If it is true that history repeats itself — first tragically, and
then farcically — the implications are not good for the legions
of civilian combatants whose weekends are devoted to the
re-enactment of battles and military manouvres. Judging by
the work of photographer Jim Naughten, currently on show
in New York’s Klomching gallery, thousands of latter-day
gunners, Cossacks, Panzermen and Home Guard would
disagree.

Naughten worked over a period of two years in south eastern
England, recording the activities of re-enactors whom he
pictured in a small wedding tent that functioned as a mobile
studio. They appear one by one in Naughten’s portraits —
photographed square-on or oblique, three quarter length,
against a neutral backdrop onto which they appear to cast the
hint of an airbrushed shadow. They are, then, removed from
the field. Deprived of incident and context, the pictures force
attention onto the uniforms, faces, and minor variations in
pose of the participants. Their attention to detail is thereby
made manifest. The tunics and webbing, boots and breeches,
insignia and accessories all look, to the untrained eye at least,
to be historically faithful.

By definition, of course, the whole enterprise is an exercise in
anachronism of a specific order. That is, not all that is historical
qualifies for recreational re-creation. Sometimes history has not
been well enough rehearsed. When the Bolsheviks re-staged a
heroic ‘storming’ of the Winter Palace, a mere three years after
the considerably less dramatic occupation of 1917, there were
pressing ideological forces at play. And such were the enduring
issues and stakes of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike that Jeremy
Deller’s 2001 re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave reportedly
nearly resulted in real violence.

So it is significant that Naughten’s ersatz troops are all too young
to have witnessed the events they playfully fabricate; for despite
their apparent commitment to a fidelity of appearances, surely
only a degree of wilful historical amnesia could legitimise the
comfortable, recreational use of the badges, decorations and cap
skulls of the SS. Naughten’s work is not a contentious exploration
of such issues, but a presentation of the elements involved;
indeed in an interview last year he made clear that, “We met
plenty of characters, as you can imagine and it was particularly
strange seeing people from all over the world dressing as Nazis.
I knew from the outset that I didn’t want to get involved in
the debate, at least not with this project. I love the fact that
questions are raised but I do not attempt to answer them. The
German uniforms still retain an extraordinary ‘power’.”
Naughten describes the project as ‘documentary portraiture’
but, as is the case with his subjects, appearance and reality are
not the same thing. The strikingly frozen, arrested poses, the
evidently ‘unreal’ backdrops, the studio lighting and controlled,
drained palette — all result in images that play between the
mediated and the direct. The notion of documentary is pushed
even further in the elaborate grand scale choreographed pictures
of war games in progress. Here, Naughten’s post-production
work enables him to position carefully posed action studio
photographs of individuals into previously photographed land-
scapes. The resulting staged vistas are compelling detailed,
assiduous and mannered fictions. Fraudulent even, but what
better way to picture the might of the Red Army, dressed for
a Russian winter, as it advances on a hazy summer afternoon
across the Garden of England.

Guy Lane, Foto8

— — —

Back to the Front

Classic photographic portraiture, at least since the days of
August Sander, usually represents the straightforward image
of a speci?c, named, person and is said to reveal something
of the soul of that person, or, in the case of Sander, to
represent a stereotype of a profession—pastry chef, postman,
artist, etc. Jim Naughten’s portraits of ‘re-enactors’ invert
this equation. Naughten deliberately provides us with almost
nothing of the real lives of the persons he photographs, but
rather he presents us with images of people pretending to be
soldiers or sailors who have just re-staged various battles.
These people are playing their chosen characters in the mock
wargames ‘fought’ by ‘re-enactors’. As a result, Naughten’s
portraits, shot against a neutral backdrop like Richard Avedon
used in his now-legendary series, In the American West, strip
all context away from his subjects and leave us with only their
uniforms and their expressions. Naughten invites us to ask
“Who are these people?” and “What makes them tick?”

As Avedon wrote in his Afterword to In the American West,
“A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact
is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an
opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph.
All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”
This is equally valid for Naughten’s subjects. We know what
his subjects represent, but we don’t know who his people are.
As in the nursery song, “Tinker, tailor, every mother’s son,
butcher, baker, shouldering a gun…” they could be anyone.
Is that also not a metaphor for war, where, at least under
the draft, we are yanked from our putative lives and re-cast
as ‘warriors’? “Rich man, poor man, every man in line…,”
the song continues in a particularly militant version.

Unlike the fantasy characters invoked in James Thurber’s
famous short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,
Naughten’s ‘re-enactors’ maintain their mystery. Nothing of
their real lives is revealed in his portraits. Who chooses to play
a Cossack or a Nazi-era naval rating? Why would one want
to play a Spitfire pilot, a WRAC, an SS-of?cer, or an American
tanker? What kind of fantasies are at work here – nostalgia,
the sense of power a uniform evokes? Is it just an escape
from the everyday grind? Naughten’s protagonists are the
stars of their own inner dramas acted out on a grand scale
– many ‘re-enactments’ involve hundreds, even thousands
of people and weeks of preparation, yet although we are
seduced by all the meticulous preparation, the palpable
authenticity of the uniforms and expressions of the ‘re-
enactors’, we are left on the hook. Naughten’s ‘inverted
portraits’ do not let us in on their secret, real, lives. He
provokes us with the mysteries behind the surface and
commands us to dig deeper. The measure of a photographic
portrait is not in its super?cial qualities or even verisimilitude,
but rather its power to make the viewer wonder just who
it really is in front of the camera. In this, Jim Naughten’s
Re-enactors succeeds mightily: we are compelled to look
and to wonder. There is no better compliment to artist and
sitter alike.

Bill Kouwenhoven