Shomei Tomatsu

Among the striking features of this photograph is its composition in a cross: one axis is made up by the crack line running from the bottom right edge of the photograph up to the centre left, and the other one by the diagonal line crossing from bottom left to upper right.

The dark shape formed by the object and its shadow is located centrally and more or less symmetrically. The object’s oval shape is well defined: not only are its lines thin and sharp but its texture (metal, dry soil and dust) is also very tangible. Containing the densest blacks, this shape stands in sharp contrast to the luminous area on the ground, and attracts the eye. As it does not fully colour up the light texture of the ground, the shadow’s black acts as a visual transition between the main shape and the background. There is no line of horizon.

What is the message conveyed by this photograph and its composition?

We are faced with a dark object that stands alone in a light space. The object is turned upwards while still touching the ground. Even though the sky cannot be seen, there is a feeling of space. The central shape welcomes the void from the sky above, and makes a connection with the ground underneath, via the shadow. The ambiguous central object is perceived as a hollow shape in which we can easily recognize a helmet but also imagine a basin, a hole, a mine, an open urn… The unity of the bright area representing the ground is disrupted by dark lines that penetrate and divide it.

The cross brings in a very rich symbolism: uniting heaven (vertical axis) and earth (horizontal axis) it stands in the Christian culture as a symbol of the sacrifice of the divine embodied in a mortal coil. It may also evoke the line of fire of a weapon… The very centre of the cross formed by the intersecting lines on the ground is filled by an absence, and that is what this image is about. This empty and gaping helmet is turned towards the sky, as if to ask: where has death come from? It is also turned upside down, like a tortoise lying on its back, no longer protected by its shell. Even the earth is affected by this destruction. If this image could use words, it would tell us: “stillness, petrification, silence, death, absence, stupor, isolation, disappearance”. And maybe “fall”. Here we touch upon the very beauty and limits of photographic art: it captures an instant, without saying anything about the before and after. This invisible echo of the context actually occurs in the imagination of the viewer who then takes an active part in the reading of the work of art. With its pared down and minimalist composition, this photography welcomes various layers of interpretation and that is where its poetic strength lies.

Steel Helmet with Skull Bone Fused By Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki/1963”, a picture by Shomei Tomatsu

This photograph can be seen at the exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography at Tate Modern until 15 March 2015

©2014 Eleonore Pironneau / Translation by Caroline Imbert and Haru Yamada

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