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Show Of Force: Four Photographers Who Turned Explosions Into Art

Photographer Pelle Cass introduces us to the trend of bullets and explosions as muses.

Untitled (Orchidaceae) 2010 by Martin Klimas

9mm Glock Ball by Deborah Bay

Landmine by Sarah Pickering

The first thing you notice looking at the photographs of bullets and artillery shells decimating objects is how beautiful destructive force is. The second thing you notice is the dissonance you feel at the observation.

What you are seeing—the orgasmic bursts and the phallic delivery systems—is pure sex and death, strikingly companionable ideas, it turns out. Sex starts life, death ends it. Life is possible without sex—ask any cell-dividing bacterium or amoeba—it will say it is immortal, at least in a sense. But once organisms developed so they needed sex to reproduce (after the Cambrian Era, I’m told), death was born.

All the works here rely on the fact that is difficult or impossible to see these violent wonders with the unaided eye. Somehow, we trust photography more with the invisible, since we have become skeptical about its relation to truth in an age of Photoshop, paparazzi, lax journalists, and shameless propagandists.

Deborah Bay - The Big Bang

22 Caliber Long Rifle

Houston photographer Deborah Bay began The Big Bang after she saw a promotional display for bulletproof Plexiglas. “The Plexiglas essentially provided a visual record of the tremendous amount of energy released on impact—as evidenced by the metal shards and trajectory lines cutting across the plastic,” she told me.

Not a gun enthusiast herself, she relies on police officers--training at the Public Safety Institute at Houston Community College--to fire all kind of bullets into the plexi, which she then takes to her studio and photographs against a black background with colored gels placed over some of her lights. 

44 Magnum

What Bay captures is completely invisible to the unaided eye. Time is frozen not by the shutter, but by the impact of the bullet itself, fused into the Plexiglas. Bay’s referent is not the orgasm, apt for the other photographers here. Her work depicts the time after the event, when the damage is done.

357 Hollow Point

The photographs remain beautiful in their cosmic way, visual metaphors for the phrase “blown to oblivion,” perhaps. But Bay bluntly acknowledges the destructive force of bullets in her compositions—jagged, melancholy, brittle, and lacerating. As she says, “It doesn’t require much imagination to realize the impact these bullets would have on muscle and bone.”

See more of Deborah Bay's work on her website.

Clay Lipsky - Atomic Overlook

“Personally, I enjoy explosions as much as the next guy, but I am drawn to the iconic image of the mushroom cloud,” Clay Lipsky says, capturing the spirit of the bluff joker evident in this series of composite photographs.

In Atomic Overlook, Lipsky, a Los Angeles photographer, video director, and designer, depicts tourists complacently gathered to watch the end of the world in the form of a mushroom cloud. Lipsky takes pictures of tourists at their ease, “staring into nothing” as he says, and combines them with old photographs of nuclear blasts that he whips into contemporary shape with Photoshop so they match his own photos.

Lipsky is not concerned directly with the documentary truth, but he does present factual material—the bomb, tourists—in a ways that make us see both with fresh eyes. Those tourists are us, and we are doing nothing but reaching for the suntan lotion (you’ll need an SPF for a thousand suns) as the world is devoured.

The most apt interpretation seems to involve global warming. His images rely on a frozen instant, one that few people have witnessed firsthand. He calls the mushroom cloud “one of the most universally recognized symbols that we’ve never seen but [that] is burned into our collective subconscious.”

Lipsky’s site has more photos, here.

Sarah Pickering - Explosions

Fireburst

In 2004, when war anxiety was high, London photographer Sarah Pickering began her Explosions series. She photographed sales demonstrations of scaled-down, relatively harmless versions of real munitions, marketed to police and the military to simulate riots and battle for training purposes and to the film industry to appear to blow things up on screen.

Groundburst

Pickering says that when she was in her mid-teens in Durham, England, she briefly wanted to be a forensic photographer, and thinks (but is not sure) that she got her photography idea from a crime drama on TV. So her interest in the cold, hard facts was sparked by fiction. Even her doubtful memory reminds us that fact and fiction can be tricky to sort out.  She agrees, saying a big concern of hers is “the slippage between what is a fiction and what can be perceived as real.”

Landmine

Before Pickering’s lens, an explosion becomes a comically decorous act, more sneeze than catastrophe. She says her work is related to computer games, film, as well as the tradition of landscape photography. Her settings are serene and pastoral and her explosions are relatively harmless. The pictures seem to mock violence, if that is possible, while still partaking of its flashing glamour. Take a look at the italicized snow angel of Artillery, 2005. Still, her main visual device—a warmly colored radiant burst set in a green field—is lovely but also inevitably represents the ghastly tearing apart of millions of individual human bodies, past and future.

See Pickering’s website and watch a video interview with her by Aperture Magazine here.

Martin Klimas - Flowervases

Untitled Papaver 3 (2009)

In his Flowervases series, Düsseldorf photographer Martin Klimas stroboscopically freezes still lifes in the act of destruction. He says that much of what he photographs is chaos with the unaided eye. But by stopping the action, he says he “turns the unknown into order and knowledge.”

Klimas often gets ideas from scientific experiments from the earlier parts of last century. He then applies state-of-the-art photographic techniques to the older ideas, extracting “the poetic side of science,” although he emphasizes that there is no post-production trickery involved.

Untitled Clemitis (2012)

He sounds scientific, but he’s sly. Klimas’s target in Flowervases is art history, the still life in particular. He sets up a simple, lovely still life, and blows the vase away with steel bearings. The flowers remain untouched, hovering like Wile E. Coyote above the abyss.

Klimas appears to present us with a stark choice—the stuffy flowers of the past or the exciting destruction of a media-saturated age. But the trick is that we get both—and a Klimas looks good against the flocked wallpaper of a Connecticut estate and on the stark wall of a fashionable gallery.

Untitled (Iris) 2012

Here's an interview with Martin Klimas about his newest series Sonic (in German, but worth it). And more of his work at his website, here

Untitled (Eucalyptus) 2007

These photographs may please a contemporary eye because beauty is seriously out of fashion in the art world, generally seen as reinforcing the cultural hegemony of the elite and so on. Yet images like these enable us to swallow beauty whole and keep our art-school cred intact while enjoying flowers, lovely plumes of color, snazzy design, and rugged abstraction.

Eadwear Muybridge's famous photograph (1872) of a horse stopped in motion, via.

It is easy to read commentary into these photographs of violent bursts as products of an era anxious about school massacres, terrorism, and our present day version of The Bomb, global warming. No doubt they all apply, and some of the photographers have mentioned these anxieties directly. 

But the ground is a little slippery, since there’s a slight air of mockery that runs through most of these works. Parse the politics if you can.

The crop of photographs is partially the product of our ancient and contemporary anxieties, of course, but the reason for them emerging now is a little more prosaic. These photographers simultaneously pick up where Muybridge and Edgerton’s scientific rigor left off, but also the rigors of 60s conceptual art and the recent boom in art photography.

Harold “Doc” Edgerton's famous Bullet Through Apple (1962) via 

A cursory look around the Internet produced this refreshingly punctuated nugget on TFB, The Firearms Blog: “I[t] never ceases to amaze me that to artistic types, the combination of firearms and beauty always appears as a juxtaposition, to me they are synonymous.” Or as Steve Johnson, TFB’s editor-in-chief might have put it, “Firearms is beauty.”

Perhaps some ideas are too deep. Nowadays, it’s easy enough to just come out with it: we like explosions. But we’re just smart enough to know that it’s worth thinking about why.

To view some of Cass' own work, you can check out our recent profile of him below:

Or visit his website here.