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Matinee: 'Simon Norfolk' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

2 May 2015

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the eighty-third in our series of Saturday matinees today: Rear Window's conversation with Simon Norfolk.

Someday someone (if anyone is left) will write the history of war photography. Matthew Brady will have his own chapter, along with Robert Capa. And really no photojournalist working in a war zone shouldn't have their own chapter.

But reporting the action on the ground doesn't tell the whole story of any conflict. It takes someone with a different perspective to find the story that isn't being told.

Simon Norfolk is a Nigerian photographer from the city of Lagos. He was educated in England at Oxford and Bristol Universities, graduating with a degree in philosophy and sociology.

That certainly provided him with a bit different perspective.

After a documentary photography course in Newport, South Wales, he photographed anti-racist activities and fascist groups for far-left publications. But for the last 20 years, he's been devoted to landscape photography using a large format view camera.

Except that his landscapes capture the early morning or late afternoon light of places like Kabul and Baghdad. Again, a different perspective.

'The beauty you put in the work is just a seduction,' Norfolk explains.

In this 11 and a half minute clip, Norfolk is interviewed by British art historian and photographer Julian Stallabrass. It's a more intelligent interview than usual with Stallabrass asking the obvious question immediately. Why are you dragging a large format camera around conflict zones?

The answers are unusually intelligent, too.

Norfolk acknowledges that war has been photographed in the same style Robert Capa established in the 1930s using small format 35mm cameras to capture action moments, in close, with wide angle lenses. "We're still using that language for talking about warfare," he says.

But Norfolk likes to be contrary. The "negative opposite," Stallabrass calls it. Big cameras, high resolution prints with all sorts of details, picturesque work.

"The beauty you put in the work is just a seduction," Norfolk explains. "You have to get people in the door," he says, "admiring the craftsmanship, luring you into the work before he can begin the conversation.

Stallabrass asks Norfolk how he discovered the work of photographer John Burke who photographed the same territory in the 1870s. We won't spoil the story for you.

But that was his inspiration for shooting large format in conflict zones. And he even found a way to collaborate with Burke on a series of images.

As Norfolk speaks, the clip displays some of Norfolk's images, complete with captions (don't skip the captions, hit the Pause button). You can see what they're talking about.

They are extraordinary images, unlike anything else shot in those places. And that's partly because he eschewed "the embedded thing," as he calls it, in favor of living with the Afghans to see the world from their perspective.

But he also has an eye on his painterly predecessors, particularly Nicolas Poussin. One of his more successful images, he suggests, is of a tree by the North Gate of Baghdad that they both agree is one of his more beautiful images.

You can see more of his work on his site of course. But Norfolk has also published two books:

In addition, BLDGBLOG published an interview a while ago that includes a number of his images.

Stallabrass ends the interview by asking Norfolk about the reaction of people to this guIy walking around with a big view camera.

"If you creep about, you look like a spy," Norfolk explains, "so you're going to get shot very quick. So the best thing to do is stand in the middle of the road and make a fool of yourself."

It takes a very wise man to know how to play a fool.

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