Writing on photography

Review – Bunker Archaeology by Paul Virilio

Technical limitations sometimes define outcomes in photography as much as things like aesthetic considerations or political agendas. Early photographers were limited by the nature of their medium to static subject matter even in depicting subjects like war which we normally think of as very dynamic. The advent of new technologies gave rise to new possibilities of representation, showing war in all its unfurling speed, however this new dynamism sometimes created new problems of its own. It’s interesting to see how in recent years some photographers have returned to representing the relatively static elements of conflict, like fortifications, sometimes in direct response these new problems, or in an attempt to reveal what dynamic representations sometimes miss. Gus Wylie, Simon Norfolk, and David Galjaard all spring to mind as examples.

With this in mind I think it’s interesting to return to something of a precursor to this approach, Paul Virilio’s 1974 book Bunker Archaeology, long out of print but reissued several years ago by Princeton Architectural Press. Normally I wouldn’t feel up to the task of reviewing the work of Virilio, but this book is both brilliant and sufficiently overlooked for it to seem worth trying to draw some attention to. Bunker Archaeology is part photo book, part architectural philosophy, part travelogue, and part work of history. Growing up in northern France during the Second World War the coast was always off limits to Virilio. At the time the occupying German army were constructing a vast network of fortifications along the coast, intended to prevent an expected allied invasion. This system of bunkers, gun emplacements and obstacles known as the Atlantic Wall was intended to turn occupied Europe into a veritable fortress ringed by steel and concrete.

That invasion came as predicted, and these formidable defenses exacted a heavy toll but were ultimately overwhelmed. The war ended, the bunkers were for the most part forgotten. A decade or more later while on holiday in Brittany, Virilio found himself drawn to these squat concrete masses that surrounded him, and which his countrymen seemed for the most part to refuse to even acknowledge. Many sought to forget the four years of German occupation, but these indelible concrete markers on the landscape refused to disappear. Rather than look away, Virilio looked closer, beginning an exhaustive investigation into the Atlantic Wall that would occupy most of the next twenty years. Approaching his topic through photographs, architectural plans, coastal maps and essays, the resulting book is a strange and brilliant meditation on the relationship between space, memory and experience.

The first half of the book contains a series of essays, exploring the Atlantic Wall from several intellectual tangets which will probably be recognisable to anyone familiar with Virilio’s other writings. In The Fortress for example he ruminates on the psychological effect of existing within fortified Europe, how the desire to fortify reflected very fundamentally the nature of German ideology, that it was based in the land (‘Blood and Soil’), while being largely indifferent to questions of the air and the sea. In The Monolith he muses on the architectural ambiguity of the bunkers, comparable perhaps only to funeral monuments or border markers, and what the unique characteristics of these constructions said about the nature of modern war.

The second half of the book contains black and white photographs of the bunkers themselves. Approached for the most part with a detached, comparative approach resonant of with the Dusseldorf school or the New Topographics, for anyone who knows Virilio primarily as a theorist these pictures will come as something of a revelation. Through his camera the fortifications are revealed as bizarre neoliths and totems, a family of related structures, subtly different in their details, evolving in response to circumstance and necessity. A number already are beginning to be absorbed back into the dunes, another totters atop an eroded bank, preparing to tip and fall. All have the aura of something dark and unspeakable, primordial nightmares in concrete.

As I noted at the start of this review, this book in many ways pre-empts several contemporary sub-genres of photography, including perhaps aftermath photography, an approach that often consists of photographers returning to the sites of terrible events in an attempt to crystalise something of that past in photographic form. But unlike this genre, which is often about hinting at histories that remain hidden, Bunker Archaeology tackles the question of histories that remain plainly visible, but are still too difficult or painful to understand or even to actually see. Bunker Archaeology is a remarkable book, a blurring of a rigorous examination of the form and purpose of deeply pragmatic architecture, with a profound and subjective discussion of the past.

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