The Evolution


Arrested by an obsession is the best way to describe the way I feel right now. Since the mid summer the activity concerning the exhibition of my Iraq work has been building. In tandem with this building energy has been the continuous evolution of my feelings about Iraq, my past involvement in activities there, my attempted understanding of how it changed me, and my changing view of what my old images are.

On January 12, 2008 in Washington DC my small collection of fickle Iraq memories be show to the world in a new physical form (not the images in this post….please keep reading) that I feel best fits my personal emotions about my personal journey. Make no mistake about my Iraq work by thinking that I am trying to make a political statement with this work. The images in their many versions that have been posted, published, and shown to date have nothing to do with politics. If you get a political message from my work it is because that is what you want to see, and that is fine, but leave me out of it.

The exhibition at Irvine Contemporary (not yet officially announced) will be the culmination of almost five years of living with the images I created as snapshots of my 11 months of life in Baghdad Iraq. From the time I left Iraq until the now I have been trying to find a way to give the images the life that they deserve as a way of freeing myself from them. For three solid years I have been working to build a solid and worthy body of work from this personal war material.

Now, because of the passage of time I am able to look back on all of the experimentation that I have made with the Iraq material to see that the images as visual manifestations of my emotions. These emotions have been guiding my work to give themselves a physical form in the world. The physical form that represents their permanence in my daily thoughts, the nagging feelings of emotional and physical vulnerability I felt in Iraq, and the fleeting but real moments of beauty that strangely enough can be found in war.

After leaving Iraq in March of 2004 I began a second year of self-discovery, but in a calmer environment. I would spend 2004 divided up between Tennessee, Arizona, Australia, and for the most part in Missoula Montana where the visions started to take shape. While attending the Rocky Mountain School of Photography (RMSP) I would begin the first stages of my exploration into giving my Iraq memories life.

Inkjet prints, digital audio/slideshows, and digital to silver prints were all tried. At the end of my time at RMSP I was playing with the idea of adding a true physical aspect to my work, making what I called “displays”. Something inside me was being driven to add a physical aspect to the images. In the end, after spending hours combining multiple digital images into single images then turned into digital negative and printed in the RMSP darkroom I was not happy. Then the idea to physically scar the negatives with sand paper came to me as a way to make them look like images on scared metal.


From the prints created from the scared digital negatives my first “display” was created for my final B/W class project at RMSP. At the last minute, only about 8 hours before the final class did my imagination take off and take control. Rusted, burnt metal with .45 caliber holes ripped through it with a friend’s pistol, the combined B/W prints levitated above this wounded background with hand painted hardware to make the metal and pop rivets look ages an rusted. The finishing touch was the use of a letter written to my then love penned from the roof of a building on the outskirts of Baghdad while tracers filled the night sky in the distance. This would be my parting shot of the RMSP B/W classes.


The project was a great success as far as class went, and the piece would later be placed on display in the University of Montana Student Union for four months. My friends and fellow students loved the piece. I was happy because I had placed something very personal outside myself to be seen and it was accepted. To this day it is one of the most powerful feelings that I have ever had.


With the creation of this initial crude piece I took the first steps on a journey that would lead me to Washington DC. Because of that late night effort in Missoula Montana the seeds of my tintype work were planted, although I had no idea that a person could still make tintypes, but it would still be a year (late 2005) before the thought of tintypes would enter my mind.

Before the tintypes I would continue to play with the idea of fabricating displays for my work. The image below if of my last large (the image is 13×19) prototype of hand fabricated displays. From this project I would make a radical change in thinking and start to explore the blurring of photographic history and that of armed conflict. These ideas would lead to making attempts at digital to dry-plate tintypes.

The evolution is still underway although the image/objects being created now are the images that I have felt the most comfortable with since I started this back in summer of 2004. They are simple, yet complex and like memories, sometimes fragile. Just after the New Year the final form of these images will be presented to the world and I hope that you will make an effort to come see them.


~ by Phil Nesmith on November 16, 2007.

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