Imag­i­na­tions | 4-1 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.scandal.4-1.3 | Bir­ringer PDF


"The Val­ley of the Shad­ow of Death" is a brief med­i­ta­tion on the refrac­tion of sun­sets over des­o­lat­ed land­scapes, pho­tog­ra­phy of war, and the viewer's rela­tion­ship to the death of the sub­lime. The essay ref­er­ences the Muse­um of Fine Arts Hous­ton exhi­bi­tion "WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Con­flict and Its After­math" (2012-13) cit­ing one of Roger Fenton's famous manip­u­lat­ed pic­tures from the Crimean war (1856) show­ing an emp­ty land­scape with can­non­balls.

Cet arti­cle est une médi­ta­tion brève autour de la réfrac­tion des couch­ers de soleil sur des ter­res désolées, de la pho­togra­phie de guerre, et le rap­port spec­ta­to­riel à la mort du sub­lime. S’y trou­ve une référence à l’exposition « WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Con­flict and Its After­math » (2012-2013, Muse­um of Fine Arts Hus­ton) qui cite une des pho­togra­phies manip­ulées célèbres de Roger Fen­ton sur la Guerre de Crimée (1856), illus­trant un paysage vide avec des boulets de canons.

Johannes Bir­ringer | Brunel Uni­ver­si­ty, Lon­don

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Fig. 1 Roger Fen­ton, The Val­ley of the Shad­ow of Death, Crimea, Rus­sia 1855. Cour­tesy of MFA Hous­ton.

Return­ing to Hous­ton after a week in the desert moun­tains of Big Bend (Texas), I strug­gle to remem­ber the flash­es of hal­lu­ci­na­tion burnt into the reti­nae of my eyes. One night, patient­ly wait­ing for dusk, and stand­ing atop a small hill, I stared for almost 45 min­utes at the vast, end­less sky as it turned kalei­do­scop­i­cal­ly from white yel­low gold­en and red to blue pink and grey and saf­fron to black to the word­less and dis­en­chant­i­ng real­iza­tions of a cer­tain hor­ror that is only enabled by what painters used to call the sub­lime. And yet we fail to rec­og­nize, per­haps, the physics under­ly­ing a set­ting of the sun in desert moun­tains, when tro­pos­pher­ic clouds enhance the scat­ter­ing out and atmos­pher­ic refrac­tion of twi­light rays, when air mol­e­cules and par­ti­cles affect colours and shapes that, in my hal­lu­ci­na­tion, took on the form of a Kafkaesque wound –some­thing dark red bleed­ing there in the dis­tance, mock­ing my ear­li­er view of the desert ground as I walked along the Cro­ton Spring Trail fas­ten­ing my eyes on tracks in the sand, dried mud, stones, pet­ri­fied wood, rem­nant cairns, the des­o­late sed­i­ment­ed wash.

There too, in that for­lorn wash, I sensed the temp­ta­tion of the meta­phys­i­cal, glimps­ing ghosts of the dead who were not present, no skele­ton bones and no trace of vio­lence to be seen except in the inner howl remem­bered from Pasolini’s Teo­re­ma, an aur­al vio­lence I asso­ciate with war and its mytho­log­i­cal waltzes with death and trau­ma­ta unhealed. At the hori­zon of the desert, where vol­canic for­ma­tions rise up as if beck­on­ing from the oth­er side of life, the land­scape stares back as a mas­sive dead body.

Fig. 2 The desert hori­zon beyond Cro­ton Springs Trail in Big Bend, Texas. 2012

The desert floor, now, for me in this trail­ing becomes the uncan­ny scene of ani­mat­ed film, alone I am naked, slow­ly try­ing to put my clothes back on, as if step­ping into Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir into voic­es that recount head­ing into an imag­i­nary Beirut emerg­ing from the sea of for­get­ting, the clouds scud­ding above a radioac­tive yel­low land throb­bing with the elec­tric gui­tar sounds or machine gun fires that stopped long ago and yet are heard in the peren­ni­al sound­tracks of our civ­i­liza­tion of war.

My trail in Hous­ton takes me to the Muse­um of Fine Arts and its cur­rent exhi­bi­tion, WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Con­flict and Its After­math, not suit­able for chil­dren or the faint of heart, a gath­er­ing of near­ly 500 objects includ­ing pho­tographs, books, mag­a­zine, albums, and writ­ings span­ning six con­ti­nents and almost two cen­turies of atroc­i­ties, evi­dences and fic­tions min­gled with first-per­son accounts, hand-writ­ten thoughts and cap­tions that seek to frame the bru­tal­ly obvi­ous or the obscure, the real and gen­uine and faked/staged and equal­ly unspeak­able recon­nais­sance cap­tured, for exam­ple, in Roger Fenton’s  The Val­ley of the Shad­ow of Death, with or with­out can­non­balls. Believ­ing is not see­ing the can­non­balls or rocks or the desert but imag­in­ing your­self in the arrange­ment, naked putting your clothes back on if you can to hide the wounds that are caused by the rela­tion­ship you have to Imag­i­na­tive truth, to what you hear when you lis­ten to the elec­tric gui­tar, the voic­es or the machine gun fires, the explod­ing grenades under sur­veil­lance by our drones which cap­ture the land­scape from above, google-like, instant­ly tac­it­ly imply­ing the vir­tu­al – now set­ting a stan­dard of authen­tic­i­ty and the sor­did sub­lime to which the real is oblig­ed to aspire if it is able to.

My clos­est friend, who accom­pa­nied me on the Cro­ton Springs Trail, is a painter of land­scapes, for­ev­er inspired by Cas­par David Friedrich who knew lit­tle of the desert we just saw but looked to sur­vey a rough sea and a gray, blank sky (The Monk at the Sea) in a process of reduc­tion – this desert or val­ley of the shad­ow of death takes up most of the pic­ture, as if empti­ness and our des­o­la­tion have become the only fea­si­ble Meta­physics, prop­er to mankind gaz­ing blind­ly at the destruc­tion it does not seem to fath­om.

Then what is a trail? Or if we think of the muse­um and its exhi­bi­tion of the maimed and the raped and the killed – “unac­com­mo­dat­ed” humans (dra­ma­tized in Samuel Beck­ett the­atre of oper­a­tions) – what is the renun­ci­a­tion required from us? The longevi­ty of vol­canic rock , qui­et­ly under the wound­ed skies, points the way for us.


This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.