As with many of the best, and most quoted Benjaminian observations this statement is bequeathed to history for us and for generations who come after us, to make of what we will. Having read Benjamin’s words it may seem impossible now not to see Atget’s photographs thus, and yet Benjamin never spelled out quite what the actual crime or crimes might have been?
As he also claimed that “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” we could be led to assume that the crime referred to is the crime is modernity itself, and thus Paris, as the first modern city, becomes the scene of that crime, a crime that only photography, and perhaps only Atget (who never sought to make ‘art’ but produced what Benjamin called “standard evidence for historical occurrences”) could reveal.
Photography is in many respects scientific. One of its attractions as a modern art form, process or medium may be the peculiarly programmatic and practical means by which it produces unprecedentedly ‘realistic’ images as the -always surprising- outcome of a technical and chemical procedure. Nevertheless, as can be gleaned from the examples given above, photography’s modern and scientific approach to gathering earthly material data does little to discourage our belief or interest in the mysterious, the magical, things of the spirit and matters of the beyond.
Sadly The Photographers Gallery exhibition about ‘evidence’ never releases its grip on death as its prime focus and motivational force. Like a morbid lodestone photography and death seem irretractably linked.
You can sit on a convenient bench and watch as scores of victims of Soviet paranoia are paraded before you on a screen, people of varying ages who look defiantly into the states official photographer’s lens, on or near the day of their execution, perversely recorded and celebrated by the same organisation that was so eager to execute and remove them from sight forever.
Films made and screened for the Nuremberg trials also feature, as does a documentation of the matching of a skull -buried under a pseudonym- to the photographed face of Nazi war criminal Mengeles. The shroud of Turin also makes an appearance.
You can see digital photography and video used to ascertain the possible murder of Palestinian protestors by Israeil soldiers. Then there are documented outcomes of ‘ordnance’ in scenes drawn from current middle-Eastern wars showing the effectiveness of precision bombs designed to kill the inhabitants of buildings and not destroy the buildings themselves. These are juxtaposed with first world war aerial photographs recording the effectiveness of bombing and shelling fields in and around the Somme. Interestingly however, there is very little in this exhibition to convince you that photography is ever true or clear about the evidence it produces.
Pixillation or the grains of silver halides invariably interfere with detailed analysis of images. Meanwhile ‘beautifully’ photographed bloodstains, footprints and fingerprints are rendered so aesthetically compelling that it seems to be impossible to regard anything here with an appropriately dispassionate judgmental eye.