British photographic history

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John Burke (1843 - 1900) in the 21st century

John Burke was one of the first people to take photographs of Afghanistan, having travelled there during the second Anglo-Afghan war of 1878 to 1880. His images of landscapes, cities and inhabitants provided a cue for Simon Norfolk to begin a new series of photographs in October 2010.

Burke photographed the Second Anglo-Afghan War in the late 1870s. Born in Ireland and employed as a tradesman, he applied to the British Army to work as an official photographer. But he paid his own way to Afghanistan, traveling through mountainous regions with a wooden 4-by-5-inch field camera. Not much is known about Burke’s personal life, other than his having been married at a church in Pakistan in 1886. “It’s like working with a shadow,” Mr. Norfolk said.

Norfolk’s work responds to Burke’s Afghan war scenes in the context of the contemporary conflict. Seeking out the original locations of these images or finding modern parallels with their subject matter, Norfolk’s new body of work depicts bomb-damaged buildings, local communities, soldiers and embassy workers, as well as uniquely contemporary sites such as internet cafés and wedding halls. Within the exhibition, these images will be presented alongside prints of Burke’s corresponding photographs, bringing history into close proximity with the present and drawing comparisons across a century of British involvement in the region. Also on display will be two original hand-illuminated Burke portfolios.

Details of the exhibition can found here. The New York Times Magazine of April 24, 2011 covers the images, and a longer piece in the newspaper's online Lens by Kerri MacDonald explores the relationship between the works of two photographers in greater detail which you can also read here. An accompany book has also been published which you can search for it from the Amazon link on the right.


Photo: Camp Scene Jellalabad, John Burke #86, 1879

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