Category Archives: exhibition

Shape of Light at Tate Modern, London

The exhibition ‘Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art‘ is showing at Tate Modern, London until 14 October 2018. It charts photography’s role in twentieth and twenty-first century efforts to explore abstract art but it does it in a rather staid, historical/academic – and expensive – way that gave no clue about the sense of play involved in creating abstract art. Nevertheless it is a good synopsis show that achieves what it ‘says on the tin’.

seated man views abstract photos

Even the staff get to appreciate the art sometimes, though the first 10 rooms of unremitting black & white images did start to get dreary (never thought I’d say that about b&w photos, but there it is).

This exhibition is a journey through photographic abstraction from the early twentieth century to the present. It demonstrates relationships between different photographers and different media, with the occasional painting and sculpture added to the mix. Most of the exhibition is a steady progression through varying approaches to abstraction. When you consider that the primary use of a camera is to record what’s in front of it, using a camera to make abstract photos is fighting the natural characteristics of the medium. In this exhibition we see the world presented from bizarre viewpoints, the use of long focal length lenses to compress perspective and close-ups to distort scale. We also find photographic materials used outside the camera to record the action of light, and even invisible radiation, directly. The first ten of the twelve rooms are almost entirely black & white prints.  I hate to say this as a black & white enthusiast, but ten rooms of black & white abstracts did start to become kinda’ boring. But then finally as we approach the 21st century colour starts to happen. Hurrah! It starts as a dark blue whisper of large format Polaroid prints then finally, finally bursts into the exuberance that can be abstract art. It’s true that colour film wasn’t available in the early 20th century and unfortunately there was an almost universal attitude that serious photographers only made black & white images – and what a missed opportunity that was! Rooms 11 and 12 of the exhibition seem to conflate colour film and digital technology as a single giant leap away from photographers worthily pursuing abstraction to artists playing with photographic means to create abstract art. With the depth of analysis given in the first ten rooms it felt like the final two rooms were rather rushed and cramped, not in their physical space, which was large, but in their balance compared with the previous part of the show. I feel this is a missed chance to show more of the diverse abstract photography being produced in the last three decades, and the show under-represented the possibilities digital technology has brought to the arena. I swung from feeling turned off by too much black & white imagery to wanting ‘more! more!’ of the latest works.

Broadly the exhibition was organised chronologically, though thankfully not too strictly, and each room had a contextualising statement that could be read or ignored as you please. Although there are well known images by photographic ‘names’ it was good to see these balanced with less well known equals. It was also good to see a sprinkling of Japanese photographers in with the predominant European and American names.

Abstract art is viewed by some people like wallpaper: decorative but shallow in meaning, and using photography to create abstracts can tempt the viewer into trying to work out what it was in front of the camera. The first approach has a lack of engagement, the second is engaged but missing the point. There is a relevant quote buried in this exhibition: when commenting on the title of a proposed abstract photography exhibition in the late 1950’s Minor White wrote to the curator ‘…I think that “towards abstraction” is a dead end for photographers to follow – whereas “towards revelation” is towards life itself.’ [letter from Minor White to Grace Mayer. 1959]. As Minor White implies, abstract images require engagement by the viewer as well as the photographer and without this willingness to engage imaginatively, emotionally and intellectually, this exhibition would be an overpriced expensive waste of your time. But if you want a good assembly of abstract photography set in an historical context, take a deep breath and shell out the £20.

I wouldn’t consider any exhibition worthwhile without discovering a few delights, and this show didn’t disappoint me. A few of my memorable images are:

Iwao Yamawaki. Untitled (Textile Abstraction). c1930-3.

Iwato Yamawaki’s image caught my eye not just for its own quality but for the similarity to ‘Tights‘ (c.2011) by Daido Moriyama. Given the dates it is easy to imagine that Moriyama could have been inspired by Yamawaki.

Chiemsee at Breitbrunn. Original by Peter Keetman. Shape of Light exhibition, Tate Modern

Peter Keetman has an eclectic eye for the abstract image but this one particularly caught my eye. It is on the cusp between reality and unreality, and I think it is this that gives it so many possibilities for the imagination. Is it a landscape? Or perhaps a photomicrograph? Or something else entirely? Unusually for an abstract, it has a strong sense of perspective.

E.I. CTY1. Original by Anthony Cairns. Shape of Light exhibition, Tate Modern.

E.I. CTY1. Original by Anthony Cairns. Shape of Light exhibition, Tate Modern.

I’ve been wanting to see this work by Anthony Cairns since I read about it last year. The images have a hint of the quality of old tintypes about them: quite dark and melancholic, as if uncertain whether to be a negative or a positive. They are an abstraction of reality (but aren’t all photographs?) ‘though anchored in reality so not fully abstract, but definitely worthy of a place in this show. I like the way the multiple shadows caused by refraction through the acrylic mounts gives the images another dimension too.

Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017, a world of fascination

Wolfgang Tillmans’ current exhibition is on at Tate Modern in London U.K. until 11 June 2017. There are 14 themed rooms filled with work from the period 2003 to the present, so not a true retrospective and Tillmans isn’t presenting it as such.

Tillmans uses the height available in the Tate Modern's exhibition space. photo ©Malcolm Raggett

Tillmans uses the height available in the Tate Modern’s exhibition space. photo ©Malcolm Raggett

He’s saying ‘here’s what I’ve been fascinated by over the last 13 years  and what’s inspired me to make my work.’ This period coincides with the widespread rise in digital technology both in photographic reproduction and in life in general. This has acted as inspiration and catalyst for a lot of the work in this exhibition. For example, there are two mural-size high resolution images of the ‘chaotic analogue static’ pattern displayed on a digital TV when it is not tuned. These invite close examination and ask when is a picture not a picture? In fact ‘where are the limits?’ is a frequent refrain in Tillmans’ work.

Mural sized images invite close examination. photo © Malcolm Raggett

Mural sized images invite close examination. photo © Malcolm Raggett

Tillmans has had a long-held belief in the purity of the unframed image (his words) [1] and many of the images in the show are clipped to or taped to the walls. There are some framed images though, and it is interesting the effect this has, especially when the two types are mixed: the unframed images seem to be more about the subject and idea and feel like a raw work-in-progress whereas the framed prints have the air of stand-alone finished art objects. Initially this juxtaposing of framed and unframed is unfamiliar and disquieting but is part of Tillmans questioning of how meaning and charge can be incorporated into an industrially produced image, a question that flows through the whole exhibition and extends from the theorist Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura [2].

There is an old aphorism that goes ‘never let the facts stand in the way of a good story’ that applies in varying proportion to many parts of the media, but in 2004 it was show beyond reasonable doubt that the widely-held belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which was the main justification for invasion by western powers, was incorrect. For those who had any lingering doubt it demonstrated that governments, too, could not be relied on to produce accurate information and that any criticism of the media by government was a case of the pot calling the kettle black. There were also numerous lower profile cases of misinformation by vested interests around the globe and it was probably Tillmans increasing awareness of this that prompted him to set up his Truth Study Center [sic]. He originally declared that the Truth Study Center  was set up to examine ‘our desire to find a universal truth and the impossibility of doing so.'[3]. In late 2005 he released a book of the same title and included work in an exhibition at The Serpentine Gallery, London, made up of

groups of photographs, cuttings from newspapers and magazines, pamphlets, advertisements, all kinds of printed matter, which he presented not on the wall but under glass on narrow custom-made wooden tables. Under the collective title Truth Study Center, they drew attention to the exercise of power behind the ideologies of Islamic fundamentalism, Catholicism, capitalism. He has subsequently included a version in various installations, adapting the subjects depending on the venue. [4]

So even in the early days of the Truth Study Center there was an intent to reveal specific alternatives to any official truths or myths, and he departed from a purely photographic medium to do so. The continuing need for such work is only emphasised by, for example, the current battle between the US presidency and the media over ‘facts’. There is certainly plenty of material for Tillmans and he uses it to strong effect in room 4 of his current show; it is the largest and most densely-packed of the rooms. The presentation is the same as at the Serpentine with cuttings, photos and printed matter in glass-topped tables laid out in a way that invites the viewer to browse. It would be easy to spend an hour in this room alone if you are happy to read text as well as pictures. It is informative, fascinating and worrying. Tillmans reveals, if we didn’t know already, that the only ‘universal truth’ is that there is no such thing!

Abstract images have long had a fascination for Tillmans. He started experimenting with abstraction while at school [5] and sees it as a process of taking photography to its maximum potential [1] unfettered by the requirement to be representational, an assumption that viewers frequently make when looking at a photographically produced image. Many of Tillmans’ abstracts are not even made with a camera and yet such is the human desire for metaphor that most people will try to find a representation of this world in pure abstract photographs. It reminds me of this or that is a frequent reaction to abstraction, which shows that the viewer is engaging their imagination when faced with the image and not just passively accepting the image as-is. Only one room is devoted to abstract images, though they occur throughout the exhibition, suggesting that Tillmans has reduced his interest in this area of work. But then something has to give way to the variety of other work, and too much abstraction is exhausting for the viewer, so although I enjoy Tillmans’ abstracts, I think he has the balance about right in this show.

The exhibition notes are a brief but well-written introduction to each room. Photo © Malcolm Raggett

The exhibition notes are a brief but well-written introduction to each room. Photo © Malcolm Raggett

With fourteen rooms and at least this many themes, there is so much complexity in the show that a lot more could be said. I’m going to finish up, though, with my last thought about Tillmans’ fascination with materiality and particularly paper. As an artist using photography it is not surprising that he’s interested in the material world: cameras are an exquisite tool for examining this. Less obvious to me is his claimed interest in the material qualities of paper [5]; paper is used extensively throughout the exhibition – it is the main base for all the works, but with a few exceptions it is not the materiality of paper that features here, at least not to my perception. As someone who is also fascinated by paper I would love to see a Tillmans show devoted to this topic. Maybe next time?

2017 is an engaging exhibition by an eclectic artist that is well worth visiting. There are lots of ways to read it at different levels; It is certainly worth going beyond the themes of the rooms and thinking about other unwritten strands that span the rooms. I’m looking forward to Wolfgang Tillmans’ next show already!

 

  1. Tillmans, W. 2010. From the Archive: In Conversation-Wolfgang Tillmans. https://photoworks.org.uk/conversation-wolfgang-tillmans/. Accessed 2017-02-16.
  2. Benjamin, W. 1936. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (translated).  https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm. Accessed 2017-02-18.
  3. Anon. Taschen marketing material https://www.taschen.com/pages/en/catalogue/photography/all/01363/facts.wolfgang_tillmans_truth_study_center.htm. Accessed 2017-0219.
  4. Jobey, L. 2010. Wolfgang Tillmans: the Lightness of Being. in The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/jun/26/wolfgang-tillmans-serpentine-photographs-exhibition. Accessed 2017-02-19.
  5. Anon. 2017. Wolfgang Tillmans 2017 Exhibition Notes. Tate Modern.

Thomas Mailaender’s Gone Fishing

Thomas Mailaender is one of my favorite photographers, although he is really better described as an artist. He has the ability to work on quite serious subjects in a humorous irreverent way. A fine example of this is his Gone Fishing project from 2010 that resulted in a book published in 2012. I didn’t review it at the time but a recent visit to Roman Road gallery, London, where the work is on show (until 15 April 2016), prompted me to buy a copy.

GoneFishingBookCover

Thomas Mailaender’s book Gone Fishing. soft cover. A4. 39pp. Numbered edition of 500, 1-299 in French, 300-500 in English.

The work is fictional but is rooted in Mailaender’s own impending fatherhood at the time and, as with much good fiction, has the ring of truth, or at least credibility, about it. The work contains a series of letters and photos from Thomas to his long-suffering partner, the pregnant Marion. Thomas has decided that he cannot face the responsibility of being a father and has taken off on an long fishing trip to various parts of the world; a kind of extended stag party for the dad-to-be.

Each letter home is short and accompanied by a postcard-sized image of Thomas and his latest exploit but done with a subtle tongue-in-cheek humour. For example, alongside a picture of Thomas with a dead shark are the words

Sorry, but I needed to think about all this far from you and the baby. Soon I’ll be a father… It keeps turning around in my head and this little escapade is doing me a lot of good (I even caught a shark) and I think that now I feel ready for us to have a little girl together. I’ll be as promised in Paris Thursday evening.

A few letters later and he still hasn’t returned. He says

…I caught this superb 2.5kg sea bream. I can tell you I had to fight like a devil to get it. The poor beast struggled for over three quarters of an hour and the whole time I thought of you.

And in another letter

I found this superb thistle (in the photo). I spent a long time observing its most minute details: its striking vegetal beauty, the intense purple of its flower and the fine down that covers the slender stems almost make you forget the threatening needles at the end of the leaves. Don’t take it badly, but this plant reminds me of you.

Thistle image from Thomas Mailaender's 'Gone Fishing'

Thistle image from Thomas Mailaender’s ‘Gone Fishing’. 2012.

The metaphor is obvious so it’s hardly surprising that he constantly complains he hasn’t had a reply from Marion! I bet she is purple – with rage.

The photographs all have a cheap snapshot aesthetic. Some of them look genuine while others have had Thomas’s face pasted in to what I assume is an image found on the Internet. This is all good – it adds to the humour and fiction of the work. Mailaender has taken the trouble to match the lighting on his face to the lighting of the found photograph so there is some skill behind the apparently artless snapshots.

The letters all have the theme of love for Marion and the intention of returning home very soon but expressed in such a way that the reader quickly gets the idea that there is a gulf between Thomas’s intent and the reality of his trip: he is enjoying himself way too much! This echos the conflict that many feel between the part of us that remains a child and the internal voice of the responsible adult that comes to dominate as we grow up. But the book doesn’t resolve this in Thomas’s case: we are left on a cliff-hanger as he wins a large sum of money which allows him to continue his escapist vacation. We wonder, will he be an absent father forever?

The exhibition and the book have the same content but the exhibition presents each letter alongside its accompanying photograph whereas in the book the letters and photos are printed single-sided, making them less of a pair. The letters are printed on a lighter weight paper and given the appearance of having been folded for the post. The photos are on a paper of similar weight to a high street photo processing machine with a gloss varnish over the image to enhance this impression. Printing the letters and images on separate sheets means that they cannot be viewed as a pair, which is an aspect of the exhibition that I liked. But this is a minor criticism and the book is still an entertaining, humorous and thought-provoking read.

 

Masahisa Fukase: solitude or loneliness?

The show ‘Solitude of Ravens’ at Michael Hoppen Gallery, London (until 23 April 2016), has a bleak mid-winter feel. A profound sadness pervades Fukase’s images which were made over a ten year period following the photographer’s divorce. The images speak not just of solitude or being alone but of a deeper loneliness that may have become – or been caused by – a long-lasting period of depression.

MasahisaFukase-1

The photographer Masahisa Fukase peaks at us from between two Raven images

I can imagine the photo series starting as a means of working through a traumatic period but inadvertently becoming a brake on emotional recovery; as if the photographer is mired in a self-perpetuating cycle of depression rather than finding an upward recovery towards a happier springtime.
The motif of the unfairly maligned raven recurs through the series as a bird of ill omen. The birds are frequently depicted in silhouette like shadow puppets subject entirely to the external control of the puppeteer, alluding to the lack of control the photographer may feel over his own life.
Sharpness and definition are rare commodities in these images, which are more about mood than content, about emotion rather than fact. There is a muted tonal pallet: black shapes and grey textures dominate even in the non-Raven images.

MasahisaFukase-3

Limited tonal range, blur and grain typify the images in ‘Solitude of Ravens’

The photographs are not sequenced but several are placed close to each other to emphasise their similarity. Fukase originally made the series in 1982 but the images here are a re-working by a friend of his, with some additional ones. Most of the photos are printed beyond the image frame giving a rough-edged look with a hint of 35mm film perforations, reminiscent of a frame from a movie or a keyword chosen from a sentence: a staccato summary of a bleak period in life.

MasahisaFukase-2

The show is not ordered like a narrative but there is an association of pictures that seem to speak to each other

Masahisa Fukase died in 2012 after being in a coma for 20 years following an accident. One is left with the distinct impression that his was not a rich and happy life. But the show is a masterful demonstration of how photography can be used to evoke emotional intensity and as such is well worth seeing.

Charles Petillon: Invasions

On show for a brief period at Magda Danysz Gallery, London, was the sculpture and photos of the French photographer Charles Petillon. Petillon is a commercial photographer but the exhibition showed his personal work. Inflated white balloons of various sizes are placed or squeezed into various locations, often with associated lighting. They are fascinating interventions in space that play with scale in a fun way; an approach that has lots of potential for the future.

CharlesPetillon-2

Part of the Charles Petillon exhibition. You can just see some white balloons through the doorway on the left

The sculptures can be like clouds or foam or bubbles, or like droplets of liquid before they coalesce. The installations are transient but preserved as photos, which become the artwork. Or another artwork really. Although not a new concept (c.f. the works of Richard Long or Andy Goldsworthy), the photograph becomes the work rather than simply a record of an ephemeral installation.

CharlesPetillon-1

Petillon uses the landscape, the built environment and interiors as spaces for his sculptures

Petillon plans to continue with his balloon sculptures internationally over the coming years, so keep your eye out for some fun!

Linda Lashford’s Songlines

Linda Lashford travels for a living, and photographs as she travels. Hers are not simple documentary records of places though: Linda photographs by theme and the images in this exhibition “Songlines” are grouped into Intimations of Landscape, The Splintered Coast, and Trappings of Light. Her images are on display at the Joe Cornish Gallery, North Yorkshire, UK until 23 September 2015.

As you might guess from the title, Intimations of Landscape are intimate semi-abstract photographs of aspects of landscape such as water, distressed paint or mist using a limited tonal range and colour palatte. Most show close-up details that imply much larger landscapes.

4 images by Linda Lashford

4 images from Linda Lashford’s Intimations of Landscape series.

Most of the 12 images in this series have little in the way of compositional elements to hold them together or guide the eye; the viewer is left to wander through each image and imagine what lies beyond the frame. These aren’t images of something but rather about something. That “something” is really for the viewer to decide based on the emotions and memories the images evoke. The images hover between a physical reality and a spiritual plane. As Minor White would have said: it’s not what is photographed that’s significant but what else is photographed.

3 images from The Splintered Coast series by Linda Lashford

3 images from The Splintered Coast series by Linda Lashford

The Splintered Coast contains 6 studies of the coastlines of Cornwall, South Wales and Brittany. Of all Linda’s images these are the most anchored in reality, the most literal of the themes. Unlike her other series, most of these contain horizons – perhaps it is this horizontal reference plane that implies the reality and makes it difficult to make the mental jump to any metaphoric plane. Instead I found myself comparing the similarities and differences of the coastlines depicted, which made it, at least for me, the least satisfying of the series.

The beautifully titled Trappings of Light series was taken in an abandoned cork factory in Portugal. “Oh no, not another abandoned-factory-stroke-urban-decay project” you may be thinking. Well no, it isn’t another me-too project about decay; Linda’s control of the photographic process and her eye for isolating and composing details out of visual noise show their strength in this series of 8 images. Form and texture interact with controlled abandon; there is light and shade but the highlights have detail and the shadows never block up. The light is without doubt trapped by these images and give pleasure and intrigue to the viewer that, like Intimations of Landscape, is rewarded by lingering with each photograph in a meditative frame of mind.

6 images from Songlines

Top row: 3 images from Trappings of Light. Bottom row: 3 images from Intimations of Landscape. Photographs by Linda Lashford

Songlines is a varied and satisfying set of images from a talented photographer. My only reservation isn’t about the images but about their display: the presentation and framing of each image is excellent but the hanging splits the series between walls and floors in the gallery, making them less coherent as bodies of work, and appears to associate images by superficial visual similarity rather than developing an underlying theme or narrative. This is understandable as the gallery is quite crowded with images from various photographers and tends towards a hard-working emporium of pictures rather than an art gallery, but it is a commercial enterprise and if that’s what’s needed to keep it running then I’m not going to knock it. Just control your expectations if you go there – and I recommend that you do!

Clare Strand: performance photography

Clare Strand's Getting Better and Worse at the Same TimeGrimaldi Gavin Gallery, London, are currently showing Clare Strand‘s latest photographic works (ends 6 June 2015), which they describe as revealing “Strand’s discordant relationship with the photographic medium, exploring its promise and limitations through unexpected and eccentric means.” Such a description has me rubbing my hands in anticipation and I wasn’t disappointed: I loved the sense of directed play and the irreverence towards “art”, which is something I wasn’t expecting at a gallery situated in an area of London renowned for being rather affluent and well-heeled.

Although there isn’t much time left to see the show, leaving it until the end has the advantage that you will see more output from The Entropy Pendulum. This pendulum has a foot designed to scour the surface of a print in a central stripe. The print is changed each day and the one from the previous day put on display in one of the 35 waiting frames. The original images are not Strand’s but have clearly been chosen for their centred composition, which means the pendulum abrades and corrupts the original meaning, giving it a new meaning. Although I could intepret the images individually I couldn’t make any sense of the sequence, narrative or developing concept, which I think is a trick missed. Though it’s entirely conceivable that it was just me who missed this final point.

Clare Strand's Entropy Pendulum and the display of resulting prints

Clare Strand’s Entropy Pendulum and the display of resulting prints

The Entropy Pendulum in action

The Entropy Pendulum in action. I was attracted to the dust generated by the abrasion of the print’s surface

Rubbings is as close as Strand gets to conventional photography: she photographed the bifurcation points of trees, printed them life-size then pinned them back on the trees for a time thus letting nature create the art, and she photographed the prints on the trees from a little further away. On display were the now-weathered prints from the trees twinned with the record of the work in progress. As an experiment in random decay it’s OK I suppose, but what elevated it for me was its unintended juxtaposition with the concurrent exhibition by Robin Maddock and Benedicte Kurzen at TJ Boulting Gallery, which I saw the same day (see my review here). The latter also examined time/decay of photographic objects, and the two works together were particularly resonant.

The Happenstance Generator went even further into randomness with a selection of small images blown about as if by the wind followed by a short period to allow them to briefly settle before being blown about into another random sequence.

The Happenstance Generator

The Happenstance Generator (and a strikingly red sofa)

The Hapenstance Generator maintenance log

The Hapenstance Generator maintenance log. Not content with playing with photography, Strand is also happy for us to see the artwork warts-an’-all!

As a microcosm of the random images we see everyday blurring past us and occasionally visible to our conscious mind, it makes its point well. I had expected to see a random display of images that the viewer could develop a story from during the quiet dwell time of the apparatus but unfortunately the dwell time was too brief for me to grasp more than a couple of images before they were whisked off again into the vortex of the machine, which is a shame because a small adjustment to the timer could have allowed this extra level of interaction and engagement of the viewer’s imagination. So a great concept falling just short of great implementation, well for me at any rate.

There were a couple of other works on show but I’ve gone on long enough. I call her art Performance Photography in the sense of performance art and in this too she is pushing forward conceptually. Suffice to say that I think Clare has a playful and insightful imagination that resonates with my own ‘world view’, and I look forward to seeing more of her work!

Shine Ur Eye: walking a tightrope

In the basement of the T J Boulting building in London is a crypt-like space used for photo exhibits. Currently (until 27th June 2015) there is a chimeric show from photographers Christina de Middel, Benedicte Kurzen and Robin Maddock that is well worth a visit. In the first gallery are photos  from a collaboration that has produced a pictorial essay of Nigerian daily life. But this isn’t documentary  or reportage, rather it is a mix of straight, manipulated, fictional and surreal images. It treads a tightrope between reality and fiction, between sanity and madness. It is playful but never demeaning to those depicted or Nigerians in general. At the end of the display the viewer is left on another tightrope: on one side is an invitation to visit on the other a health warning!

Shine Ur Eye main space

The main gallery is wonderfully decorated with wall wallpaper.

 

Attached to the main gallery is a dark low-ceilinged space and entering it is like passing through a portal to another land. Here we find images in various stages of decay from the Museum of Lagos’ archives. The original images are photographs of ethnographic objects that have been stored inappropriately and so are showing signs of decay, reflecting the care/priority that the museum and by implication the Nigerian government gives to preserving its heritage. With faces dissolving back into the Rock they were carved from and mould creeping around the edges of basketwork, we also have the generic metaphor for the eventual, inevitable decay of all cultural evidence thus questioning what the value of an archive really is.

the second gallery at T J Boulting

The crypt-like space showing semi-decayed images from the archive of the Museum of Lagos.

There are two exhibitions here, related by geography but separated by time and concept. Do try to make the time to see them both if you are in central London.

What a photofest weekend! Photo London and Offprint London

The bank-holiday weekend of 21-25 May 2015 saw a raft of photographic happenings in London. The two big ones were Photo London and Offprint London. I attended both. Was it worth it? You bet!

Somerset House

Somerset House, home of Photo London 2015.

Photo London was based at Somerset House, had 70 galleries from 20 countries participating, along with 10 publishers and 3 special exhibitors. For me this isn’t a huge draw as I find the gallery scene rather rarefied and certainly out of my price bracket, but it’s a good opportunity to take the pulse of the photography collectors’ market and to see which names and styles are in vogue at the moment. It is not a free show; the entrance fee is pitched high enough to keep away the casual viewer and other oiks like me who can’t afford gallery prices. Nevertheless, I took the plunge and spent 5 hours immersed in some wonderful images.

Somerset House made an excellent venue, with its characterful small but linked rooms with lots of wall space making it ideal for the various galleries to display. Being split over 5 floors meant getting plenty of exercise on the stairs, though less than ideal for those with mobility difficulties. There were a few galleries selling historic images but the majority were promoting contemporary photographers. For me this balance was about right. The V&A also had a well-curated display of images from its collection called Beneath the Surface that continues until 24 August 2015.

Guns Love. 2014. Thomas Mailaender. cCopyright the artist.

Guns Love. 2014. Thomas Mailaender. Copyright the artist.

There were, of course, a huge number of excellent images (as well as some I wouldn’t give wall space to). If I have to pick one stand-out artist it is Thomas Mailaender‘s cyanotypes on the Roman Road stand. Although all the images used the cyanotype process the images were not process-driven but displayed a repertoire of playfully diverse ideas executed in an original but not gratuitous way.

Offprint London

Offprint London in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall

Offprint London was my main interest because of my long-running enthusiasm for the photobook. Several people I spoke to said that it was very similar to Offprint Paris in size and scope, though I noticed that some of the more established publishers had decided to exhibit at Photo London instead of Offprint. It was great to see indie publishers from across Europe and even a few from across The Pond! Not all exhibitors showed photobooks but these I just ignored.

There has been a huge increase in the number of photobooks produced recently compared with only 10 years ago, and the number of exhibitors and the size of the crowds at Offprint only serves to reinforce this. Unfortunately there has also been a huge increase in the number of poor photobooks, and Offprint had its fair share of those too. It’s great that photographers want to make photobooks and we all have to start somewhere but some of the work here shouldn’t be inflicted on a wider world. There is too much ego-driven publication and not enough art or craft value in a lot of photobooks today. Having got that off my chest I should also say that there are a lot of good quality books for sale at Offprint. Many are commercially published, which is fine, but it was the artisan self-publishers that took my eye. In particular I liked the work of Jane & Jeremy and Highchair Editions. Their art-and-craft blended approach and interesting design ideas were eye-catching and went beyond what would be expected from commercially-produced books, which is exactly the sort of photobook work I hoped to find at a show like this. So well done to you, and congratulations to Simon Baker and Tate Modern for holding Offprint London – I will definitely attend if it runs again next year!

Speaking of which, Photo London has already announced next year’s dates as 19-22 May 2016. Fingers crossed that Offprint will also repeat.

 

Jeff Wall at the Canada House Gallery, London

I came across this show in the Canadian High Commission by accident. I was walking through the north west corner of London’s Trafalgar Square, noticed that the Canada House Gallery had just opened and they’d chosen Canadian photographer Jeff Wall as the inaugural artist. The gallery is open, via a security check, Mondays to Saturdays 11.00 – 17.45 until 15th May 2015.

Jeff Wall's exhibition at the Canadian Embassy, London

Jeff Wall’s exhibition at the Canadian Embassy, London

It’s a one-room gallery and Jeff Wall’s works are decidedly in the over-sized category so you don’t get many to the metre – only five works in this case, plus some blurb. The photos seem too large for such a compact space though that’s the way Wall likes us to experience his images: to become almost part of the scene. Personally, and I would have preferred to see more, smaller works in what is quite a small space, but hey, it’s good to see another gallery opening for the visual arts and displaying photographs.

The images are an eclectic mix with no obvious theme or relationship other than a grab-shot quality to them and yet apparently they are very deliberate and considered. As Sara Knelman says in her leaflet accompanying the exhibition: ‘Wall works somewhere between the possibilities of capturing and constructing the world around us.’

If you are in central London it’s worth popping in to see the photos – and support the Canadians in their effort to open a new gallery space!

Nadav Kander and the aestheticisation of landscape

Nadav Kander’s latest landscape series “Dust” is exhibited at Flowers, Kingsland Road, London until 11 October 2014.

Nadav Kander, Dust.  Priozersk XIV (I was told she once held an oar) Kazakhstan 2011

Nadav Kander, Dust.
Priozersk XIV (I was told she once held an oar) Kazakhstan 2011

All photographers make an aesthetic decision when they choose a viewpoint and frame a photo, but aetheticisation goes beyond this to making “pleasingly beautiful” or “idealised”1 landscapes. It’s a sliding scale, with photographers like Daido Moriami and his snapshot approach at one end to the over-saturated pointless sunset at the other. In between there are professionals and amateurs emulating masters of the past, copying masters of the present or genuinely exploring and pushing forward photographic landscape aesthetic.

Artists making a living by landscape photography are restricted by their market; they tend to photograph in a way that will sell. This frequently results in the commodification of a mythic landscape using lowest-common-denominator aesthetics. So as a professional artist/photographer Nadav Kander has a difficult path to tread with “Dust”. In this work he chooses to document a “dirty” landscape – radioactive ruins on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia where atomic bombs and missiles were tested – in his characteristic quiet light reminiscent of the Dusseldorf School (Gursky, Ruff, Struth et. al.). Sometimes he chooses a camera position that only shows one side of a building, giving a static 2-dimensional impression but more commonly he shows us 2 sides, giving perspective, a little more dynamism and a greater sense of reality. He gets in there and shows us individual buildings or at least what’s left of them after an atomic blast or quake.  Thankfully there are no aerial photographs, which I find too distant and abstracting to get me involved. Kander’s landscapes are under-stated, controlled and consistent but not so consistent that they become boringly repetitive. They engage the viewer intellectually and emotionally without bludgeoning them with a message. Given the subject, I find his images err on the too-comfortable aesthetic side, but like all good art the work poses questions rather than provides answers so I can forgive his tendency to over-aestheticise. Having said that, he stays safely within his own photographic aesthetic to great effect: the viewer can almost hear the Geiger counter clicking away in the background. If you like Kander’s previous work you should be impressed with this new one. If you don’t know his work I highly recommend seeing Dust.

There’s an interesting interview with Nadav Kander on Vimeo and there’s a (slightly expensive) book. If you can’t get to the exhibition, do check out the book.

 


1 dictionary.com

Candida Höfer: images of Villa Borghese

I have been a fan of Candida Höfer’s quiet, frozen-in-time style of photography for a long time, but I only know her work from books so I was really pleased when I heard she has a show on at Ben Brown Gallery in London. I made a bee-line for it on the first day.

Ben Brown Gallery

I was the only visitor in the Ben Brown Gallery – how lucky am I?! the uncluttered space suited the images of Villa Borghese, which contain both empty space and lots of detail.

Candida Höfer was a student of the Bechers at the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie  from 1976 to 1982, where she was contemporary with the likes of Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff. This school of photography encouraged students to find then stick to their own photographic path, though within the framework of the built environment and a series-approach to image-making. Höfer’s own path has taken her from 35mm to 6x6cm then to 5×4″ film, but virtually always in colour. She has specialised in architectural interiors but she achieves something more than a competent photographic record. She manages to use the underlying dicotomy of photography, that it both abstracts the scene as well as records the detail of what is in front of the camera, to great artistic effect. I have been a fan of her images for a long time but I only know them from books, so it was with cautious anticipation that I went to this exhibition of her large prints. I am always skeptical of photographers who exhibit large prints; it seems to be what their buyers demand but does the photograph really benefit aesthetically apart from the initial visual impact? Well in Höfer’s case, yes they do have value at the larger size, allowing us to see details that are less apparent in books.

The opening image of the show at the Ben Brown Gallery.

The first image of the show at the Ben Brown Gallery. The central statue is an androgynous figure with a rather surprised female top looking down at the erect penis of the bottom half. No doubt the cause of much amusement to visitors over the years. © Candida Höfer, Köln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

 

All the pictures on show use single-point perspective, giving the exhibition an immediate visual coherence and symmetry. But not quite: although the basic architecture and composition is often symmetrical, the decor and sculptures break the symmetry in a way reminiscent of Chinese art. I wondered whether Höfer was now adopting single-point as a personal style but a check for other Villa Borghese images on-line show that she also uses dual-point perspective where she feels it is appropriate. Her photographs do not include people and her style has been referred to as The Architecture of Absence, that’s to say that people are implied rather than present. Her photos here are no exception and conjure up a mental image of noisy, unruly crowds of visitors waiting impatiently outside while the photographer works quietly and unhurriedly inside on our behalf.

As a public art gallery, the Villa Borghese take precautions to protect the works. Candida Hofer cooses not to remove these features. © Candida Höfer, Köln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

As a public art gallery, the Villa Borghese take precautions to protect the works. Candida Höfer chooses not to remove these features. © Candida Höfer, Köln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Examining the detail in these large prints becomes an act of meditation after a while.  You will soon notice that Höfer has chosen not to remove the guard chains around the sculptures even though it would have been feasible to do so. I think there may be two reasons for this.  It reminds us that this is now a public place, but it was not always so, having started life as the estate of a high-ranking cardinal in 1605 only becoming public in 1903, thus the chains link us through layers of history from the private opulent space intended not so much for living in as impressing other members of the Roman elite, through to today when this level of ornamentation seems excessively ostentatious and over-the-top.  The chains also point out that all things pass, but a legacy of culture from the past lives on, and the photograph asks the question of anyone collecting it “…and what legacy will you leave?”

I recommend exploring Candida Höfer’s photography if only by visiting this exhibition, which is on until 19 September 2014. The gallery is in the Oxford Street/Bond Street area at 12 Brook’s Mews, London W1K 4DG.

Deutsche Börse short-list at The Photographers’ Gallery

Every time I think I’ve just about grasped contemporary photography along comes another Deutsche Börse short-list exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery (TPG), London, to shatter my illusion!  This annual competition “…showcases new talents and highlights the best of international photography practice…” and “…aims to reward a contemporary photographer of any nationality, who has made the most significant contribution (exhibition or publication) to the medium of photography in Europe in the previous year”[1]. And it’s worth £30,000 to the winner, so we should take it seriously!

This year sees another disparate group of artist/photographers on the  short-list. Even though they have photography in common, comparing them is like comparing apples to pears. Even having the criterion “the most significant contribution (exhibition or publication) to the medium of photography in Europe” doesn’t leave me envying the judges their job! Another problem that we, the visitors to TPG exhibition, have is only seeing a fraction of each artist’s output. And how can we judge either their work or their contribution to the medium on this basis? Well I certainly can’t, so no judgement from me, only my opinions about the evidence as presented, m’ lud!

Alberto Garcia-Alix

Alberto Garcia-Alix exhibition

Still images and video from the Alberto Garcia-Alix exhibition

On show were self-portraits of the artist progressing from youth to middle-age. Life has not been kind to Garcia-Alix: we see someone who has been saved from self-destruction by an ability for self-examination and self-criticism. Whether the camera is a vital aid, a helpful crutch or simply a recording device is not clear to me from the pictures. I find that there is altogether too much in this exhibition that is specifically about Garcia-Alix and not insightful to life more broadly. He seems to be stuck in the habit of introspection. I can see that this might appeal to those who are embroiled in the pervasive cult of personality but it holds no appeal for me. @shoespace tweeted that “self-obsession doesn’t make for winning photography”[2]. It will be interesting to hear whether the judges agree. From other comments on social media, Garcia-Alix has polarised opinion more than any of the other artists on this short-list.

Jochen Lempert

Jochen Lempert's exhibition

part of Jochen Lempert’s exhibition

There is a curious combination of scientific and artistic vision in this work that I found confusing at first: it’s not exactly a tension between the two aspects but more a dichotomy between two identities. Eventually I decided to downgrade the scientific in favour of the aesthetic. The flow and juxtaposition of the images is poetic in its execution and these brought new insights for me. For example, I was struck by the pictures of geese flying in vee formation with the patterns they formed looking like the profile of a human face. This alone is not something that would win the prize but I cannot remember seeing an exhibition that blended images of the natural world in such an unusual, pleasing, poetic way before, and for that reason could be judged to have made a contribution to photography, so I think it should be a strong contender for this year’s prize.

Richard Mosse

2 of Richard Mosse's large false-colour images of Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

2 of Richard Mosse’s large false-colour images of Eastern DRC

Mosse’s photos were originally shown as a collection titled The Enclave at the 2013 Venice Biennale Irish Pavilion. They were shot in the troubled Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and used an obsolete infra-red colour film to give a false colour rendition, which in a sense blends an artistic interpretation with a journalistic approach. The images are a mixture of landscapes and environmental portraits of gun-toting soldiers. The pink/magenta foliage indicates a healthy flora and there is a lot of this in the images, but the men with guns show an environment infested with humans intent on killing each other: beauty and the beast! This juxtaposition has a dissonance made more extreme by the effective use of infra-red film. When I read about this in advance I was prepared for a visual gimmick but in reality I found it a surprisingly effective and innovative application of this old material, making Mosse a serious contender for the prize.

 Lorna Simpson

images by Lorna Simpson

Lorna Simpson’s 128 identically-sized images

Simpson has take a collection of images from the 1950’s showing women posing coyly for the camera, then photographed herself in similar costumes, lighting and poses. There are 128 identically-sized images only 5 of which show men, so immediately it is clear that there is a gender agenda as well as issues around culture and identity. This isn’t surprising since this is what Simpson is know for.

This exhibit speaks softly to the viewer, quietly asking which images are from the 1950s and which from 2009? It is hard to tell the difference, and this is one of Simpson’s points I think: fashions might change but underneath do we as humans change? Simpson is black so placing herself with black women of the 1950’s is a good pairing, but racial segregation in the USA was only made illegal in 1954 so the women in these photographs will have had to use black-only facilities. It takes a society many years to adjust to this type of cultural change and Simpson seems to be asking us to look inside and ask to what extent are we different now? Only the viewer can answer. Although Simpson is American, the questions she poses are universal and so puts her in the frame for this prize, especially when taken in the context of her wider body of work[3].


1. https://deutsche-boerse.com/dbg/dispatch/en/kir/dbg_nav/corporate_responsibility/33_Art_Collection/25_photography_prize viewed 30 April 2014

2. @shoespace on Twitter, 16 April 2014

3. http://lsimpsonstudio.com/index.html

Esther Teichmann: Fractal Scars, Salt Water and Tears

Esther Teichmann’s photographs – actually more of an installation using mainly photographs – are on display at Flowers Kingsland Road, London until 10 May 2014. The images are somewhat dark and the meaning obscure so displaying them in the upstairs space with its smaller area, lack of natural daylight and lower ceiling height is very appropriate.

 

Esther Teichmann photographs

Large manipulated overlapping images give a surreal quality to Esther Teichmann’s exhibition

Although the images are recognisably of places or people or shells, they are altered to give them an other-worldliness. They are then overlapped or juxtapositioned to produce a surreal effect as if we have been transported to a dream-world which Teichmann is exploring both physically but more importantly, emotionally and with a strong feminine theme. A central display of coral, wood and one of my all-time favourite books “The Shell: Five Hundred Million Years of Inspired Design” points out that we air-breathing creatures can still explore an underwater world in our imaginations, where physical limitations can be overcome.

the Esther Teichmann show at Flowers Kingsland Road, London

Part of the Esther Teichmann show at Flowers Kingsland Road, London

At first I found Teichmann’s show perplexing, as if it was in another dimension that I wasn’t part of, but as I looked around (several times) I found myself becoming more involved in her exploration. Once I mentally released myself into this different, parallel world I enjoyed it. Thank you, Esther, for being my guide even though you weren’t there!

Mona Kuhn: Acido Dorado

Mona Kuhn’s large-scale photographs occupy the downstairs gallery at Flowers Kingsland Road until 10 May 2014. This is a large, well-lit space that is appropriate to Kuhn’s light and airy images set in the vacation residence Acido Dorado (trans: Golden Acid), situated in the desert near Joshua Tree, California, USA.

semi-abstract images by Mona Kuhn

a wall of semi-abstract images by Mona Kuhn

There are two types of image: interestingly complex nude studies (for which she is best known) of Kuhn’s friend and model; and abstract images of the property itself. Although all the images have a beautiful light touch, it was the abstracts that particularly intrigued me. Some rippled slightly as if seen through a heat haze or refracted through water while others were barely recognisable, being abstracted beyond the time and space in which they were photographed giving some a passing resemblance to aerial photographs.

abstract images by Mona Kuhn

4 of Mona Kuhn’s abstract images

A terrific set of images that are well worth seeing!

Light and Land photo exhibition, Mall Gallery, London

65 photographers, most of whom have had some association with the Light & Land company are exhibiting a selection of their images – around 350 in total – at the Mall Galleries this week. The exhibitors range from full-time professionals to keen amateurs so, not surprisingly, the standard of photography varies too.

Most of the images are pictures of a place: photographically competent but lacking depth of meaning. Certainly good enough for a travel brochure, having that instant ‘ooh’ or ‘ah’ appeal but little beyond. They are what I call landscape porn, that is, meant to appeal to the dopamine junky in us all. I frequently wished I had a saturation slider on my glasses so that I could turn down the colour that shouted at me from the image.

Having got that out of my system, there were some images that grabbed my attention for the right reasons; that were of a place but were about something a bit deeper. Individual images that stood out as having a spiritual or temporal dimension were Kasia Novak’s ‘Taksang Monastery’, Norma Brandt’s ‘Salt’ and Pete Nixon’s ‘Swirling Leaves’ (I apologise for the reflections in my images here, there was no angle that would remove them).

'Taksang Monasery' by Kasia Nowak

‘Taksang Monasery’ by Kasia Nowak

 

'Salt' by Norma Brandt

‘Salt’ by Norma Brandt

'Swirling Leaves' by Pete Nixon. Cropped by Malcolm Raggett

‘Swirling Leaves’ by Pete Nixon. Cropped by Malcolm Raggett

A few photographers showed a themed body of images. Notable were Patrick Kaye and Kate Somervell for their studies in time, and Davina Clift’s use of blue.

Venice photos by Patrick Kaye

Untitled images by Patrick Kaye

Davina Clift's studies in blue: 'Fade to Grey'

Davina Clift’s studies in blue: ‘Fade to Grey’

Is the exhibition worth seeing? Yes, but there are a lot of images and it would be easy to get visual overload. Be prepared to be selective and, with a critical eye, you should find something that makes your visit worthwhile.

 

Alex Maclean’s Aerial Perspectives

Beetles + Huxley Gallery (renamed in 2018 to Huxley-Parlour) are currently showing aerial photographs by Alex Maclean. All of the images show either the presence or influence of man in or on the landscape. When people are present they often just give scale, though several images illustrate the randomness of humans in contrast to the geometry of man’s machine-made environment.

Some of the images in Alex Maclean's exhibition at Beetles + Huxley Gallery.

Some of the images in Alex Maclean’s exhibition at Beetles + Huxley Gallery (Huxley-Parlour as of 2018).

I am ambivalent about aerial photographs in general: I enjoy the other-worldly abstract nature of the images, making me see a view of the world in a different and sometimes revealing way.  On the other hand the very abstract nature detaches me from the lanscape as I am used to experiencing it, causing me to be less emotionally and intellectually involved with the image. Even though Maclean’s images are excellent examples of the aerial genre, they do not challenge me,  involve me or offer significant insights beyond the superficial. If you like aerial photographs I’m sure you will enjoy this show. Otherwise I can’t recommend it.

Harry Callahan: always the teacher

There is a great show of Harry Callahan’s (1912-1999) work at London’s Tate Modern museum at the moment (until 31 May 2014). It is well worth going to see.

Cattails Against Sky

Cattails Against Sky. Harry Callahan, 1948

Callahan’s main role and income-generator was teaching photography.  This left him free of commercial pressures and able to explore with the eye of an artist. Nevertheless you cannot take the teacher out of the images: all of his photographs are lessons in how to see photographically, from the surreal (for example, shop mannequins) to the abstract (his shots of plant forms). The examples show us that the world as seen through Callahan’s camera/eye is an endlessly fascinating place.

Mannequin Legs

New York (Mannequin Legs). Harry Callahan, 1955

I overheard one teenager ask her friend “is that a time exposure?”, and the roving security guard was seen admiring the abstract images. So for different people the show functions at different levels, which is one hallmark of a successful exhibition. For me, the abiding memory is of the inquisitiveness that Callahan’s roving eye had, and this was generated internally not by some desire to copy prevailing trends. That’s a good lesson for us all!

Grasses, Wisconsin

Grasses, Wisconsin. Harry Callahan, 1958

There’s an interview with Harry Callahan on YouTube

Michael Wolf at Flowers

Although Michael Wolf is German he lives on Hong Kong, and he uses the city very effectively as inspiration for his photography. His project Architecture of Density shows frontal pictures of Hong Kong’s high-rise apartment buildings without sky or horizon and more-or-less straight on.  This leads to a lack of perspective giving a flattened, semi-abstract quality.

Architecture of Density #39

Architecture of Density #39. © Michael Wolf

A few images from this extensive project are on show at Flowers Gallery, Cork Street, London until 22 February 2014 and are well worth seeing as huge, wall-sized enlargements rather than in Michael’s book.  So often we see large images which don’t benefit from being large (except that they command higher prices) but in this case Architecture of Density really does gain artistic as well as physical impact. I recommend seeing them in their 2-metre-long-edge form if you get the chance.

At first glance they could be computer-generated repetitions but the human presence revealed in the detail shows they are not. The semi-abstract quality detaches the viewer from the reality of living in these massive blocks, each of which must contain several thousand people even though we don’t see them in person.

Architecture of Density #75. © Michael Wolf

Architecture of Density #75. © Michael Wolf

It would be easy to conclude that these prison-like buildings not only de-personalise but also de-humanise the occupants but looking deeper we see order not chaos, tiny marks of humanity not criminality, faded peeling paint but not mindless graffiti. Perhaps it’s not such a bad place to live after-all.

Hong Kong Trilogy by Michael Wolf

the book Hong Kong Trilogy by Michael Wolf

Also on sale at the gallery was Michael’s book Hong Kong Trilogy. This is my kind of book: quirky, beautifully seen images of the small and unregarded cameos that make the character of a place. Again, without picturing people but their presence is everywhere. So far this is my top book of 2014 and it’s going to be hard to beat!

David Lynch at The Photographers’ Gallery

A selection of David Lynch’s black & white photographs is currently on show at the Photographers’ Gallery, London (until 30 March 2014). The pictures are moody, quizzical and elegiac. Not surprisingly, the film-maker in Lynch cannot resist using his still images to tell us a story.

The view from the top gallery distracts some visitors from the exhibition temporarily.

The view from the top gallery distracts some visitors from the exhibition temporarily.

As you can see from the above picture, all the images in this show are the same in size, format and framing.  Some images are grouped together in double rows but other than that, all images have similar weight; even images with strong vertical elements that would apparently cry out to be framed vertically are doggedly landscape format.  Although the viewer sees the images one at a time, it is important to consider the exhibition as a whole (like a film) as it takes us on a journey from the outside of a grimy but active factory, with chimneys belching smoke or steam, around the corner to abandonment, then through a door to the decaying inside of the factory where time has virtually ground to a halt, and finally out to a more modern, active, but still industrial, world again where the clock is spinning even faster than before.  Humans are not shown but their presence is felt everywhere from the brickwork to the broken glass, from the wires to the wharves. The photographs were taken at different times and several locations so the story is made by the interweaving and sequencing of time and space.

David Lynch photographs

The pictures take us on a journey from the outside (on the left) through a door (centre) to the inside (right).

Although a few images use perspective to show depth and distance, most have a 2-dimensional, semi-abstract quality to them. Broken or asymmetric frames occur frequently as do strong lines, whether they are power lines, phone lines, windows, fences, barbed wire, poles or pipes. These all form strong graphical elements but they are often not quite horizontal or vertical, which encourages the viewer to tilt their head in a rather quizzical fashion in response to the tilt that Lynch has given the camera. Combine this with detail-less shadows and/or highlights, occasional camera shake or out-of-focus detail and the viewer may consider the images to be rather casual snapshots, but when put together in this show they give an impression that Lynch is quietly passionate about the subject; that he gets beneath its surface and sees that it had and still has value. He sees it warts an’ all but he doesn’t judge it, rather, he loves it.

A visit to the Photographers’ Gallery to see this and the other exhibitions is highly recommended. I’m sorry to say that TPG has now introduced a charge for entry. This is a shame and I’m sure they did this with reluctance, but it’s preferable to not having this excellent organisation. There are times when entry is free, and members get in free at any time, so do consider joining and supporting their work. 

London Art Fair – with photography!

Not so long ago you would not have seen photography present at any serious art event but times change so I was interested to see to what extent photography had made inroads into the art market at the recent London Art Fair (15-19 January 2014).

Photo50, the photography section of the London Art Fair. It was disappointingly sparse.

Photo50, the photography section of the London Art Fair was tucked away in an upstairs balcony. It was disappointingly sparse. Fortunately the rest of the fair had plenty of photographic interest, but I had to search!

The Fair bills itself as promoting modern British and contemporary art so although you won’t find Old Masters here, there is still a lot of scope for different works. The main fair contains 93 established galleries catering for a wide range of tastes – and pockets! Then there is the Art Projects section where you find more experimental, ideas-based work usually by less well-established artists. Finally Photo50, the section devoted to photography.

The opening day, Wednesday, was themed as Photography Focus Day, with 4 talks and 3 tours available. I attended 1 of each. The talk was hosted by the charity PhotoVoice that promotes participatory photography for social and individual change, in which 4 photographers provided insightful descriptions of their experience with the delicate and complex relationship between photographer and subject, and the often difficult and controversial decisions involved when making sensitive work publicly available. A common thread that emerged was the need to first understand the subject and the background and second to work collaboratively with the subject to make sure their interests are paramount.

Jean Wainwright points to the careful work undertaken when re-purposing these old Carte de Visite

Jean Wainwright points to the careful work undertaken when re-purposing these old Carte de Visite

The tour was a whistle-stop visit to most of the galleries displaying photography. Jean Wainwright was our expert guide and provided insights into the works and the artistic intent. It took well over an hour to visit all the photographic works, and that was without the questions and discussions that I sensed many of us were itching for. So there is no doubt that photography has reached firmly into the contemporary art market today.

I find myself having to adjust my definition of photography these days.  Roland Barthes notion that something must have literally existed in front of the imaging device in order to produce a photograph still holds, but the idea of a photograph being a well-crafted single image from a camera is now confined to a small niche in the wall that is photography today.  There is an increasing number of artists working with photography (or lens-based media as it is sometimes called) and they are much in evidence at this art fair. I have a rather simple view of the difference between an artist and a photographer: an artist has lots of ideas but lacks the craft skills to produce consistently good photographs (perhaps that’s why they often use other peoples’ images) and a photographer can produce well crafted images without artistic depth, but when the artist-side and photographer-side get together, well-crafted work with some intellectual depth can result. (for the sake of completeness I should say that “photography” also includes the moving image, which was represented at the London Art Fair but I didn’t have time to investigate it).

Alternative processes, particularly the cyanotype, were in use by several photographers: Tessa Shaw particularly impressed me with the 3-dimensionality of her prints. Re-working of archival material was in evidence and seemed to be selling well, with the uniqueness of each image being a strong selling point I suspect.  Photo collage is thriving, especially using images appropriated from the Internet. I find the underlying social commentary about the quantity and quality of images on the ‘net now rather hackneyed, and not many artists seem to find an original way of using them. The Internet is just infrastructure; if photographers went out in the early 20th century  and photographed all the cars on the new-fangled roads then most of these images are now consigned to the dustbin of history, and I suspect that’s what will happen to the majority of artworks derived from the industrial quantities of images on the Internet.  The sooner artists get over this craze and into a post-Internet era the better. Image appropriation work has to be of an exceptionally high standard to impress me – of the calibre of Bloomberg & Chanarin – and I’m afraid that not much of this genre did it for me in Photo50.

It was good to see several of my favourite photographers’ work in the galleries: Lottie Davis and Emily Allchurch to name just two. It was also good to find a new name to add to my list: Ra Di Martino, whose exhibition I missed last year at the Tate but whose work was being shown by Tryon St. Gallery. Derelict factories and disused shipyards are popular subjects with some fine art photographers but Di Martino manages to subvert this by photographing old movie sets as if they were surreal archaeological sites. Here are a couple of examples:

Every World's a Stage. Silver gelatin print. ©Ra Di Martino

Every World’s a Stage. Silver gelatin print. ©Ra Di Martino

33°50’34 N 7°46’44 E Chot El-Gharsa, Tunisia 01 September 2010. ©Ra Di Martino

33°50’34 N 7°46’44 E Chot El-Gharsa, Tunisia 01 September 2010. ©Ra Di Martino

She has lots of other interesting work so do check out her Web site.

Pekka Sammallahti: Arctic Mindscapes exhibition

Pekka Sammallahti has an exhibition at the Siida museum, Inari, Finland until February 2014.

Pekka Sammallahti: Arctic Mindscapes exhibition
Pekka is a professor of Sami languages. He is also a very competent photographer as this exhibition shows. There are masterful portraits and landscapes from around the arctic region that go beyond simply recording their subject to providing the viewer with insights to life and light in a region that sees no sun in midwinter. Since December/January is the time of my visit, I was impressed with Pekka’s handling of twilight and it’s limited tonal pallet.

20140103-183127.jpg

Another aspect of this exhibition that impressed me is the blending of black & white and colour images: this can be difficult to do but the subtle, subdued use of colour did blend very well. Many of the photographs appear to have been taken on film and spread over several decades, so I assume that the show is a retrospective; there are changes and developments is his style between sections of the exhibition that adds an interesting variability along with the more obvious thematic grouping of the images.

In case the photographer’s name seems familiar to you, his brother Pentti has an exhibition at the Photographers Gallery, London at the moment and has recently published an excellent book “Here Far Away”

Pekka Sammallahti: Arctic Mindscapes exhibition

J-H Lartigue at the Photographers’ Gallery

Jacques-Henri Lartigue (1894-1986) considered himself to be a painter not a photographer. Although from an early age he thought photography to be “a magic thing” and “nothing will ever be as much fun”, the photos he made were always personal. He moved in well-to-do French society circles and his photos amount to a personal documentation of this ‘set’ for much of the twentieth century, however the current exhibition at London’s Photographers’ Gallery (ends 5 January 2014) focuses on his relationship with his first wife Madelaine Messager, nicknamed Bibi.

Ubu and Bibi sur la route entre Lourdes et Pau.1925  © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL

Ubu and Bibi sur la route entre Lourdes et Pau.1925 © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL

JHL met Bibi in 1918. Initially he shied away from marriage, preferring his life of perpetual holiday and flirtation supported by the family’s fortune. He gradually fell more deeply in love and they married in 1919. The photographs from the period 1918-1923 are generally happy, sun-lit scenes with Bibi featuring centre-stage, though there is a very portentous image taken in London:

Bibi in London.  © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL. One book dates this image as 1919 however it is dated as 1926 at the Photographers' Gallery

Bibi in London. © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL. The Aperture History of Photography book dates this image as 1919 however it is dated as 1926 at the Photographers’ Gallery

They had a son, Dany, in 1921 and a daughter in 1924 but tragically she died after only a few months. This event seems to have been the start of a widening chasm between JHL and Bibi: his diary does not give the impression of a problem with the marriage but he does fall in love with another woman with whom he has an affair. Bibi relies on her father for emotional support rather than her husband. The images show Bibi being increasingly marginalised in JHL’s life: she may be a small detail in a larger image, relegated to the background or even out of focus:

Bibi in Marseilles, 1928  © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL

Bibi in Marseilles, 1928 © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL

Although there are many clues to their deteriorating relationship in the photographs, JHL’s diaries suggest that he is unaware of the problem. It is only in 1930 and following the death of Bibi’s father, that she leaves him and he writes “My broken heart only wishes her well”.

Photographically speaking Lartigue functioned at an intuitive level, reacting without conscious thought to every circumstance and scene before him. His was a natural, unforced talent that was only recognised late in his life. He didn’t have much time for analysis, saying “To talk about photos rather than making them seems idiotic to me.” So it’s just as well he isn’t able to read this blog then!

This exhibition is sensitively curated and thoughtfully displayed: well done to the Photographers’ Gallery for fitting it in to their schedule!

Dayanita Singh: “most of my work starts with accidents”

Two artists have exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery at the moment (until 15 December 2013) but the one with the most photographic interest is Dayanita Singh (b.1961). She is particularly interested in sequencing and re-sequencing  images, sometimes as stories but often with a theme and no fixed narrative, or at least a narrative that the viewer themself supplies.

external view of Hayward Gallery

Oh good lord, another gallery that puts on photographic exhibitions and bans photography, so I can only show you the outside. The irony of this never ceases to annoy me!

Dayanita Singh’s photography is not easily categorised, which in my opinion is a good thing (too many labels can hide the photographs!). She refers to herself as an artist working with photography. Normally this would sound pretentious but in her case it is as accurate as we can get. Her early photography is black & white and had a reportage-style so you might think she would take a documentary approach to sequencing her images, but even her early work shows a departure from the straight-forward story-telling approach. she has evolved this into an ambivalence that means we cannot tell where the boundary is between fact and fiction: the unconscious assumption that we are looking at “fact” when viewing photographs must be brought to the surface and discarded when reading Singh’s work.

She likes working with the book as a finished product, though I use “finished” in the sense of being final rather than necessarily polished. Some of her books have a raw notebook quality. Blue Book (2008), containing mostly photographs taken during the “blue hour” of twilight and are printed as postcards before binding into a paper cover – this works. Go Away Closer (2007) takes a more chapbook-like approach with a careful sequence of images that show loneliness and absence even when there should be joy – again, this works.  And her latest book File Room (2013) is a beautiful presentation in images and words of the mountains of paper kept in Indian archives by their archivists – this really works.

Not all of her books are this good (Dream Villa, 2010, is a particular dud, with dark images split by the gutter and printed on glossy paper that seems to reflect every light in the room simultaneously) but that’s the nature of artistic work – some of it can be either misjudged or it just doesn’t appeal to everyone.

Although her books form part of the exhibition, about half of the space is for wall-hung images and the other half is Singh’s latest concept of the mini-museum. In this exhibition we see the Museum of Vitrines, the Museum of Furniture, the Museum of Machines, the Museum of  Men-Recent, the Museum of Photography, the Museum of Little Ladies 1961-present, the Museum of Embraces and the Museum of Chance (phew!)  This last one is the largest, from which I think we can deduce Singh’s approach to photography – take the pictures and worry about how you’re going to use them later! There is nothing new in the fundamental concept of these museums: they are collections of themed photographs. What she has done that is new is put them together in a way that allows for the pictures’ storage and flexible display in a well-made, inventive and functional piece of furniture, hence we find sculpture and photography in harmony.

exhibition signature image

The signature image of the exhibition. It can be seen in several of the Museums. © Dayanita Singh

Photography can be a wonderfully precise tool. It can also be informing, narrative, moving, ambivalent, equivocal, obscure and impenetrable.  Dayanita Singh has examples of all these on display in this exhibition (to cram that many adjectives into one exhibition is a badge of honour for any artist). By the end of it I felt that I had been experimented on rather than simply challenged. At the time I felt exhausted but on reflection this is an exhibition I would recommend to anyone interested in the artistic use of photography. Go see it!

Tony Ray-Jones at Media Space

The spacious and underwelming entrance to Media Space at London's Science Museum

The spacious and underwhelming entrance to Media Space at London’s Science Museum. Media Space is next to a cafe, which has the potential to provide a social space for photographic gatherings and possibly fringe exhibitions. That thought might be a bit radical though, given their archaic attitude to taking photos within the exhibition – as regular readers of my blog will know, galleries that ban photography in photographic exhibitions are one of my pet hates, and now I can add Media Space to the list of offenders! (for copyright reasons, according to the entry staff).

Media Space is a new 500m² gallery within London’s Science Museum – more details. The Science Museum also runs the National Media Museum (NMM), which houses the UK’s premier collection of historic photographs and photographic technology. The NMM is located in Bradford, about 325km (200 miles) north of London. Unfortunately the NMM sits in isolation photographically speaking. It would be great if it had acted as a nexus for other permanent photographic activities but this hasn’t happened. London is really the place in the UK for photographic exhibitions and galleries, though of course there are significant periodic events in places like Brighton and Derby. And, of course, there is the rising consumption of images on-screen and on-line to add into the risk factors to consider when exhibiting physical photographic prints. Now, finally, the museum has bowed to the (almost) inevitable and created Media Space so that the NMM’s collections can be better appreciated. Hooray for that!

Only in England

The inaugural exhibition is drawn from the work of Tony Ray-Jones (1941 – 1972). The exhibition also includes early black & white work by Martin Parr and though excellent, I have not included it in this review. At first I was surprised at how small the exhibition was but I was deceived by the clever layout of the dividers used to hang the photos; these hid the full extent of the gallery’s space. When I finally left the exhibition and looked at my watch I realised I had spent 3 very enjoyable hours looking at the images!

Although raised in England, at the age of 19 Tony Ray-Jones (TRJ) won a scholarship to study at Yale University, USA. He took a year out and worked in New York City, then graduated in 1964, photographed in the US before returning to England in 1965. This period in the US was when he honed his personal style, though his notebooks, some pages of which are in the exhibition, indicate that he was raring to photograph not only the British but throughout Europe. Then, in 1971, he returned to the USA to teach in the San Fransisco Art Institute. Shortly after arriving in the US he was diagnosed with leukemia; he came back to Britain for treatment and died on 13 March 1972 at the age of 30.

Tony Ray-Jones. 1970. By Ainslee Ellis

Tony Ray-Jones. 1970. By Ainslee Ellis

In 1968 the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London held its first photographic show. TRJ’s photos were there and they “…took the British photography community by storm and… …heralded a new departure in photography.” [exhibition poster]. TRJ’s style has no obvious predecessor: although documentary, it goes beyond simply documenting and shows a personal, wryly humorous view but of an outsider looking in. He did admit to being influences by Bill Brandt’s book “The English at Home” (1936), and this made him see the goal of his work to be in book form: “A Day Off” was eventually published posthumously in 1974 by Thames & Hudson.

Glyndebourne

This picture of concert-goers at Glyndebourne uses juxtaposition of disparate elements for its humour, which occurs frequently in TRJ’s images. This image was used on the jacket of his book “A Day Off”. 1974. Image by Tony Ray Jones.

Although our eye is immediately drawn to the central couple, it is typical of TRJ for our curiosity to be engaged about what could be happening out of frame - something that the other people are more concerned about but the couple are oblivious to. Image by Tony Ray Jones.

Although our eye is immediately drawn to the central couple, it is typical of TRJ for our curiosity to be engaged about what could be happening out of frame – something that the other people are more concerned about but the couple are oblivious to. Image by Tony Ray Jones.

The use of space is of great significance in many TRJ images. Sometimes everyone is crammed together but more often he uses space to separate or group the "actors" in the scene

The use of space is of great significance in many TRJ images. Sometimes everyone is crammed together but more often he uses space to separate or group the “actors” in the scene to show 3 or 4 stories at a time. Image by Tony Ray Jones.

The main focus of the exhibition is, rightly, the photographs, but there are extracts from notebooks and a selection of contact sheets that give us an insight into TRJ’s working method. He was a list-maker. Here’s an example:

ON ARRIVING IN TOWNS LOOK FOR

A Central Square
B Old town
C New town
D Poor Quarter
E Rich Quarter
F Suburbs
G Apartment Blocks
H Foreign nationality quarters
I Station  cafe  pubs
J Town Hall
K Parks or Commons
L Markets
M Library
N Museum
O Bus station
P Factory area (industrial)
Tourist spots
Clubs & Societies

It sounds formulaic but his photographs are anything but. The curator, Greg Hobson and guest curator, Martin Parr, say that they were particularly looking for TRJ’s use of space when selecting the images for the exhibition, and they have certainly managed that. Not only do we see some images with no space and others with lots of it, but we also see images that pushes our interest to the edge of the frame and cleverly use space beyond the rectangle of the photograph: people in the photos are frequently looking beyond the frame, which directs our attention out of the picture and makes us curious about what it is that they are looking at. This makes it easy for us to construct many fictions around the photos, and is a quality that makes it possible to look again and again at many of TRJ’s images without being bored by them. Another notable quality is that none of the people pictured appears to be aware of the camera so TRJ must have had an uncanny ability to blend in with his surroundings and become effectively invisible.

This is an excellent first exhibition in the new Media Space. Given the huge collections held by the National Media Museum there is no shortage of material to display here, I just hope that the finance can be found for it to continue for a long time to come. I also hope that the emphasis will be on the image not the technology – a danger given the nature of the host museum. It is particularly good to see this initiative at a time when museums’ funding is very tight – well done to the Science Museum and NMM!