In Defiance of History: Afghanistan 1973-2003
Photographs by Luke Powell
Through Sept. 18
Through This Lens Gallery
303 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham

Last year, in a thrift shop, I unearthed a stack of old 8mm filmshome movies, apparently, each labeled with a location and date in thick permanent marker script.

Watching them, a skeletal narrative emerged: It involved an older couple, probably retired, enjoying their twilight years globetrotting on the international tourist circuit. Our intrepid adventurers appeared the mildest sort of mid-century Americans: he, horn-rimmed glasses with a professorial pipe; she, with sensible dress and equally sensible smile. Their travel destinations included New Zealand, Amsterdam, Nice and Monte Carlo, but considering all that has happened in the last three decades, their most intriguing journey was to be found on a reel titled AFGHANISTAN, MAY 1970.

If Afghanistan hardly seems a place that our American retirees would enjoy as much as the French Riviera, it must be recalled that in 1970 the country was nearing the end of a period of stability under King Zahir Shah, a rare respite from the typical current of Afghan history, which reads as the ebb and flow of a secession of invaders, including Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. More recently, in the 19th century, the British and Russian empires vied for control of the landlocked country, each seeking supremacy in Central Asia in a power struggle known as the “Great Game.”

A century later, Afghanistan found itself again in the middle of geostrategic designsthis time in a hydrocarbon rush. The United States and the USSR took their turn at the chessboard, cumulating in the 1979 Soviet invasion that plunged the declining communist state into a quagmire that was to last for much of its remaining existencea demise hastened by CIA-supported Mujahideen fighters from around the Arab world, including Osama bin Laden. The current American adventure in the war-torn region is probably familiar to most readers (even if it tends to get buried by reportage from Iraq).

It’s worth dwelling on Afghanistan’s history because of the ways in which its complexities are treated in photographer Luke Powell’s exhibit of landscapes, In Defiance of History: Afghanistan 1973-2003, now on view in Durham’s Through This Lens Gallery. Although his accommodations probably differed considerably from those of our 8mm mystery duo, Powell also traveled to Afghanistan in the early ’70s as a tourist. According to the catalog of the show, “Powell attempted an overland journey from Israel to India. His travel arrangements were thwarted by the war between Pakistan and India. Along with fleeing refugees, Powell rode to safety in Afghanistan by freight car.”

Waiting for snowy roads to clear in wintry Kabul, Powell developed a fascination with the mountainous country. In Defiance of History showcases landscapes that Powell took throughout the decade before the Soviet invasion, and a decade after their withdrawal, between 2000 and 2003, while working for the United Nations to document minefields, mine victims and de-mining efforts.

Unlike Powell’s 2005 exhibit Women of Afghanistan (also at Through This Lens), In Defiance of History puts the country’s natural geography front and center. Most of the photographs contain minuscule figures and settlements that serve to give scale to the region’s diverse and dramatic topography. But more than that, the tiny lives, farms and houses also function as commentary on Afghanistan’s agrarian persistence in endurance of nature and, as the show’s title suggests, history.

Powell’s photographs span a considerable period of time, but it’s difficult to tell in which decade any given vista was createdsuch is the timeless and enigmatic quality that they evoke. This effect stands in sharp contrast to the short three minutes of luminous Kodachrome that I discovered, in which there’s a distinct sense of period: glimpses of European automobiles and Bauhaus architecture. There’s nothing so modern in Powell’s photography; instead, he’s interested in showing us how ancient much of this land remains.

The show’s notes mention that Powell, who holds a B.A. from UNC-Chapel Hill and a master’s degree in religion from Yale, worked on archaeological excavations in Israel before coming to Afghanistan, where he says he “saw villages remarkably similar to ones we had excavated from thousands of years ago.” Powell’s point is salient and easy to muse upon. It’s undemanding to imagine that the Afghans were living in much the same manner when Lenin boarded the locomotive bound for Finland Stationbefore the existence of the Soviet army that they would endure shortly after the earliest of Powell’s photographs. And it’s equally simple to imagine that they’ll still be there when the American empire finally recedes back into isolationism due to folly or shriveling petro-markets (or both). If Afghan history tells us anything, it’s that no power can grip the world in its hand for more than a passing season.

More works from this exhibit (click the image to view larger):

“Bamiyan Road, #2” Bamiyan, Afghanistan, December 2001, © Luke Powell

“Lavender Flowers Near Maimana,” Afghanistan, March 1978, © Luke Powell

“The Hand,” Gudham Shahar IDP Camp, Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, February 2002, © Luke Powell

“Threshing,” © Luke Powell

“North Door,” © Luke Powell

Landscape: Photographs by Pamela Pecchio
Through Sept. 16
Bull City Arts Collaborative
401-B1 Foster St., Durham

Landscape: Photographs by Pamela Pecchio, another photography exhibit on display in downtown Durham, is ironically titled since, unlike In Defiance of History, none of the pieces resemble traditional landscape photographyor maybe the artist’s intention is more delicate considering that she didn’t make her title the plural form of the word. “Landscape” (singular) implies one view, and perhaps she’s making the word an allegory for “mindscape.” A small show, with only three medium-sized prints, Landscape can be found in the Bull City Arts Collaborative’s tiny Upfront Gallery.

Pecchio’s color prints are compelling and can be seen as fine examples of what 20th-century master André Kertész called “Naturalist surrealism.” The idea is that if a pane of glass refracts unevenly, or a grouping of objects randomly conspire to some extra-orderly order, Surrealism can present itself spontaneously. The eye captures, the psyche recognizes and, if a photograph is taken, more than one person is enriched.

There’s something appealingly Freudian in the snatches of muddled light that Pecchio has rendered. This is fine: Freud influenced the Surrealistsand, hence, Kertész’s Naturalist surrealismand, even today, after a century of bad cigar jokes, some psychologists are starting to reevaluate his ideas with a newfound respect.

Go take a look at Pecchio’s photography. If the gallery’s closed, the prints can still be seen through the window.

More works from this exhibit (click the image to view larger):

“Landscape (Baton Rouge)” 2006, © Pamela Pecchio

“Landscape (Durham),” 2005, © Pamela Pecchio

“Landscape (Marietta),” 2005, © Pamela Pecchio