The Radical Eye

The Radical Eye is an exhibition of modernist (approx 1920-1950) photographs from the Sir Elton John collection, on display at Tate Modern until May 7. The collection has been built up since 1990 and now has some 8000 items, of which about 150 are on display here. Images are displayed thematically: portraits, bodies, documentary, still life and experimental.

Photography in the exhibition is forbidden, but there is always the chance for a few sneaky iPhone shots before getting the tap on the shoulder.

Let’s get the only real criticism out of the way quickly. Everything is displayed in the heavy gold and silver frames used in Elton’s homes, and some are really over-elaborate and tasteless. Thankfully, he has a better eye for a photograph than for a frame, and there are some beautiful images here, and some very important ones (e.g., Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’) He also has a real enthusiasm for his collection, as seen in the walkthrough video which is played on a loop in a side gallery.

Perhaps the least effective display is in the second gallery space, showing portraits. The wall-notes explain that artists and sitters used photography to push the connections of portraiture by innovations in pose, composition and cropping. Apart from the Steiglitz portrait of Georgia O’Keefe (all in the left-hand part of the frame and looking left) I thought the images rather conventional. However, as with my reaction to the Donovan exhibition last year, I recognise that this is because the portraits of the 20s to the 40s have laid the foundations for modern portraiture.

In that space, I particularly enjoyed six ‘corner portraits‘ made by Irving Penn in 1948, where he placed his subjects into a tight acute-angled space formed by two stage flats, causing them to respond to the shape of the space.

An associated section, titled ‘Bodies’ is less conventional, including unusual poses, angles and perspectives, and isolation of body parts. Movement is emphasised by use of shutter speed, either to freeze or blur.

For me, the most interesting section was the documentary photographs, mainly social documentary including some of the FSA images by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. ‘Migrant Mother‘ is iconic, but I was particularly struck by the similarity between the girl in Lange’s ‘The Damage is Already Done’ and Evans’ portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs. Both stare straight out of the image with a look somewhere between pain and disapproval.

The introductory wall-notes tell us that the exhibition ‘charts the changing emphasis from the subject of an image to the visual qualities of the photograph itself, irrespective of what it represents’. This is particularly seen in the still-life and experimental photography displays. Images are double-exposed, distorted, montaged, solarised and generally manipulated in creative ways. There is experimentation with perspective, including the birds-eye and worms-eye views by Moholy-Nagy and Rodchenko.

Arguably the most effective (well, my choice anyway) of these, because of the way that it emphasises both the subject matter and the photographic process, is Man Ray’s image of Max Ernst, contact-printed from a shattered glass plate negative.

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source: pinterest.com

An enjoyable and though-provoking exhibition. The catalogue is worth buying as a reminder of the images and also for two major essays and an interview with Sir Elton on connoisseurship and collecting.

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Yousuf Karsh at B+H

Beetles + Huxley have an exhibition of 23 portraits by Yousuf Karsh taken between 1941 and 1988, mostly in the 1940s and 50s. All are darkroom prints made by Karsh himself or under his direct supervision. The sitters are statesmen, artists and film stars.

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It seems appropriate to use the old-fashioned word ‘sitters’ in this context rather than ‘models’ or ‘subjects’  because, with two exceptions (WH Auden and Georgia O’Keefe), these are studio portraits, posed and with very considered lighting.

To get a sour note out of the way quickly, there were two images that I didn’t like (Martha Graham’s pose seems awkward and the fill light on JFK’s profile seems flat), but a 21:2 ratio of gems to ‘others’ is pretty damn good.

Because, I am currently working on the ‘ex nihilo’ section of part 4, I spent some time studying the lighting and making notes of how I thought Karsh had lit each one. I am almost certainly wrong in most cases (the ‘roaring lion’ portrait of Churchill looks like two lights and  a reflector, but the catalogue notes tell us that Karsh used six floods, two spots and a background light) but I will use a few of my imagined set-ups in exercise 4.4.

This is the classic ‘roaring lion’ portrait of Churchill after addressing the Canadian Parliament in 1941. The story of the scowl is oft-repeated’; given only a few minutes, Karsh snatched away Churchill’s cigar and photographed the reaction – producing one of the most iconic images of the man (and incidentally, one of the most widely-reproduced photographic portraits in history) and launched his own career. Less well-known is that Churchill was sufficiently amused by the incident to allow another photograph to be taken, this time smiling.

Unfortunately, B+H do not show this one as I would love to see them side-by-side. I must say that I find the smiling image rather creepy and I need to analyse my own reaction. I think it must be that the ‘roaring lion’ picture is so iconic, and has fixed the historical image of Churchill so firmly that the variation comes as a shock.

Many of the male images share the classic ‘Karsh lighting’, rim-lit  with front fill. Castro and Hemingway are fairly symmetrical, and it is the asymmetric lighting on Bogart and Cousteau that I found most interesting. The Bogart image also shows Karsh’s attention to the sitters’ hands (see also Churchill above, or Einstein, GB Shaw, or Joan Miro)

The ‘young romantic’ female subjects get a softer-lit treatment (but sharp focus) which seems to be based around a large front fill source with some accent lighting. Older female subjects with a few ‘character lines’ get the male lighting treatment.

Many of these images are familiar from books or online sources, and Karsh is known as a master of lighting. However, it is only when we view the prints in the flesh that we discover that he was a master craftsman in the darkroom as well. The prints are superb, especially the luminous highlights.

Overall an enjoyable and informative exhibition, and the catalogue is the best £10 that I have spent on a photography book.

Reference

Beetles+Huxley (2016) Yousuf Karsh London: Beetles+Huxley

Eggleston at the NPG (and a further musing on naked emperors)

If any photographer’s work invited the naive response, “my kid could do that” it might be William Egglestons’s photographs (Tucker, in Stepan (ed) 2005,170)

Anne Tucker also tells us (ibid) that “Eggleston’s pictures possess the seeming simplicity of snapshots”. I start with these observations because they match my own opinions on viewing the exhibition of Eggleston’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. Unlike Tucker (whose article accompanies an image of a table with condiment bottles and an out-of-focus crockery cabinet) I retain what she, insultingly, describes as my ‘naive response’.

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Although Eggleston is not primarily a portraitist, a comment made both by the wall-notes and by Ian Jeffrey (2008,330) the curators at the NPG have put together an exhibition of some 100 images from the 1960s onward. His portraits are all taken in and around Memphis, Tennessee and a high proportion are of family or friends.

In the first space, we see early monochrome work from the 1960s. These are smaller than the main colour images, typically 8×10. The images appear candid but there is an element of design, whether carefully composed or shot on the spur of the decisive moment is unclear.

The second space contains much larger, colour images from 1970 to 1975. Most are taken with a 5×7 view camera, an instrument with which Eggleston was clearly accomplished. The images have a characteristic shallow depth of field but very accurately placed plane of focus. This is clearly seen in the image above, of girlfriend Marcia Hare; the face and the out-thrown left arm are sharp (the camera a little less so) but the lower part of her dress, and most of the grass on which she is lying, are blurred giving a dream-like overall effect but focussing the viewers attention on the important parts. Incidentally, this image is displayed next to an earlier photo of Hare in a nightclub, dancing and with head thrown back, in a vertical version of the same pose.

However, the outstanding image, for me, in this space is one of Eggleston’s cousin, Shelley Schuyler, standing in a long dress gazing into the camera and holding a champagne glass. She is sharp overall but the depth of field is very tightly controlled, as seen in the grass at her feet.

My overall impression of this space is good. Large images (the head-shots are larger than life) and saturated colour seem to capture the personality of the subject and I left the room  feeling that I knew many of them. This is a clear counter-example to Ted Grant’s oft-quoted maxim, “When you photograph people in colour you photograph their clothes. When you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.”

The third space, ‘Eggleston and Colour’, tells of his adopting the dye-transfer process and the shock felt by the photographic art world at his 1976 MoMA exhibition of colour prints. His contribution to the history of photography is the forced realisation that art photographs do not have to be monochrome.

This space has some thought-provoking images such as the one above, of Eggleston’s uncle Adyn Schuyler and a black ‘house man’. This is the American Deep South in the 1970s and the relationship between the figures says something about race relations of the period. Jasper, the servant, stands a few paces behind his employer but mirrors (consciously or unconsciously) his pose.

There is also a 1985 ‘Portrait of Elvis Presley in Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee’ which is a photograph of a photograph of Presley surrounded by memorabilia.

However, there are photographs in this space that appear to be no more than very large snapshots, and led me to muse on imperial nudity and Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story. To return briefly to Tucker’s comments at the top of this posting, it is the ‘naive response’ of Andersen’s child that exposes the truth of the exposed emperor.

I wonder what the response to many of the images (even the two that I have highlighted) would be if they were presented as 5×3 enprints in a Boots envelope rather than as massive prints on a gallery wall. How many would make it into the family album? Frankly, there are some which would not make it into my shoebox (for instance the Dennis Hopper image in which the alleged subject turns away from the camera and is unsharp compared with the dashboard of the car). To what extent does our acceptance of a photograph as ‘art’ depend on its being presented in an art context – printed large and hung on a white gallery wall?

Coincidentally, on the same day that I wrote this posting, an article in the Times (Whipple 2016) reported on recent psychological research suggesting that people’s reactions to an image vary depending on whether they are told it is art or not. This is a topic to be followed  up, although possibly in a later course module.

References

Jeffrey, I. (2008) How to read a photograph London: Thames & Hudson

National Portrait Gallery (2016) William Eggleston Portraits [online] at: http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/eggleston/exhibition.php (accessed 18 September 2016)

Stepan, P (ed) (2005) Icons of Photography – The 20th Century Munich: Prestel

Whipple, T. (2016) Call it art and that’s what it becomes In: The Times September 19 2016, p.11

‘Speed of Light’ • Donovan at The Photographers Gallery

The Photographers Gallery has turned over two floors to ‘Speed of Light’ a major exhibition of Terence Donovan’s portraiture and fashion photography. Arranged vaguely chronologically, the fourth floor covers his start in the late 1950s and his 1960s work, and the fifth floor covers the 1970s through to his death in 1996.

For me, one interesting thing is that this review is quite different, having taken a period for reflection, than it would have been if I had written it immediately. My first impression, particularly of the Sixties floor was of a mass of rather clichéd ‘gritty East End’ images. However, with time for reflection, I realised that the reason that type of image is now a cliché is because the ‘black trinity’ (as Norman Parkinson dubbed Bailey, Donovan and Duffy) invented the look and did it so bloody well that few followers could add anything significant.

Most of the Sixties work exhibited is fashion rather than portraiture. Donovan and the others of the ‘trinity’ broke the mould of studio fashion shoots by taking models and clothes on location in East London (Donovan said he preferred to work ‘East of Aldgate). This is my favourite image from the period, juxtaposing a man’s suit against a factory roof with steam, fire escapes and broken windows. The black suit against the white steam gives contrast and drama and gives the impression that the wearer (and, by extension, a purchaser of the suit) is a no-nonsense businessman who has worked his way up the ladder.

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source: The Photographers’ Gallery

In similar vein is a series titled ‘Goldenloin’ which presented mens’ fashions in a James Bond style (in 1961, a year before Dr No appeared in the cinemas). Ladies’ fashions are given a similar treatment, with this example contrasting the tweed pattern of her suit with the mosaic tiling of a pedestrian underpass.

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source: The Photographers’ Gallery

The later work, on the fifth floor, is predominantly in a crisp style, although rather less harsh, and we see Donovan experimenting with colour, flare and soft focus, for example ‘The Heavenly Suited’, below:

My favourite is also Donovan’s last piece of major work, ‘National Anthems’, a set of portraits of pop cultural figures which appeared in the December 1996 issue of CQ. This was formal studio work with a large-format camera but the sitters are clearly relaxed, as is the overall ‘feel’.

The images on the walls are supplemented by displays of the magazines with Donovan’s spreads, together with his meticulous notes and diaries, which give a feel for his working methods.

This is one exhibition that I want to see a second time.

Dandyism at The Photographers Gallery

‘Made You Look’, currently on at The Photographers Gallery has the strapline ‘dandyism and black masculinity’

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‘Dandy’ is defined by the Oxford dictionaries as ‘A man unduly concerned with looking stylish and fashionable’ and, in white European culture at least, has connotations of effeminacy if not homosexuality (cf. popular portrayals of Quentin Crisp) as also suggested by definition 2 from the online Urban Dictionary. It is, therefore, an interesting inversion to see dandyism presented as a provocative response to the stereotype portrayal of black men, of ‘maleness as performance’ and a deliberate transgression of a social order that would otherwise render them invisible (this sentence paraphrased from an exhibition wall note).

There seem to be two different forms of dandyism. A set of images by an unknown photographer in 1904 has its subjects dressed in very formal ‘Sunday best’ with bow ties or cravats, and later images also show the business suit and tie but with a sharp edge and attention to detail.

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The second form is characterised by (to my eye) outlandish patterns and colours, which are clearly intended to be seen and make a statement.

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The overall impression is of subjects displaying style and confidence, definitely masculine and by no means invisible. This fits well with the stated premise of the exhibition.

References

Oxford Dictionary (s.d.) ‘Dandy’ definition [online] at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/dandy

Urban Dictionary (s.d.) ‘Dandy’ definition [online] at: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=dandy

Conceptual Art at Tate Britain

With two major exhibitions at the Tate and only time to properly ‘do’ one, I had the choice of ‘Painting with Light‘, an historic view of photography from the Raphaelites and Pictorialists onward, or ‘Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-79‘. As I had seen two ‘historical’ exhibitions in the morning, I chose conceptual art because it would be more challenging.

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It is not, strictly, a photographic exhibition but it has a lot of photography in it, either as artwork (there are several items by Keith Arnatt, for instance) or as a record of an ephemeral work such as Bruce McLean’s ‘Six Sculptures‘.

Conceptual art is based on the principle that it is the concept or idea that is the artwork, rather than its material form. By analogy, an architect might say that it is the design and drawings that constitute his art, rather than the physical form of the building that is constructed from them. Or a cookery writer could claim that the recipe is more important than the meal produced from it by a cook following his instructions. (Arguing by analogy is always suspect, but that is as near as I can get). As a result, the notes against each exhibit go into some depth about the concept and the reasoning behind it, many of which feel like a bad comedian trying to explain his joke.

I can’t pretend to understand, or to like, much of what is on show. Self-analysing, I think the exhibits I enjoyed are those that display a degree of craftsmanship to accompany the original good idea, such as Arnatt’s ‘Invisible Hole Revealed by the Shadow of the Artist‘ or  John Hilliard’s ‘Camera Recording its Own Condition‘. I actively disliked ‘naked emperor’ gimmicks such as the mirror exhibited with a wordy description, worthy of Monty Python’s caricature Gavin Millarrrrrrrr (starts at 3:47 in this clip), about ‘dislocating modern ideas of perception…’

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If conceptual art is all about the idea behind the artwork, then originality is vital. A pity then that one exhibit, Atkinson and Martin’s ‘Map of Thirty-six Square Mile Surface Area of Pacific Ocean West of Oahu‘ appears to be a copy of the Bellman’s map in the second fit of ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ (Dodgson, 1874, as collected in Gardner, 1974:56). I think Lewis Carroll would have appreciated many of the background ideas behind the other exhibits also.

Overall, my impression of the exhibition is similar to viewing a talent competition for conjurors. Much of it is fascinating and makes us think beyond what we see on the surface, but after a while I got bored with looking for the gimmick behind the performance.

Reference

Gardner, M. (1974) Lewis Carroll – The Annotated Snark, revised edition London:Penguin

 

Fox Talbot at MediaSpace

Fox Talbot: The Dawn of the Photograph at MediaSpace in the Science Museum is a display of prints by William Fox Talbot and his contemporaries, mostly from the 1840s. Although apparently comprehensive (at least in terms of FT’s own output) it is surprisingly unsatisfying.

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We start with copies of FT’s early experiments, including the famous lattice windows at Lacock Abbey and some of his ‘photogenic drawings’. Most of these are still-lifes or architectural details, allowing long exposure times. An 1840 study of a statue of Diogenes in the Great Hall at Lacock seems surprisingly modern with its subject lit by a patch of window light amid dark shadows.

It is not clear how much detail has been lost from these images due to age and reproduction, but there is a loss of detail at both ends of the dynamic range and it is possible to make out the grain of the paper negatives. The newer images, represented by original salt prints are considerably better.

There are two pull-quotes displayed on the walls of the second gallery

… what man may hereafter do, now that Dame Nature has become his drawing mistress, it is impossible to predict (Faraday, 1839)

and in rather Blackadder-ish tones:

I always felt sure you would perfect your process til they equalled or surpassed Daguerre’s but this is really magical. Surely you deal with the naughty one (Herschel, 1841)

This gallery displays contemporary processes, particularly the daguerrotype. Ironically, this includes a daguerrotype of Fox Talbot himself. It is worth viewing a daguerrotype ‘in the flesh’; they are stunningly sharp but the metallic surface gives odd reflections from some angles. Of course, the daguerrotype was a technological dead-end but it was a serious rival to FT’s calotype process, particularly among American portraitists.

The next two galleries display FT’s calotypes from the period when the process had become ‘mature’. The exhibits are mainly original salt prints, sepia in tone with a good tonal range and very sharp – as we would expect from a contact-printing process. They are very much ‘record’ photographs (pre-dating the Pictorialist movement), mainly Scottish views and the architecture of Oxford. It must be said that the main interest is that these photographs were made at all, rather than their content and I wonder whether we need to see so many of them.

Here and in the final gallery, showing work by FT’s contemporaries, there are some treasures (Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes of British algae for instance) and it is interesting to see calotype negatives with the skies ‘inked-in’ so that they will print as dead white, a ‘look’ very foreign to modern landscape photographers.

So, why do I find the overall exhibition unsatisfying? As a photographer with a scientific interest, I believe there is a wasted opportunity. This is the Science Museum after all, so where are the displays showing the detail of the calotype process and comparing it with its rivals, the contemporary daguerrotype and the later wet-collodion glass plates? In my view, it would have been a better use of one of the middle galleries.

Unlike later photographers working with a mature technology, the importance of FT, Daguerre and other pioneers has at least as much to do with the process as with the images they produced. Although the daguerrotype and the calotype are seen as rivals in history books, the daguerrotype was a dead-end; (a) as a direct-positive process, it was not possible to make multiple copies, (b) it was expensive and (c) it compromised the health of its practitioners breathing mercury vapours.  The calotype was safer, cheaper and reproducible. By introducing a negative-positive process to photographic printing it made possible  the postcard, the carte-de-visit and the family album, all of which have social implications beyond the mere taking of a photograph. I would like to have been shown more.