JTF (just the facts): A total of 35 color photographs and 2 videos, hung in the front and back galleries and in a side viewing room. All of the prints are digital c-prints. The images from Liberia are framed in raw wood with no mat, and were taken between 2003 and 2007. The prints are sized 36×36 or 47×47, both in editions of 18+4AP. The images from Afghanistan are alternately framed in black and white with no mat, and were taken in 2008. The images are sized 18×24, 30×45, or 60×43 (or reverse), all in editions of 18+4AP. Both of these bodies of work have been released in book form: Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold published in 2009 by Umbrage (here) and Infidel published in 2010 by Chris Boot (here). (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: Tim Hetherington’s show at Yossi Milo is at once both triumphant and disheartening. I sure this audience is already completely familiar with Hetherington’s tragic story, and of his death last year covering the uprising in Libya. Here was an artist who routinely took his life in his hands to tell stories he thought were important, and who ultimately paid a massive price for this dedication. When I saw these pictures more closely and in more depth, it was hard not to feel a huge amount of respect for his talent and sacrifice, while also being heavily weighed down by the thoroughly discouraging outcome.
Hetherington’s images of the conflict in Liberia are open ended and diffuse in terms of their narrative. They seem less intent on furthering a certain point of view and instead center on turns of color and composition, in the context of an active rebellion. A splash of red carpet punctuates an airport military parade, a blue wall poses as a backdrop for a band of child soldiers, lush green tree limbs are framed by jagged white tiles, and a red jacket is interrupted by the circle of a rubber tire. Tiny details provide anchors for formal, single frame stories: a casually placed grenade, a bloody foot, a plastic spoon tucked in a waistband, or a patterned dress offset by rockets in both hands. Together, the whole body of work is atmospheric, the murky orange dusk and the penetrating gaze of a child soldier providing an overarching sense for the feel of the place.
I think that Hetherington’s images from Afghanistan will end up being THE images from this particular war; put them on the shelf with icons by Capa and Smith and the rest of pantheon of great war photographers. What is astounding about these pictures is their sense of being inside the brotherhood. The playful wrestling, the roughly applied kiss to a reluctant recipient, the Infidel tattoo worn with pride and honor, these are stolen moments of relaxed downtime in an otherwise horrific situation. The series of sleeping soldiers captures the real vulnerability of these heroes; they’re not standing at attention in perfect dress uniforms, they’re asleep like any other young men, mouths open, bodies curled up, like boys in bunk beds. These works are particularly poignant when hung as a large group, when nearly the whole squad is seen at rest. The individuals then become something universal, a representation of the fragility of those we send off to fight our battles. A short film (also called Sleeping Soldiers) then juxtaposes these calm still frames with the out of breath anxiety and tension of a firefight, with bombs going off, helicopters passing overhead, and echoing chaos all around. Together, they provide an extremely strong, visceral sense of what this war feels/felt like for those on the ground. (Restrepo, Hetherington’s documentary film made with Sebastian Junger, tells this story much more broadly and is a must see.)To get such an unvarnished, unguarded look at the reality of contemporary war is rare indeed, and Hetherington clearly needed to establish an unusual bond of trust to make these photographs. This then brings us back to the sadness of this show. The work itself is evidence of an increasingly mature and original artistic voice, but the story abruptly ends here. So while we can be rightly angry and frustrated by this turn of events, Hetherington’s many indelible images of the human side of the throes of war provide a permanent record we can respectfully celebrate and remember.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced based as follows, based on the project/series. The images from both the Liberia series and the Afghanistan series range in price from $5000 to $9500, with multiple intermediate prices based on size and in ratcheting editions. Hetherington’s work has very little secondary market history, so gallery retail is likely the best option for interested collectors at this point.