Whilst in London a couple of weeks ago, I also took in two other exhibitions that I’ve not yet written up in here.
The first has been running at the Tate Modern for some time now - Photography: New Documentary Forms. Set out in five different rooms, it is made up from the Tate’s in-house collection and explores the ways in which five contemporary artists have used the camera (or more specifically photography) to ‘explore, extend and question the power of photography as a documentary medium’. I have to say that, for me, it works successfully – five artists, five quite different approaches, none necessarily fitting what one might expect from the term documentary.
Mitch Epstein – large format camera; big colour prints; ‘deadpan’ landscape images; a touch of the ‘Dusseldorf’ school about it; but each image, in its own way, documenting the impact of US power companies within the landscape.
Luc Delahaye – similar form of picture-making & presentation; this time in combat zones but not showing the combat; capturing, in a reflective way, the everyday happenings (compare Donovan Wylie in earlier post here).
Guy Tillim – comparable presentation – large colour prints – but much more immediacy about the subject matter; events surrounding an election in the Congo; more like the ‘newsy’ documentary photography.
Boris Mikhailov – older work; most notable, for me, the ‘Red’ series, depicting Soviet Russia with images linking (for obvious reasons) via the colour red; a wall-full of images that worked together in a seemingly random way to create a single piece of artwork, whilst at the same time documenting the specific; I was reminded of Anders Petersen’s exciting and vibrant presentation of large black & white images in ‘From Back Home’.
Akram Zaatari – the artist, this time, isn’t making images but using them; a selection and presentation of photographs from the archives of a Lebanese studio photographer, Hashem el Madani, covering 1940s-1970s; directly comparable in approach, and even to an extent in content, with Jeremy Deller’s ‘Poking About’ at the Impressions Gallery, Bradford.
This was a cleverly and provocatively put together exhibition, making interesting use of existing images in the Tate’s collection. For me, it was particularly interesting to be able to draw comparisons with other work that I’ve seen in the last year or so. It informs the awareness of both similarity and difference in photographic styles e.g. to link together Mikhailov/Petersen/Engstrom, in a kind of emotional, energetic group, where the images grab your attention and assail you, even if they aren’t always comfortable or easy to deal with. Then one can put together Epstein/Wylie/Roberts/Delahaye in a more reflective, much less invasive, rather studied approach. The first set will use the visual impact of many images (apparently, but of course not actually) thrown together to impact on your senses; whereas the second set will carefully construct individual images that invite careful study of their detail and individual analysis. Reflecting on my own approach – I am probably more at home with the second group, but can also sense, as I’ve hinted before, how I might benefit from a little more of the former. It occurs to me, though, that it perhaps requires an awful lot more confidence to do what the first group do – the confidence to allow yourself to have an emotional reaction to what you see and to capture that reaction, honestly, and to be prepared to present that reaction openly for the viewer. It’s another variation on a theme I’ve reflected on here before, of course, and not one that feels easy at my stage in life.
Then there was the visit to the V&A’s new Photographs Gallery. This is a permanent exhibition, just opened in October 2011, and featuring dozens of prints from the V&A photography collection. It includes lots of the ‘big names’ from the history of photography – right back to Fox-Talbot & Fenton, through Emerson, Stieglitz & Cameron, via Cartier-Bresson & Man Ray, to Cecil Beaton, Harry Callahan & Diane Arbus ... etc, etc, etc. This was a surprisingly effective presentation of photographic history and well worth a visit. It is history, not theory or even remotely contemporary, but with a little pre-knowledge and some time spent genuinely looking and thinking, one can see very well the development of photography as art, science, document, and so on. It was good, for example, to see something like Robert Howlett’s 1857 portrait of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (there’s a link on the page I’ve linked to above). I couldn’t help thinking that it would have stood a good chance in the Taylor Wessing Portrait competition, if it had been in existence then!