Luke Powell will be giving a public lecture at ViewPoint Gallery on Thursday, October 19 at 7pm. In collaboration with Photopolis.
Actually I probably should say more rather than less on this occasion. Afghanistan is such a contentious issue that I need to explain my position on all of that in some detail and how and why I spent so much time there. If I can do that in four reasonable paragraphs, then I can make it clear why the photographs themselves are intentionally not directly political. Because I was making the photographs for the Afghans and other Central Asians of the future I chose to do so in a very classical style that would most likely be comprehensible by people several hundred years from now. Because this is a photography forum not a political one it seemed logical to talk about the circumstances of my work in the artist’s statement and get that out of the way. Then I can talk about Dye Transfer, the films and cameras that I used, and how I clean, balance, and crop my images and organise the books. The books and shows are all about positive images and the beauty of my subjects, and my desire to stick to this may make more sense if you first know how much time I have spent in the minefields and hospitals.
Luke Powell has degrees in religion from UNC and Yale Universities, and starting in 1978 he spent three summers during his college years working on excavation sites in Israel/Palestine. There he learned that when Communism fell apart and was no longer a proper bugaboo to justify the American arms industry, Islam would be set up as the next enemy. Travels in Central Asia made it clear that Afghanistan was the most remarkable example of a people living in the way described by both Moses and Confucius, so Powell set about preserving images of those lovely, innocent people before they could be turned into enemies of the West. He took photographs in Afghanistan through the 1970s, and he left the country three days ahead of the coup in 1978 that brought a communist government to power.
During the 1980s and 1990s Powell built a Dye Transfer lab in Middlebury, Vermont and produced an exhibition of photographs called The Afghan Folio. The show contained 32 Dye Transfer Prints on 11×14 inch paper, mounted 16×20, and there was an optional eight-frame display on the Dye Transfer Process. These prints were framed with aluminium museum frames and plexiglas, and they traveled in four 68 lb crates. During these years it was possible to show beautiful images of a Muslim subject, because the Afghans were fighting the Russians, making the work politically correct. The show traveled to over 120 museums and municipal and university galleries in the US and Canada. Gorbachev saw the show at the Smithsonian and asked that it be shown in Moscow and Leningrad. As soon as America invaded Afghanistan, however, requests for these exhibitions at American and Canadian museums ceased abruptly.
In 2000 the Afghan Government (under the Taliban) invited Powell back to Afghanistan to make photographs. When he reached Kabul he found that the only Westerners there were Christian missionaries, who were welcome and present in significant numbers. This welcoming attitude toward Christians and Jews on the part of the Muslims in Afghanistan was the continuation of a tradition going back to the years before the invasion of Alexander, when the Zoroastrians made all other monotheists welcome. During most of 2000 Luke traveled all over Southern Afghanistan photographing uncleared minefields with teams of Afghans supervised by the United Nations. He continued working with various UN agencies in Afghanistan through 2003, and during this period he traveled very widely throughout the country. He returned to the US at the end of 2003 and promptly moved to Canada, where he became a citizen in January 2014. This request for him to speak in Halifax in 2017 is the first time that he has been asked to speak or show his work in over a decade. In early 2013 Steidl Publishers in Germany printed Afghan Gold, a large volume with 204 photographs of Afghanistan. This volume received very few if any reviews in the press in the US, Canada, or Europe. However, American born Jewish friends of Powell did write a nice review of the book that was published by The Kyoto Review, in Japan.
During those four years from early 2000 through 2003 Luke Powell shot tens for thousands of colour slides, and he had an astonishing opportunity to travel once again throughout Afghanistan. During that early period of the American occupation he could still safely travel alone in most remote areas. In Nova Scotia for the next thirteen years the total indifference from the the art and museum scene in the West has left Luke free to come to terms with this mountain of new material. Most of the technical terms used for digital colour photography and probably most of the early designers came from labs using Dye Transfer, which Kodak abruptly discontinued in 1994. Powell continued printing with Dye Transfer for several more years during which time he began using Photoshop, and he maintained a large web site. By the time he returned from four years of very active photography in Afghanistan, Photoshop and Bridge had matured and were ready for serious professional use.
When Luke speaks in Halifax he does not want to talk about the politics of Afghanistan. Hence this long artist’s statement — to get that explanation over with. What he wants to talk about is the photographic and graphic dimensions of his work. In his photographs he tries to show the original Afghanistan, before and aside from the most recent Western attacks. He almost never makes visual references to political issues, and a majority of the photographs are landscapes. However, his landscapes and street scenes almost always contain figures, often in motion. It is the graphic problems that he faces day to day that he wants to discuss. He chose to shoot in a classic style that would have been comprehensible to most artists of previous civilisations, so that they stand the best chance of being appreciated by future generations of civilised people, long after the modern, neo-Viking, world of self-evident truth that we live in has long since crashed and burned, and we are remembered mostly because of the nuclear wastelands.