological and racial difference.

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Kodak Ektachrome 34 1978 frame 4, 2012, C-41 print on fiber based paper, 120 x 120 cm, Edition of 5 plus 2 APs

Apart from disseminating the medium photography as agent of governance, a number of works can be enjoyed purely for their visual and apparently satirical value. In one video piece Broomberg and Chanarin filmed four different one-second snippets of a tree trunk cut to size in a lumber mill. Each snippet, presented on four small TV screens and running in parallel in an endless video loop, make for fascinating viewing as the repetitive noise from the mill evokes the sounds of a Free Jazz drum loop. The various devices to hold the wood in place uncannily look like an interplay of sticks and brushes producing the sound on the surface of the drum.

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Strip Test 2, Photographic Print on Fiber Based Paper, approx. 150 x 190 cm, 2012

The Strip Test series is a play on words on the photographic term ‘test strip’ – usually a small section of a print to test whether the exposure time in the darkroom is correct. Here, on the other hand, the test strips are super large, exceeding the size of any other print in the gallery, and becoming an object of curiosity in their own right. The choice of subjects for these test strips are purposefully bewildering, further suspending the viewer’s belief in photography as representational medium. This work, like most pieces in the exhibition, read like a darkroom accident that questions and contradicts the intrinsic value of the photographic print. In a world of image making and sharing via the Internet, a world in which photography as material object is quickly vanishing, the exhibition is a monument to photography’s complex, troubled and at times conflicting histories. III Originally published on

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