Writing on photography

Broomberg and Chanarin and the Politics of Appropriation

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have won the Deutsche Börse prize for War Primer 2, a reworking of the 1998 English edition of Brecht’s 1955 book Kriegsfiebel, which sought to tease out the hidden meanings of Second World War press photographs. To achieve this Brecht juxtaposed the photographs against short epigrams, echoing the funerary poetry often inscribed on the monuments of the ancient world. War Primer 2 updates the original work with photographs from the War on Terror (in a very broad sense of the phrase), each selected to resonate with Brecht’s text and laid directly over the images of the original book.

The shortlist for this year’s prize was potentially so interesting, divided as it was between photographers and artists in such radically different camps. There was Christina de Middel, who represented the burgeoning, quirky, do-it-yourself photography publishing scene. There was Chris Killip, the old guard of socially concerned documentary photography. There was Miskha Henner, fusing appropriation with quite traditional documentary subject matter. And then there were Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, who more than any of the others perhaps represent the photographic arts establishment, the world of expensive editioned prints in white walled galleries.

Within hours of their win being announced there was a certain amount of crying foul. There were rumours that the duo might be sued by the Associated Press for using a photograph without permission, there were similarly vague accusations of impropriety because of Broomberg’s former position as a trustee of the Photographer’s Gallery (who organise the competition), and the current trusteeship of the publisher of War Primer 2, Michael Mack. But most of all I sense there was just a lot of indifference, apathy at a prize which once again has chosen the most obvious candidates as winners.

And this apathy is a shame, not least because it means that most of those still writing and talking about War Primer 2 are either those who are unquestioningly enamoured with it (or with it’s makers), or those who on principle despise Broomberg and Chanarin and what they represent, and would rather condemn their work, simply because it is theirs, than admit that there is anything of value in it. I find myself somewhere in between these camps, feeling that with War Primer 2 I am confronted by a book which is on some levels extremely clever and on other levels deeply unresolved, even contradictory.

Appropriation in terms of fine art is an established and accepted technique, its position in photography is less comfortable, perhaps because the inherent, infinite reproducibility of the medium means any appropriation is always a potential threat to the original author’s ownership of the work. Still it’s been a steadily expanding field for many years, and War Primer 2 is the latest in a long line of appropriative ‘photographic’ works, including of course Brecht’s original Kriegsfiebel. However appropriation becomes more of an issue with Broomberg and Chanarin’s work, because where Brecht appropriated just the physical material of photographs, I think War Primer 2 appropriates more totally, borrowing from Brecht on three levels, the physical, the conceptual, and the ideological.

Physically, War Primer 2 builds directly on to Brecht’s original book, or ‘inhabits’ it to use Broomberg and Chanarin’s chosen terminology. The connections between new and old images are hit and miss, some are brilliant, like the much reproduced overlay of one of the burning twin towers with an aerial reconnaissance photograph of a bombed refinery. Others are weaker, the visual comparisons between George W. Bush and Adolf Hitler for example are predictable and lazy. Some also rely heavily on knowledge of the image that lies beneath, often entirely obscured by Broomberg and Chanarin’s additions. This ‘inhabiting’ (some might call it ‘squatting’) of Brecht’s original book is more broadly problematic in that it’s a technique which limits reproducibility, forcing the book into the world of the inaccessibly expensive art edition, the opposite of what Brecht presumably intended with his cheap school book style primer. (They have, I should say, since released a free digital version, which does something to counteract this).

Conceptually, War Primer 2 seems like an almost total appropriation of Kriegsfibel. While Broomberg and Chanarin have added new visual material, with results that range from the provocative to the banal, the core concept of the book remains I think indisputably Brecht’s. What was interesting about Kriegsfibel was never really the photography, and the same is true of War Primer 2 but for a handful of exceptions where the old and new images jar strikingly. What makes Brecht’s book a masterpiece are the poems, those brilliantly insightful, evocative litanies to the stupid, cruel, arbitrariness of war and repetitive, reductive ways it is recorded. For me at least this poses a difficult challenge to the notion that Broomberg and Chanarin have met the Deutsche Börse prize’s qualification that winner should have made a ‘significant contribution to the medium of photography’. The contribution, I think, is still almost entirely Brecht’s.

Ideologically there is again an awkwardness in it all. Broomberg and Chanarin seem to have selectively appropriated elements of Brecht’s politics, not least his (now very fashionable) scepticism towards photography. And yet as I’ve already said War Primer 2 is not an object I can imagine Brecht would have recognised as his; an expensive, exclusive, limited edition art piece. Not just that, but an art piece produced by unwaged students (including friends of mine) plucked from the London College of Communication, where the duo are associate lecturers. I was nearly recruited in a similar fashion to work on their latest publication Holy Bible. Also on the heels of writing about Sebastião Salgado’s relationship with mining giant Vale, I have to wonder how Broomberg and Chanarin can possibly square Brecht’s politics with winning a prize sponsored by like Deutsche Börse, which represents to such a caricaturish extent the type of capitalism Brecht so despised.

I’ve dwelt overly on what I perceive to be weaknesses in the work, I should say there are many things I admire about it as well, some of which are highlighted in this essay from the exhibition catalogue. As a long-time fan of the under-appreciated but brilliant original book, I somewhat feel the issues around War Primer 2 are to be overlooked if they draw attention and interest back to Kriegsfibel and it’s author. War Primer 2 is an interesting and timely piece of work, but in many ways I think Broomberg and Chanarin are standing on the shoulders of a giant, and rifling through his pockets for spare ideas.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography