It’s been a while since there have been this many photography shows worth seeing in London. Not only are there major shows at the Tate, the Barbican and the V&A, but there is some excellent work to be seen in private galleries big and small.
Not private exactly, Somerset House continues to muscle in on the photography scene with the comprehensive ‘Guy Bourdin: Image Maker’. The esteemed venue, soon to be the site of the inaugural Photo London, has , it seems, been trying to establish itself as a destination for fashion photography with recent shows. If that is their aim, perhaps competing with the V&A in the process, then Bourdin is always a safe bet for a major exhibition. Indeed, the last major Bourdin show was at the V&A, but where that took a more biographical route into the master photographer, ‘Guy Bourdin: Image Maker’ makes a more detached appraisal.
Featuring over 100 works and previously unseen material from the photographer’s estate, from 1955 to 1987, this major show charts Bourdin’s distinguished 40-year career from Man Ray’s protégé to photography revolutionary in his own right and explores his pursuit of perfection. It’s certainly comprehensive, and in walking through it, one can spot the diverse influences that played into his compositions. Surrealism always a thread, Bourdin evolved from the ‘maker’ of images implied in the exhibition’s title, using staged scenarios to evoke strong, formal compositions in which models are elements within the frame, into more of a storyteller via his love of film. He is at his strongest when implying stories in which the models aren’t just merely fetishised, but are characters lost within narrative replete with decadence and glamour, behaving in ways not to healthy. He is at his most human when giving his subjects a role in this manner. For all of his work, one cannot but marvel at Bourdin’s mastery of form, line and colour. The best room in the show, however, is one featuring polaroids of empty spaces that Bourdin used for scouting locations, checking light and so one. Black and white, small and incredibly quiet, these are little wonders are the briefest glimpses at the artist at repose, observing merely and letting go of the frame just briefly. If you don’t know Bourdin’s work, you must see this show.
Grimaldi Gavin have put on an interesting show in which they juxtapose some of Joachim Brohm’s very early work ‘Typology 1979’ with his most recent project ‘Mies Model Study’.
Brohm occupies a fertile middle ground in the history of photography. A pioneer of colour photography in the early 80’s, Brohm was influenced by both the colour work of the likes of Stephen Shore or William Eggleston, as well as the topographical work of Lewis Baltz. As a result he has produced work at once topographic and humanist, documenting the built landscape, but with empathy as opposed to scientific discipline. He straddles this line in ‘Typology 1979’ which consists of photographs of the allotment gardens in late autumn of 1979, belonging to the residents of the industrial Ruhr. These are soft, deliberate images that, through very subtle variation, gradually reveal an at once homogenous and individualistic use of leisure space,and by extension, the society in which their ‘architects’ have emerged. The photographs are from afar, seemingly removed, but somehow immediate. In celebrating the minor structures here, sheds and the like, Brohm posits the mundane as worthy of praise; as a testament to a society, no matter how minor.
This is cleverly echoed in the new body of work, Mies Model Study. A series of large scale studies, both in black and white and colour, these photographs chart the modernist interiors and exteriors a full scale model of a never (in his lifetime) completed Mies van der Rohe building in Krefeld, Germany. The building is real, but empty, and erected on its originally proposed site in what would have been a golf course, but now seems like unfettered countryside. It is an anomaly; sheer concrete and glass surfaces in the middle of a timid nature, belonging to a building that has no function other than as testament to an architectural concept. It is in many ways the exact opposite of the artisanal, ramshackle structures in ‘Typology’ which had a purpose. The images very carefully, and very cleverly, tease out this incongruity, creating an enigmatic yet poetic survey. An excellent show that requires patience and deliberation.
Down the road, Alan Cristea gallery is showing work from Mark Neville’s ‘London Pittsburg’ series. Neville is well known for his seminal documentary intervention ‘Deeds not Words’. For 18 months Mark Neville had photographed the town of Corby in Northamptonshire: its people, its culture and the effects of environmental pollution that led to several babies being born with serious birth defects. He published the photographs in the form of a book that wasn’t for sale but was instead given to each of the small community’s 443 inhabitants. In 2012 Neville was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for a commission by New York Times Magazine in which he documented the stark contrasts inherent in London society and subcultures. He subsequently lived amongst divergent communities in the industrial heartland of the US, Pittsburgh, creating work under commission by the Andy Warhol Museum.
Dancefloor of Boujis Nightclub, 2011, copyright Mark Neville, courtesy of the artist and Alan Cristea Gallery
This show juxtaposes extracts from the London work, ‘Here is London’ (2012), with images from the Pittsburgh series ‘Braddock Sewickley’ to excellent effect. Neville is an old school documentarian with an eye for the poetic. He manages to capture, in documenting the different tribes within each subset of each community, stolen moments of intimacy within highly public settings. These powerful images simultaneously convey the universal and the specific, hinting at modes of existence common to all in highly unequal societies.
Mark Neville, (Top Photo) ‘Rumshakers Nightclub no. 3’ 2012, C-type print, Paper 120 x 154 cm, Image 101 x 135 cm, Edition of 5, Copyright Mark Neville, Courtesy of the artist and Alan Cristea Gallery
Finally, a fun, if slightly sinister Sugimoto show at Pace gallery: ‘Still Life’. In this series Sugimoto presents his photographs of large-scale dioramas inside natural history museums. All large scale, all black and white, all masterfully printed, these de-contextualized landscapes expose the very particular ways in which nature is imagined, be it based on scientific fact or fantasy.
As ever with Sugimoto, it is a wonderfully simple idea perfectly executed. Almost impossible not to enjoy.