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Art, Reality

Hot Rod of the Apocalypse

by Sean O’Toole / 01.04.2010

Sophie Ristelhueber, Eleven Blowups #5, 2006
© Sophie Ristelhueber/adagp

Guy Tillim’s Joburg has nothing on Sophie Ristelhueber’s Beirut. Where our Kommetjie-based homeboy’s city is a place of cracked windows and Eskom-less murk, the French-born winner of this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Prize shows us a bombed-out oblivion.

Born in 1949, Ristelhueber is a conflict photographer in the tradition of Roger Fenton, Simon Norfolk, and, yes, Tillim too. Common to all these photographers is their interest in aftermath and the stillness of ruin. Instead of making pictures that replay the death of a loyalist militiaman pierced by a bullet ala Capa, Ristelhueber chooses to show us bomb craters and earth scars, fucked-up stadia and barricaded roads. If war is a football game, think of Ristelhueber’s photographs as studies of the pitch not the players.

Sophie Ristelhueber, Eleven Blowups #10, 2006
© Sophie Ristelhueber/adagp

She first started making these sorts of pictures while in Beirut in 1982. She has since travelled to Bosnia, Iraq, Lebanon and Kuwait to gather evidence of mankind’s unhappiness and agitation. The way she sees the landscape has much to do with her artist sensibility: Ristelhueber is not a news agency photographer. This is important.

When she tried to get into Kuwait in 1991, she was refused entry – “because I was working as an artist, not a journalist”. When Ristelhueber finally got her visa, months after the fact, she photographed the CNN war in a way it hadn’t been shown before by photographers: vertically, not horizontally. Her Kuwaiti aerial photographs show an acne-cratered landscape that is both brutalised and resplendent. (“Devastation is very photogenic,” quipped Cape Town painter Jeanette Unite in an unrelated conversation recently.)

“Devoid of drama, her surgically precise images, radically installed, push the boundaries of the photographic medium,” says Brett Rogers, director of The Photographers’ Gallery in London, which annually hosts the prestigious £30,000 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. The prize, for which both Roger Ballen and David Goldblatt have both been shortlisted in the past, is awarded to a living photographer who has made the most significant contribution to photography in Europe in the past year.

Sophie Ristelhueber, Eleven Blowups #1, 2006
© Sophie Ristelhueber/adagp

It is hard to ignore the fact that Ristelhueber’s victory follows shortly on director Kathryn Bigelow’s successful award season run with The Hurt Locker. Bomb craters and shrapnel marks linger on the periphery of our consciousness. Car bombs and female suicide bombers are the new avant-garde, offered Don DeLillo in his 1991 book Mao II.
Social historian Mike Davis offers an equally compelling analysis of the age of terror in his 2007 book Buda’s Wagon. The book takes its name from an incident in September 1920, when Mario Buda, an immigrant Italian anarchist exploded a horse-drawn wagon filled with dynamite and iron scrap near New York’s Wall Street, killing 40 people and leaving 200 injured. It ushered in the era of the “poor man’s air force”.

“The car bomb probably has a brilliant future,” writes Davis, offering a not entirely oblique contextualisation of Ristelhueber’s photos. “All sides, moreover, now play by the Old Testament rules and every laser-guided missile falling on an apartment in southern Beirut or a mud-walled compound in Kandahar is a future suicide truck bomb headed for the centre of Tel Aviv or perhaps downtown Los Angeles. Buda’s wagon truly has become the hot rod of the apocalypse.”

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