The current batch of photography shows on around Central London are marked by a refreshing, if occasionally baffling, straightforwardness, the likes of which would have been too irony or concept free for the scene a few years ago. This is a reflection, one might argue, of a growing confidence in the market for ‘straight’ photography (as independent from the Art market that is) and the spaces exclusively dedicated to the medium that have now become established.
First up is Domingo Millela at Brancolini Grimaldi, a private gallery whose exhibitions have made it one of the top destinations for the photo-wanderer. Millela’s work features images of important ancient sites in the Mediterranean, where remnants of power, culture, life and death are captured. Over the last ten years, Milella’s subjects have been cities and their borders, cemeteries and villages, caves and homes, tombs and hieroglyphs. The exhibition also includes include Milella’s Index, a compendium of 30 of the most evocative images from his last decade of work, presented as a visual sequence.
The photographs of ancient sites are presented as very large, colour prints, in the manner of the Dusseldorf School (Thomas Struth was one of Milella’s mentors according to the press release), and are, to a certain extent, topographical in their approach, yet they are inconsistent in their quality and the discipline with which they approach their subject matter. Perhaps to his credit, Millela has too much of the romantic in him to fully embrace the rigidity of a scientific approach, but this does result in some unclear images that occasionally veer into sentimentality. This incongruity, between style, presentation and sentiment, is foregrounded in the Index series at the back of the gallery, and is a far more effective series of images for having done so. Presented small, this work allows the tensions between romanticism and detachment to create a dynamic survey of a Mediterranean hinterland in which urbanism and ancient nature clash and compromise.
Another newish space on the scene is Margaret Street Gallery whose cosy atmosphere and extremely welcoming staff are sure to make another top destination for collectors and visitors alike. The current show ‘Thursdays by the Sea’ features Marcus Doyle’s photographs of the desolate area surrounding the Salton Sea, the largest lake in California. Formed accidently in 1905 by a breach in the Colorado River, this lake was, in the 1950s, a bigger tourist attraction than Yosemite National Park. But over the years the local population and tourists have been driven away. From its main water supply, the New River, the Salton Sea became heavily polluted with agricultural runoff and sewage from Mexico. As the volume of runoff increased, the lake’s water levels fluctuated so greatly that whole towns were flooded with this filthy, saline water. In the late 70s, the entire shoreline surrounding Bombay Beach had to be abandoned, leaving behind a sparsely inhabited ghost town.
Doyle went to photograph this area every Thursday for a year and has managed to capture its eerie, post-apocalyptic twilight. They are desolate and they are lonely, these images, yet they seem somehow made-up, like a film backdrop or the Hollywood of a fifties noir. This may be due in part to the presentation of these large scale colour images unframed and mounted on aluminium, an approach that emphasizes their commercial veneer at the expense of the meditative contemplation Doyle probably sought to encourage. This landscape, ravaged by a nature that was ravaged by man, is another, eroded world, but in seeking to communicate its beauty in light, Doyle glosses over its poignancy. There is a beauty in the destruction and the abandonment that might have communicated a pathos more trenchant. Having said that, the images are beautiful and do transport you.
The great Indian photographer Dayanita Singh is being exhibited at Frith Street Gallery with her homage to analogue: ‘File Museum’. This show features a single structure composed of 140 photographs. The structure may be presented in a number of different configurations according to its situation and is, in many ways, a new form akin to a book or museum. For File Museum the piece is composed of photographs depicting document archives – ranging from the unexpected to the ordinary in their subject matter – in different locations throughout India. These document archives are simultaneously Arcadian and Dickensian, depicting embattled figures in amongst mounds, mounts and mountains of paper. To quote the press release: ‘The analogue photographer and bookmaker has a unique relationship with paper that is integral not only to the work of making images, texts and memories, but also to a larger confrontation with chaos, mortality and disorder’.
Shot on film and in black and white, in wooden square frames, the voluminous series of images hung on the wall are designed to fit into large wooden structure in the centre of the space; an archive in itself. The images are poignant and elegiac, but a little uniform after a while, and though their ultimate destination is the free-standing archive, some more of them could have been left in there methinks. What is powerful about this project, however, is how it browbeats nostalgia and confront the process of losing the physical to the digital with an honesty not so much mournful than it is wistful.
By far the pick of the bunch is the John Divola show at Laura Bartlett Gallery. In the main space upstairs, is a selection from his wonderful series and book ‘Dogs Chasing my Car in the Desert’. In terms of subject matter, the project does what it says on the tin, but the mastery of execution, the deftness of touch and the inherent confidence, faith almost, with which these images have been captured is truly a joy. Grainy, black and white framed analogue prints, these images do recall a ‘straighter’ form of image-making, but their exceptional poetry speaks to a need to move, to exist in motion, to chase or keep up, to be, and in so doing touch at something fundamental within the medium. These are moments worth freezing; the dog will eventually tire, the car will drain its petrol, yet for that pure moment exposed on film, this dance… Catch this show as soon as you can.
Words by Kerim Aytac