‘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.

Sergio Larrain at Magnum Print Room

I was inspired to visit this exhibition by an article in Black+White Photography ( Evans 2016,7) which was illustrated by his image of the girl and pigeons in Trafalgar Square. Based on the article, I was expecting a surreal and ‘mythical’ set of images. I had viewed the Strange and Familiar exhibition at the Barbican earlier in the day and Larrain’s images there do fit the description.

The images at Magnum are rather different, particularly the South American images, in a more documentary style, appearing more considered and ‘photographic’.

Children living around the Mapocho river and sleeping under bridges.

Children living around the Mapocho river and sleeping under bridges. source:http://mediastore2.magnumphotos.com/CoreXDoc/MAG/Media/TR2/f/6/a/d/PAR102871.jpg

The whole exhibition experience is very different from the normal gallery experience. The Print Room is part of a working environment. Access to the building is by entryphone and half the prints are simply resting on the workbenches rather than hung on the walls. The overall feeling is of being a guest rather than a gallery visitor.

The first ten images are from London in 1958 and ’59, mainly street scenes (including the pigeons image) but also a private party and the Chelsea Arts Ball. The other 36 are from South America, mainly Chile.

The Chile images give a striking impression of small-town back-street life. there are photographs taken in bars but my favourites are those of the street kids. In one, we see then climbing and playing on the steelwork beneath a bridge. In others, we see them rough sleeping. As noted earlier, these are much ‘straighter’ and more documentary in style than the London images.

References

Evans, A.B. (2016) ‘Exhibition of the month’ In: Black+White Photography 188 p7

Larrain, S. (1957) Children living around the Mapocho river and sleeping under bridges. [online] at: http://mediastore2.magnumphotos.com/CoreXDoc/MAG/Media/TR2/f/6/a/d/PAR102871.jpg (accessed 19 April 2016)

Strange and Familiar • at the Barbican

‘Strange and Familiar’ is a sort of portrait of Britain as seen from the outside. Curated by Martin Parr, it shows the work of international photographers viewing Britain between the 1930s and the present.

The venue is hard work for a first-timer, the Barbican being the archetype 1960s concrete complex with a maze of multi-level walkways and poor signposting. Inside the Arts Centre is pretty similar but we eventually find the third floor gallery and the start of a great two hours or so viewing over 250 images from 23 photographers.

Photography is not allowed in the exhibition. These installation images are from the Barbican Centre press download Dropbox.

The exhibition is arranged on two floors, with most photographers assigned a full gallery space (the others had a complete wall or two) so the images are grouped by photographer rather than thematically or in chronological order. On the whole, the historic/nostalgic images are on the upper floor and the more contemporary images are on the lower floor.

I have to say that I was more comfortable with the upper floor images than with some of the more contemporary stuff, which will probably show-through in the following paragraphs. Given the size of the exhibition, this review cannot be comprehensive but will consist of edited highlights.

Edith Tudor Hart documented social issues of poverty, unemployment, children and her husband’s patients during the 1930s. Images are mainly of backstreet London, but also some from the mining areas of Wales and Northumberland. Her treatment of the subjects is not as hard-hitting as we would expect from a modern photojournalist, and I had the impression of a sanitised or pictorial view.

The Henri Cartier Bresson space mostly showed the English enjoying spectacles from the 1937 Coronation of George VI to the 1977 Silver Jubilee. It is fascinating to see how crowd behaviour is unchanging through the decades, dressing up, finding vantage points and (most interesting) using cardboard periscopes and mirrors-on-sticks to get a better view. I am reminded of the modern phenomenon of selfie-sticks and of holding up mobile phones to ‘view’ open-air concerts; technology changes, human nature remains constant.

Away from the pomp, we saw people on park concert benches in the rain and one memorable image of a woman at London Airport, dressed in a mink coat and Margaret Thatcher hat, reading the Telegraph special edition covering Churchill’s death.

Robert Frank photographed in London and Wales, 1951-53 (before ‘The Americans’). The images of the Welsh mining community record a hard life, not glamourised but not playing for pathos either.

Paul Strand photographed in the Outer Hebrides in 1954. The set was a mix of posed environmental portraits, some building details and a few landscapes. All of the portrait subjects are gazing directly at the camera and I got a feeling that we know these people and their environment.

Something very different, and difficult to categorise, is the Sergio Larrain work in London during four months of 1958-59. His photography of that period is described as a ‘spontaneous response’ to what he saw, often from unusual vantage points and with blur. The view of the girl and pigeons in Trafalgar Square seems to be the signature image in any article about him – with good reason.

Gian Butturini, Frank Hubicht and Garry Winogrand showed us the ‘Swinging London’ of the late 1960s, although with slightly different treatments. Butturini looked behind the scenes and showed us the poor and homeless, and conventional commuters, as well as a few stereotype 60s hippies. Hubicht concentrated more on youth culture, haircuts, fashions and peace demonstrations. I particularly enjoyed “Time, Gentleman, Please!”  with a bowler-hatted City gent telling the time for two mini-skirted girls – suggesting an amused mutual tolerance of two different cultures sharing the same city. Winogrand also contrasted the youth boutique culture and clothes with the much staider older generation. However, I got the impression that some of his subjects were trying too hard, maintaining a pose. In one case, a young man with cravat, circular sunglasses and immaculate hair, I had to look twice to be sure he was not a mannequin.

Candida Höfer photographed Liverpool in the late 1960s and , apart from noting that a no.73 bus goes to Penny Lane, there was no evidence of a “Mersey Beat” culture. We see staid clothes and industrial scenes.

Gilles Peress and Akihiko Okamura photographed in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. The Peress images are a monochrome ‘work print’ for a project entitled ‘The Prods’, dealing with the Orange Order, ceremonial, parades and crowd reactions. Okamura’s colour images are more disturbing, taken during fighting or its aftermath. The floral tribute and black flag next to a bloodstain on the pavement has its own menace.

I did not ‘get’ the Bruce Gilden exhibit (seen in the montage at the start of this posting) of enormous, closely cropped and rather grotesque faces. Golden tells us that he was looking for subjects ‘whose faces, and particularly eyes, scream a story’.

Hans van der Meer showed a set of large colour photographs of football matches in the lower leagues, played on village and town pitches, with no grandstands and few spectators. The image titles named the teams and the league, with delightful examples such as St Bedes 3 v Heckmondwike Reserves (score 0-5) in the Yorkshire Old Boys League Division 2. It is sad that it takes a foreigner to remind us that the national game is played at all levels, for the sheer enjoyment of it, without the money and glamour of the Premier League.

Raymond Depardon shows us Glasgow in the 1980s, a time of transition for the city. It is a difficult set to view, with colour images of poverty and the tenements, but it also shows us Brits doing what we do best, making the best of things. The signature image is also on the cover of the exhibition book, a pair of elderly newly-weds, posing with the wedding Rolls-Royce, and tower blocks and industrial chimneys in the background.

Tina Barney looked at the other end of society, making ‘posed informal’ portraits of the upper classes with and 8×10 view camera. These are environmental portraits, using locations and props, and do not name their subjects, preferring titles such as “The Two Students” or “The British Cousins”

Finally, given my interest in typologies for Assignment 2, I have to mention Axel Hütte and his typology of housing estate architecture from the brick buildings of the 1940s and ’50s to the concrete jungles of the 1960s and ’70s. These are rather sterile images of exteriors and the interiors of common parts.

Overall, the exhibition is a fascinating view of Britain as seen by the outside. I get the impression that the majority of the photographs selected are the ones that Martin Parr would have taken himself, had he been there at the time.

 

 

Unseen City • Martin Parr at the Guildhall

An exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London EC2, and photography is allowed, the first time I have seen a big notice to that effect.

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I decided to view ‘Unseen City’ in the same excursion as the ‘Strange and Familiar’ exhibition at the Barbican because the two are connected by Martin Parr, curator of the Barbican exhibition and featured photographer at the Guildhall.

The background to Unseen City is that Parr has been the City of London’s photographer-in-residence since 2013. In this context, ‘City of London’ does not mean the buildings, streets and office workers, but the rarified world of Lord Mayors, livery companies, pomp, dinners and ceremonial. With unprecedented access to the personalities, events and ‘behind the scenes’, I wondered if he would do for the City what he had previously done for New Brighton (Parr and Walker, 1998). In my view, the answer is ‘yes and no’.

In the 100 or so images on display, we see a fair amount of formal images of events and people, but the playful eye and sense of fun is never far away. In this image of two ward beadles (whatever they are) the men are mirrored, and somehow commented on, by the statue behind them. Also, we see their suitcases and the fleeces and scarves which will replace or cover the formal suits once the ceremony is over.

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My favourite print is this one, musketeers from the Poulterers livery company at an Ash Wednesday event being watched by patrons of Pret a Manger. The expression on the nearest musketeer’s face says it all.

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In other images of the Lord Mayor’s Show, behind the scenes, we never quite see the proverbial ‘man with the bucket’ but we can be sure he is lurking in the wings somewhere.

The ‘… and no’ part of my answer comes because of the access that Parr has to his subjects, rather than being an outside observer as he was in New Brighton. As a viewer, I felt more like an insider than a voyeur. I also suspect that his city subjects are happier with the results than his Merseysiders.

Reference

Parr, M. and Walker, I. (1998) The Last Resort – Photographs of New Brighton by Martin Parr, Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing