Tag Archives: photographic exhibitions

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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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.

 

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!

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!

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!