One-shot #13: The Anonymity of No Man’s Land

I never really tire of looking at images of No Man’s Land, which might on the face of it seem odd, since generally such works are rather anonymous – a shattered tree or two, some barbed wire here or there, perhaps a crater hole, perhaps some rusted and useless piece of artillery, or some anonymous bits of human wreckage. Perhaps little enough at all – here’s one which depicts a path through No Man’s Land, a single tree in the backgorund, a bit of barbed wire in the fore:

A path through No Man’s Land. From a 45×107 glass plate negative, photographer unknown, year unknown, field of battle unknown.

To me at least, it is the very anonymity of these sorts of images that makes them so intriguing. Viewing them, especially in 3D, transports me to a sort of void – a shattered location not placed in time or space, since I have no context to place the image within. A shattered field in France looks much the same as a shattered field in Belgium; likewise, a curl of barbed wire from 1916 looks quite the same as a curl of barbed wire from the 1920s, when efforts to clean up these sites were still in their infancy. Sites around Verdun are still being cleaned 100 years on – and of course there is an entire zone which is unvisitable and in which life refuses to grow.

I’m a bit of a cinephile, and I can’t but think that Tarkovsky took images like this as an influence when filming Stalker, or that Wojciech Has had seen these sorts of ghostly landscape images before filming The Saragossa Manuscript. There is something ethereal, timeless, and unreal about them – which is odd, considering how hyper-real these situations and places were. But in scenes without living men, viewing these 100 years on, they take on a new sort of feeling – they’re representative of an existential void, a place with no name, no time, no meaning. I can’t imagine that the soldiers who lived amongst scenes like this, who left them behind as their lines advanced, or retreated for them as the other side gained ground – I can’t imagine that they felt differently.


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