Collected Shadows: The Archive of Modern Conflict (5 stars)

Collected Shadows: The Archive of Modern Conflict

A dense and compellingly evocative array of 19th and 20th century photographs

The Archive of Modern Conflict, for those unaware of its existence before they cross the threshold of this exhibition, is a fascinating concept, and not at all what its name insinuates. Although the original purpose of the London-based organisation (which was founded in 1991) was to collect photographic documentation related to the First and Second World Wars, its remit has since expanded into the collection of 'vernacular photographs, objects, artefacts, curiosities and ephemera.'

So this collection offers a dense and compellingly evocative array of 19th and 20th century photographs, many of them clearly not taken by professionals, but each offering a unique view on fragments of industrial-era history. The catalogue offers some explanation for each, but the decision not to use titles or descriptors alongside the work on the walls is a canny one; the viewer can choose, if they wish, to just wander among the work and let their own narrative develop.

What connects, for example, a snap of graffiti bearing the motto 'GET OUT DIRTY ENGLISH' (a street scene from Suez in the 1950s) to the panoramas of blasted landscape and peaceful street scenes (the aftermath of a Nebraskan tornado and scenes of pre-gentrification Dalston, respectively) just along the wall? Or a selection of resonant Victorian photographs depicting an Indian elephant (a 'fighting elephant', the title tells us), a little boy tentatively trying out his hobby horse, or a Caucasian oil well gushing into the air in 1895?

Windows into history open all around. Vesuvius erupting in 1872; a portrait of a stoic-looking Navajo shaman; frames and frames of tiny contact sheet prints somehow managing to contain the explosive, destructive power of fighting along the Eastern Front in 1942; a bonfire constructed 'to celebrate the relief of Mafeking' in 1900; the breath-stopping, full-colour testing of nuclear weapons.

Stalin, Sigmund Freud, Blinky Palermo and a young and oddly androgynous Benny Hill all appear, alongside scientific images, portraits, landscapes and satellites images of the moon and the Earth. There's almost too much here to process quickly, but there is a great deal of enjoyment in working slowly through each piece, for photography students and novices alike. If any themes present themselves from the wealth of material represented here, it's the sense that the late 19th and 20th centuries formed a period where Imperialism and liberal social and scientific progress have developed intertwined, and that attempting to untangle them shows history to be more complex than we might imagine.

Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sun 8 Apr.

Collected Shadows: The Archive of Modern Conflict

A selection from the Archive of Modern Conflict, which was established to collect vernacular photography and ephemera relating to the First and Second World Wars but which has expanded to over eight million images, not all relating to conflict.

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