The Atlas Gallery’s latest exhibition is a seductive series of shocks: images of death and destruction that jar because of how familiar they have become. Seeing them again in one go – and these genuinely are some of the defining images of the last half century or so – is to be repeatedly shown the worst of humanity, and the incredible photography such terrible acts have produced.
Thomas Hoepker’s shot of people apparently enjoying a nice get-together in Brooklyn as the World Trade Center falls to the ground behind them is one of the more recent additions – and one of the few that is in colour. That image seems now to be getting something of a reputation: I’ve seen it shown and discussed more in the past few months than it ever was before. It’s ambiguous in a way that maybe some of the others aren’t, and is the richer for it.
Other classic images that are featured include Eddie Adams’ frozen moment as a Viet Cong prisoner is about to be shot in the street. Apparently a straightforward example of power abused. And yet Adams never saw it that way, saw instead the executioner as a hero and said he understood why the cowering young man preparing himself for the bullet had to die.
Then there is Robert Capa. Here is the blurred faces at Omaha Beach but there … there is that falling Spanish soldier again. I’m sure the Barbican said they’d solved it when they put on an exhibition of Capa a few years ago but still the doubts surface as a steady stream (by photography standards) of stories emerge of negative boxes found but that negative missing. Is it important that we know for sure a man is dying rather than acting? After all, aren’t those soldier raising the flag at Iwo Jima in Joe Rosenthal’s shot just recreating what they’d already done. That’s the real story isn’t it?
Thankfully other moments are more straightforward even if not necessarily comfortable. In quick succession JFK dies, Oswald is shot and Jackie grieves. A footprint on the moon; Edmund Hilary at the top of Everest. The red flag over a destroyed Berlin; the mushroom cloud rising over Hiroshima (photographer: anonymous).
Anybody interested in the power and history of photography should see these images – and to do so in the intimate and quiet Atlas Gallery is a privilege. If you think the camera should just record technically perfect shots of flowers and that photographers who press the shutter when they see suffering are bastards look away now. Everybody else should go and have a look if they can.