Tag Archives: photography

Rodchenko at the Hayward. February 2008.

The Hayward Gallery in London has an exhibition of the Russian photographer Alexander Rodchenko.  I wasn’t aware of seeing his work before, though looking at his pictures created a strong feeling of familiarity.

Born in 1891, he was practicing as an artist at the time of the Russian revolution, and he felt his art needed to make a strong revolutionary statement.  He worked in photomontage, creating new images by combining others’ photographs, and that got him interested in taking his own pictures. 

His images are full of angles and abstraction – lots of strong lines, rarely vertical or horizontal; I couldn’t help wondering the extent to which these were created in the darkroom rather than the camera – it is a lot easier to move a piece of photographic paper to set up diagonals than to hold a camera at an angle to take a picture. Continue reading

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Lee Miller at the V&A. November 2007.

The V&A has a large retrospective of the model and photographer Lee Miller, marking the centenary of her birth and thirty years since her death.  I was familiar with her pictures – I went to a show of her work several years ago (in Amsterdam, I think), and found them captivating.

She had an interesting – and disturbing – life: she grew up being photographed by her father, and became a model; she moved to Paris where she sought out the surrealist photographer Man Ray and became his associate and lover.  With Ray she helped develop some startling images, and discovered solarisation, producing startling, burnt-out images. Continue reading

“Britain on Film.” July 2007.

I met my brother at Tate Britain; I actually wrote The Tate, because that is how I think of it.  In the main hall was Mark Wallinger’s entry for the Turner Prize, an installation based on the anti-war campaigners based in Parliament Sq.  It was curious – I agreed with the sentiments of banners and posters, but it seemed bereft of any creative spark.

We went to the photographic exhibition – Britain as captured on film.  It didn’t really grab me.  There were some interesting pictures individually, but the show as whole was too diffuse, too vague – it just didn’t hang together: there were too many photographers, too many topics, too broad an interest.  I wandered around, liking the pictures but disappointed with the whole.  There was some pretty neat software though, used to display albums – you could drag the photo to turn the page.  Nifty.

I was also appalled by the grammar on the various bits of blurb.  There were misplaced commas, verbs which didn’t agree with their subjects. It was just unprofessional.  I wanted to go along, scratching out the offending commas.  I must be turning into a grammar Nazi.

My brother and I spent a couple of hours walking through the picture halls.  There were so many photos.  Some of them seemed like scenes from our past – I expected to see myself in the corner of a picture, running through the street as a child or sweating at a gig.  But then a lot of the pictures seemed like a completely different world.

After a tasteless chocolate muffin and a coffee (how could anyone make a tasteless chocolate muffin? Where did they learn to remove the taste of chocolate?) we walked along the bank of the Thames, looking at the MI5 building and boats on the river.  We walked east; I was surprised to see Rodin’s Burghers of Calais on the grass outside the Houses of Parliament.  In Parliament Sq I stopped to photograph the peace camp.  Not surprisingly, it seemed much more vital, much more important than Wallinger’s art.  One of the protesters saw me waiting for the traffic to clear so I could take a photograph, and he turned so that I could read the signs hung around his body.  He waved as I lowered the camera and I gave him a thumbs up sign.

Harry Benson.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see an exhibition of photographs by Harry Benson, a photo-journalist who has worked extensively since the 1960s.  You may not know his name, but he has taken some iconic photographs.  He worked with the Beatles in the sixties, travelling to the States with them on their first tour; he stayed on went they returned to the UK.

The pictures on show spanned the decades of Benson’s work, and also his styles.  He started off working in Scotland, and moved to London before moving to the States.  His earlier work was unstaged, and of ordinary people: football crowds, children playing in the street.  He then progressed to events and stars – the Beatles, concerts, politicians (including the Klu Klux Klan). 

He was with Bobby Kennedy when he was assassinated in 1968, and the exhibition had the enlarged contact sheet from that evening, a chilling document that moved from politcal rally through to staff sitting numb with horror; he took pictures of Kennedy seconds after he was shot, and of his wife – she hit out at Benson as he stood and photographed; it is a very moving image.

As he grew with prominence, people came to Benson – he no longer had to chase the picture.  These staged pictures had much less impact for me – we were seeing what the famous wanted to show.  Benson had to get them to show more of themselves – there was a famous picture of Ronald Reagan and his wife, dancing (apparently Reagan’s aides wanted to stop that one) – but generally these pictures were more formal, taken with more time and thought rather than a split second decision.

With time he moved from black and white to colour, he his pictures lost impact that way, too.  Since this co-incided with his move to more formal, controlled studio conditions, so it is hard to keep these two factors separate.  The earlier black and white prints had more power, though.

(Harry Benson’s pictures in Google image search.)

This was brought back to me when I saw the exhibition for the Deloitte photographic portrait competition at the National Portrait Gallery this week.  Most of the pictures were in colour; but it was the few black and white portraits that really worked for me.  The coloured prints looked normal; the black and white ones looked special.

Few of the prints were close ups of the face, but these worked best for me: whilst the others showed the sitter in their environment, it didn’t necessarily add to my understanding of them: instead they seemed floating outside, lost in the background.

I generally disagreed with the judges choice of winners: those weren’t my favourites in the show at all.  It is hard to say why I liked those that I did – there was little that united them – but they added something to the sitter, bringing out what was interesting, grabbing my attention.

(Here is the exhibition website – but it only has a couple of the pictures I really liked: here! – and here!.  Neither of these are in black and white…)

At the National Gallery was an exhibition of pictures by Tim Gardner.  Based on photographs, these were actually watercolours, but they were painted so that they looked like photographs.  They were hyper-realist: I had to look really hard to see that they were actually paintings.  I will admit this doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me – why paint a painting to look like a photograph.  They were very beautiful pictures – landscapes and informal portraits from the States – but I don’t know what painting them like that added to the original photos.  It seems like a lot of work for no real return.

“The Movie Kept Moving As Planned”:

Yesterday, I went to see the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art.  I had gone to see this show back in September – I went, but it was such a beautiful late summer day that we actually spent our time sitting on the lawn watching the shadows cross Landform, lapping up the sun and catching up, and we didn’t go in and look at the photographs.

So instead, I went yesterday; my visit coincided with a talk about the exhibition, so I went to that, too.  Usually, I avoid hearing other peoples views of pictures before I see them (I always eschew audio guides) – I want to see the pictures for myself, not filtered through someone else’s eyes.  But since I was there, and they were there, it seemed to make sense to take advantage of the talk: I thought it might be interesting.

It was interesting, although a lot of what the lecturer said I thought was bollocks.  (Not inappropriate, given the nature of some of the photographs.)  She believed in analysing everything with hindsight, and so was reading a lot into the pictures that may or may not have been there – rather taking a view of where things might have been when the photographs were taken (twenty to thirty years ago – between 1976 and 1988).  Academically, she may well have right, but it seemed a bit superfluous to me.  Interpreting Mapplethorpe’s pictures of nude black men as racist (“particularly in the light of the impact of the AIDS epidemic on Africa”) or his photos of nude women as pornographic (“because their eyes are hidden… so you can safely look without being seen”) seemed to miss the point somewhat.  (Indeed, another picture she called pornographic because the nude subject was staring straight at the camera, subjugated; Mapplethorpe couldn’t win!)

However, the words did stay with me when I then looked around the exhibition by myself.

Clearly, some of Mapplethorpe’s pictures were shocking and close to pornography for their time – now, they wouldn’t look out of place in Vogue.  (Well, perhaps a penis tied up in wire might not make it to the newsstands.)  I have seen more explicit pictures by Mapplethorpe – he photographed a lot of gay men together – but they’re not in this exhibition – just some light S&M, a bit of leather; and a wired up cock.

I thought the pictures were about sex and death: death seemed to permeate the show.  Again this could be hindsight – the very first picture was a portrait taken a few weeks before Mapplethorpe himself died; another photo was made much more vivid by the knowledge that the subject had died the next day.  Even his portraits sometimes seemed like pictures of the dead – eyes closed, unbreathing.

Mapplethorpe clearly didn’t like to photograph people smiling – although when he did, the pictures were startlingly beautiful; perhaps their rarity made them shine in the exhibition.

As well as portraits, there were some examples of his flower photographs and some still lives.  His take on flowers – particularly orchids (themselves most perverse flowers; another take on sex) – was stunning: simple and beautiful; though not necessarily alive.  One of his still lives, a skull, was stunning: caught in a diagonal shaft of light.

It contrasted interestingly with a self portrait, in which he was holding a deaths-head walking stick; his face is out of focus, his fist gripping the stick is sharp.  That picture was taken the year before he died.

All Mapplethorpe’s pictures seemed very well composed and lit: a lot of high contrast blacks and whites.  (That may be why I like them: I like high contrast pictures.)  His nudes seemed to make the sitters into statues – classical poses, some on pedestals (although the lecturer said this was akin to slavery – she did put a political spin on everything; she may have been right, but I didn’t see it).  Most of his work was undertaken in a studio (although I have just been looking through “Lady”, his book of photographs of body builder Lisa Lyons – which are all outdoor or location shots); and he clearly kept control of the photos.  Interesting, though, he didn’t do his own printing.

It was an interesting show, though it left me somewhat colder than I had expected – I like his work, and I have been looking at his pictures since I first heard Patti Smith’s “Horses”, for which he took the cover photos (and which, you may recall, is the record that changed my life; or, at least, one of them) – several portraits of Patti Smith appear in the show.  I think it is because a lot of the sitters seem to have the life sucked out of them – the pictures seem to say more about Mapplethorpe than their subject.

“Please DO touch the artwork.”

When I came back from walking in the wilderness last weekend, my wife told me about an exhibition she had been to at the Botanic Gardens.  We went back there the next day.

It is an interesting exhibition: Two Voices.  It is the work of two artists – a blind photographer, Rosita McKenzie, and Rebecca Marr, her sighted collaborator.

The pictures were interesting: they had a slightly random quality to them – there were parts that were out of focus, there were different angles.

But more interesting were the tactile representations of the pictures that accompanied each one.  Printed on raised paper, they enable one to actually feel the photographs.  Some of these prints were transliterations of the photos, others were interpretations.  The sign on the wall read “Please DO touch the artwork.”

There are also spoken descriptions of each picture, and lots of materials in Braille – fascinating to touch.  The spoken descriptions are equally beautiful.

I am not sure how the two artists worked together, but the outcome is fascinating.

The exhibition runs until October 1.

It reminded me of a film about a blind photographer – Proof, in which the photographer (played by Hugo Weaving – later of the Matrix; “Proof” is a far more sensitive movie!) compulsively takes polaroids just to make sure that he records the events he can’t actually see; he then gets people – such as a young Russell Crowe (later of – ) – to describe what he has photographed.