Category Archives: reviews

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.

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Awoiska van der Molen: Sequester

In short, Sequester is one of the best Photobooks I’ve seen in a long time. Here’s why…

Sequester the book

Awoiska van der Molen’s book Squester

…I use a 5-point scale when I’m deciding whether I like a cup of coffee (Yes, this is a photo blog not a coffee blog, but bear with me). Here’s how it goes:

  • Yuk, tip it down the sink
  • Nah, that was too much of an endurance test
  • Well, someone might like it but it’s not for me
  • Hmm, nice but rather 1-dimensional; something’s missing or dischordant
  • Yummy, I could drink that again!

Then I realised I use pretty much the same criteria when I’m reading a photobook or visiting an exhibition. I know others who are more analytical in their approach, and a lot of people who are less so. As a practitioner I know that there is a danger of over-analysing my own work, at least while I am creating it, but I think that at least some enquiring thought about my own and others’ work helps me learn and improve, so I shall try my coffee criteria on photography for a while and see whether it works out.

There aren’t many coffees photobooks that make it to the Yummy point of my scale but Sequester is one of them. The title comes from Awoiska van der Molen‘s desire to isolate herself on the Canary Islands with a camera and film for periods of introspection where she seems to be using landscape and the photographic process as a metaphor for her thoughts and a process for artistic development. She acts instinctively while taking the images and enjoys the delayed gratification of film processing but this also allows her mind to work on the memory, so post-visualisation is an important part of her work. All the images in this book are consistently melanistic (to use an appropriately organic term) but in this instance I don’t find the dark tones depressing but rather they inspire me to look more closely, to enquire more deeply into the hidden detail of the shadows and to appreciate the rare quality of the few highlights. Van der Molen describes her images as not so much representing a moment in time but more part of a continuum; evoking a mood is what she aims for.

Awoiska van der Molen speaking at The Photographers' Gallery, London

Awoiska van der Molen speaking at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, recently

She photographs in short bursts of about 3 weeks at a time. The first week is spent exploring then by weeks 2 and 3 she is ready to be productive. For the images in Sequester she returned to the Canary Islands several times. It is hard to say why she responds to some landscapes and not others but Spain and The Canaries appeal whereas Italy, for example does not. It seems to be related to the impact that man has had: she prefers a light, understated influence rather than obvious layers of history.

Original photograph by Awoiska van der Molen

Images alone don’t make a book – they have to work with the construction, layout, paper, printing and typography, and that’s what makes this book special. The designer, Hans Gremmen, has done a brilliant job on this within the constraints of commercial production. A master stroke was including every third section printed in white ink on black paper. My main criticism is for the way some images bleed across the gutter to the opposite page. This normally ruins the photograph’s carefully considered composition however van der Molen’s primary concern is not for conventional composition but for tones, light and shade, and mood. So in this instance I have to forgive what I normally consider bad practice in the interest of bleeding the image off the edge of the page, which is far more important here as it implies the image being a window into a bigger world.

Sequester is up there with the yummiest of photobooks but if photographs are inherently history then photobooks are even more so (Sequester took about 3 years to publish). Awoiska’s photography has evolved since these images were made and I look forward to following this artist’s journey through her personal landscapes in the future.

Matej Sitar’s page-turning video of Sequester is at https://vimeo.com/122460044

Awoiska van der Molen has images on show at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, as a nominee for 2017 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize until 11 June.

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.

Christopher Thomas: New York Sleeps

newYorkSleeps

The cover of New York Sleeps by Christopher Thomas. 310 x 285 x 23mm. 160pp. Revised and expanded edition 2016. Prestel Verlag. My first impression is of a New York that I don’t recognise. Sure, I recognise the places, but where are the people? As Frank Sinatra sang: “New York, New York. I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps.”

Right from the start this is a disconcerting book. There is a consistency of vision and technique that makes it a single body of work even though the photographs span 8 years. The sequencing of the images is clear and evidential in its logic, and the print and paper quality is gorgeous. Including the Polaroid film edges in every image give them a ring of authenticity and leads us to make the assumption we are seeing the whole, unadulterated image, and yet the lack of people gives them an other-worldly feel. The more pages I turn the more I have a premonition that some terrible instantaneous event has happened to make everyone disappear while leaving the lights on and the fountains running with only the camera remaining as witness. It’s not so much New York Sleeping as New York Depopulated.

The more I read New York Sleeps the more I find a number of tensions running through it: these are black and white images of a colourful subject but is this done for artistic purpose or to give a documentary impression?; there is a studied static feel to the images, which shatters our preconception of New York as a dynamic city; finally the lack of people lends the images a dream-like surreal atmosphere that is heightened by the time exposure blur in many of the photos.

timesSquare

Times Square. Not a typical image from the book, but one of my favorites. It breaks the rules: the highlights are bleached out, the greys carry little information and the main centre of attention is a trash can. Could it be aliens landing? 

After several readings I began to see it increasingly as a work of fiction (or perhaps ‘dream’ is a more appropriate word, given the title) so I decided to treat the book like a storyboard for a movie. It provides the raw material for the readers’ imaginations to find their own answers, make up their own stories and resolve the tensions. To treat this book as a linear set of sequenced images (as good as they are) would be a waste; there are layers beneath this that are worth exploring and for this I would definitely recommend it.

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!