My response to Simon Norfolk’s photo ‘The MareNostrum’

Simon Norfolk's photo ‘The MareNostrum’

Simon Norfolk’s photo ‘The MareNostrum’ from The Supercomputers: ‘I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that’ collection presents an almost angelic scene before the viewer. It is ironic however that an arguably beautiful picture contains the power within to destroy the entire world within a nanosecond. The alluring red ceiling and golden walls juxtaposes the clear glass casing and metallic machines below, a combination spiraling into temptation. Both as inaccessible as the other to the human touch, the rich colours and symmetrical shapes become alluring to the viewer. They find themselves transfixed and staring at what on paper would seem an exceedingly dull image. Norfolk has brought beauty into a very dark and sinister world unknown or appreciated by the majority of mankind. It is almost as if he has captured this binary opposition in one frame, created to allow the viewer the belief that they can just reach out, desiring some form of contact, and touch what appears to be a haven of splendor. A trait the generic war photograph does not traditionally have.

Photographing supercomputers does not fit the conventions of war photography most would agree. In these images Norfolk has tried to show the world that perhaps the biggest combat zones are no longer the ones featured on the news and in the media but the ones hidden away, concealed from everyday life, “Those supercomputers – big BlueGene [worlds biggest computer] in particular – those are battlegrounds” (Norfolk, 2006, online). Norfolk is desperately trying to convey to people that at the rate of improving technology gone are the days of trenches and ‘man on man’ warfare, it will soon merely take the touch of a button to create complete and utter annihilation, “The supercomputers I’m showing here, the largest in the world, are powerful almost beyond human understanding” (Norfolk, n.d. online). The days when the likes of Don McCullin, Eddie Adams and Robert Capa were shooting war scenes are part of history now, remembered by their haunting photographs of wounded men, violent scenes and pure misery. Norfolk is part of the new wave of combat photographers, an innovative generation having to adapt to original definitions of ‘war’. Through their interpretations of what the general publics understandings of battle are, no longer is it just the front line being shown but also far beyond enemy lines, where no photographer has been before.

Much of Norfolk’s work depicts conventions of landscape photography- using a wide-angle lens, sharp focus, the rule of thirds etcetera. He is using the tradition of landscape photography to create images of war. It shows a much more harrowingly beautiful side of warfare as the viewer is forced to consider how his photographs relate to combat. Only when it dawns on a person just how deadly the MareNostrum (one of the fastest computers in Europe[1]) is does their perception of it change. If there was blood, explosions or tears in the photo in an instant the viewer would accept that it was a war photograph, people have become to assume a genre on their past experiences. It is only on closer inspection and further reading that the genre becomes apparent in Norfolk’s work. By borrowing conventions from another genre of photography Norfolk has stopped viewers in their tracks and made them consider what they are looking at much more, a far more appreciative experience.

Innovation is constantly possible with genre mixing and it has been cleverly applied here by Norfolk as the viewer dwells on what they are looking at and contemplates their emotions towards it. Perhaps more so than if they were looking at a commonly portrayed image of war such as a wounded soldier. In that situation the emotions of the viewer are apparent before they even scrutinize it. At first glance this aesthetically pleasing image (rich in colours, bold shapes, strong features, sharp focus) appears to be a harmless scene, artistic and beautiful. Yet the genre effects how the viewer begins to perceive it, given more information the once peaceful ‘MareNostrum’ becomes a nuclear bomb, an air raider or even a machine gun. The beauty is stripped from it, as it becomes just another combat photo with the internal potential of killing millions. By simply knowing the genre of the shot the entire meaning of it changes to a much darker, sinister and emotive one.

In conclusion Norfolk has used the general acceptance of what a war photograph is to his advantage. By genre mixing and playing with conventions he has managed to create a strikingly delicate and attractive war photograph, something that fifty years ago would have been unthinkable. He has made the impossible possible, broken all of what people thought they knew and questioned their ability to accept out of the norm situations, all through photography.

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