London-based photographers, Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low have exhibited worldwide. Their extensive portfolio includes a very broad range of subjects, from architecture to landscapes, reportage, portraits, and nudes. They are perhaps best known for two projects, “Athletes“ & “Gymnasts“: they have had solo exhibitions of their portraits of athletes the National Portrait Galleries of both England and Australia, the National Art Gallery of Malaysia and other museums world-wide. They have also produced a very large series of remarkable nude studies of the National Danish Gymnastic Team based around four elements “Earth, Air, Water, Fire“. Both of these projects have been published as books. Anderson & Low’s current series, “Athlete/ Warrior“, concentrates on recruits studying at the three United States Armed Forces Academies in Annapolis, West Point and Colorado Springs. Unusually, they didn’t just photograph men and women in uniforms but also in their sporting outfits and display these images side-by-side. They state that their “main aim with this project was to study this duality, both the Athlete and the Cadet in the same body“. I wondered how they worked as a team. Did they separately think of poses and subject matter, for example? I imagined that they work very closely together. They agreed: “We both are involved in every aspect of any project that we do – ideas, strategies, design, images, shooting, printing. Every part is a collaboration, from the conceptual part to the finished art“.
The military academies invited them to take photos of their athletes and Anderson & Low decided to concentrate upon this dual expression of “the hero“, as sportsperson and warrior, and exhibit the finished work as diptychs and triptychs. The military academies were, understandably, very impressed by the work. In fact, Anderson & Low said, “At the opening of the premier exhibition at the US Olympic Centre, one of the coaches from the Air Force Academy would not talk to us at all – at first we could not understand why, but we later discovered that he was so moved by what he saw that he was close to tears. It probably doesn’t look too good to have military people crying in public at art exhibitions…“
Anderson & Low see these portraits expressing the vulnerability of bodies as well as the result of intensive physical training. “We think of these images as showing several things. The way that a person can be transformed, both physically and emotionally, by their attire. We hope that these images show the humanity of the subjects, beyond just their sporting and military uniforms“. However, they don’t see themselves belonging to any one tradition: “We really subscribe to no particular photographic school – we are aware of the various lineages, but would always approach each project anew. To be honest, we are influenced more by painting and sculpture, graphic arts and architecture“. Looking at the images one can see why such awe-inspiring bodies became a popular subject for artists since the ancient Greeks first carved their perfect torsos. I wondered whether they had experienced any difficulties shooting their subjects after the conflict in Iraq began. They told me that they did find it a lot harder to get access to the cadets after the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, but; “Most of the project was shot prior to Sept 11th 2001. After Sept 11th access was very difficult temporarily, but the Academies let us back in as soon as they felt they could.“.
I asked the photographers if they had ever taken images of people who are injured or ill. They said “There are many people in this project (particularly as athletes) who are photographed with bruises, black eyes, scrapes, etc. And if you look at many images in one of our previous books, Athletes, you will find it includes many images of calloused hands, ice packs, injuries, including an image of a female taekwando athlete with a multiple skull fracture under her eye, of a young gymnast in tears, and so forth. We do care about the human consequences of training, of the process of sport, and indeed the process of battle. We know of several war injuries to those who are in this Athlete/Warrior project. It upsets us greatly. Also, if you look at the faces of many of these people, particularly in the military uniforms, you will see a level of frailty, introspection and reflection that goes beyond the standard image of a soldier.“
We see a lot of television footage of soldiers searching for Iraqi insurgents so these photographs of proud men and women offer a different perspective. These studies show an idealised vision of the hero, as opposed to the conqueror or victor. Anderson & Low stress that it is possible to be a hero in defeat as well as victory, that compassion, humanity, dignity and respect for others are essential for a true hero, whether warrior or athlete.
They are stunning images and Anderson & Low even do most of their own printing. They say this is partly “...so that we can work and re-work the image in the printing stage to find ways to make it say more, rather than just saying enough. Doing one’s own printing allows an additional stage in one’s journey to express the soul of an image –something that comes from the artist“. Anderson & Low use a range of cameras – “from small format to 8 x 10“. They have even devised a new photographic process, although this wasn’t used for the Athlete/Warrior series.
In this collection of athletic young men and women we see compelling shots of determined individuals who strive not only to achieve physical prowess. The resonant images in “Athlete/Warrior“ go beyond the sporting and military uniforms to highlight both the humanity of the individuals portrayed and the noble aspirations that they embody. The classically inspired iconography of the athlete and the warrior challenge us to consider our own notion of the hero.
text by Siobhan Wall
picture: Aaron Jackson, ©Jonathan Anderson & Edwin Low,