Topography Is Fate

January 14, 2014

By Barbara Goldman

© Matthew Arnold

Wadi Auda Water Pumping Station below Fort Auda, Libya.

New York City-based photographer Matthew Arnold is a man of many talents and interests. He is a fine art photographer and has had assignments as a director and as a   commercial photographer  over the course of 14 years. His current and past clients include Havas Worldwide, LLNS, Torre Lazur McCann, The New York Times, and Men’s Journal.  Recently he has been showing his fine art photography across the country and he installed a large body of work as a permanent collection in the Presidential Suite and Grand Ballroom of The Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City.

Arnold’s love of the landscape and of history, in particular World War II, has influenced his latest body of work. Four years ago, he went to Egypt to photograph a wedding for a dear friend, and spent a great deal of time wandering the desert in his land rover with just his camera and a bit of water. With only the sand, wind, light and austere silence, he found something significant and profound that he wanted to continue. He came home longing to create a project from his experience that would bring all of these feelings and observations together.

Topography Is Fate — North African Battlefields of World War II, to be published this fall by Kehrer Verlag, is the culmination of that experience and more. The idea for the monograph came from a simple conversation with a close friend, leading to a discussion about  An Army at Dawn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book for history by Rick Atkinson. “Reading the book sparked that creativity— that urge to envelop oneself in something much bigger than anything I had done before. The depth of the history interwoven with the personal lives of any of the soldiers and others in the book cemented this idea into lifeblood,” says Arnold.

Topography Is Fate is more than an investigation of the landscape of the region. It is a soul-searching and visual testament to the trials of war waged and forgotten in the vast desert landscapes of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. With the help of  North African expert Steven Hamilton, Arnold was convinced they could trace the movement of Axis and Allied forces along the northern ridge of Africa. Over the course of two years, using actual World War II-era maps, the two would engage in a very distinct form of battlefield exploration to discover and recount previously undocumented sites of lost moments in history.

Goat track used by the British commandos on a raid on Rommel’s headquarters near Al Bayda, Libya./© Matthew Arnold

“The biggest problem was the sand. As anyone that has ever worked in the desert with photographic equipment can attest, the sand and dust gets into everything, especially during a sandstorm,” says Arnold. Early on he was caught in a major sandstorm and his Mamiya 645DM camera stopped functioning. He had to resign himself that the project might be over. He reached out to his tech rep at Mamiya for long-distance assistance to attempt to work through the problem.  Unfortunately the distance and damage seemed to be too much to be able to resolve remotely. Surprisingly though, as he was ending the phone call, he heard the  reassuring sounds of the mirror drop and the shutter slap. The back was engaging with the camera body and everything was working again. “The relief and joy was one of the best feelings I’d felt, knowing I could continue with the project,” he says.

The other big challenge on the project was the political turmoil in the region. Arnold was photographing in Tunisia towards the end of the upheaval and revolution, and there were a few times he had to change his travel routes because of riots and protests. Several times he had to change hotels because they had been burned in the riots the day before. In Libya it was even worse. Even though the Libyan Civil War had been over for more than a year, precautions had to be taken as everyone in the country was on edge for the anniversary of the beginning of the revolution. Checkpoints were manned throughout the country by jittery and unskilled young men with AK-47s.  Most of the time there were no issues, but there was one contentious episode that required patience and diplomacy. Arnold and Hamilton  were detained at a checkpoint and passed up the chain of command with the ridiculous assumption they were foreign intelligence. They had their passports and visas confiscated and were taken for questioning to headquarters once used by Quadafi’s intelligence service. After several nerve-racking hours of interrogation, everything was ironed out. Arnold and Hamilton got their passports and visas back, there were apologies from the officers, and they were assured assistance at all checkpoints along the way for the rest of their trip.

Artillery emplacement, Bunker Z84, Wadi Zitoune Battlefield, Libya./© Matthew Arnold

Arnold’s photographs are much more than geography and landscapes. The approach is conceptual, with the photographs of the North African battlefields presented, similar to the New Topographic photographers of previous generations, in an anonymous and neutral tone of voice. The images are taken in daylight, without complexity, portraying the peaceful quietness of the desert or grassland to allow viewers to fill in that negative space with their own visualization of the war.

Watering hole,Wadi Zitoune Battlefield, Libya./© Matthew Arnold

“A vivid, often haunting look at North African battlefields that have been silent and largely unobserved for more than 70 years. Matthew Arnold’s photographs are so compelling that little imagination is needed to see opposing armies once again sweeping across the desert,”says author Rick Atkinson.

The work has been  shown in galleries across the country from Portland, Oregon, to Houston to New Orleans to Boston and New York City.  The book will be oublished February 111, 2014 as a monograph entitled Topography Is Fate — North African Battlefields of World War II by Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany.

Matthew Arnold’s photography of bunkers, earthworks and vistas bring the past and present together with a brutal kind of beauty, and it is that haunting beauty that also makes us empathize and wonder what violent fates awaited the people and the land over 70 years ago at a time of world warfare and mass destruction. View more images from his monograph on his website,