Simon Norfolk might be called a war-landscape photographer. He focuses on not only battles and resultant refugee crises but also the technological infrastructure that underpins conflict and the arenas in which those conflicts play out. Among his many subjects are the beaches where Allied soldiers landed on D-day in 1944; the electronic-spying equipment on Ascension Island, in the South Atlantic; Beirut during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah; and the material detritus produced during the early years of the current war in Iraq. This exhibition, his third at Bonni Benrubi Gallery, included medium-scale images from his latest body of work made in Afghanistan, “Burke + Norfolk,” 2010–11.
The majority of Norfolk’s audience, myself included, knows his work primarily through reproductions presented in some of the world’s leading news publications, from the New York Times Magazine to the Guardian Weekend to La Repubblica. Norfolk is a canny visual essayist, and his collaborations with the photo editors of those magazines have led to richly informative portraits of myriad locales. As gratifying as those stories can be, it was rewarding to see these photographs with the clarity afforded by a larger scale and lack of journalistic context. The exhibition consisted of seven color prints, each forty by fifty inches, depicting various sites in and around Kabul, and seven smaller, black-and-white group portraits.
Though unaccompanied by written reportage, the series, as its title indicates, is a kind of collaboration: Norfolk returned to Afghanistan under the influence of John Burke, a photographer who traveled with British troops during the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878–80. In an attempt to draw out the continuities between the earlier conflict and the current occupation, which Norfolk suggests should be called the Fourth Anglo-Afghan War, he has both retraced Burke’s steps and created pictures he imagined Burke would take today.
Among the color landscape images, such connections were difficult to discern; one imagines that the recent exhibition at Tate Modern of pictures by both photographers made the more explicit. (The publisher Dewi Lewis has released a lavish book that also juxtaposes their work.) We see a homeless father and daughter camped out on the grounds of the president’s former palace, now reduced to six broken brick columns; a deserted pizza shop adjacent to the piled bus carcasses in a Kabul depot; a lumpy pyramid of bags of apples for sale in a roadside market; and the garish decorative lights in the courtyard of the Sham-E-Paris wedding hall. Each of these smartly composed scenes is cast in the smoky-blue light of dawn or dusk. Norfolk, in an interview, has suggested this light is meant to convey his disillusionment with the situation in Afghanistan. But the lights transitional nature can also be read as optimistic, as can the effortful “normalcy” some of these images depict. Disdain for the occupation need not preclude admiration for the resilience of its victims.
The poise of Norfolk’s group portrait subjects suggests that despite his dismay, he understands this. Shooting in black-and-white, Norfolk deploys the somewhat stilted-looking portrait conventions of Burke’s day—frontal views, no interaction among the subjects—to depict both the military and civilian sides of contemporary Afghan life. There are police being trained by marines, pro-Taliban refugees, and a minesweeping team, but there are also boys learning traditional instruments at a music school, the crew and ground staff of a new airline, and girls who use an indoor skate park set up by American NGO volunteers. In both his landscapes and his portraits, Norfolk refuses to look away from the dispiriting aspects of this damaged place, while suggesting, perhaps against his own emotional response to what he encountered, that the situation there may yet change for the better.