Simon Baker, Tate’s curator of photographs, has devised a war memorial exhibition which has one brilliant schematic device at its core. Instead of following a geographical scheme or a categorical one or a chronological one, Baker has arranged a show that considers the kinds of photographs made as war recedes into memory.

Conflict, Time, Photography starts with the immediate: the smoke still hanging beautifully in the air above Taliban positions in Luc Delahaye’s landscape under bombardment in Afghanistan in 2001. But gradually the exhibition pulls focus until we’re looking at wars 100 years ago. The sections have names such as “Moments Later” or “Months Later”. The question we are asked to consider throughout is how wars shift in memory from instant savagery, through regime change and post-traumatic stress disorder to the slower facts of assimilation and historical judgment. Knowledge emerges slowly, about what was done to whom, often long after the rubble has been cleared and the maimed and the maddened carted off.

Baker’s invention is original. It allows him to arrange a huge show of dozens of very fine pictures on the subjects of pain and shame and grief that carries almost no moral position at all. War is harrowing – we can see that well enough in picture after picture – but it is harrowing for all, right or wrong, heroes or crooks.

By being constructed around memory, the show avoids becoming a gore-fest (one into which the World Press Photo contest habitually falls). Plenty of horrors make it on to the walls, but with a few exceptions the pictures are about horror, not of it.

Baker has chosen photographs that are almost all parts of series and, this being Tate Modern, he has the room to run whole walls on each. The effect is greatest where the design throws different treatments of different conflicts into proximity. In one fairly narrow space, a procedurally complex work by Taryn Simon about Bosnian Muslim families ripped apart is placed opposite an archive recovered by Walid Raad of newsy pictures of car engines blown through the streets of Beirut. Next to both is a high wall covered in the many pictures of Broomberg and Chanarin’s “People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground”.

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are conceptual war photographers, and sometimes they risk too much and make pretentious tosh. A piece at the very opening of the show is just that: a long roll of photographic paper exposed to the sunlight in Afghanistan by way of objection to the “embedding” process. Seen next to a thoughtful series (itself about memory) by Simon Norfolk from the same war, its lack of subject looks merely childish.

Two pictures in Broomberg and Chanarin’s ‘People in Trouble Laughing . . .’ (2011)
Two pictures in Broomberg and Chanarin’s ‘People in Trouble Laughing . . .’ (2011)

But their Irish work, “People in Trouble Laughing . . .”, is a success. They found a photography archive from the Troubles in Northern Ireland in which pictures that had been reproduced were marked with coloured dots. Broomberg and Chanarin peeled away the dots and enlarged the area hidden beneath. This haphazard process produced tiny circular vignettes of Ulster life during wartime which add up to something far more moving than the dotty procedure might suggest.

Much of the show exhibits procedures of this kind, although few are so extreme. Photographers have to find ways to limit their seeing, to constrain it within patterns more orderly than simply keeping one’s eyes open. Some are interesting, some not, but added together they make a welcome demonstration that photography is not only, as has so often been written, an aggressive practice. Baker’s show tends the other way, to reveal photographers using all the vigour and variety of a complex cultural practice to arrive at understanding or argument.

It’s a powerful show. Baker has chosen many things of great emotion or beauty or both. A series by Emeric Lhuisset is easily missed but is a revelation. He displayed unfixed pictures of a murdered Kurdish journalist in the street, their gradual darkening and vanishing in the sunlight forming a specifically photographic tribute to his absence.

Inevitably, it also contains pictures I like less. The British photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews represents a let-down in quality at a crucial period near the end of the show. Her dull landscapes would have been better represented by others on similar themes: for instance, the British photographer Jonathan Olley, who went looking for unexploded ordnance around Verdun, still there almost 100 years later, sprayed orange if the security teams had found it, shockingly unnatural in the lush green vegetation. Or a similar job could have been done by Paola de Pietri’s study of long-overgrown trenches high in the Italian mountains.

In the same way, I find Jane and Louise Wilson’s routine views of the structures of the Atlantic Wall a waste: we already have Paul Virilio’s much more thoughtful ones of the same buildings, and we could easily have had Peter Mackertich’s, which are even better.

Occasionally the balances are awry, too. The rooms with contrasting views are a success, but the ones devoted to a single artist (Sophie Ristelhueber in Iraq, for example, a wonderful series of pictures, but exhibited alone) or to a single issue (the atom bombs in 1945 in Japan) are less satisfactory.

There seem to be few pictures from the “war on terror” and too many from what used to be thought Imperial War Museum territory. There’s a very problematic section of the show completely farmed out to another organisation, the Archive of Modern Conflict, which is private and not answerable to the public, as Tate is. It has a separate labelling, style and manner. I don’t know that Tate has ever given over a space to an independent institution within one of its own major shows, and I’m not at all sure that it was the right thing to do.

These add up to quite a number of quibbles. Yet this show has real intellectual range and weight of emotion; overall, it is effective and justifiable. And it really is a powerful experience, to walk through so many ways of recovering from war something of human value.

Until March 15,

Slideshow photographs: Courtesy Luc Delahaye/Galerie Nathalie Obadia; Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography; Don McCullin; Chloe Dewe Mathews; Private collection, London; An-My Lê/Murray Guy, New York; Jo Ractliffe; Simon Norfolk; Shomei Tomatsu/Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

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