Simon Norfolk's photographs are awesome in the original sense of the word. Not, like, awesome in a "dude" way but awesome as in filled with his sense of it. They're powerful, sometimes scary, and always impressive.
Take his work from Bleed, a book on the mass graves of Bosnia. Village populations were gunned down by the Serbs and buried in pits; in a post-war flurry of obfuscation, the bodies were bulldozed and re-interred in secret locations.
Norfolk took his camera to one of those locations — Crny Vrh — but he didn't just document what he saw. He created abstract icescapes, including one with a disturbing red coloration. "That image is quite beautiful," says co-curator Mark Sloan. "It's powerful because it works on so many levels. It's a haunting elegy to the hundreds if not thousands of bodies buried beneath the surface. It reflects the nature of what atrocity is and how it can be covered up by the land."
Sloan co-curated Norfolk's last Halsey show, Afghanistan: Palimpsest, held on the first anniversary of 9/11. Since then the artist has traveled the world, capturing the destructive effect of war on landscapes with a breathtaking tonal depth.
"My best efforts look like paintings," says Norfolk, whose vistas connote landscape masters like Claude Lorraine, John Martin and JMW Turner. "They have a sense of texture and place. They're nothing like pow-pow-pow news photography."
Norfolk strives to give an opposite view of the received idea of what war zones should look like. "I wanted to get away from the tired motifs that we're used to," he says, "the refugee camp clichés of white gloves on little black baby's bellies, or nose cone footage of a bomb flying through Osama Bin Laden's front door. My work is anti-telly, anti-news photography. TV viewers have no real sense of what Afghanistan was, that it was a landscape in crisis. It was extraordinary how they had no idea what it was really like after watching hours of footage. I don't have a TV at the moment, and it's like unchaining yourself from a mad horse."
The new Halsey show is a greatest hits collection of Norfolk's work over the last four years, gathered during visits to Iraq, Bosnia, Normandy, Liberia, Israel, Palestine, and Africa.
"I look like a pillock with my bald head, Hawaiian shirt, and bizarre camera," says Norfolk. "A harmless dickhead. If I wandered round with a TV camera or a small Nikon I'd be murdered or chased off. I'm amazed that these news photographers dress like soldiers — they're just asking to be shot at by a sniper. Sometimes the best place to hide is in plain view." His brazen attitude has helped him to generate images that seethe with personal frustration and compassion.
A shot taken at Hussain Khil, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, is dominated by a black plume of smoke from dark red brickworks. Sunlight gives the smoke its own brownish hue, and the landscape is a mix of volcanic towers and green crops. In another photograph, a colorful victory arch leads to a mountainous area with niches carved in the rock. The lonely arch is guarded by a single sentry who practically blends into the background, his head turned away from the camera.
The sentry could almost be one of the goat herders in Norfolk's depiction of Agshar, looking down on the devastated Hazara neighborhood in western Kabul. Ruined rows of stone houses stretch into the background, while the herders echo the innocent subjects of Nicholas Poussin's 17th Century painting, "Et in Arcadia Ego," aka "The Arcadian Shepherds." In this manner, the pastoral meets the pulverized.
While Norfolk's 2002 exhibition at the Halsey juxtaposed his images with Afghani textiles, his new show has a distinct context of political science and social studies (co-curator Mark Long is an assistant professor of Political Science at College of Charleston).
"Norfolk has been working on this project for ten years," says Mark Sloan. "During that time he's been engaged in the idea of the effects of war on the landscape. That's a layer that's visible in his work, but there's a subtext — what this is doing to us as humans. He's a humanist, and I think his photos are a form of activism."
Simon Norfolk will present a free artist's lecture at Physicians Auditorium on Thurs., Feb. 16 at 7 p.m.