This is a show of unadulterated image-making from a simultaneously wiser and more innocent time. Full of the type of photography that turns people onto the medium, it is a meditative, soulful experience.
We’re proud of London aren’t we? Now the Opening Ceremony has come and gone, even more so maybe, for if that show captured one thing about this Island’s culture, with its in-jokes and bafflingly localised references (great though!), it’s that you can only know it by being here, living here and taking it in over time. London, as the inevitable culmination of this place, represents the slippery viscosity of the British temperament. We’re a mess, inconsistent but occasionally better than the rest, often maybe, yet we’re somehow dissatisfied and unimpressed.
As a City to photograph, London has always represented a challenge in that there is no aesthetic consistency here, no skyscrapers or sweeping boulevards. Paris and New York have were planned; London evolved, miraculously, over time but at the expense of an overarching visual style. In other words, this city’s architecture says too many things, speaks too many languages, in the manner of its residents and workers, for it be useful in terms of visual communication. This might be one of the reasons, as Simon Baker also argues in the forward to the publication that accompanies this exhibition, that there hasn’t been the great London photography series in the manner of William Klein and New York, Daido Moriyama and Tokyo or Paris as seen by Atget or Brassai. Baker also makes the excellent point that there is little light with which to expose pictures here.
With all this in mind, Simon Baker and Helen Delaney have curated an exhibition in which the photographers were from other places, and whose approach was to photograph London through Londoners rather than through its space. Covering the period from 1930 through to 1980, it avoids much recent conceptual or contemporary work and, interestingly, all colour. In so doing, the curators have conceded defeat, acknowledged the impossibility of distilling London’s essence and, graciously, invited the viewer to engage with the attempt to do so.
The photographers on show believed in the power of one, singular image’s ability to tell a story. Although some are part of famous projects or series, these are meant to be discrete, hermetically sealed units, from which all necessary information can be extracted. This makes for a show that jars at times, that stops and starts and only occasionally flows. One finds oneself retracing one’s steps, or looking at a picture with the traces of another still embedded on the brain. It is an admirable feat to have achieved any sense of logical progression at all.
Organised loosely chronologically, amongst the early highlights are works by Lartigue and Dora Maar, but the show hits its stride when it hits the war and post-war period. Wolfgang Suchitzky’ “View from St Paul’s Cathedral, August 1942′ is a painful reminder of the bombing raids this city suffered, the wasteland it temporarily became, and is a powerful antidote to the new London skyline the Olympics coverage is seeking to promote. No Gherkins here, nor even the thought of such tepid grandiosity with a city on its knees. Indeed several of Suchitzky’s images from the war period are some of the strongest here.
The mighty Robert Frank weighs in with some incredible imagery, as do Elliot Erwitt and Bruce Davidson. The great Americans with their brand of street poetry, seminal, influential, but somehow longing for the visual density of the American city; one in which people don’t go home. That said, |Davidson’s ‘Girl Holding Kitten’ is surely one the great street portraits. It’s gut-wrenching.
Other greats such as Brandt, Riboud, Cartier-Bresson, Arnold and Ronis are also included but is maybe with the slightly lesser known (undeservedly so) that the surprise can be found. Marketa Luszkacova’s powerful work paints a picture of London as populated by grotesques, weary outcasts lurking in the shadows. These are the desperate and ravenous poor that drive the city from beneath. In particular, ‘ Petticoat Lane Market, London’ viciously exposes the gaps between the haves and have-nots.
Equally delightful are Al Vandenburg’s portraits of the city’s residents in the 70’s and early 80’s. Humorous and compassionate, these pictures express a real love for the mixing at this city’s heart, a sentiment thankfully echoed in the Olympics Ceremonies. One mind-blowing example is ‘Untitled 1975’ in which a young girl is photographed posing with a tape deck. Her posture, tense and defensive, combined with a probing furrowed brow, so accurately reveal the oppositional forces of adolescence (insecurity and attitude) that one can’t help but stand in front of it, marvelling.
This is a provocative show, that forces the visitor to question his/her own relationship with the city, yet in so doing it does touch on universal themes, firmly positioning London’s residents at the core of the spirit that has helped to define it, perhaps more so than in other cities. So while it hasn’t had its great photographic oeuvre, a community of great photographers are constantly collaborating to capture what makes London great, and no one photographer over a relatively short period of time could ever hope to get close claiming it at his/her own.
Another London International Photographer’s Capture City Life 1930-1980 – Tate Britain 28/7 – 16/09 2012 Tate Britain London
Words: Kirim Aytak © ArtLyst 2012 Photos: Courtesy Tate Britain