Saturday, 19 November 2011

Don McCullin War and Landscapes

  Two exhibitions running concurrently in London provide an excellent overview of the work of Don McCullin. At the Imperial War Museum, Shaped by War lays out his conflict photography thoroughly and towards the end touches on other aspects of his career. At Hamiltons Gallery "Platinum" focuses on his post-conflict work, a collection of landscapes, still lifes, architectural pieces and African tribes beautifully printed for the first time using the platinum process.

  Don McCullin is famous for his war photography and in Shaped by War we follow his path around the world and the different conflicts and countries he visited. He was young and driven and showed a restlessness whenever he returned to the offices of the Sunday Times. He was happiest with his trusted kit on a plane off to do what he did best. It was non stop – Vietnam, Cambodia, Biafra, Bangladesh, The Middle East, El Salvador. He was also lucky, many of his colleagues were killed especially in the Far East. McCullin took a round in Vietnam but his loyal camera took the force and he largely escaped injury. Apart from falling through a roof in El Salvador after which he was hospitalised, the physical injuries were light.
As the demands of newspapers and magazines changed, editorial decisions were beginning to weigh against McCullin, he found stories were delayed in publication, he threatened to quit and eventually the magazine parted ways with one of their greatest photographers. McCullin had time to ponder and as he did so his past started to catch up with him. Mental scars that up to then had remained hidden emerged. Bereavement, relationship breakdowns and the suffering he had seen all combined to leave McCullin exposed and mentally frail. He wrote in the last paragraph of his autobiography “I’m alone in my house in Somerset. The ghosts in my filing cabinets sometimes seem to mock me – the ghosts of all those dead in all those wars” The demons in his head needed exorcising and it was through photography that process began. Venturing out of his cottage with a camera he photographed the English landscape and it is through this work we can see those ghosts and his mind processing the past, the present and perhaps his future. He also found familiarity with the landscape at Hadrian's Wall and at the battlefields of France, photographs which placed war in context of history and memory.

The Battlefields of the Somme, France 2000. Photography by Don McCullin. Courtesy of Hamiltons Gallery.
There are echoes of other worlds and other peoples in his Somerset photographs. Water filled ditches, mangled trees and thick vegetation act as a backdrop which mirrors what he saw in Vietnam and Cambodia. The fields are shrouded in greyness, melancholy and a pervading timelessness which tries to see a way forward through the mist of painful memories. 

Shaped by War at the Imperial War Museum until 5th April 2012.
Platinum at Hamiltons Gallery until 29th November 2011.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

White Cube Bermondsey and Art Gallery Design in 2011.

The White Cube in Bermondsey is now open and has placed itself firmly on the map of Arts Institutions in the capital. It has placed itself self-conciously in South London marking itself as still at the cutting edge in terms of location and attempting to stay close to the creative roots of emerging artists. However it is not far from Tate Modern and in this respect these two have far more in common. 

White Cube, Bermondsey. Photo by Ed Sykes.

A multi million pound development by architects Casper Mueller Kneer fits perfectly to the brief of a serious gallery providing the ultimate viewing context. Of course it is the White Cube so maybe there was no chance it would stray from the description. It is a sterile environment, akin to a laboratory or a Formula 1 research space. It is cool, very cool and one expects people in white coats to appear from non existent doors with clipboards. They probably would be checking that all the boxes had been ticked in the completition of a contemporary art gallery. Instead there is a small army of black clad curators standing around immobile. ( This could be a new Ron Muerk installation of course) When I visited there were more curators looking at me than there were people looking at the art on the walls. It was Big Brother meets Stanley Kubricks 2001 (updated 2011)

Saatchi Gallery, Boundary Road, London. Photo by Ed Sykes.

Déjà vu. Saatchi Gallery 20 years ago had a lot of white and the only development since there has been the incorporation of a grey concrete floor.  So there you have it the ultimate experience in viewing art with nothing to distract you. It is hermetically sealed and devoid of contact with the outside world but galleries do not have to be this way. Indeed there are plenty of examples around the world where location and context have been used imaginatively. Martin Caiger Smith wrote an excellent article about this in Architecture Today. There are curators and architects who have embraced the challenge and indeed the potential for showing artworks in a new context can at times be thrilling and revealing, not only for the viewer but for the artist themselves.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Rothko at Whitechapel Gallery in photographs.

In 1961 the Whitechapel Gallery held a ground breaking exhibition of Rothko’s paintings. Following a Jackson Pollock exhibition in 1958 at the same gallery the effect on art in Britain was profound. Sandra Lousada captured the mood in a series of mostly black and white photographs as the public absorbed the new world of Abstract Expressionism. The Whitechapel Gallery currently has a room dedicated to examining the exhibition in photographs, letters and other documents. There is also one large Rothko – Light Red over Black, 1957

After visiting the frenzy of Frieze Art Fair 2011 at Regent’s Park the photographs of the original Rothko exhibition show a slight shock and quiet reverence towards the canvases.

Until 26th February 2012, Whitechapel Gallery, E1.

Photograph by Sandra Lousada.

Photograph by Sandra Lousada.

Photograph by Sandra Lousada.

Photograph by Sandra Lousada.

Photograph by Sandra Lousada.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Art, Sculpture and Film at Frieze Art Fair 2011

Amongst the huge amount of work on display one piece stood out for me. At the Frith Street Gallery was Cornelia Parker’s 30 Pieces of Silver (With Reflection), 2003 . A beautiful, thought provoking and quite mesmerising work. The metamorphosis of the pieces after the have been crushed flat was fascinating as they were side by side with the original. The whole piece floats mid air like a giant Madhatters Tea Party without the guests.

A close second was a film by Ben Rivers called This Is My Land, 2006 following a hermit like man who lives in a forest. Shot in black and white with many scenes covered in deep snow there is a stillness  and sensitivity which pervades. The sound echoes this, with each crunch of a footstep in the snow. The film has a meditiative effect and shown in a small roughly built shed was an oasis of calm amongst all the go-getters of the artworld preening and schmoozing outside.

Properly outside was the Sculpture Park which was open to the public and felt relaxed compared to the uptight nature of 173 galleries squeezed together in a giant marquee. An opportunity for everyone to wander, sit and appreciate art in the open.

Circle Dance 201 by Tom Friedman (Stephen Friedman Gallery)
Seer (Alice 11) 2005 by Kiki Smith (Timothy Taylor Gallery)

Icon 2011 by Will Ryman (Paul Kasmin Gallery)

Photography at Frieze Art Fair London 2011

Photography at Frieze Art Fair is represented by some major galleries but in terms of quantity it is fairly low amongst the huge amount of art on display. There is photography exhibited by galleries based in Eastern Europe, Russia and India but overall the quality is uneven and it is the household names in the art world who dominate.

Andreas Gursky exhibits at Spruth Magers showing Dubai World 111, 2008. It has the hallmark of other Gursky work, large in scale, big on statement. It represents mans desire to recreate the landscape but at the same time recreate the world. It’s the type of work well suite dto a world where money washes around but the current climate of economic downturn calls for a different approach. As an artist it will be interesting to see where he goes next, having nailed his colours firmly to the mast of capitalist imagery full of consumption on a huge scale.

Dubai World 111, 2008. Andreas Gursky.

In contrast the work of Wolfgang Tillmans deals with phtography in a quieter, smaller way that feels more relevant and contemporary. Abstract work is represented here by Freischwimmer 190, at Maureen Paley, an image created in the darkroom full of poetry, mystery and also a lurking darkness that remains unknown and unresolved. Two more traditional photographs are exhibited at Galeria Juana de Aizpuru. In Flight Astro 11, 2010 merges the graininess and texture of film and pixellated nature of stars and constellation which together creates a surface pattern that shows both seamlessly linked together in union. Sunset Reflected, 2007 is straightforward enough but mixes darkness with Autumn melancholy and finally bright cloud – almost three landscapes within one, unsure of what they are meant to be.

In Flight Astro 11, 2010 (left) Sunset Reflected, 2007 (right)

Five black and white Robert Mapplethorpe prints were a delight to see. Marcus, 1978 and Peter Berlin, 1976 are beautifully sensitive portraits of young men full of vulnerability and honesty. Knowing how the community was going to be devastated by the AIDS epidemic makes them even more poignant. Haunting. 

Peter Berlin, 1976. Robert Mapplethorpe.

At a similar time Nan Goldin was in New York photographing the life of Cookie Mueller following her slow demise as an actress addicted to heroin. A series of 15 images claws away at her mask of hair and make up as she resists the surgical questions of the camera. It’s a battle she finally lost in April 1989. The work of these two artists reaffirms the strenth of photography to document but also to probe, question and reveal. Maybe it’s the work of people such as Mapplethorpe and Goldin who point us in the direction that art photography will go in the next few years. After years of being grand and oversized maybe it’s time to be intimate and personal again.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Early Photoform

Copyright : Ed Sykes 2008
One of the first Photoforms I did. Somewhere between 30-45 second exposure.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Taryn Simon at Tate Modern

The art worlds most talked about contemporary photographer Taryn Simon has cemented her status with a solo show at Tate Modern. Represented by the Gagosian Gallery and with a wealth of useful connections Simon threatens to put photography once again in the public eye.
This show however will come as a disappointment to many people who know what to expect from “great photography” and prefer an artform that is accessible and less likely to challenge them. Recent fine art photography has been large in scale and predominantly single image, such as the work of Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, which is easily understood. What Simon does in her work by contrast is to isolate subjects from their surroundings and bring a deep level of reinterpretation to what is at first glance a straightforward set of circumstances. She choses a difficult path. Her work involves not just months but years of preparation and the results are not easy for the viewer. The casual visitor to her show will be ill- prepared after meandering through galleries of easy viewing.

Each work is set out as a grid of images - each related to one another. The multiplicity has a numbing effect but it lulls you into a false sense of security. People are connected by bloodline,  even animals, in this case seemingly identical rabbits in different positions. The grids are democratic, symmetrical, unremarkable, the portraits straightforward – it is a direct challenge to power we associate with a photograph on a gallery wall. But…there is always more, a story, a link, a connection, a moment that has bound these people these images together.

Babloo Yadav, aged circa 11/12, and Mukesh Yadav, c10/11, of Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, India.  Copyright: Taryn Simon

I was fascinated by the series of relatives from a Lebanese sect who believe in reincarnation. The fact that the same person reappears time and time again due to this belief system is mundane visually but the repetition has real meaning here, this is image reproduction which baffles the mind. How could this person be the son and the father to his own father? In this context a duplicated image confuses and distorts the normal associations we have of multiple images.
There are complex ideas here at work which is the hallmark of Simons approach. She seems to revel in the threads, meanings, associations beyond the straight photograph. Her concern to establish a real depth actually pushes her further wawy from her role as a photographer. Only recently she declared “I think I”ve just gotten tired of photography in a way and am trying to use it as a simple recorder..” (Observer 22/5/11 Sean O'Hagan article)
In stripping away any embellishments in her photography she seems to be saying this is all photography is, nothing more and there is far more interest beyond the image. The image, the print, the object has become purely a starting point, a window to a subject. She is constantly questioning the validity of photography and the conclusion in this exhibition is that it is bordering on the meaningless. The grids where portraits are missing, because someone has died or has disappeared, appear to have the real power here. Simon perversly celebrates the empty space, and the narrative that it provides.
Simons progression as an artist one imagines could lead to her discarding photography altogether. To some people that may be no great loss, but her rigorous questioning and interrogation of a medium that we happily accept provides us with a real depth and intelligence often lacking in art photography today.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Poster from 2008 exhibition

One of my screenprint posters with stencilled vinyl from Somebody Anybody at Exposure Gallery, London. This one was requested recently but few remain as most of them were used for promotional purposes - ending up on lamposts around the West End. Surprisingly some lasted nearly a year before disappearing. I wonder who took them...

Monday, 12 September 2011

Thomas Struth at Whitechapel Gallery

As the third in a series of photography exhibitions at the Whitechapel, Thomas Struth's exhibition impresses straight away. Two huge prints welcome the visitor - Audience 06 and Audience 01 are both scenes from an unnamed Florence museum. It is a comment on the art lover that greets the art lover here as they arrive. It shows people gazing in a large space at an artwork out of the photographic frame. It is typical of a large body of Struths work showing people in large spaces, against large manmade backdrops often with  religious backdrops. There is a wow factor here in the size of the print, the scale of the building and astonishment on some faces.. Is there more to it?

Audience 01, Florence 2004

Curiously some of his early work in black and white showing mostly deserted streetscenes holds more meaning and mystery. Maybe the historical context adds weight and interest as most of the photographs are from the early 1980s. They are much smaller but have a quiet impact that implies a living breathing fabric to the architecture of the city.

Crosby Strret, New York/Soho, 1978

Struth chooses to make singular statements with his photographs. There is a sense that each is a singular comment and this probably has come from his clear objectivity that he has always used. To show scenes “as they are” and without embellishment is an approach straight from the German school of Bernd and Hilla Becher which found favour in other artists such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth and Candida Hoffer. There are critics of this approach including Paul Graham (whose exhibit preceded this one coincidentally) who is more of a fan of a different approach by the German Michael Schmidt. Graham prefers bodies of work where images build to make a more coherent statement than the powerful shot delivered to impress.
Struths family portraits retain a powerful understatement that is sometimes missing in the large scale single statement photographs. One feels different characters within a group, who cling to individuality but whose identity and connectivity cannot be ignored. A sense of the unmentioned pervades, the family secret not yet told. I was surprised how this series grabbed me.

The Ma Family, Shanghai. 1996.

Overall a strangely uneven show, but nevertheless with many points of interest for viewers with different tastes in the subtleties of photography.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century (Royal Academy)

Hungarian Photography  is presented in this exhibition as being highly influential and it certainly does reveal a golden age in which its photographic talents flourished and provided different genres of photography with some world class imagery. The photographers who grab the limelight are Brassai, Capa, Kertesz, Munkacsi and Moholy-Nagy

 However for those familiar with their work it is a joy to see more work by the lesser known lights such as Karoly Escher. Bank manager at the baths,1938 is one of his better known works but there are many here that match the quality of the headliners. He elected to stay in Hungary, so whereas the others enhanced their reputations abroad Escher remained at home using his camera to explore radical viewpoints, shadows, silhouettes and also the challenges of capturing movement.

Bank manager at the baths, 1938 Photographer Karoly Escher

The two photographers who had perhaps the longest lasting effect on their particular genres were Munkacsi and Moholy-Nagy. Four boys at Lake Tanganyika, 1930 by Munkacsi was admired by Henri Cartier Bresson. “It is that very photograph which was for me the spark that set fire to is only that one photograph that influences me”. Indeed the movement he captured was translated into his fashion work were it was hailed as groundbreaking freeing the world of fashion from the studio into the outdoors.

Four boys at Lake Tanganyika, 1938. Photographer Martin Munkacsi

Moholy-Nagy was perhaps more of a maverick although he started in much the same vein as the others. He slowly became absorbed by form and abstraction in the world around him until the point where he turned to the darkroom to develop his vision. His photograms, montages and solarisations are masterworks striking out in a new direction. He was associated with the Bauhaus and became a teacher and designer. At one point he lived in London as a design consultant for Simpsons and even worked with the film director Alexander Korda.

The later 20th century works suffer by comparison with the golden age photographers emphasising a unique time in the development of a group of extraordinary visionaries.

It is refreshing to find a major art institution such as the |Royal Academy curating a photography show although why it should be unusual is a valid question. Certainly in other cities such as Paris or New York it would not be such a big deal. Photography remains segregated in this country and it needs influential people like  Charles Saumarez Smith to help it join the mainstream in galleries and museums.

Royal Academy, London W1 until 2nd October 2011

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Vivian Maier

I am particularly excited about seeing the work of Vivian Maier at the London Street Photography Festival

London Street Photography Festival

Here is something well worth checking out. A variety of photographers and shows to suit different tastes.

Currently at various venues across London,

David Peat undiscovered phtographs

 I have not come across this photographer before but its always a joy to see people unearthing photographs that have not seen the light of day

Monday, 20 June 2011

Vortographs at Tate Britain

Alvin Langdon Coburn is  widely regarded as having produced the worlds first completely abstract photographs. His Vortographs displayed amongst The Vorticists show at Tate Britain are only a small part of his output as a photographer but are hugely significant.
Alvin Langdon Coburn is known as a key figure in the development of American pictorialism and  was a successful photographer famous for his portraits of the great and good. His book – Men of Mark 1913 included artists and statesmen from Europe and America including Roosevelt and Matisse. In New York he became pre-occupied with photographs of soaring buildings and new metropolitan vistas. His photograph The Octopus, New York 1912 is the urban view made abstract in this case a park shot from an elevated position, something that was easy to do in the new modern architecture of Manhattan. Indeed this type of change in approach was increasingly interesting Coburn.
“Why should not the camera throw off the shackles of conventional represenatation and attempt something fresh and untried?.....Why should not perspective be studied from angles hitherto neglected or unobserved.”

Vortograph 1917. Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film.

When Coburn met Ezra Pound in London they began collaborating and began with a portrait of Ezra using multiple exposures. (Thr results he described as “Cubist”) This process moved forward rapidly and soon Pound said “Coburn and I have invented Vortography. The idea is one no longer need photograph what is in front of the camera but can use ones element of design.”
They produced these ground breaking photographs using an combination of three mirrors fastened together in the form of a triangle attached to the front of the lens. The objects he photographed were usually bits of wood and crystal.
The work was completed in 1916 and eighteen Vortographs were exhibited at the Camera Club in London in January 1917. The reaction was less than rapturous indeed it was mostly one of bewilderment and perplexity. Not surprising considering photography was still in its formative years and Vortographs would have broken a mould.
Coburns career subsequently slowly declined until the point where photography played little part in it. Coburn turned to mysticism and spirituality and Vortographs marked for him an increasing occupation with the interior world. In the history of photography they mark the beginning of a new chapter . 

P.S. Observer article 19th June - Review of exhibition yet no mention of Vortographs in a long article. Disappointing.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

A Hidden Camera

A long, long time ago I did a project on the underground using a hidden camera.
I used a Rolleicord from college and made a box for it with two holes - one for the lens and one for my finger to access the shutter release. I used Kodak Tri x 120 pushed 2 or 3 stops and pre focused the lens to 3.5 or 4 foot. I seem to remember most exposures were 1/8th sec at f8. All I had to do was sit opposite a passenger and wait for the right moment.

Sunday Best. Central line, London  Copyright Ed Sykes.

I was a little nervous - for fear of being rumbled. Nowadays if I was "discovered" by the authorities I am sure the police would take a great interest in my work and interview me and not just because they are keen amateur photographers!
Anyway it was laborious work as I could not wind the film on and had to get off the tube, sit down on the platform, open the box,  take the camera out,  wind the film on and start all over again.
It was hit and miss but strangely rewarding in that old fashioned - I wonder if it came out? way. I am not sure what inspired me but I do remember seeing Walker Evans photos from the New York subway at some stage. His photographs shot over three years in the 1930s were published in Many Are Called
a book which was first published in 1966 and was reissued in 2004.

Nun in thought. London Underground  Copyright Ed Sykes

Sunday, 12 June 2011

London Street Photography - Museum of London

A collection of over 200 images covering street photography from 1860 to the present day. It is fascinating for a couple of reasons - firstly as an historical document of London the photographs chart the changes in architecture, fashion, transport and various social mores. Secondly it shows the development of camera technology and its relationship to the type of street photographs that were and are now possible.
Much has changed from the days of heavy plate cameras and long exposures to the instant gratification of a digital screen nowadays. Despite digital advances the birth of faster film and faster shutter speeds was possibly the greatest seachange. It allowed the blurred human figure to be made solid – and attention was moved away from buildings and static form to the elusive. Indeed the fleeting moment – a glance or a gesture - was captured easily for the first time on 35mm film.

Photograph by Paul Trevor

The work of Roger Mayne in Notting Hill showed streetlife in raw form – curious, threatening and joyful - one of the exhibition highlights. The range of subjects captured included increasing political tensions in the East End with Paul Trevor's work or in west London with the Notting Hill riots. The camera became more of a mouthpiece not merely recording but finding something to say.
The contemporary street photographers continue that tradition – commenting with humour and a touch of sarcasm. The work of Matt Stuart and Nick Turpin go heavily into the absurd using the street as a stage to enjoy the irony of juxtaposition.
This time it reflects the commercialisation of the streetscape but despite this the human condition pervades.
Worth seeing.

Until 4th September. Museum of London. Admission free.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Forthcoming exhibitions plus recommendations

In the next few weeks there are a number of major photographic shows which I will be reviewing;

Vorticism (part photography) Tate Britain (14th June-4th September)
Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in 20th Century, Royal Academy (30th June-2nd October)
Thomas Struth, Whitechapel Gallery (6 July - 16th September)
Taryn Simon, Tate Modern (25th May-6th November)

Current recommendations;

Paul Graham: Photographs 1981-2006 Whitechapel Gallery (until 19th June)
Essential viewing. A leading light in contemporary photography.

Norfolk+Burke: Photographs from the war in Afganhistan. Tate Modern (until 10th July)
A thought provoking show and a welcome antidote to the usual coverage of this conflict.

Photoform on film

Photoforms is an ongoing project that I have done since 2007 working with extended exposures and manipulating light. This has been mostly shot digitally as it takes much experimentation to achieve the right result. I did however shoot some on film too, more costly, more painstaking but with equal reward. (If not more - but that is a debate for another time) The subtlety of the colour I find has greater resonance.

Copyright: Ed Sykes

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Two landscapes transformed

I came across the work of Clement Valla recently which includes “Bridges”
a project which manipulates computer software to create completely changed landscapes.

Postcards from google Earth, Bridges 2010 by Clement Valla
Valla noticed a bug in Google Earth 3D view which failed to recognise the integrity of bridges and continued rendering them using the altitude of the ground below. The result is an earthquake affected landscape on screen. At the flick of a switch technology creates a new art - an avenue that will be exploited more and more to blur the lines between fact and fiction.

Postcards from Google Earth, Bridges 2010 by Clement Valla.

If Vallas work is maximum result for minimum effort then the work of Francis Alys turns that upside down. Faith Moves Mountains (2002) is similarly landscape transformed but using human effort rather than computer technology. At the foot of a giant sand dune near Lima 500 volunteers were supplied with shovels and moved a sixteen hundred foot long monument of sand about four inches from its original position.

Still from When Faith Moves Mountains 2002 In collaboration with Cuauhtemoc Medina and Rafael Ortega. Courtesy of David Zwirner, NY

Still from When Faith Moves Mountains 2002 In collaboration with Cuauhtemoc Medina and Rafael Ortega. Courtesy of David Zwirner, NY

An extraordinary scale of vision although the intention was merely to seek an understanding of myth and the imprint left in peoples minds. The contrast in the actions and the finished object left is relevant to both artists but fascinating to see two approaches which could be described as being at two ends of the same scale.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Camera Obscura

 Camera Obscura means darkened room and has been around for far longer than our modern day equivalent. Although first built by an Iraqi scientist known as Alhacen (965-1039AD) the principle behind it had been known to scholars since the time of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Once it became portable, in a box with a lens on the front, it developed a following amongst painters of the 17th century including Vermeer and Canaletto who used it as a drawing aid. (Nowadays some artists use a projector for the same purpose) From there of course the art of photography was born when paper and metal plates were added.

View of Central Park looking north, Fall 2008. Photograph by Abelardo Morell.
Fast forward to today and an article in National Geographic showing the work of Abelardo Morell who began a journey with the camera obscura over 20 years ago.  Since then he has moved from black and white to colour, analogue to digital and upside down to our way of seeing. Originally using a darkened room to project images he now uses a floorless tent and has started working in parks and streets. Fascinating.

Tent camera image on ground, View of Jordan Pond and the Bubble mountains, acadia National Park, Maine,
March 2010 Photograph by Abelardo Morell

Upright image of the Piazetta San Marco looking south east in office, Venice, Italy 2006
Photograph by Abelardo Morell
 Another artist who has been working for years with Camera Obscura photographs is Vera Lutter. (Recently exhibited at Gagosian, W1) Her approach results in large black and white images produced in negative form usually of cityscapes and monumental structures. Her Gagosian show concentrated on her work in Egypt.

 © Vera Lutter
Chephren and Cheops Pyramids, Giza: April 12, 2010, 2010
Unique Silver Gelatin Print
14 3/8 x 21 1/8 inches
36.5 x 53.7cm

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Imagined landscape

Copyright: Ed Sykes

This is from a new imagined landscape series. At the end of last year I spent a couple of days at Portland Bill lugging a 5/4 camera along the cliff tops. More to come..

Paul Graham exhibition. A reappraisal

The work of Paul Graham emerged in the mid 80s when I was at college and along with the work of Martin Parr heavily influenced a new approach to photography. Rejecting a serious black and white photographic tradition they tore a fresh colour perspective into a narrow and staid photographic world. They were revolutionaries in a new colour documentary vision which created an alternative to an artform still stuck in the 60s and 70s.
The Whitechapel Gallery show is startling for a number of reasons. Firstly looking at Grahams early work from A1-The Great North Road , Beyond Caring and Troubled Land one realises how unrevolutionary the work looks now. That is because as an artform photography has evolved hugely in the last 25 years and it is due to photographers such as Paul Graham. Secondly as one of the most important British photographers of his generation  this show emphasises how overlooked his work has been in this country.
Documentary photography was a label fitting for Grahams 80s subject matter. Beyond Caring feels like a social commentary on Thatchers Britain but amongst the broken figures in the DHSS offices it is the backdrop of posters and the worn walls that says even more about the boredom and the lost hope. On the A1 series we are swamped by the ordinariness of life on the road. The camera retreats to the service station or the café to examine how time stands still . 

Photograph by Paul Graham

In Bus Converted to Café, 1982 the road is reduced to a background drone so we can only imagine the cars passing beyond the misted up windows. Time has stood still inside but beyond there is something going on.
 In fact what Graham ignores is as important as what lies inside the frame. At Interior Rainton Servives 1981 the interior fixtures become even more important than the people. A breeze catches the curtain to the kitchen and suggests movement and life beyond.

This an approach Graham returns to in Troubled Land. In Roundabout, Andersontown, Belfast 1984 the street furniture is littered with impact, broken kerb stones, a missing streetlight and an army patrol leaving the frame. It is the scars in the cityscape that provide the understanding, not the men in uniform. The approach may be understated but the intention is not. If Robert Capa urged photographers to get closer to their subject matter Graham drastically reverses the notion.

Photograph by Paul Graham

Indeed in Paint on Road, Derry 1985  the only clues to a troubled land lie in the road. Small smears and patches of coloured paint. Suddenly everything else develops more meaning – a bundle of dumped rags at  the side of the frame and a school mid distance. Executions, dumped bodies, violence and divided communities emerge from the fabric of the landscape. It is ominous, threatening and as powerful an image as that of a petrol bomb being thrown in  anger. A sign at the side of the road reads Welcome to Derry.

Figures are more prominent in his series End of an Age 1996-97. Portraits of partygoers isolated against walls and in corridors are suspended in a no mans land. Between rooms of booming music and throngs of people they seem still and calm but unsure of their next move - caught between time past and time ahead. Again what is out of the frame or merely hinted at is as vital to the narrative as what has been included.

Photograph by Paul Graham

Although Grahams early work was documentary-driven his approach was evolving even further away from the label he was first given. The Whitechapel show effectively announces Graham as an artist rather than a documentary photographer. The range of his projects shows a restlessness and constant dialogue with the constraints of the photographic medium. “It has steadily become less important to me that the photographs are about something in the most obvious way. I am interested in more nebulous and more elusive subject matter. The photography I most respect pulls something out of the ether of nothingness." (Sean Ohagan article, Observer)

His latest work in America (where he moved to in 2002) stares straight into that nothingness. His American Night bleached out landscapes were inspired by the southern sunlight hitting him as he emerged from the movie theater and give little away. The clues that littered his early work have been reduced to ghostly smudges and shapes. They are challenging images and even prompted some sellers to return copies of their print runs convinced they were botched. They contrast with the pin sharp photographs of suburban housing - one set of  images is literally almost invisible to the other. The underlying social and political themes continue to eloquently underlie his work.

Photograph by Paul Graham

If the everyday and ordinariness of life have always had a grip on Graham it is the otherness of photography that he continually returns to. A Shimmer of Possibility is a series of short visual stories based around common scenes. Texas 2005 (Pepsi Walkers) follows a couple walking with their shopping in a strip cartoon style storyboard. It defies the concept of Cartier Bressons “decisive moment” and questions what a moment is and how we could ever pretend to capture it. Indeed what makes one moment more important than another? In some ways Graham has decided to stop trying to find answers in his photographs but to instead layer them with deeper questions.

When I look back on Grahams early work  I remember how dull and ordinary it seemed at the time. My reaction was based on my preconceptions of photography as a viewer. I expected good photographs to come to me, to wow me , to move me and to at least make an effort. Graham throughout his career has taught people how to look at photographs,  in a different way, to search for clues and to ask difficult questions of photography and the way we look at and understrand the world around us. This is a  photographer who deserves proper recognition in this country and in our history of photography.

Paul Graham: Photographs 1981-2006 until 19th June at the Whitechapel Gallery.

P.S. Just to mention coming straight after the John Stezaker exhibition it is refreshing to see a major gallery such as the Whitechapel curating two photography shows one after another.