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Norfolk, Simon
Nigeria / Britain (1963 - )
American bombers searching for and attacking Al-Qaeda targets in Tora Bora; seen from the outskirts of Kabul
Chromogenic color print mounted on acrylic
39 1/2 x 49 1/2 in. (100.3 x 125.7 cm) visible image size; 40 x 50 in. (101.6 x 127 cm) sheet size; 41 1/2 x 51 1/2 x 2 1/4 in. (105.4 x 130.8 x 5.7 cm) frame size
Gift of Burt and Jane Berman
FA 2007.31
Keywords: Landscape; War; Transportation (plane); Sky; Series: Afghanistan Series

“kingdoms rising, kingdoms falling,
bowing nations, plumèd wars,
weigh them in an hour of dreaming…”
-wb yeats

Nigerian photographer and photojournalist Simon Norfolk explores the follies of human nature and the foolishness of empire, referencing 17th and 18th century French landscape painters. Whereas the French masters painted dynamic figural compositions and the crumbling of classical architecture, Norfolk captures quiet scenes empty of humans. The artist’s current bodies of work focus on the ruins of empire and the destruction of war in sedate photographs, free of the trauma and shock typically associated with war photojournalism. The vibrant purple hue of this monumental photograph is reminiscent of the sublime quality of earlier Romantic paintings. One approaches Norfolk’s photographs stunned by the beauty of the recorded scene. One leaves his panoramic photographs with feelings of insignificance and a sense of awe – not in the Romantics’ awe of the power of God, but awe at the power of modern weaponry.

The title of Norfolk’s work reveals deeper insight into the content of the photograph. American bombers searching for and attacking Al-Qaeda targets in Tora Bora; seen from the outskirts of Kabul (2002) is part of the Afghanistan: Chronotopia series. Norfolk spent years in Afghanistan photographing abandoned tanks, fallen cargo planes, rusted cannon casings, and dilapidated buildings – evidence of 24 years of war. Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin described this kind of site a “chronotope” from the Greek roots, chronos (time) and topos (place). A chronotope is a place that displays the ‘layeredness’ of time: where one observes the successive effects of time on a particular place simultaneously.

Norfolk described the chronotopia of Afghanistan as a “mirror, shattered and thrown into the mud of the past; the shards are glittering fragments, echoing previous civilizations and lost greatness.” Confronted with this constant layering and covering up, he believes it is his duty as an investigative photographer to make society (and especially Western society) stop and look with more discrimination. Norfolk’s photographs document the ruins that are stark indicators of the carnage wreaked on the land and its people after so many years of war. By studying how war affects the physical shape of our cities and natural environments, our collective cultural memory, and the psychology of societies, the artist is pursuing one of life’s big questions with intensity and focused intention.

-- Label copy for exhibit in the Henry Art Gallery Board room, April 1, 2009 to September 23, 2009.

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