Ben Brody, 300m

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Mass Books (here). Multi-panel concertina book, doublesided with cardboard covers, sheathed in red dust jacket. 10 panoramic photographs, with text by the author. Design by Kummer and Herrman. In an edition of 600 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Only the dead have seen the end of war. Santayana’s aphorism might also apply to war photography. Conflict is visual catnip for many photographers, and its imagery has kept pace with the medium since the 1840s, past death and infirmities, past battle lines real and imagined. Consider the coin-flip fatalism of Robert Capa’s dying soldier, the muddy resignation of Larry Burrows mired in the jungle of Vietnam, or Ukraine’s ongoing devastation as documented by Evgeniy Moleletka. These are just a few vivid examples. A complete history of the genre is beyond the scope of this review, but if there is any consistent through line, it’s photography’s inherent inadequacy as a vicarious medium. A two dimensional image is one thing, and some are gut-churning. But no photo can fully convey the experience of war.

Nevertheless, photographers keep trying, Ben Brody among them. He is blessed (or cursed?) with a broader perspective on warfare than most. He enrolled in the U.S. Army after 9/11 at the tender age of 22, then served a year in Iraq as an official combat photographer. In 2007 he returned for a second tour just as the U.S. troop surge reached peak intensity. He photographed the carnage, and thankfully came home in one piece. 

Brody retired stateside as a sergeant, but the war still nagged at him, especially its nationalistic imagery and his role in it. Eventually he arrived at another approach: he would cover the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan as a civilian photojournalist. He documented the conflict intermittently over a ten year period, right up to the American withdrawal in 2021. Pictures were coursing out of and through him the whole while, amid a slew of mixed emotions and conclusions. One broad take-home lesson: “You really can’t have it both ways, being a photojournalist and an artist at the same moment. When you’re calling your work photojournalism you can’t be cagey with the happening-truth.”

In 2019, Brody’s war photos and impressions to date were collected in his debut monograph Attention Servicemember. Despite his misgivings about art and journalism, it slots best into the category of fine art monograph. The book won critical awards and gained more notoriety in art circles than army barracks. Brody had received an MFA from Hartford by this point, and later founded own publishing imprint Mass Books. The line between service member and artist was increasingly blurry. 

His followup 300m is bound to muddy the waters even further. Although it’s published by Mass Books, the label “book” is a bit of a misnomer. This isn’t a standard tome with single pages bound to a spine. Instead it’s a multi-panel concertina scroll, printed full-bleed on both sides and folded accordion-style between sturdy cardboard covers. In theory the panel is 15’8” when fully extended, but most readers will probably not go to such lengths. It’s more conveniently viewed on a lap or table, a few sections at a time. If that viewing experience still proves awkward, it might be a subtle nod to the immersive experience of war, and the near impossibility of any visual summation. Bite-sized portions help keep a lid on war’s boil.

There is further reasoning behind 300m‘s concertina design. It’s an homage to the Spin Shot 35 S used by Brody. This is a panoramic camera with a rotating body mounted atop a stationary hand grip. It’s an oddball tool designed from scratch in the 1990s by Rick Corrales, an inventive dead-end which didn’t develop very far (a lightweight version was briefly manufactured by Lomo) but left several hundred bodies in general circulation. The Spin Shot looks more like a radar gun than a camera, and the negative it produces is just as unusual. A spring-loaded cord is yanked to spin the body full circle, exposing 360 degrees through a 25 mm lens onto 7 inches of 35 mm film. Each exposure spans 6 or 8 pages in the book, with some frames clipped by light leaks where the spins ended. Although the book has a boundless quality—with covers butted together it resembles an ouroboros or worm fenced pen—a careful count reveals that there are only 10 photos in all.

Brody might well be the first to photograph war zones with a Spin Shot. If so it’s an odd oversight because it turns out to be just the tool for the job. It’s well suited to capture a long tangle of razor wire surrounding rocky barracks. The image spills across several panels in the book. Another long frame captures soldiers and Afghans in a field of poppies, while yet another shows helmeted troops guarding an arid alley. One captures a wide swath of sky—an errant misfire, perhaps?—while its nearby counterpart seems preoccupied with underlying boots, dirt, and shadows. There are no actual battles depicted, but the camera is chaotic enough regardless. Most frames are spiced with aberrations and haphazard composition. They may not show level horizons, but their many small scratches are dead horizontal, flaws created as the film pulled sideways through the Spin Shot. There are also the distinctive waves created by camera movement during any extended swing lens exposure. In more than one frame, we see Brody or his shadow, a reminder that it’s almost impossible for a photographer to keep out of his own 360 sweep. No parachuting grab-and-go photojournalism with this camera. Instead the Spin Shot implants its user firmly inside the action.

If Brody feels some ambivalence about his tool, that’s any ex-soldier’s prerogative. His introduction refers to the Spin Shot as “just a toy”, and reveals that he only brought it to Afghanistan “as an icebreaker”.  But clearly this camera also has serious applications. “One time,” Brody reports, “a soldier thought I was detonating a grenade and dove into the dust as the camera spun around above him.” Yikes! As if the frames were not disorienting enough, Brody added his own sloppy development—whether deliberate or due to equipment limitations he doesn’t say. The resulting images are occasionally pockmarked with air bubbles. It’s yet another radical break from reality, but perhaps there is method in the madness. The photographs in 300m are so far from the norm they hint at the fog of war, or at least its futility. “The camera spun around,” he writes, “the fighting season, then winter, then the rain, then the fighting season…The war was never meant to end.”  Santayana might have something to say about the Spin Shot. 

Of course the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan did end, and rather abruptly. Brody was on the scene during the fall of Kabul in August 2021. He was making photographs as he herded friends and associates toward departing airplanes, all the while trying to insure his own safe egress. The title 300m refers to the collapsing security perimeter near the airport: “Every meter from 300 to zero was scrutinized and agonized over. It made no difference…There was no way in. There was no way out.” It was the sort of orderly breakdown which is not uncommon during war, and normally beyond documentary grasp. With the Spin Shot Brody could pull the cord, dive out of the way, and claim some salvation. 

300m shares some of what Brody saw and felt. It may be a filtered view. But it manages to capture war’s havoc in a way that most books—and most war photographs— do not. The design is sprawling and unwieldy. By comparison the images and monographs of Don McCullin (reviewed here), Peter van Agtmael (reviewed here), and even James Nachtwey seem rather staid. Brody’s sweeping view feels omniscient, with no defined entry point or exit, just white spaces to mark exhaustion points. Even if boundaries existed there is no typical sequence connecting them. In other words it’s a near perfect vehicle for war imagery. The accordion stack is housed in a crimson sheath which might be poppy-red or blood-red depending on reference points and imagination. It folds across the book’s chest like a flak jacket, fastened into place with a black rubber band. I could continue with battle metaphors but I’ll stop here. No monograph has yet seen the end of war. With its indefinite structure and circular logic, 300m accepts that fact with equilibrium.

Collector’s POV: Ben Brody does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Hatje Cantz (here). Hardcover (22.10 x 31.00 cm), 128 pages, with 90 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Siri Hustvedt. Graphic design by ... Read on.

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