Category Archives: architecture

Photographers’ Gallery reopens

It is so good to have the Photographers’ Gallery back in operation in central London again after its 18-month makeover. The architects, O’Donnell + Tuomey, have done a great job squeezing in the space and facilities needed for world-class exhibitions, though I was reassured by Brett Rogers’ opening address, that the Gallery is strongly linked to Soho, so we can expect that local and emerging photographers won’t be forgotten.

This is good news since it was one of their founding principles and has been a strong thread in their activities until the Gallery closed for building work. It’s the main reason I have been and remain a member – to fill the gap between small commercial galleries and the large museums. I hope they will also put on some historical shows too, which they have been reluctant to do in the past (understandably, given the limited space and strong contemporary ethos).

The Photographers’s Gallery has its critics of course, and constructive criticism should always be listened to. One of the criticisms levelled at the Gallery in the past was its lack of relevance, but the Gallery now has a Digital Curator and The Wall – a space for presenting electronic exhibitions – that will change more frequently than the other shows. This is in acknowledgement of the mode of consumption shifting, the screen becoming more significant than the printed page, at least in numbers of images though not necessarily in quality!

We also have to acknowledge the change that technology is producing by allowing sound and video to be accessible to creative photographers. I’m sure this will feature too.

The Gallery has always had an educational strand to its activities, and it seems like this is set to get stronger, with an education facility in the centre, both literally (it’s half way up the building) and strategically.  This is good to hear. In the basement is the excellent bookshop, which is still well-stocked, and print sales. They represent a good selection of photographers, several of them amongst my favourites (if only I had the money)!

The cafe is now on the ground floor and clearly visible through the large plate windows. Although this design will probably boost trade I have a feeling that the space provided will prove too small. It seems significantly smaller than the old Great Newport Street cafe, which could get very crowded at times. I hope my fears are unfounded as I used to look forward to lunch or some of Billy’s cake. We’ll see. I will also miss Billy, though I gather it was his own choice not to return to the refurbished facility.  They will be serving Lavazza coffee – a safe rather than exceptional choice – ah well. In the end though, it is a photographic gallery, and there are plenty of cafes in the area to choose from.

Leaving my comments on Edward Burtynsky’s Oil exhibition until last isn’t meant as a slight, after all, I did review his larger exhibition in St Johns, Nova Scotia, in 2010. It is good to see some additions to that show in the form of aerial photos of the Gulf of Mexico spill. This is an exhibition well worth seeing if you’re in London, or even make a special trip and combine it with a few of the other galleries in the area and some shopping in Oxford Street!

Is Edward James’ garden, Las Pozas, surreal?

Edward James (1907-1984) was a wealthy Englishman who never quite fitted in to the high society life that he could have been a part of. Instead his artistic temperament  set him on a life-long search that led him to the town of Xilitla, about 200km north of Mexico City, where he bought land to create an orchid garden called Las Pozas.  Unusually heavy snow and low temperatures in the winter of 1962 wiped out many of the orchids but James didn’t replant. Instead he conceived a garden of exotically-shaped structures, sculptures and buildings made in reinforced concrete. For almost 2 decades construction took place, though many of the structures remain unfinished, and it is these structures for which Las Pozas is rightly world famous in gardening, architectural and artistic circles. This picture gives you an idea:

Las Pozas colour image

Colour photograph of unfinished structure, Las Pozas (note the person on the curved stairs to give an idea of scale). copyright Malcolm Raggett

Edward James associated with the surrealist movement for much of his life, acting as patron and collector. He was not a hands-off collector though: artists such as Dali and Magritte credited James with at least some of the inspiration for their pictures.  James had an innate tendency to turn the logical into the illogical, the rational to the irrational and the real into the surreal. But for many years he dismissed the idea that Las Pozas was a surreal garden, only later did he concede that there were surreal elements to it. The passage of time and the lack of money for maintenance since James’ death has meant that the structures have weathered and the jungle invaded to produce a (to me) marvellous combination of organically-inspired sculpture with natural foliage. This juxtaposition of reinforced concrete with sub-tropical jungle contains a distinct surreal concept. There are some visitors who cannot warm to this, and who even deny it
the label of “garden”, but for me it is without doubt a fantastical, exuberant surreal garden.

But how to photograph it? Taking colour photographs provides a great record but is somehow too “real”. Photographing in black & white provides a useful degree of abstraction to the images without being sufficiently surreal, so I tried black & white infrared film. I hoped that the pale foliage against the dark concrete would give me that other-worldliness I was after. Here are some examples. Do they work for you?

black & white image

Image taken on black & white film without infrared filtration. The tonality of the foliage and the concrete are very similar. copyright Malcolm Raggett

black & white infrared image

Here's a similar image but taken on IR film with infrared filtration. The pale foliage against the dark concrete differentiate the two more clearly and give a surreal element to the image. copyright Malcolm Raggett

Here are some more examples, all using EFKE Aura 35mm film and a 720um IR filter:

black & white infrared photo

copyright Malcolm Raggett

black & white infrared photo

copyright Malcolm Raggett

Anthony Gormley sculptures at De La Warr Pavilion

I’ve been intending to visit the modernist De La Warr Pavilion on the south coast of England for some time, so when I heard that Anthony Gormley was exhibiting a version of Critical Mass on the pavilion’s roof, the opportunity to see both was too good to miss. It was a warm sunny and breezy day when I visited and the pavilion was at its best – a marvellous study in light and shade, which changes character as the sun moves round.

On the roof terrace were Anthony Gormley’s cast iron figures being brilliantly lit by the sun, which made the shadows as interesting as the figures. I started by seeing the sculptures as objects; cast iron shapes in almost abstract form, but as I walked between them looking at detail – the rust pockets, the fall of light and shade – I started seeing the resemblance to the bodies at Pompey, where the volcanic ash has preserved the shape of the huddled figures even though the body has long since decayed. It was as though Gormley’s figures and those at Pompey were negatives and positives of the same event. And the Gormley figures are a black – negative – version of his own white body from which the casts were made.

My final reaction to the sculptures was how they must resemble bodies on a battlefield or exhumed from a mass grave. Although I’ve never been in this situation for real, I can imagine anyone who has would have their memories re-kindled by this display.

Despite my rather macabre reaction to the exhibit, it is was well worth the visit.