Matthew Bakkom found the photographs a decade ago, boxed up in the National Archives. Aerial images of Europe, shot from the back of American biplanes during World War I, they were taken for strategic, practical purposes.
But they were poetic, too. They captured rolling countrysides and zig-zagging trenches. Bomb craters like little scars.
“I’ve looked at them for so many years that I see them as abstractions,” Bakkom said, flipping through the black-and-white images. “This is way before Google Earth,” he laughed. “No one had seen stuff like this before.”
Bakkom is a conceptual artist who sifts though public archives, creating something new out of what he finds. This month, he’s showing these World War I images, taken by the U.S. Army Air Service from 1917 to 1919, at his new studio space in south Minneapolis. Bakkom, 49, worked as an artist here, spent time in New York City and, for the past six years, taught photography as an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Now he’s back in Minneapolis. His show opens Nov. 11, on the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice.
That war “has always had kind of a negligible space in the historic, journalistic register,” Bakkom said. “It was hugely influential in terms of literature and in terms of culture.” But especially compared with World War II and its “Greatest Generation,” he continued, the Great War has “always been in the shadows.”
Recon by air
Bakkom himself didn’t have a particular interest in the war or in “a bunch of military documents,” which is essentially what these are. But he knew that these photographs were taken under the direction of the legendary Edward Steichen, credited with transforming photography into art. As chief of the Photographic Section of the American Expeditionary Forces from 1917 to 1919, Steichen helped the United States implement war’s newest weapon — aerial photography.
For a host of reasons, it was a tricky task.
“A variety of ingenious combinations of springs, straps and foam rubber was used to minimize the effect of the vibration of the engine on the clarity of the photographs,” according to the Art Institute of Chicago. A photo from Steichen’s wartime album, which he assembled in 1919, shows tennis balls being used as shock absorbers.
“That was the first time the U.S. government ever put a camera on a plane,” Bakkom said. “It was the beginning of how we now, strategically, control the world through visual technology.”
It took Bakkom four days to scan the 660 photographs in the National Archives at College Park, Md. Sorting them took years. In the end, he arranged them according to altitude, gradually zooming in.
The aerial shots, labeled with coordinates, recorded troop movements and pinpointed targets. They also captured, in sharp detail, virgin and pockmarked landscapes, divided by rivers, roads and trenches.
Broken but beautiful
Bakkom became interested in the photographs that, by mistake, include clouds. For the show, he’s arranging dozens of them into a kind of mural.
“They’re fundamentally broken in terms of being reconnaissance photographs,” he said, “but they’re perhaps more beautiful.”
The men shot photos on the ground in France, too, capturing a church-turned-blacksmith-shop and peeking inside an operating room. There, a nurse appears hazy, ghostlike. Taken with large-format film, the images are vivid, detailed. “The plasticity of the large format makes them feel quite cinematic,” Bakkom said, much like the kinds of photography for which Steichen is better known — fine art and fashion.
Bakkom’s best-known archival find came in 2006, when the New York Times wrote about his tabloid-size booklet called “The New York City Museum of Complaint.” He had sorted through some 30,000 boxes of correspondence in the municipal archives dating back to the 1700s to find wild and curious letters of complaint. In 2009, Germany’s Steidl publishing house released a big, beautiful book of those letters.
Bakkom had hoped to publish these World War I photographs with the same publisher, he said. “I was aspiring to basically a sophomore record with a great label.” But things got complicated. So he decided to put them out in a more modest way. As an artist, he said, “you’re left with it in your hands. Which is fine. I’ve always operated in a DIY space.”
The South High School grad moved back to Minneapolis recently partly to care for his father, who has Parkinson’s disease. Walking near 35th Street and Minnehaha Avenue S., he spotted a modest white building and immediately thought, “studio.” Since then, he’s been working there, sorting through filing cabinets and dreaming of the emblem he’ll put out front: All Star Fine and Recorded Arts.
A sign on the side of the building listed a phone number, he said. “It was one of those signs you call and never hear back.
“But somebody called back.”
What: An exhibition of aerial images from World War I.
Where: All Star Fine and Recorded Arts, 3022 E. 35th St., Mpls.
Opening reception: noon-6 p.m. Sun.
Gallery hours: noon-5 p.m. Saturdays through Nov. 24.