The dark side of photography: Broomberg & Chanarin uncover uncomfortable truths

The dark side of photography: Broomberg & Chanarin uncover uncomfortable truths

In the late 1970s, the film maker Jean-Luc Godard was commissioned to film in Mozambique and advise on the creation of a new state television channel. He was offered Kodak film stock but refused to use it, insisting the film was ’racist’, in that unless its chemical bias was compensated for, it rendered black faces virtually featureless. Spurred by such criticism perhaps, in the early 1980s Kodak released a new film ’to photograph the details of a dark horse in low light’. The London-based photographer duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have taken Kodak’s odd, and strangely poetic, euphemism as the title - and Godard’s ire as the starting point - of their current exhibition at the Foam gallery in Amsterdam.

Given their own commission to shoot rare initiation rituals in Gabon, the pair took medium format Kodak film stock with a 1978 expiry date. They managed to develop just one shot from the many rolls of film they shot, an underexposed palm leaf. Broomberg and Chanarin use the image to start a complex exploration of race and photography; of racially-skewed product development and faces disappeared by default settings.

Another key work in the exhibition is a scaled-up version of ’Shirley’, an image of a white model which Kodak sent to photo labs in the 1950 as a benchmark for ’normal’ colour balance and dynamic range (it was notoriously difficult to shoot black and white faces in the same picture using early colour film).

A series called Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement was shot using a salvaged version of Polaroid’s ID-2 system. This was a twin-lens camera used by South Africa’s apartheid regime to take the shots used in the passbooks black South Africans were forced to carry (the twin lenses meant that a straight-on portrait and profile could be shot on the same sheet of film). In 1970, Caroline Hunter, a young chemist who worked for the Polaroid Corporation in the US, formed the Polaroid Workers Revolutionary Movement to protest the company’s dealings (if through a local distributor) with the apartheid regime. Seven years later, Polaroid did stop supplying the South African government.

In other Gabon images, the pair have employed darkroom equipment left by a family friend, and instructions how to use it, to create black and white test strips which illustrate the effects of various exposure times on the renderings of ’colour’. Other shots have been developed with purposeful misuse of the dodging tool, again making clear that photography is not an innocent medium in these matters.

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