Hilary Roberts

The Photographs of Suzanne Opton and Angus Boulton: 

A Witness to History ?

In comparison to some media, sculpture or painting for example, photography has a relatively short history. Nevertheless, since 1826 when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce created the world’s first permanent photograph,  photography has proliferated to cover numerous themes, styles and purposes. At the same time, professional photographers have been led by talent or inclination to specialise in a single genre such as architecture, sport or wildlife, with the result that their body of work is classified and assessed accordingly. However it is possible that pigeonholing a photographer’s work in this way may result in its full significance being underestimated or misinterpreted. A single image is capable of several layers of meaning and as such, can offer an unexpected significance to a wide range of audiences, often beyond that intended or envisaged by the photographer.

War has always been a source of fascination, inspiration and, in some cases, obsession to photographers. The first documented war photographer is currently believed to have been John Maccosh, a British Army surgeon who used the then primitive technology to take photographs during the Anglo-Sikh War of 1848. The work of subsequent photographers such as Roger Fenton, James Robertson, Felice Beato and Matthew Brady has ensured that historians today are able to study photographs from mid nineteenth century conflicts in the Crimea, India, America and the Far East. While their commercial motivation and background ensured that these photographers were by no means disinterested observers, their intention was to create a documentary record of battlefields and combatants rather than interpretive works of art. In doing so, they established the popular definition of a war photographer: an individual who travels to a war zone in order to capture images of armed conflict, thereby recording the impact of that conflict on society and the environment.

The war photographer’s role, as thus defined, continued to develop in the twentieth century in a form paralleled by that of the war correspondent and war artist. Whether their status was official, commercial or purely private, war photographers around the world all made important contributions to the substantial and detailed documentary record of twentieth century conflict which provides an essential source of primary evidence for historians today. However, the work of war photographers such as Ernest Brooks and Frank Hurley in the First World War or Cecil Beaton and Bill Brandt in the Second World War also demonstrated that it is possible for war photographers to create documentary images which have relevance as iconic works of art. Can art photographers, who take war as their subject, therefore produce images that not only have merit as art works but also deserve serious consideration as documentary photographs?

Angus Boulton and Suzanne Opton are both experienced professional photographers with well-established reputations for innovation in the field of art photography. While they may approach the interpretation of their subjects from contrasting viewpoints, their artistic styles and themes have much in common. Whatever their subject, both photographers create contemplative, carefully composed images in which some of the reference points normally available in documentary photographs are absent. Boulton portrays the human environment unpopulated by those by whom or for whom it was created. Opton creates portraits of people in which any reference to their normal environment is excluded. In brief, Boulton offers context without subject, while Opton offers subject without context.  In each case, the effect is to create an element of uncertainty that stimulates the imagination. The results are memorable and thought provoking works of art that reach out to a diverse range of people.

Nothing could be further from the usual style of the documentary war photographer. Such a photographer is generally seeking to distil the essence of war by capturing and combining those elements which Boulton and Opton deliberately exclude, in an environment where the scale and speed of events often stack the odds against success.   Neither Boulton nor Opton lay claim to the title. In an interview for the Wild River Review, Opton said:  “I am not a photojournalist. What I like best is to apply some provocative structure to a real moment in time.”[1]  Nevertheless, it could be argued that their recent work, inspired by the impact of modern conflict on people and the environment, qualifies as documentary war photography, and in doing so, challenges and extends the boundaries of the genre.

In 1998, Angus Boulton started photographing and filming military bases abandoned in the aftermath of the Cold War in a project that continue to this day. His first work, a photographic essay entitled ВОИН (Warrior in Russian), was conceived whilst Boulton was completing an Artist’s Residency in Berlin during 1998 – 1999. As part of his efforts to familiarise himself with Berlin and understand its environment, Boulton toured former Soviet military bases in the surrounding area, including Krampnitz, Potsdam and Forst Zinna, Luckenwalde, both abandoned when Soviet forces left East Germany in 1994.

In 1994, the newly evacuated Soviet military bases were handed over to German regional authorities for redevelopment, a process that progressed at remarkable speed. By 2007, according to official information released by the German State of Brandenburg, four fifths of the bases had been redeveloped for civilian use.[2] Today, these legacies of the Third Reich and the Cold War era are on the verge of disappearing completely. From 1998 onwards, Boulton made repeated trips to the bases, photographing both interiors and exteriors in natural light with a Mamiya camera. In doing so, Boulton has described his purpose as aiming to:  “interpret certain aspects of recent history, personal memory and a sense of place within the surrounding environment”.[3] However Boulton has also created what is, in effect, a final visual record of these sites. The photographs show not only what the Soviet forces had created but, in what they chose to leave behind, are testaments to the manner of the Soviet departure. Of equal significance is the speed and manner of decay. The state of these sites, just six years after being abandoned, clearly demonstrates just how fast human settlements can disappear.

While Boulton clearly intends his photographs to speak for themselves as works of art, his understanding of the importance of context ensures their relevance for researchers seeking documentary evidence. Boulton’s supporting text, although minimal, includes the specific location within the site as well as a date.  In the photographs themselves, Boulton’s selection of subject and positioning of the camera, all provide vital context that gives an overall understanding of the base and extends the relevance of his work beyond that of artistic interpretation. The Photographers Gallery, one of Britain’s leading independent institutions devoted to photography, evaluates BOИH thus:  “These photographs are on one level historic documents of neglected and forgotten buildings, several of which have since been demolished, and on another level explorations of political constructs and deteriorating systems.”[4] Archaeologists working for English Heritage also recognise the significance of Boulton’s work, paying tribute to him as “one of the few people investigating this legacy”.[5]

Suzanne Opton’s ongoing interest in the impact of modern conflict dates from the terrorist attacks on New York on 11 September 2001. Her first project of this nature was a series of street portraits entitled Still Standing showing New Yorkers in the days following the collapse of the World Trade Center.[6] Opton’s photographs of shocked and grim faced workers trying to continue with daily life include sufficient contextual detail to link the subjects to the event. While the captions consist of little more than the name of the subject, American flags, newspapers, identity badges and clothing all add sufficient detail to place the New Yorkers firmly in their setting and, from the researcher’s perspective, are a lasting and truly effective depiction of the human reaction to the terrorist attacks.

In her later photographic essay SOLDIER, Opton adopted a more radical and controversial approach. These portraits of American service personnel, taken at Fort Drum on their return from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan during 2004 – 2005, shows her subjects entirely out of context. Opton’s approach, unlike that of Boulton, was interventive and artificial:  “I asked each soldier to rest his or her head down on the table for a more intimate look. These portraits eliminate the representational aspect as well as any clothing, props, body language or gesture. So we are left with the head at rest. The general tone is drained of healthy color. The head is backlit with colored light to imply a nowhere sort of place where these warriors might someday find themselves.”[7]

In depicting the soldiers thus, Opton has variously described her objective as:  “to look beyond the symbolism of the American soldier and to focus instead on individual vulnerability, exactly what military training of necessity seeks to erase.”[8] or (more simply) “I want the public to see the impact of war on a young person’s face.”[9] The results, as illustrated by the portraits of Jefferson, Morris and Pry, are haunting in the extreme, and made more so by their method of display. During 2006 – 2007, a time when American forces were under extreme pressure in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the photographs were exhibited as large 32 x 40 inch chromogenic prints. Some were also displayed as highway billboards.  Public reaction was strong and typified by the photographer David Mixner:  “you can see the war etched into their faces.”[10]

This may be true, but the lack of appropriate context forces the audience to take the photographer’s word for it. Opton’s supporting text consists of the subject’s surname as well as the location and length of their deployment but fails to mention the role the subject played there. This is a crucial omission, which is compounded by the exclusion of contextual detail, such as uniform, insignia or equipment, in the photographs themselves. The audience is forced to speculate and make assumptions about the subject’s experiences that might be totally unjustified. While this is entirely acceptable in a work of art, it is dangerous when applied to war photography, a fact confirmed by the reaction of commentators, such as Chris Bucklow, who have challenged Opton’s understanding of her subjects and, by association, the validity of her work:  “Opton seemed to readily admit that she’d not cultivated any sort of meaningful relationship with her subjects. She claimed to have spent only around thirty minutes with each subject.. .It was as if Opton wasn’t really sure about anything and her answers left me feeling that she was at best confused and at worst someone who had tapped into the emotional turmoil of the current war to make some pretty portraits.”[11]  While Bucklow’s charge of “pretty portraits” may be somewhat harsh, he does highlight the risks posed by the exclusion of context when war is the subject.

It is therefore valid to conclude that war photography does not have to be the sole province of the documentary photographer. As a genre, war photography can accommodate very diverse photographic aims, interpretations, styles or techniques, provided that its key requirement, context, is properly satisfied. The work of Angus Boulton and Suzanne Opton demonstrates that art photographers have the potential to contribute to the genre while offering a valuable source of primary evidence to researchers, provided that they are willing to meet the genre’s key requirement for success.


[1] From The Human Face of War by Kim Nagy and Joy Stocke for the Wild River Review at:  http://www.wildriverreview.com/spotlight_humanfacesofwar.php.

[2] From Brandenburg State Ministry for the Economy press release published at: http://www.wirtschaft.brandenburg.de/cms/detail.php?_siteid=20&id=291532, 2007.

[3] From Angus Boulton’s website at:  http://www.angusboulton.net/main.html, 2008. LINK

[4] From article published on The Photographers’ Gallery website, 2008.

[5] From Art at War by Wayne Cockcroft, Danielle Devlin, John Schofield and Roger J C Thomas for British Archeology at: http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba86/feat4.shtml, 2008.

[6] See New York section of Suzanne Opton’s website at:  http://www.suzanneopton.com, 2008.  

[7] From PhotoLucida Critical Mass winners website at:  http://www.photolucida.org/cm_winners.php?CMYear=2005,  2005.

[8] From PhotoLucida Critical Mass winners website at:  http://www.photolucida.org/cm_winners.php?CMYear=2005, 2005.  

[9] From The Human Face of War by Kim Nagy and Joy Stocke for the Wild River Review.

[10] From review by David Mixner at:  http://www.davidmixner.com/2007/02/photographer_su.html, 2007.

[11] From Suzanne Opton:  Snoozing Soldiers by Chris Bucklow at:  http://contemporarymediasurvey.wordpress.com/category/body, 11 April 2006.    


Imperial War Museum © 2009


Hilary Roberts is Head Curator of the Photograph Archive at the Imperial War Museum London.

This article first appeared in the Review of International Studies, Cambridge University Press, Vol.35, No.4, October 2009.