Ri­chard Mosse Beau­ty Is the Prio­ri­ty



The first res­ponse of vie­wers seeing the pho­to­graphs ta­ken by Ri­chard Mosse amid­st the on­going war in the De­mo­cra­tic Re­pu­blic of Con­go is a mix­ture of cap­ti­va­tion and di­so­rien­ta­tion. In his huge Afri­can land­scapes and por­traits of figh­ters, Mosse im­poses a sin­gu­lar vi­sion that pushes the vie­wer to construct their own ethical po­si­tion in the cur­rent post-do­cu­men­ta­ry de­bate. Ba­sed in New York, this Irish pho­to­gra­pher born in 1980 star­ted his ca­reer wor­king for news ma­ga­zines, co­ve­ring conflicts in Hai­ti, Bagh­dad and Bei­rut. He even­tual­ly tur­ned his back on tra­di­tio­nal pho­to­jour­na­lism but al­so on the pro­fes­sed­ly neu­tral do­cu­men­ta­ry style and ins­tead ex­plo­red the is­sues of post-pho­to­gra­phic do­cu­men­ta­ry af­ter the di­gi­tal turn. In fact, this al­so in­vol­ved an in­crea­sed use of pre-di­gi­tal photography. Mosse works with ana­logue equip­ment, using a spe­cial­ly made large-cham­ber woo­den view ca­me­ra. It was the huge pink and red pho­to­graphs of his In­fra se­ries that brought Mosse to wi­der at­ten­tion in 2011. Then came The En­clave, a se­ries of pho­to­graphs and a 16 mm­film pre- sen­ted on six screens at the 2013 Ve­nice Bien­nale. Co­lor, the pho­to­gra­pher’s real “hall­mark,” is ge­ne­ra­ted by the use of in­fra­red Ko­dak Ae­ro­chrome film, in­ven­ted in the 1940s. Used by science and the mi­li­ta­ry, this in­fra­red film pro­vokes a chro­ma­tic trans­for­ma­tion that serves to de­tect, say, an ene­my ca­mou­fla­ged in the fo­rest. Mosse, though, uses this tech­no­lo­gy for contem­pla­tive pur­poses, far from any de­sire to speak di­rect­ly of a war that killed over five mil­lion people. THE IM­POS­SIBLE IMAGE The pro­blem fa­ced by Mosse is how to re­veal an opaque rea­li­ty. He is fa­ced with the im­pos­sible image, in the sense that photography has fai­led to convey the com­plexi­ty of an ex­tre­me­ly tan­gled conflict of which we have seen few pictures, a war that is of on­ly li­mi­ted in­ter­est to Wes­tern pu­blic opi­nion. The ques­tion of trans­mit­ting in­for­ma­tion wi­thout vi­sible traces and about a sub­ject that can­not be di­rect­ly shown by the ca­me­ra is cen­tral for Mosse. One example is the use of rape as a wea­pon of war and the way it des­troys in­di­vi­duals and even the struc­ture of so­cie­ty it­self, a pro­cess whose psy­chic im­pact on the vic­tims it is im­pos­sible to film di­rect­ly. It may be that this in­ter­est in re­pre­sen­ting the se­quels of war has its roots in Mosse’s child­hood. In an interview for Irish te­le­vi­sion, Mosse ex­plai­ned that he grew up in a Qua­ker fa­mi­ly where his pa­ci­fist up­brin­ging contras­ted stron­gly with the ma­ny sto­ries of vio­lence in Nor­thern Ire­land.(1) His first jour­ney, aged twen­ty, was to Bos­nia to pho­to­graph the traces of the recent war there. Some ten years la­ter, when trying to convey the rea­li­ty of the war in the Eas­tern Con­go, Mosse did not pho­to­graph vio­lence but ins­tead cap­tu­red sol­diers loo­king wa­ri­ly or po­sing in­dul­gent­ly for the lens. Above all, he pho­to­gra­phed the beau­ti­ful land­scapes of the North/Ki­vu area with their co­lors shif­ting from bright pink to deep red as the day wore on. While there is no si­gn of dead bo­dies here, the do­mi­nance of ma­gen­ta constant­ly re­calls the blood shed in the course of the war, like a re­verse ver­sion of Na­po­leon’s co­lor-blind­ness in W. G. Se­bald’s mi­cro­poem: “They say / that Na­po­leon / was co­lour­blind / & blood for him / as green as / grass,” which he quo­ted in the text pre­sen­ting In­fra, his show at the Jack Shain­man Gal­le­ry in New York in 2011.(2) The po­wer­ful emo­tion exu­ded by the warm, shim­me­ring co­lors hides death, which is al­ways present. Re­pre­sen­ta­tions of death and des­truc­tion haunt Mosse’s ear­lier pho­to­graphs, too. The sub­ject of his 2008 ex­hi­bi­tion Air­side was plane crash si­mu­la­tors. In The Fall, in 2009, de­bris of planes that cra­shed in the Ca­na­dian coun­try­side were shown along­side the hulks of cars in the Ira­qi de­sert and Ame­ri­can sol­diers wan­de­ring through the de­vas­ta­ted pa­laces of Sad­dam Hus­sein. Here was the ma­ni­fes­ta­tion of ruin lust and the re­sur­gence of a cer­tain kind of Ro­man­ti­cism.

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