Category Archives: galleries

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.

Andreas Gursky: Photography is Strictly Prohibited

There’s a truism that says First Impressions Count. My first impression of the Andreas Gursky exhibition of photographs at White Cube Bermondsey is of the two notices saying “Photography is strictly prohibited”. So prominent were these notices that I thought this was the title of the show rather than a command to visitors.

White Cube entrance

OK, I admit it, I Photoshopped “Photography is strictly prohibited” onto the wall, but you get the idea! It could also read “White Cube Welcomes Adverse Publicity”

So negative is this first thickly-ironic impression that my effort to overcome it was not entirely successful. Several large rooms were filled with Gursky’s ceiling-height photographs which impress with their size and detail, but I’m sorry to say that this isn’t enough: my lasting impression is that Gursky’s photography has gone off the boil; it no longer pushes boundaries – it has become comfortable. Perhaps this makes a better living in today’s art market, but I was underwhelmed by this exhibition. There were 4 images that did make me stop and look though. These were of superheroes in pensive mood: comic book characters showing their human side; telling us that having super powers isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. A great metaphor for this exhibition: my expectations of Gursky’s superhero status is rather misplaced, and this is his way of telling me. Nicely put Andreas!

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

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!

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

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.