Photographs by Donald Weber with texts by Larry Frolick, Kevin Robbie, and Donald Weber
Review by Leo Hsu
On the last day of 1943 a team of nine British commandos were sent under cover of night across the English Channel to the Normandy beaches in occupied France. Their mission was to collect beach material from above the tideline and survey the area for bog peats and reefs, and for tides and currents that would impact an invading army. The sand and dirt that they brought back would determine if the beach could withstand the weight of the thousands of men and vehicles that would land there on D-Day five months later. The story feels mythic: it describes adventure, risk and bravery, setting something as basic, as granular as sand against the greatest possible stakes, the victorious recapture of Europe.
Donald Weber’s grandfather was one of these commandos, and this story forms the reason and the core of War Sand. The several sections of the book depart from this key story in different directions and address history in different modes, each building on its own form of narrative authority. What all of the stories share – apart from the connection to D-Day – is a confrontation with the necessity and insufficiency of fact in relation to the desire to create a story that feels complete in its own sense, and also with its corollary, the insufficiency of any story to account for all possible stories.
Weber photographed in Normandy between 2013 and 2015. A group of photographs describing the sky over the beaches are followed by another group that describes the sea. A third group recedes far enough away from the shore that we see roads, memorials, and people. The effect is that of a reverse camera movement in a film- instead of coming out of the sky and zooming down onto the beach and town, we pull back from the sky, looking backwards as we move forwards, image by image. The photographs of the sky and sea are titled by data describing the moment at which they were made: date, time, temperature, humidity, wind strength and direction, visibility. By the time we are inland and the photographs are peopled, these titles have come to include the specific place designations used in the invasion, “Gold Beach, Item Red” or “Omaha Beach, Charlie”, the environmental conditions appended by historical reference. The photographs are beautiful, subtly toned wide views that revel in the specificity of the moment: the sun’s warm cast on a cloud, the curl of a wave, water that looks like metal.
Scanning Electron Microscope images of sand that Weber collected in 2013 have a different, alien beauty. Study of the sand by Dr. Kevin Robbie at Queens University, Canada, revealed that the sand was in part composed of war material - shrapnel and human tooth and bone - as well as microscopic meteoric matter that could be “cosmic space dust” millions of years old. The sand gives evidence of the violence on the beach and the bodies that settled there. It’s the matter of the subject itself.
Other narratives in War Sand include a story by Larry Frolick about casual violence related to guns and hunting in post-war rural Ontario; a model and diorama enactment accompanying the commando story; stitched drone images that speak more to surveillance than the beauty of the seascapes. The penultimate section is a delirious mashup of stills from war movies telling the story of D-Day that feels as unstable as it does confident in its dramatization. Any one of these could be a book in itself.
There’s a relationship here between the task that brought the commandos to Normandy and the physicality of War Sand. Just as the ground needed to bear the weight of necessary force, violence, and sacrifice, the book – nearly 400 pages - is a material representation of different kinds of stories weighing on each other. At one end, Weber’s descent from nature into war; at the other end, the narrative of war canonized in popular film as a visible fiction.
As a volume War Sand insists on itself as an object. There are hidden pages, which the reader will notice by visible printing coming through the back of a photograph. The paper changes countless times through the course of the book – on its side the book resembles layers of sediment. And while there are runs of images that lead into other images, the book is less of a linear flow than it is a layering of possible stories that could be told. The reader is invited to be an archaeologist of narratives, and to handle the ideas and themes offered as modules, brought to bear in various relationships with one another.
At the very end of it all, these stories meet in a “D-Day glossary”, an annotation that assumes the authority of text in relation to all of these voicings. Here, words that we have seen, places and moments that have been referenced, are nailed down. And yet, arriving here, the meaning of these words now feel contingent on the stories that we have been shown. It’s here that Weber asks, what if the invasion had taken place on June 5, when it was originally scheduled, when the chief meteorologist insisted that they wait a day or lose the advantage of surprise due to high waves? “The conquest of Western Europe might have taken another year,” Weber writes. Or if it had occurred on another scheduled day, June 19, when “the biggest channel storm of the 20th century came up”? The circumstance of history is as precarious as our ability to sit on a single telling of what did occur. War Sand is an ambitious intervention; the book honors history even as it draws attention to the impossibility of complete authority in the face of possible histories.