Peter van Agtmael, Look at the USA @Bronx Documentary Center

JTF (just the facts): A total of 117 color photographs with detailed captions, unframed and hung with magnets in the main gallery space (with multiple double-sided dividers) and the entry area. No process or edition information was provided. The images were made between 2006 and 2021. (Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: Even for those who have been paying close attention to America over the past twenty years, it’s hard not to look around and wonder a bit about how we have reached the increasingly polarized and fractured country we find ourselves in now. And of course, there is no neat and simple answer to such a wide ranging question; we didn’t just arrive here because of one good or bad decision, or one right or wrong choice made at a particular moment, although we’ve certainly had plenty of both along the way. To try and develop a broad theory for how we’ve changed as a country (and relatedly as individuals) requires weaving together so many different threads (political, military, economic, social, environmental, racial, and many, many others) that it becomes nearly impossible to untangle their relationships and influences to come up with one logical causal progression that we can confidently point to for how it all actually happened (and why). The history is still being written (and rewritten) as we speak.

Peter van Agtmael belongs on a very short list of artists who have successfully wrestled with the confounding complexity of this two-decade-long American transformation, although he probably didn’t entirely realize he was doing so at every point along the way. Starting back in 2006, van Agtmael was a young embedded photojournalist covering the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But from the beginning of that work, van Agtmael didn’t entirely play the role of photojournalist in the ways that we have come to expect – he didn’t follow the action of important battles, he didn’t photograph key leaders, and he didn’t chase stories that made headlines. Instead, he settled into the everyday routines of patrols, training exercises, and military life out in the field and on bases, slowly tunneling into the psyche of the American soldier, who wasn’t so different from himself as it turned out. As the years passed, he then followed some of those same men and women back home after their tours were done to document their injuries, disfigurements, PTSD, and the more subtle difficulties they (and he) experienced when trying to reenter the flow of real life with family and friends.

With the benefit of a few years of hindsight, we can now see that van Agtmael’s first photobook Disco Night Sept 11 (from 2014, reviewed here) was a landmark artistic document of those wars. The book gathered together his photographs (and detailed captions) from his several tours, and interleaved his own reflections on the emotions he felt, creating a disorienting aggregate picture of the conflicts and contradictions of those days and months, and of the fears and frustrations felt by everyone who had participated. In the subsequent years, van Agtmael quietly continued his investigations, slowly broadening his scope out from the ongoing actions and consequences of the wars that refused to end neatly to looking more closely at the ever evolving situation at home. His 2017 photobook Buzzing at the Sill (reviewed here) and its 2020 follow-up Sorry for the War (reviewed here) kept up his struggle to come to grips with how those original conflicts halfway across the globe were continuing to influence American society and our perception of ourselves. This was a national story that wasn’t naturally resolving itself, or somehow “finishing up”, but was instead morphing into a wave of separations and divisions that were becoming increasingly potent.

The whole continuum of van Agtmael’s work since 2006 (and continuing up through to the present) deserves a sprawling exhibit that really forces the viewer to be immersed its insightful mix of incongruity and paradox, but until that time, shows like this one at the Bronx Documentary Center will have to suffice. This dense one room (plus the entry foyer) installation skips across the images in van Agtmael’s three photobooks and adds in a selection of pictures from the past two years, creating a succinct survey that attempts to shoehorn his nuanced view of the complexity of the past two decades into a box too small to hold it. While not a “greatest hits” summary exactly, the show does feature many of van Agtmael’s best known and most striking images in tight one-after-another succession; the downside to this approach is that it inevitably strips away some of the connective tissue and deep personal background that made the photobooks so richly complicated and moving. This design also makes it a little harder to make the less obvious connections between the disparate events and moments, where wars, and the military, and refugees, and borders, and racism, and economic disparity, and Trump, and even the pandemic all actually weave together, if we give them enough breathing room to reveal their links and intersections.

Van Agtmael has never been one for following a strict one-way chronology, and while this exhibit does seem to roughly progress around the room and onto the dividers in the middle of the gallery, it’s an uneven, twisting path that bends back on itself again and again, forcing us to blend together different tours, different timelines, and different but somehow related events. The show opens with a close-up image of the library card for a periodical called “Look at the U.S.A”; housed in the library at Baghdad High School in Mansour, it reaches back to a time (seemingly very far in the past) when local students wanted to read about America, and such a magazine might have been a source of inspiration or aspiration. As the title for the exhibit, the phrase takes on a layered set of new meanings, from the literal to the tongue-in-cheek, offering a range of possible interpretations as varied as the images in van Agtmael’s show. It is followed in the entry area by a string of edge to edge images drawn from portrayals of war and patriotism in the movies and rephotographed stills of recent American presidents on TV, ultimately reaching the cultural moment of Air Force academy singers on “America’s Got Talent” and a promotional scene from the “Battlefield Vegas” experience, where among other attractions visitors can shoot an Osama bin Laden target. In just a few frames, van Agtmael sets up an appetizer-sized version of the American cultural sweep that’s taken place across the years, framing the larger conversation to be had in the main gallery that follows.

The entire wall down the left side of the gallery space follows the trajectory of van Agtmael’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the story is consistently filled with undercurrents of ambiguity. A group of images mixes training exercises and actual raids, where violence (in the form of bullet holes, bloodied faces, and fallen corpses) emerges out of the darkness with swift and often bewildering severity. Houses are dutifully searched, families mill around uncertainly, and one soldier slumps in a chair in full battle garb waiting for the next task. But as the pictures pile up, the outcomes and events they depict become less straightforward. Grimness arrives in the form of flag-draped coffins being unloaded from a cargo plane, and a woman measuring the tombstone for her husband. Graphic images of wounded men and women getting medical attention are then interspersed with a soldier caring for stray dogs, another inexplicably carrying a single shoe amid the bloody destruction of a raid, and families preparing for funerals. As the small (and large) traumas gather, van Agtmael offers us glimpses of increasing inexplicability and futility: a single soldier walking among concrete blast walls stored like monuments, an obviously frustrated exchange between a soldier and a village elder, and soldiers marching through impossibly disorienting corn fields, only to be faced later by an unexpected IED explosion that causes yet another moment of frenzy. The wall ends with images of refugees from other war-torn locales fleeing through meadows and overwhelming borders, the very real displacements and disruptions of war seemingly overflowing into every available space.

As van Agtmael moved away from the action on the ground, the intensity of his experience had clearly amplified his eye for the ironies and oddities of American patriotism. A seen on the back wall, the bleak “Disco Night Sept 11” sign that became the cover of his first book is just the tip of the iceberg; he goes on to offer us an F16 blasting over a homeless encampment, a Christmas display at a drone base, an actor on set playing a soldier, the empty chairs of the Senate Armed Services committee, the flag-waving pageantry draped over NFL football games, and a mother and daughter posing in front of a museum display image of the burning Twin Towers. Each photograph in this group flirts with the edge of surreal strangeness, but it is the simple uncomfortable reality of these deadpan observations and overlooked moments that deepens their resonance.

Van Agtmael more directly takes up the idea of consequences and reverberations in a selection of pictures turning back along the right hand wall of the gallery space. While sheiks gather with soldiers to greet the press, a tiny cloud over the impossibly desolate desert seems to communicate that the war isn’t entirely over. A blinded man with bandaged eyes, a burnt and blackened classroom, the tower of rubble that was once Mosul University, and a lonely refugee child sitting near a lamp in a hotel room are all versions of the catastrophic human disruptions of war. Dark clouds overhead then seem to announce the coming of further tragedies, both overseas and at home, in the form of the bodies on the street after the Bataclan terrorist attack in Paris and buckling the photographer’s fragile grandfather into the car after the funeral for his wife.

Most of the rest of the images in this exhibit turn our attention back to the situation in America, where the immediacy of the wars abroad has largely been back-burnered. Without a central war anchor point to guide the narrative, van Agtmael’s photographs start to wander a bit further afield, teasing out the visual signs of division wherever they might take shape. In one grouping, he contrasts the shouting anti-media sentiment of an unruly Trump campaign rally with smaller images of an empty GOP event in Iowa and a wedding picture taken in Ku Klux Klan regalia. In the next, he pairs a large image of fancy patrons at the Kentucky Derby with pictures of a large Choctaw Indian family sitting in their living room, a child aiming a toy gun underneath his chin, and a Black horseman in the Second Line parade in New Orleans. These kinds of dislocations and biting social juxtapositions continue around the front wall, where a snow covered Detroit bus stop and a Mexican border crossing covered in barbed wire are set in dialogue with an image of Sean Hannity in a restaurant and the funeral for a transgender teen.

The three dividing walls that lie in the center of the exhibit bring us even more firmly into the conflicted present. Van Agtmael has placed large scale faces on the opposing ends of the walls, matching a pixelated TV screen Donald Trump from his inauguration and the frame-filling faces of his devoted supporters with portraits of refugee children (one looking out from behind a screen of flames), Black mentors, and a soldier with a black eye. On the wider sides, he has gathered groups of images that jump from one hot button issue to the next, making connections between a glowing Standing Rock teepee, a mother grieving of her dead son in the street, and migrants crossing the border in one bunch, and a Trump rally, looters at a Target, an opioid overdose in progress, and the graffiti covered plinth of a Confederate statue in another. The pandemic makes an appearance with various images of people in facemasks (in one puzzling case, emblazoned with the Trump brand at an anti-lockdown protest) and with van Agtmael spending time in a funeral home filled with Covid deaths; climate change enters the conversation with an image of a wildfire-scorched Christmas tree farm; and the energy of the Trump rallies is matched by the intensity and commitment of the protests for social justice and racial equality. The arc of the story essentially ends with a large photograph of the insurrection on January 6th, with rioters in costumes posing for selfies on the steps of the US Capitol. Interestingly, as the stories van Agtmael has chosen to document have become broader, the personal connection and investment that made his early images so poignant has been muted a bit; in a sense, we’re seeing less of himself flowing into these most recent photographs, and that is making them somewhat less recognizably his own.

As we once again head into an election cycle with a polarized set of choices for the direction of the country on the ballot, it’s increasingly important that images like van Agtmael’s are seen and considered. Only by trying to piece together the complex chain of events that has led us to this point will we have the context to understand the more subtle forces actually behind those available choices. The most memorable images in “Look at the U.S.A.” provide this critical backstory, and infuse it with a sense of personal connection and responsibility. They offer us visual stories that not only document two decades of American struggle, but draw us into an engaged and active brand of thinking that gets much deeper than the surface talking points that can be used to distract us from tougher and more nuanced truths.

Collector’s POV: Peter van Agtmael is represented by Magnum Photos (here), where he became a full member in 2013. His work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Mark Steinmetz, ATL

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Nazraeli Press (here). Cloth hardback with tipped in cover photograph, 10.5 x 12 inches, 80 pages, with 63 duotone photographs. Includes an ... Read on.

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