Contemporary photography has evolved in a way that does not always make it straightforward to categorize what one is dealing with. For example, you typically find the photography of the Bechers in art museums, even though - in principle - what they are doing is much closer to some sort of scientific documenting1. With the Becher’s very deadpan b/w surveys of buildings it’s relatively easy to argue that it’s documentary photography. But what about, for example, Candida Höfer’s work? Or, for that matter, Richard Ross’?
Maybe what this “problem” teaches us is that either photography is still such a young medium that we still don’t know what exactly we’re dealing with or we simply shouldn’t try to put everything into categories. In any case, Waiting for the End of the World is a book for which you would have exactly this kind of problem if you tried to tell somebody what kind of photography it contains.
The book shows photos of bomb shelters, taken all over the world. Apart from a small number of photos - most of which show the Moscow subway - there are no people in the photos. I think this is what makes the photos have such a strong impact. Most of the shelters are not being used any longer or… not yet. But they were used or could be used, and this is what most people really don’t want to think about too much, because of what comes along with it: doom.
A large number of people alive today grew up during the Cold War, and anybody who was alive during the 1980s (and who was not too young to realize what was going on) will certainly not forget the atmosphere back then, with a trigger-happy bumbling former Hollywood actor and a bunch of grey sickly looking creeps in Communist uniforms having their fingers close to the buttons for the nuclear missiles. Growing up in West Germany at that time, I remember very well what would be the consequences of any kind of confrontation - even if it did not escalate (which, of course, it would) - namely the utter nuclear devastation of Germany (East and West) and most parts of Central Europe.
Back then it was not clear to me why anybody would want to survive a nuclear war, and I still don’t understand why you would want to do it. In the otherwise very disappointing interview at the beginning of the book, Richard Ross says “I think if there were a real nuclear exchange, the survivors would be Bush, Cheney, some Israelis, the Swiss, the Mormons, and assorted insects - a curious mixture.”
The backdrop of the 1980s or maybe the concern about chemical or biological attacks2 is exactly what gives this book such a chilling impact. For me, looking at those bomb shelters is basically looking at human luncay. It wouldn’t be the same if you looked at nuclear weapons, say. Nuclear weapons and weapons in general have this air of technology around them, which, sadly enough, makes them look “cool” for so many people3. But there is nothing cool about a bomb shelter. They always look creepy even if they’re brand-new. Maybe looking at a bomb shelter is a little bit like the first stage of torture during the Middle Ages: First, they simply showed you the means of torture.
In any case, I can only recommend Waiting for the End of the World. The photography is exquisit and the subject matter is very interesting. For the different shelters, there are brief explanatory texts. The only thing I am quite disappointed about is the interview, with the questions sounding as if they were asked by a teenager.
1 This, coincidentally, is partly how the Bechers started when they decided to take photos of the Zeche Zollverein when it wasn’t clear whether the Zeche would be dismantled or not. In the end, it was decided to keep the Zeche as a museum, and the Bechers are credited with having helped to achieve this.
2 What does it tell us that only the actors and means have changed but nothing else? Have we made any progress in these past twenty years?
3 As a consequence, you can even show how cruise missiles are sent off, and people will think it’s just great - as long as you don’t show the victims. And this works very well as we see every day on TV.