Christine Spengler

L'Espace Photographique

With time and forgetting, all war photographs probably become antiwar photos. But Christine Spengler’s black and white “witnesses,” as she calls them, hardly need to wait for the allegiances and enthusiasms of the moment to fade. Not that these are atrocity pictures: in this retrospective exhibit, entitled “De la Guerre et du Rêve” (Of war and dreaming), she has spared us the blood and gore, the mangled bodies and leveled buildings, the violence, the fear, the hysteria. Even the soldiers are scarce, and the great leaders nonexistent. No, hers is the view from between the battles, when life, such as it is, goes on, when Irish youngsters in their carnival hats are stopped and searched by a British soldier (Belfast, 1972), when Cambodian boys bob in the waves on empty shell casings (Mekong River, 1974), when Iranian women in the shroudlike chadors go to an amusement park, a bridal boutique, or military training (Teheran, 1979), and, above all, when survivors everywhere mourn their dead—in the hospitals, the cemeteries, the asylums, the streets, the deserts.

There are the subjects, first of all, with their predominance of women and children (most striking is an entire wall of Iran photos showing women in the streets, at prayer, in military training). But beyond what is more a question of access than art, there is a profound sensibility that makes itself felt in every image. In part, it has to do with rhythm, timing, and patience. As Spengler recalls in the memoirs that she published to coincide with the exhibit, while her colleagues would often shoot the “action” and leave, she was the one who waited around and caught the reaction. As a result (with the exception of the earliest photos from Northern Ireland), there is often little in the way of narrative or movement. Instead, the wide-angle description strikes an exquisite and unsettling balance between the moment of each image and its immortality, between anecdote and icon: the terrible irony of children playing at war, not as emblems but as kids in Northern Ireland, Cambodia, Lebanon, or the Western Sahara; the varieties of grief, the cemeteries that are never the same, the mourners who are not just striking silhouettes but unforgettable faces. Even the most ghastly image—a charnel house from the Pol Pot genocide (Cambodia, 1985)—is saved from sensationalism by the distancing of the wide-angle shot, the classically frontal composition, and above all, the three young boys posed well in front of the skulls and bones to catch the eye, to warn the viewer with their sober expressions, but at the same time, inject a living presence into what is literally a space of death.

When Spengler decided to become a war reporter in 1970, her mission was “to bear witness to just causes and horror at the ends of the world.” There was a personal reason as well: the 1973 suicide of her brother and the resulting need to mourn her loss through the losses of others. After a decade of running from one war to another, she began working with color images of “her dead”—her brother, her father, her aunt—decorated ex-voto style with dried flowers, feathers, shells, costume jewelry, and fabrics. These “altars of the gods” have been followed by ever more ornate series going from recreations of her dreams to “Vierges et Toreros” (Virgins and toreros, 1985) to the most recent work, “Les Idoles” (The idols, 1990) which range from Greta Garbo and Frida Kahlo to Spengler’s friends and mentors in the fashion industry. These color photographs, which constitute the “dreaming” half of the retrospective, are as beautiful as they are strange (and vice versa). Ultimately, though, they lack the power of the war images. Here, the individual subjects and their personal associations are submerged in the opulent rhetoric of fashion photography. Nonetheless, as Spengler insists at the very end of her memoirs, the flamboyant red that Christian Lacroix likes so much “is nothing other than the blood of the wars,” and, in this sense, her mix of catharsis and kitsch is still a reminder of “just causes and horror at all four corners of the world.”

Miriam Rosen