Some shows to see.. and some to avoid.
January Photography Roundup
It’s nearing the end of January when 2016 really begins. All those half-hearted resolutions left on simmer through the gloomiest month of the year (apparently it still counts as chocolate if it’s been melted!) start to come to a bubbling crescendo. The seasonal sugar coma has passed and I emerge from my frost-covered cocoon certain that this time next year I’ll be lighter, brighter, and better than ever. Well, at least until BBQ season comes and spoils everything. Embarking on one of my lesser delusions, I spring out into London’s lively streets to educate myself with some of the many cultural offerings available (becoming a GQ cover model will just have to wait).
The first of my photographic forays is Alec Soth’s Gathered Leaves at the Science Museum. The exhibition, consisting of four large rooms, leads me in chronological order through 10 years of his work, from 2004-14. Each image is striking, given room to speak and breathe against the plain white walls. We start with images from Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004) series. His shots, suffused with a subtle yearning, suggest the potency of dreams and an admiration for visionaries. The homes and birthplaces of American men who would come to leave their mark on the world, like Johnny Cash and Charles Lindbergh, are photographed along with less renowned men and women. The presentation of such humble beginnings, especially when considering the accomplishments of some of these men, is a testament to the transformative power of dreams.
Niagara (2006) retains the same sense of longing, suggesting the beauty and compassion nestled among sometimes torn and tawdry lives. One of Soth’s talents is his effortless ability to sidestep our modern penchant for fatalism. He subtly depicts the intertwining of our desires and hopes with less than perfect realities, discovering love and tenderness in spite of sometimes tumultuous circumstances. Shots of motels recur frequently in his work, in this context suggesting cheap, discreet, anonymous places where passion or love might bloom. Continuing into the next, dimly-lit room is Broken Manual (2010), a series documenting survivalists and hermits who decide to escape into barren wilderness. The title, a play on words, suggests a discontented masculinity in modern society; a desire to live away from enforced roles and expectations, as well as presenting an opportunity for self-discovery. A glass cabin in the centre of the room displays the profusion of survivalist literature available and reiterates what appears a singularly male need to escape societal bonds.
After slipping away myself to scoff an overpriced croissant I head across the road to the V&A’s current presentation of work by the 19th Century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Like Soth, Cameron’s purpose and method was a poetic one, aiming to combine “the real and the ideal [while] sacrificing nothing of truth.” Though her work may lack the jarring imagery and drama our modern eye is accustomed to, comprising of straight-forward portrait shots or recreations of works from antiquity, its strength lies in an intangible, subtle beauty that arrests the eye. It reminds you with its plain vitality why some civilisations view photography suspiciously, capable of stealing the subject’s soul. Photography makes a person appear more alive than they would in either the classical paintings or sculptures Cameron references. It captures not just an incredible likeness but expresses a subjective inner world as well, something beyond the material.
Passing through the exhibition the works are grouped by Cameron’s favourite topics of photography (‘Portraiture’, ‘Madonna Groups’, ‘Fancy Subjects for Pictorial Effects’) but laid out in a somewhat awkward way which makes it hard to navigate without jumping between themes. One particular section that stood out however, entitled “Defected Unmounted Impressions” and highlighting Cameron’s status as an innovator, was a selection of ‘imperfect’ shots displaying signs of aging, interference or manipulation. Photography, which in its infancy was prized for its ability to provide a factual report on reality, was popularly expected to consist of “clear, hard outlines”, detailing people as a whole and in context (rather than reduced into pieces in close up), with all visual details sharply defined. Cameron subverted these standards with her fondness for soft focus and a penchant for manipulating certain frames; building additional layers of meaning (scratching out an image to suggest a halo, for example) to provide a viewing experience more ‘divine’ – something closer to art than photography was thought capable of.
I get my own portrait taken ‘Cameron style’ with the aid of the iPhone, and promptly catapult myself out of the 19th Century up towards Angel, landing firmly back in the modern day. Before I put my eyes on ice I venture to the London Art Fair, with the intention of procuring booze (free drinks served Thursday Lates!) and more seriously of looking at the contemporaneous work of Photo50. This years’ offering is the exhibition Feminine Masculine, guest-curated by Federica Chiocchetti, whose intention is to “explore the challenge of representing the mysterious, at times ineffable and immaterial, dynamics that occur or do not occur between a woman and a man.” By the sound of this diffuse logic it’s a win-win; the show a success even by attempting to articulate the purportedly inexpressible.
As some of the photography indicates, the relations between the sexes can be captured by the camera in tangible, tender ways. For example, the large prints from the series Closer by Elinor Carucci express a deep, almost mundane intimacy, in which a couple’s bodies can lie exposed side by side without the need to be sexualised, indicating a closeness of being. Across from these shots and taking a less subtle approach are six separate photos from the series At First Sight (2014-15). On the left are three individuals, flailing backwards wide-eyed and illuminated by a flash of light, literally ‘falling in love’, while on the right are three pictures of couples embracing. While a clichéd depiction already, a picture of a bolt of lightning is included in the centre to spell out the meaning.
Although the title of the project is inspired by Godard’s 1966 film Masculin Féminin, very little else seems to be. While this is acknowledged, it almost seems detrimental to the whole to make the tenuous comparison between the exhibition and the intentions of the aforementioned film. The reference serves only to highlight what is lacking – any sort of engagement with socio-political themes. While the collection proudly illustrates its diverse and contemporary methods – utilising a mix of media such as film, including postcards with responses from strangers, mocked up magazines ironically commenting on bourgeois relationships, as well as moving away from traditional modes of photographic display into the realm of art installation – it seems an oversight not to have responded to now out-dated gender stereotypes, especially those in Godard’s movie, of the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” variety.
The individual intentions of the artists can be compelling in their own right. Jo Broughton’s series Empty Porn Sets (2010) captures the aftermath of a number of adult film shoots, the now unpopulated sexual arenas appearing weirdly child-like and fantastical in the absence of performers. Remnants of underwear and the odd vibrator sit still and incongruous on stages arranged like a classroom or an icy wonderland. Sans actors, the sets now look cold and empty, their artifice obvious, serving to bring home the oddly dispassionate nature of the enterprise.
As a whole, however, the exhibition doesn’t appear to communicate any overall message. It says little new about human relationships and declines to articulate anything progressive about gender, which is odd given the shows title. In the end it’s rather too conceptual (but without a strong unifying concept) and rather superficial, suggesting a lack of deep intellectual thought on behalf of the curator. Unless of course it was intended as a modern elegy to the state of human relationships today –somewhat hollow, glib, and desperate for attention.
– Daniel Pateman
Daniel Pateman studied Humanities and Media at Birkbeck University and continues to indulge his abiding interest in the arts. He has enjoyed writing since a young age and currently produces articles for a number of online publications. He keeps a blog called The End of Fiction, consisting of his poetry, prose and other creative work, and is currently looking to forge a new career in the creative industries.