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Jim Naughten's Re-enactors at HotShoe Gallery

Corky

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Jim Naughten's Re-enactors at HotShoe Gallery

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Jim Naughten's photographs of WWII re-enactors, on show at Hotshoe Gallery, elude politics to attain a lavish, terrifying beauty.


Do you know what a 'walt' is? A 'garb snark'? How about a 'beer and bash' or a 'furb'?

Across the country; on any given weekend, these mysterious words will be whispered into grease-painted ears in woods as dark as pitch; bellowed across borrowed fields in the pinkish light of an early morning; or sometimes just volleyed back and forth in the queue for the ice-cream van. Welcome to the world of war re-enactors: simulated battle and bully beef events attended by 20,000-odd UK individuals for whom tin soldiers were never quite enough.

Last year, London-based photographer Jim Naughten donned flack jacket and camouflage gear to enter their ranks. "I'd been looking for a large photographic project for a while" he explains. "When I came across the re-enactors I felt utterly compelled to capture them. I saw it as an opportunity to create my version of Avedon's 'In the American West', a book I had loved since college". Naughten admits to being fascinated as a child by the stories told by his desert rat grandfather and Spitfire pilot uncle; "I built model aircraft, tanks, soldiers and dioramas". Once embedded with the re-enactors, he felt "an extraordinary sense of recognition…really seeing all my childhood toys full-sized for the first time".

He found his first show gruelling: "It was extremely intense being immersed in their fantasy world for so long. We were right in the middle of thousands of re-enactors for four days solid and in the middle of some of the heaviest rains in years. I took two assistants, a VW camper van and a small wedding tent to act as a portable studio. Huge Panzer tanks and Russian T34s would be rumbling past whilst lines of 1940s civilians in fox fur, SS patrolmen and Hitler Youth were lined up in front of me – I never quite got used to it, but after the first show it got easier, more enjoyable".

Afterward he experimented with his results, trying first to blend his sitters with photographs of empty landscapes - real battle locations like Normandy for example - but he found the detail and whimsy of the characters became lost in the scale of the image. "The characters were so strong, I realised they would only work on a plain background". He didn't abandon the diorama however, and at his next event employed a cherry picker to photograph soldiers in action from above. These were later cut out and dropped into the pre-shot scenes. "It reminded me of those old cereal boxes with scenes where you rubbed on your transfer characters", says Naughten.

Unwittingly or not, they give something of a sense of soldiers as pawns at the mercy of hands playing a greater game. Perhaps too, they have something of Paolo Ventura about them - photographs which at first glance seem to be true, in Ventura's case of soldiers in Iraq but which on closer inspection turn out to be dummies on miniature sets in his New York studio. Both operate with fake realities, but they are also the summation of a number of realities; a sort of condensed vision of all the images of war imprinted in the collective memory.

The portraits, though, are careful to emphasise neither politics nor ideologies. They ask us to focus on the details, the fabrics, badges and buttons, collars, the creases in a shirt, the mud scuff on serge. Some sitters meet our eyes belligerently but the majority shift their gaze sideways, focused on the past rather than the present? Or on the ideal they donned their uniform for? Loosely captioned only with details that describe nationality, sometimes unit and rank, whether British or German, Japanese or Soviet, their identity remains tantalisingly elusive. They have a casual romance about them.

"It was important that it was a study and not a documentary" explains Naughten. "We met plenty of characters, as you can imagine and it was particularly strange seeing people from all over the world dressing as Nazis. I knew from the outset that I didn't want to get involved in the debate, at least not with this project. I love the fact that questions are raised but I do not attempt to answer them. The German uniforms still retain an extraordinary 'power'."

Head of AFRA, the All Fronts Re-enactments Association and sometime player of Nazi Generals Paul Dalby, agrees: "It's an aesthetic. The pristine cut and élan of German troops; the iconic shape of the German Stahlhlem, the MP40 machine pistol were what drew me in. I'd always collected militaria but it wasn't until I saw a neighbour's boyfriend unload a German Paratrooper uniform from his car, about twenty years ago, that I realised how my collection functioned "in the field".

He says outsiders are keen to raise the political aspect of what he does, but his patient explanations mean that in over 20 years he's had "perhaps two complaints" and "never been or felt threatened". He tells me that playing an enemy "just feels right – it's why children play Star Wars and want to be The Empire. It's why someone wants to be North or South in the American Civil War. It's why some one wants to grow their hair long or keep it short. As with the soldiers facing each other in war - he is a man just like you and me...nothing else".

Dalby admires Naughten's portraits for their attention to detail. He is upset when I refer to the uniforms as 'costumes'. "Costume infers fancy dress and apart from the shallowest of us – no one wears any of these uniforms as fancy dress. They are representations of people who contributed to history". His fellow re-enactors strive for high standards in all areas of portrayal, whether they are performing for the public or engaged in private combat. He admits, though, that enthusiasts "come in a variety of flavours". There are the "old hands", who are "true Living Historians who know their stuff and take time to get their portrayal looking right" and who often prefer to stage private events so they can immerse themselves in a chosen time and place as accurately as possible. Some of these might be 'garb snarks' who pick out inaccuracies in the historical clothing.There are 'walts', named for Thurber's Walter Mitty i.e. someone who fantasises about a life much more exciting than their own. There are also weekend enthusiasts "who look good, but have foibles because they don't read or study in any depth". And finally there are the "promenaders"; those who "just go out of a weekend for a good time and to have a laugh" – the furbs as they otherwise known, who come for a beer and a bash.

"Our members have many reasons for joining the group. Some have a keen historical interest in WWII, some have interest in the weapons and tactics used, others join for the 'Kameradschaft', but the main aim is to share knowledge about the conflict and the soldiers that fought in it. The furthest thing from an Axis Re-enactor's mind is rekindling the flames of racism, genocide and hatred. And we all know there are people out there who don't wear Swastikas yet are capable of being bigots".

The landmark Richard Avedon series of 1979 on which Naughten based his aesthetic, is beautifully pertinent to any uneasy feelings we might entertain. 'In the American West' lavished attention equally upon unknown and often ignored groups: miners, waitresses, drifters, slaughterhouse workers, asylum patients. Making no apologies for shattering stereotypes, Avedon said, "I'm looking for a new definition of a photographic portrait. I'm looking for people who are surprising -heartbreaking-or beautiful in a terrifying way. Beauty that might scare you to death until you acknowledge it as part of yourself."

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/6309760/Jim-Naughtens-Re-enactors-at-HotShoe-Gallery.html
 

p51

One Too Many
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Well behind the front lines!
Corky said:
Yeah, a perfect example of an authetic re-enactor... :eusa_doh:
Corky said:
Do you know what a 'walt' is? A 'garb snark'? How about a 'beer and bash' or a 'furb'?
I’ve been doing WW2 re-enacting for 20 years now and have been to events almost everywhere. I’ve never heard any of these words before reading them just now. They must be British re-enacting slurs?
 

matrioshka

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Walt=Walter Mitty, poser, wannabe, etc. Never heard it in a reenacting context before.

I'm thinking "beer and bash" is like the "beer, battle, ball" in Silly War reenacting.

M
 

Cobden

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Oxford, UK
matrioshka said:
Walt=Walter Mitty, poser, wannabe, etc. Never heard it in a reenacting context before.

I'm thinking "beer and bash" is like the "beer, battle, ball" in Silly War reenacting.

M

The Sunday Times also covered it, though for some reasons decided to illustrate it with a photograph of, amongst others, myself. Will try and get along to the gallery, the photo's that I've seen have been very good.


BTW: Beer and Bash = someone who goes to events just to participate in battles and get drunk; Walts in the UK re-enacting context is the same as in the military context, someone pretending to actually be in the military when they aren't - it'd normally be in a context such as "Re-enactors and Walts are very different". Most commonly used when someone feigns military experience to justify rank, medal ribbons, etc. Furb I assume is a misrendering of Farb. Garb snark is a stitch counter, someone who'll claim everything you do is inauthentic or whathave, but are usually wrong, and are doing it not to help you, but to make themselves feel big.
 

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