It’s interesting to compare the curatorial approaches to the two densely comprehensive photography group shows on at the the moment: ‘Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers’ at the Barbican, curated by Martin Parr and ‘Performing for the Camera’ at Tate Britain, for which Simon Baker was the lead curator.
Parr and Baker are titans within this small, backbiting and fractured community we call Fine Art Photography in the UK; a community for which there is no real local market, despite the apparent success of Photo London, the spur, it seems, for the rolling out of major institution shows dedicated to the medium around this time of year. Said institutions, like the Barbican and the Tate, are sometimes self-conscious about the attention they pay photography and are therefore uneasy about presenting it to the great unwashed unless as part of a multiple artist survey. Fair enough, one might say, especially since the Barbican has had a couple of resounding successes in years past using this approach. For Parr and Baker though, both Photo obsessives, there is a missionary zeal that underpins their work here, a desire to spread the love and teach the discourse. These curators want to show the people what is to be loved and what is to be known.
It’s easy to forget that Martin Parr is a populist. So ubiquitous is his work, and so exposed are his sidelines in photo-book evangelism and and general appearing, it sometimes escapes one’s memory that Parr sees the medium as a classicist would: a democratic and accessible medium that can have a place in the gallery (though it’s always better in a book), but only on its own terms. He is medium-specific all over. This is reflected in the concept and selection for ‘Strange and Familiar’ . The show is about a set of non-British photographers documenting a reality outside, in this case the British Public an British Places, using a generally straightforward approach in so doing. This is the kind of image-making most people can understand, and is no less important for that. As such this show at the Barbican, like the wonderful ‘Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s’ in 2012 and the excellent ‘Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age’ form last year, is a generous endeavour designed for as much for pleasure as much as education. And it is enjoyable, there’s just so much of it!
‘Strange and Familiar’ charts a chronological course through a selection of photographers whose approach to documenting the UK is varied and often nuanced. Social class is of concern to many of those in the Forties and Fifties. Edith Tudor-Hart, a one time soviet agent and committed communist, charts the poverty of the working classes before and during the war with humanity and compassion. Robert Frank’s beautiful ‘London/Wales’, in which he juxtaposes shots of bowler hat wearing London city-boys with images of miners from a struggling Welsh village colliery in Caerau. The images of the bankers roaming the fog-shadowed streets are from the heart of darkness.
Strange and Familiar: Britain as revealed by international photographers Edith Tudor-Hart. Kensal House, London ca. 1938 © Edith Tudor-Hart / National Galleries of Scotland
Later, Cas Oorthuys is delightful discovery. Documenting the idiosyncrasies of the British in public (a Parr influence perhaps) for his highly successful pocket travel book series, ‘This is’.
Orthuys’s image are simunltaneously deadpan and engaged. Canonical photographers like Paul Strand, Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson and Gary Winnogrand feature throughout, some of whom document the sixties with predictable verve.
Strange and Familiar: Britain as revealed by international photographers Cas Oorthuys London, 1953 © Cas Oorthuys / Nederlands Fotomuseum
But the real curatorial coup is Parr’s bringing to the light of Raymond Depardon’s Glasgow series from early 80’s. Commissioned by the Sunday Times Magazine in 1980, the work was deemed too grim to publish. Shot on Kodachrome, these images are indeed muted, dark even, but occasional splashes of colour, set back against charcoal grey buildings and the dirt and the squalour, provide glimmers of warmth and compassion. Depardon’s observational sensitivity is suited to this landscape, one in which the streets seem run by children, their mothers and the occasional alcoholic their only encumbrance.
(See Top Photo)
Raymond Depardon, From the series Glasgow, 1980, All works Kodachrome Film 64, digital intermediate, chromogenic print Courtesy of the artist.
There is other excellent work from the 80’s.Images from Axel Hütte’s ‘London’, in which he documents the interior communal spaces of London’s council estates and tower blocks, using a ‘Dusseldorf’ typology/topography are far more interesting than this description would imply. Jim Dow’s ‘Corner Shops of Britain’, inspired by Napoleon’s oft quoted put down of the British, are rich and sumptuous colour explorations of a very culturally specific, vernacular interior design aesthetic
All along the trajectory of the exhibition are cabinets housing many of the vintage photo-books that feature the work on the walls, as well as many others. There is even a temporary space, Reading Room, in which weary visitors can rest their feet by looking at even more pictures. The books in cabinets are too much and seem mostly ignored. Indeed there is too much work altogether. Parr wants us to see as much as he we can, but the impact of the overall conceit would have been more powerful had there been some more curatorial restraint. One is exhausted by the end, but transported nonetheless.
This is also true of ‘Performing for the Camera’ , which is almost absurdly over-populated. The press release states that there are 500 images, but for this reviewer it felt like much more. Indeed there is too much to describe without getting dissertation length. Breaking the title’s propositions into different approaches over several rooms, there is much great work to be admired, but it gets lost in the multicisitude.
Part of the problem, and herein lies my bias, is that so much of the work is based on either an affinity for performance art or an appreciation of photographers engaging with notions of self-representation. There is so much female nudity on display that I was considering celibacy by the time I reached the exit doors. If this is your thing you will probably love this show, and relish its comprehension, but if you don’t it’s exhausting as well as exhaustive. Furthermore, the whole exhibition feels more like a lesson than journey, concerned as it is to so often promote the importance of all the work on display
From a more objective standpoint, however, the premise of this exhibition is also problematic. There is an important distinction to be made between documenting performances and performing for the camera that when ignored belittles both practices. Both genres could have easily merited shows of their own, but when juxtaposed are jarred and fragmentary. Moreover, there is a seeming reticence to explore some of the more contemporary explorations of the concept of performance rather than representation. Indeed, much of the contemporary work is relegated to the last room. It’s almost ironic that after viewing hundred of images, Instagram artist Amalia Ulman gets only 3 images on the wall (malfunctioning ipads are provided).
Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014),(#itsjustdifferent) 2015, Courtesy the Artist & Arcadia Missa
There is nevertheless a lot of great work here. Seminals like Lee Friedlander’s ongoing ‘ Auto-Portraits series, Cindy Sherman’s ‘ Untitled Film Stills’ and Erwin Wurm’s One-minute Sculptures’ are amongst many others on display here. Two Masahisa Fukase projects (Baker is a great champion of Japanese photography) ‘Bukubuku (Bubbling) 1991’, in which he photographs himself in various guises in the bath, and the really wonderful ‘From Window 1974’ in which he photographed his wife leaving for work from their apartment window every morning, are both exceptional. Other discoveries are Boris Mikhailov’s comical self-portraits and the very wry Rock Star (character appropriation) – 1974 by David Lamelas.
From Window 1974 © Masahisa Fukase Archives. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.
Overall, here are two shows by two photo-men who are keen to show the public what they know, what they love and what they think the public should love too. Both have too much work and both are less forward looking than they could be, but it would be hard to fault their intentions on a general level. For us photo folk they are preaching to the converted, and maybe that’s the way it should be.
‘Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers’ at the Barbican until 19 June 2016
‘Performing for the Camera’ at Tate Britain until 12 June 2016
Words: Kerim Aytac Photos courtesy Tate/Brabica/the artists