Georgia O’Keeffe @ Tate Modern

Georgia O’Keeffe lived a long and fruitful life, from 1887 to 1986, dying aged 98. She is, according to the exhibition blurb, a ‘foundational figure within the history of Modernism in the United States’. This is an appropriately big exhibition, filling 14 rooms with works representing all periods of her career and covering all her major ‘themes’, taken in more or less chronological order. It also includes contemporary books and magazine articles about her, as well as the work of several of the major photographers she knew or worked with.

Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie's II by Georgia O’Keeffe (1930) Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II by Georgia O’Keeffe (1930) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Room 1. The early years O’Keeffe grew up on a farm in rural Wisconsin and knew she wanted to be an artist from an early age. She came to New York in 1907, studied with various teachers, and first exhibited in 1916, having her first solo show the following year. The early work includes many abstracts. She was experimenting with colour and line, influenced by her precocious reading of Kandinsky – she was one of the first readers of his classic Concerning the Spiritual in Art which was translated into English in 1914. And by the notion of synaesthesia – that music can be perceived as colour and vice versa.

She also made a number of drawings in charcoal, abstract swirls and flowing designs, which I found among the most compelling works in the show.

Room 2. Abstraction and the senses O’Keeffe lived in New York from the Great War till the Wall Street Crash (1929), experimenting with her own personal brand of abstraction and struggling to establish a name. The audio commentary emphasises from the start the struggle O’Keeffe had in a predominantly male art world. She hated being called a woman artist and rebelled against the criticisms and limitations of the male artists and critics of the day, especially those who deprecated watercolour as a soft, ‘woman’s’ medium. In fact she made lots of attractive, swirling, abstract watercolours.

Here in room 2 we meet an early crux of this issue of ‘gendered’ criticism, the painting she called Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow. Some critics at the time said it resembled a woman’s genitals, and used this ‘insight’ as a launch pad to discuss – and belittle – all her work in the same sexist terms, much to the artist’s anger and frustration. The audio commentary tells us that this ‘gendered’ interpretation was revived by a new wave of feminist artists and critics in the 1970s, who asserted these kinds of works were bold and innovative depictions of female sexuality.

To be honest, if the commentary hadn’t drummed home this line of interpretation, I don’t think it would have crossed my mind. But once it had been raised, and repeated a number of times, I found it harder to ‘forget’ that she was a woman artist. Particularly as O’Keeffe herself was quoted on the wall labels or on the audio commentary repeating her criticism of the male artists and critics of her time as bombastic, blinkered, limited and ignorant of ‘the real America’.

Room 3. O’Keeffe, Stieglitz and their circle In New York O’Keeffe fell passionately in love with the pioneering art photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). He was 54 and married, so she became his mistress until he finally managed to secure a divorce from his first wife and marry her.

Stieglitz was a well-established presence on the New York art scene, apparently single-handedly making photography into a respected art form, and he also ran galleries which promoted a range of other artists. This room contains a large number of his striking photos. He did a series of studies of clouds, grouped under the title of Equivalents which I found very attractive.

There are contemporary books by artists and writers he knew, manifestos and magazine articles, all conveying the artistic activity of the period. During this period Stieglitz also did a series of black and white studies of his lover, O’Keeffe, in all sorts of poses, close-ups of hands, of her face, wearing different clothes and costumes, with masks and props, as well as a series of striking nude studies. According to the commentary these are ‘the most important nudes in US art history’.

Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz (1918) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles ©The J. Paul Getty Trust

Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz (1918) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © The J. Paul Getty Trust

Stieglitz included the nudes in an exhibition of his photos in the early 1920s. Not surprisingly, for many critics and viewers O’Keeffe’s name became associated with these candid and striking photos of her naked body. There was a gap of a few years before she had the next exhibition of her paintings, whereupon the first thing critics and viewers associated her with was the nudes. A naked woman making paintings which look like vaginas – it is sad but true that O’Keeffe spent decades trying to throw off the limitations and gendered stereotypes which were created in these early years.

Room 4. New York cityscapes The 1920s were the Jazz Era and skyscrapers were going up all over New York, which became a byword for urban energy and excitement. O’Keeffe made lots of paintings trying to capture the energy and excitement of the city in bold vibrant colours. There are roughly two types of painting in this room. Much the more attractive are the stark blue and black night scenes:

Less interesting are the daytime scenes of the city, seen as a rather grey, smoky conurbation. These reminded me of the dreary the urban landscapes of L.S. Lowry who, as it happens, was born the same year as O’Keeffe.

Again the paintings are set against contemporary b&w photos of the city by Stieglitz and other art photographers. The best of her night pictures are more vivid than any of the photos.

Room 5. Lake George The Stieglitz family had a summer home near Lake George in upstate New York and room is devoted to paintings of the lake and the landscape and the house.

By this, the fifth room, I was beginning to get a feel for the variety of subject matter in O’Keeffe’s work, and for her tendency to make the subjects simpler and more colourful. But this room for the first time included works which seemed bland and under-powered. Looking back I realised the early abstracts are sort of nice but nowhere near as creative and fanciful as contemporary works in Europe by the likes of Kandinsky or Klee. The New York cityscapes are colourful, but lack the Modernist angularity of the European tradition. And now some of these lakeside paintings looked positively amateurish.

Room 6. Flowers and still lifes Room six is devoted to examples of her most famous subject, flowers. The commentary tells us that Jimson Weed (below) recently sold for $44 million, the highest price ever fetched by a ‘woman artist’ – before going on to tell us that the phrase ‘woman artist’ is one O’Keeffe herself would have angrily rejected. Why use it, then?

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 by Georgia O’Keeffe (1932) Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA. Photography by Edward C. Robison III © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 by Georgia O’Keeffe (1932) Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA. Photography by Edward C. Robison III © 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

But you can see why images like this or Oriental Poppies are so popular: big, striking, colourful and completely undemanding.

There is an obvious continuity of style between the gentle abstraction of Grey Lines, the simplified clouds in New York Street and the stylised leaves and washy blue background in Jimson. Simple design. Bold, though pastelly, colours.

However, although there are 20 or so canvases of flowers in this room, not many of them are as big or as striking as the two mentioned above. If you google “O’Keeffe flowers” you get hundreds of images – big, bright, wonderful pictures which could fill lots of rooms.

It was at this point that I began to suspect that the exhibition, though comprehensive in scope, maybe doesn’t include O’Keeffe’s best work.

Room 7. New Mexico: Taos and Alcalde Like many other artists, O’Keeffe discovered the American South-West in the 1930s. This room features her paintings of the bleak, arid, desert landscape, with its stark adobe churches and primitive settlements.

There is a bright simplicity to all these paintings, but I was unimpressed by the lack of energy or excitement in them, with their unadventurous composition and flat placid colouring.

The room features the work of contemporary photographers of the same landscape and subjects taken by her friends Paul Strand and Anselm Adams, which I found much more forceful, more angled, more highlighted and distinct and interesting.

Room 8. From the faraway, nearby: the skull paintings In the desert she found skeletons picked white and clean. She took to juxtaposing accurate depictions of the skulls of deer and other animals against her stylised landscapes. There’s a great quote, repeated in the commentary and on the wall, in which she belittles all the men she knew in New York who were talking about the ‘Great American’ this, that or the other, when none of them had even been across the Hudson River – whereas O’Keeffe saw herself as a pioneer, out in the desert, in touch with the ‘real’ America, discovering ‘the Great American things’.

All the skull paintings in this room are good, in an often surreal way (though she and the commentary deny she was ever a surrealist). But – I don’t really know why – none of them grabbed me or arrested my attention, made me think Wow!

Room 9. Ghost ranch The ‘ghost ranch’ was a real place, a ‘dude’ ranch where Easterners came out West to play at being cowboys. O’Keeffe came across it in 1934 and was entranced by the powerful views from it. She rented a house on the property from 1937, and bought it in 1940. This room contains paintings of the surrounding landscape.

Maybe it’s me but I began to find all these semi-abstract, simplified landscapes to be increasingly samey. The commentary describes her increasing interest in ‘seriality’, by which they mean doing paintings of the same subject over and over again. When does repetition topple over into repetitiveness?

Room 10. The black place and the white place The commentary tries hard to convey to the listener the mystique O’Keeffe clearly felt for the hills and ranches and locations she painted. There was the ‘white place’, a stretch of limestone cliffs along the Chama River, and the ‘black place’, apparently a fold of black rock in some hills. But there’s not much to latch on to. The blandness of the names tells you something.

I also became aware of the lack of any people in the paintings, and the absence of any cultural reference. There’s nothing about the myths or legends of the local peoples (had they all been killed off by the time O’Keeffe settled there?) or pioneer tales of the white people who settled here.

In Hollywood this was the era of gripping films noirs, of big cities, wise guys, classy dames, noisy shoot outs. Of wide-finned automobiles and Coca Cola bottles. None of this whatsoever, nothing of contemporary American life, is in these paintings – which retail a landscape emptied and depopulated, bereft of any forms of organic life, no birds, no animals, no humans – nothing alive.

Instead – lots of series of more or less the same views.

Room 11. The series: Abiquiú patios, pelvis bones and cottonwood trees She worked more and more on ‘series’ of the same subject. In this room are examples from three series: the patio of a house, the blue desert sky seen through the hole in the pelvis bone of dead animals, and numerous versions of the local cottonwood trees.

The pelvis bones have a certain stark simplicity which quickly grows a little boring. I disliked the wishy-washy leaves and foliage of the trees series.

Room 12. The South-West According to the commentary, O’Keeffe’s ‘practice’ in the American Southwest involved ‘penetrating what it meant to find the essence of America’. Well, that essence seems to consist of desert landscapes emptied of all people. You could say it represents a wholesale and complete turning-her-back on the actual nature of American society in the 1930s (Great Depression), 1940s (Second World War), and 1950s (Cold War and atomic threat).

Instead, this room displays the series of paintings she made of ‘kachinas’, figurines of spirit beings which the local Indians carved in wood. But nothing anywhere of the actual Indians.

Room 13. Late abstractions and skyscapes By the 1950s O’Keeffe was flying to and fro across the skies, as were increasingly wealthy Americans generally. On one flight, looking down on the great carpet of clouds below, it seemed to her almost as if she could open the plane door and step out onto a soft woolly carpet. As my son put it, ‘that must be one of the most unoriginal observations ever made’. She also noticed that, seen from a plane, landscapes often seem like abstract patterns. Not unlike her paintings. And so this room of late abstracts collects paintings based on these rather under-powered ‘insights’.

Thoughts

After initial interest I became steadily more underwhelmed by this big exhibition and, by the last few rooms, I was impatient for it to end. In the whole show I liked the Oriental Poppies and the Paul Strand and Anselm Adams’s b&w photographs of the South-West, and found almost everything else very ‘meh’.

Searching Google Images for many of the links above, I’ve been struck by how many of the paintings which show up in the search results are much more bright and interesting than anything in the show, especially the flower paintings. It’s just possible that, although the show is a very thorough overview of her entire career, many of the best paintings are in private hands or for one reason or another, simply not available.

That might explain why, although she may well be ‘a foundational figure within the history of Modernism in the United States’, not many of the individual works here really justified that large a claim.

Related links

Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

Paul Strand (1890 – 1976) is credited with being one of the century’s greatest photographers. This exhibition brings together 200 prints, shows three of the films he made, as well as some of the actual cameras he used, and several cases full of his published photobooks. It is probably as panoramic an overview of his career as you could achieve.

Strand started out in New York as a protégé of the great photographic pioneer Alfred Stieglitz and the first room shows him adopting Stieglitz’s ‘Pictorialism’, ie a consciously ‘artistic’ approach and ‘painterly’ use of composition. These include deliciously atmospheric portraits of old New York types from 1916 or so…

Blind Woman, New York by Paul Strand (1916) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Blind Woman, New York by Paul Strand (1916) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

… along with self-consciously arty still lifes and abstracts, turning modern life into geometry, fascinated by hard lines, diagonals, the sort of abstract shapes being explored in European painting.

Wall Street, New York by Paul Strand (1915) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Wall Street, New York by Paul Strand (1915) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

The show has a room set aside to watch his 1921 black and white silent movie, Manhatta, which has inter-titles from Walt Whitman’s poetry. A vivid if, after a while, slightly boring impression of a day in the life of old New York.

In the 1920s he bought a large-format camera which enabled him to create a whole new style of highly detailed nature studies. These very detailed close-up shots of natural forms – flowers, fungi, rocks, sand – were to remain a theme of his work to the end of his life. Highlights of this early phase include:

Another room is devoted to portraits of friends and artists in his circle. This started with his wife, Rebecca Salsbury – I was struck by her complete lack of make-up and stern demeanour. Compare and contrast with the super-glamorous magazine photos of the era or the work of Man Ray.

Rebecca by Paul Strand (1921) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Rebecca by Paul Strand (1921) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

The room has studies of his mentor Stieglitz as well as several of the very antiquated cameras that Strand actually used, standing on their heavy wooden tripods. In fact, his relationship with both Stieglitz and Rebecca eventually broke down, he left New York, and never returned to portraits of friends and family, for the rest of his career photographing strangers abroad.

The rest of the exhibition is divided into rooms each of which focus on one of the many foreign destinations he travelled to. He had an enviable range and soon settled into a pattern of travelling to a foreign country and generating a photobook from it, often with text commissioned from a contemporary writer.

The American South Like many writers and artists he was attracted to New Mexico and especially the desert settlement of Taos. Dark shadows cut like knives across white pablo buildings in the desert sun.

Canada He photographed fishing communities on the Newfoundland Coast.

Mexico In 1932 Strand moved to Mexico where he was commissioned by the government to help rebuild Mexican culture after the disruption of the revolution, by photographing Mexican life and people. It was during this period that he fully embraced Socialist politics, as so many other artists in the decade when the threat of Fascism darkened the skies.

Rock, Loch Eynort, South Uist, Hebrides by Paul Strand (1954) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Rock, Loch Eynort, South Uist, Hebrides by Paul Strand (1954) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Personally I didn’t like any of his Mexican photos. I always find it deeply patronising and hypocritical of white, wealthy, well-educated North American writers and artists to hop over the border and enjoy the poverty, violence, bleeding Jesus Catholicism and colourful fiestas of Mexican culture and then, when they’ve had enough, go back to their Californian swimming pools.

There are no end of sweet, big-eyed Mexican children or ‘authentic’ Mexican peasant women and tough unemployed loungers on the street, precisely the kind of subjects which make anyone who can point a camera feel like they’re getting in touch with ‘reality’ or ‘the human spirit’ or a ‘more authentic way of life’ etc.

There’s another dark room where visitors can watch a clip from The Wave, a Mexican-made movie he helped produce about a strike of poor fishermen, made in 1936, the year the Spanish Civil War broke out. What a terrifying period to live through, as shadows deepened all round the world.

The exhibition then jumps to a series of images shot in New England late in the Second World War, with no word of what Strand got up to during the war, and why he returned from Mexico to the States.

New England Tidy white interiors and church doors. This sequence included my favourite image from the show. I can’t find a larger image and this size doesn’t do justice to the tremendous granularity of this image of a farm door, and the simple but classical framing.

Vermont In 1943 he was in Vermont, taking the usual range of images of people, churches and classical buildings, and plants and flowers.

  • Jack-in-the-pulpit, Vermont

France In 1950 he went to see France which was still struggling to rebuild itself after the war. Photos of cafes, a drug store, the countryside, moustachioed peasants, and one of the two most striking, classic portraits from his entire oeuvre.

Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente, France by Paul Strand (1951) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente, France by Paul Strand (1951) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

The Hebrides 1954 found Strand visiting the Hebrides, specifically the island of South Uist. His attention had been caught by a BBC documentary which featured the beautiful singing of a sea shanty in Gaelic by Mrs Archie MacDonald who he tracked down and photographed. This set of photos is also featured in the exhibition of Britain as Revealed by International Photographers at the Barbican. Though the images here were good, I remember the selection at the Barbican as being distinctively better, more powerful and unique feeling.

Angus Peter MacIntyre, South Uist, Hebrides by Paul Strand (1954) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Angus Peter MacIntyre, South Uist, Hebrides by Paul Strand (1954) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

There were further sets of images from trips to Italy, Egypt and Morocco (1959), communist Romania (1960) and post-independence Ghana (1963), but a seed of doubt had been planted by the Hebrides images which was confirmed by the big display case showing 10 or a dozen of the large-format hardback photobooks which resulted from each of these trips.

The photobooks were open and in almost every instance, the pair of photos on the facing pages of each photobook was better than the prints hanging on the walls. For example the two shots in the book on Ghana were really striking, a portrait of a young black man and of some kind of oil refinery, both clear and bold, both better than the so-so images on the walls.

Why? The ones on the walls are good, but the ones in the books are consistently really good. Why?

Orgeval, France Strand finally left an America which was becoming increasingly paranoid in the Cold War and falling prey to the McCarthyite persecution of leftists and intellectuals. He settled in France, in a village called Orgeval, north-west of Paris, where he spent the last 27 years of his life. Here his third wife, fellow photographer Hazel Kingsbury Strand, created a wonderful garden and the final room is devoted to a selection of beautiful photos he took of its plants and flowers.

Summary

The exhibition presents a good case for Strand’s importance, for his longevity and the consistency of his achievement. But I was surprised that there are a lot of so-so images in the show, and not really that many that stand out, that leap out. Many have a very flat affect; there’s surprisingly little use of light and shade. Strand won’t be replacing Cartier-Bresson or Man Ray or Beaton in my list of top photographers.

And I am deeply puzzled why so many of his best photos aren’t on display, but remain concealed in rare and hard-to-get photobooks. You could see more in the enormous and impressive exhibition catalogue, but why aren’t they hung on the walls of this big exhibition for us to see?

The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis) by Paul Strand (1953) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis) by Paul Strand (1953) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Related links

Reviews of other V&A shows

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers @ Barbican Art

This is an absolutely brilliant exhibition, packed with poignant, arresting, funny and striking images, beautifully laid out, thoughtfully designed and carefully displayed.

The exhibition

It is an exhibition of photographs of Britain in the 20th century as observed by foreigners. 

Leading British photographer Martin Parr has chosen generous selections from 23 international photographers who visited Britain between the 1930s and the 2000s to convey how they captured the social, cultural, and political identity of the UK through the camera lens. As Parr explains, the subject matter maybe familiar (or over-familiar) to us inhabitants of these rainy islands – but seen through alien eyes and lenses it becomes something new and unexpected. Hence both familiar and strange at the same time.

Each photographer has an alcove or room to themselves with a selection of around 20 images each. Reading the lengthy wall labels about each photographer and then paying careful attention to each image is a profoundly pleasurable and satisfying experience but also very filling. It took me a good hour and a half just to do the top floor (13 photographers).

Photobooks

Alongside the photos on the wall, the exhibition is lined with display cases containing rare and out-of-print 20th century photobooks. In fact Parr, in his introductory speech at the opening of the exhibition, explained that the whole project arose from his habit of showing and sharing his own extensive collection of photobooks about Britain and wondering what a wonderful idea it would be to display their images more publicly.

Some of the photobooks are directly related to the exhibits on the walls; but others include work by photographers not actually included in the show (like several featuring the work of László Moholy-Nagy and, the one that caught my eye, The Battle for Waterloo Road with photos of bombed-out London by American photo legend Robert Capa). It is another element which adds to the feeling of profusion, of a super-abundance of imagery and art.

Accessible design

The exhibition is designed by London-based architects Witherford, Watson, Mann, and is noticeably stylish, subtly varying the colours of the walls, the way the photos are hung (different patterns and layouts for each photographer), for the way there are benches scattered about for the strolling punter to sit and reflect and, most strikingly, for the big ‘library’ space on the ground floor with tables and chairs and a generous selection of photobooks to sit and leaf through. It is a photography fan’s dream come true.


Part one – the first floor

Edith Tudor-Hart (1908-73) (15 photos) studied at the Bauhaus and was a communist émigré from Germany who married an English doctor and then used photography as a left-wing instrument to awaken social consciences. She took photos of the poor in London, south Wales and the industrial North East, among the slum housing of Tyneside.

Edith Tudor-Hart. Gee Street, Finsbury, London, ca. 1936 © Edith Tudor-Hart / National Galleries of Scotland

Edith Tudor-Hart – Gee Street, Finsbury, London, ca. 1936 © Edith Tudor-Hart / National Galleries of Scotland

She was also, the exhibition casually mentions, a world class spy for the USSR, who helped in the recruitment of Kim Philby and the Cambridge spies, which muddies your perception of her imagery and your sense of her motivations. But there’s no doubting the power of her photos and the variety of locations she was able to access.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) (24 photos) One of the most famous photographers of the 20th century, Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book The Decisive Moment set out a theory of how to capture a moment which tells a story, and the 24 photos here are certainly vivid and telling moments in the great civic pageants he chose to attend (the coronation, Royal Ascot etc).

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Coronation of King George VI, Trafalgar Square, London, 12 May 1937 © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Coronation of King George VI, Trafalgar Square, London, 12 May 1937 © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Just from these first two photographers you get a strong sense of:

  1. England (not the rest of the UK)
  2. in fact, lots of London
  3. the weather’s awful, grey skies or rain
  4. toffs in hats…
  5. … contrasted with abject poverty

Robert Frank (b.1924) American photographer and film director (15 photos) the selection here is taken from his work London/Wales, a photobook resulting from his photographic forays into London (top hats, posh) and the coal mining districts of South Wales (bleak, poverty-stricken).

Six of his 15 photos were of miner Ben James or his family, depicted in their knackered poverty. There’s one of him washing his upper body in a tin baby bath in the front room which really brings home the privations of the period.

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Of strong left-wing sympathies, American photographer Strand visited the Outer Hebrides in 1954 and took a series of photos there. Compared to the naked poverty recorded by Tudor-Hart, Strand’s portraits of the islanders seem highly posed, and they radiate the pride and dignity of their subjects. He is one of the few photographers in the exhibition to snap inanimate objects, framing square-on shots of natural or man-made material which powerfully captures their grittiness, their feltness. He feels more consciously artistic than the previous three.

Cas Oorthuys (1908-75) (24 photos) Dutch photographer Oorthuys was a left-wing artist in the 1930s. In the 1950s he collaborated on a series of pocket travel books featuring, among other locations, London and Oxford. There were the usual London buses, relaxers in Hyde Park, students at Oxford, they are all very well done, but I found his images a little posed.

Cas Oorthuys - London, 1953 © Cas Oorthuys / Nederlands Fotomuseum

Cas Oorthuys – London, 1953 © Cas Oorthuys / Nederlands Fotomuseum

Sergio Larrain (1931-2012) (22 photos) Larrain was from Chile and came to visit and photograph Britain in the winter of 1958-59. He brought a consciously modernist or arty approach, with shots deliberately taken at angles, from odd vantage points, with deliberately out of focus elements, all giving a sense of buzzy black-and-white dynamism.

Sergio Larrain - London. Baker Street underground station. 1958-1959. © Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

Sergio Larrain – London, Baker Street underground station 1958-1959. © Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

Larrain’s photos (and the preceding works) all give the accumulated sense of a hard-pressed, dogged people living in a cold, depressing climate, and dominated by the top hats of the effortlessly posh.

Evelyn Hofer (1922-2009) (20 photos) a German émigré to the US, Hofer provided the pictures to several 1960s photobooks, text by V.S.Pritchett, made during visits to England in 1962 (black and white) and 1974 (colour). She used a 4 x 5 viewfinder camera which was, apparently, cumbersome and slow. Hence her photos, especially of people, look very static and posed which, cumulatively, gives them a distinctively formal and rather solemn feel. Posing at a wedding.

Bruce Davidson (b.1933) The American Davidson is represented by 13 b&w shots from his trip here in 1960, and five colour pics from 1965. His photos of Brighton and Hastings beach make the English seaside look the forlorn pitiful thing it so often is.

Gian Butturini (b.1935) The Italian Butturini visited England in 1969 and captured images of the late-period Swinging city, hippies, stoned parties and loud gigs, which resulted in his coolly laid-out photobook, London. After soaking up 150 powerful images of poverty and discomfort, it is a relief to see some people actually enjoying themselves.

Frank Habicht (b.1938) A German, Habicht was a freelance photographer in the 1960s when he came to London and produced the photos which went into the photobook, We Live In London. London was, by all accounts, a permissive paradise, which means lots of beautiful young women took their clothes off, and his 12 photos here are the first to show a bare boob. The sight of these happy, scantily clad young women makes you stop and reflect what an incredibly long way the country had come in just thirty years from the bleak 1930s poverty so powerfully depicted by Tudor-Hart. (Not that we should make the common mistake of forgetting that lots of the country continued to live in one-up, one-down, outside toilet squalor for decades to come.)

In 1967 and again in 1969 American photographer Garry Winogrand (1928-84) travelled through the UK, using a wide angle lens and creating deliberately askew compositions.

  • man in bowler hat
  • posh man wearing monocle
  • man in kilt playing bagpipes in a public toilet
  • woman in top hat standing by a huge phonogram

Winogrand’s 24 images confirm the cumulative sense that England is neither nice nor lovable, and how little its essential infrastructure has changed: terraces of brick houses, cracked paving stones, ugly unhappy people, dogs barking at each other. The commentary says these photos are little known and this appears to be confirmed by the way I can’t find any trace of them on the internet.

Candida Höfer (b.1944) German photographer Höfer takes a very conceptual approach to photography, exemplified by her visit to Liverpool in 1968, the city of poets and the Beatles. But instead of bohemian hi-jinks, this installation shows precisely 22 square black and white photos arranged in a Teutonic grid shape, which strongly convey a sense of loneliness and alienation among the 1960s developments, in the windy bus stations, the grimly functional waiting rooms, the soon-to-be-demolished tenements and eerily empty docks.

Candida Höfer - Liverpool IX (1968) © Candida Höfer, Köln; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015

Candida Höfer – Liverpool IX (1968) © Candida Höfer, Köln; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015

Akihiko Okamura (1929-85) Japanese photojournalist Okamura moved to Dublin to cover the conflict in Northern Ireland right at the end of the 1960s. His work from this time is represented by 23 low-key, colour photos which I found absolutely brilliant – showing army barricades, road blocks, demonstrations and bombed out streets, and spots where civilians have been wounded or killed – but all underplayed and understated. Probably the most powerful is a simple image of six milk bottles on a doorstep – amid so much mayhem and death, it is impossible not to feel terrified by their fragility and vulnerability.

Akihiko Okamura - Northern Ireland, 1970s © Akihiko Okamura / Courtesy of the Estate of Akihiko Okamura, Hakodate, Japan

Akihiko Okamura – Northern Ireland, 1970s © Akihiko Okamura / Courtesy of the Estate of Akihiko Okamura, Hakodate, Japan

Gilles Peress (b.1946) Frenchman Gilles Peress is represented by an installation of 51 black and white photos presented as a continuous band along the wall, titled The Prods, the result of annual visits over nearly two decades to Northern Ireland. These were brilliant, ad hoc snaps, blurred, exposed, capturing people, life, a culture, in a stream-of-consciousness visual narrative, bowler-hatted Orangemen marching, two kids standing on the crappy brick gateway to a church, Protestant couples snogging after a march or lying in the sunshine.

Part two – Downstairs

Downstairs are ten photographers covering the period from 1977 to the present day, these works are generally a) in colour b) shown as massive prints.

Shinro Ohtake (b.1955) Ohtake is ‘one of Japan’s leading contemporary artists’. He came to England in 1977, year of the Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols, understanding nothing of the language and began photographing everything he saw, and also collecting detritus and ephemera and pasting them into scrapbooks. He is represented here by 24 big b&w photos arranged in a 4 x 6 grid of so-so scenes, plus display cases with maybe 100 small prints – so-so because they descend to almost everyday level ie are not as strikingly special as much of the work on offer elsewhere.

Tina Barney (b.1945) American, Barney’s portraits of the British upper classes are huge, three or four foot tall, colour photos of people posed in semi-formal surroundings. Because of their scale and colour, the commentary refers the tradition of big formal oil portraits and maybe there is the ghost of John Singer Sargent buried deep in these images (very deep). Big shots of two Eton boys, a waiter and customer in a posh restaurant, the butler attending on the owner of a big country house in the drawing room by a formally laid table. The commentary says they ‘touch’ on class ie they record the rich. The example below is the only one which doesn’t capture an overtly well-heeled subject.

Tina Barney - The Red Sheath, 2001 © Tina Barney, Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery

Tina Barney – The Red Sheath, 2001 © Tina Barney, Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery

Raymond Depardon (b.1942) Frenchman Raymond Depardon was commissioned to make a photobook of Glasgow and so came to visit in 1980. But his images of a city ravaged by unemployment and industrial decline were, in the end, turned down for being too depressing. The series is represented by 21 colour shots of drunks passed out in the street, urchins in back alleys, derelicts outside gambling shops, more drunks huddled in the gutter, a boy crying against a boarded up shop front. What a terrible place to be a child, or a human being.

Rineke Dijkstra (b.1959) From the Netherlands, Dijkstra came to prominence for her series of teenage girls on a beach (two of them are currently on show at the Botticelli exhibition at the V&A). In 1994 she came across the Buzz Club in Liverpool and was fascinated by the queues of under-dressed teenagers waiting outside in the shivery cold. She took a series of portraits of these young teenagers, represented by three massive colour examples here. I found these heart-breaking examples of the way barely pubescent girls are pushed into wholly inappropriate clothes and behaviour by an adult society obsessed with sex.

Jim Dow (b.1942) American photographer represented by six very big colour photos from his series Corner shops of Britain – no people at all, just the interiors of the disappearing breed of small local shops, a nostalgia for chippies, corner stores, haberdashers,  a general store, a woollen shop. Entirely empty of human presence, the humanity captured in the array of dowdy products.

Axel Hütte (b.1951) is a latterday representative of the so-called Neue Sachlichkeit, the New Objectivity which flourished between the wars, recording with Teutonic precision modern social architecture. His 12 big b&w shots are empty of people, instead recording the lines, spaces and vistas created by Peabody estates, 1960s tower blocks, concrete walkways and stairwells of Brutalist concrete. I like clear lines, squares, rectangles, formality, so I warmed to these frigid images.

Bruce Gilden (b.1946) American Gilden was commissioned to take images of people in and around London, leading to the photobook A Complete Examination of Middlesex (2011), then another project to record the working class of the West Midlands, recorded in Black Country (2014). He is represented by six absolutely enormous colour photos in extremely big close-up of some staggeringly ugly English people, the faces of the men an exploding landscape of skin disease, scars and acne, and the several women all grotesquely made up, spouting hairs and wrinkles. It is quite an assault on the senses to face such ugliness in such unremitting detail.

Hans van der Meer (b.1955) Dutchman van der Meer goes to the other extreme, with his project to photograph Sunday league football matches. From an artfully placed step-ladder he uses a wide angle lens to capture the breadth of muddy football pitches on which the players scamper like matchstick figures, in fact the commentary points out his debt to the Dutch tradition of landscape painting in which teeming figures swarm over, say, an iced-over lake. The eight very big colour photos here were commissioned by the National Media Museum in Bradford in 2004.

Hans van der Meer - Mytholmroyd, England, 2004 © Hans van der Meer / Courtesy of the Artist

Hans van der Meer – Mytholmroyd, England, 2004 © Hans van der Meer / Courtesy of the Artist

The final room in the exhibition is given over to a video which, on closer examination, is a silent slideshow of hundreds of colour photos taken in the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham by Dutch photographer Hans Ejkkelboom (b.1949). He has arranged the images into grids and sequences according to similarities of dress, colour, shape, design, logos, patterns of what people are wearing etc. The commentary says he is ‘questioning the construction of identity and self-representation’, which means he is pointing out that huge numbers of people fondly imagine themselves to be individuals while wearing the same mass-produced tat. The slideshow is haunting and hypnotic and a fitting finale to an amazing show.


Thoughts

What an immense cultural change took place in the 30 years between around 1935 and 1965! It didn’t affect the majority of the population but still, it began opening doors to new ideas and higher expectations of life which are still clanging open for every succeeding generation.

Recurrent images

Certain topics are so recurrent as to become clichés – London with its top- or bowler-hatted gents in the City, and its posh extensions to Ascot or Glyndebourne, private school children and nannies in the park, London buses, the London Tube – compare and contrast with working class poverty, the slums of the East End or Liverpool or Tyneside or Glasgow, the terrible lives of South Wales coal miners, there are lots of urchins in countless back streets. And then a horrible glut of images from our very own civil war in Ulster.

Absent topics

Which makes you reflect on the subjects which aren’t here. Britain had quite a big theatre, classical music and art scene in the second half of the 20th century. Nothing of that here. In fact, Britain along with the United States more or less invented rock music and spawned some of the biggest names in pop and rock and disco and punk. Nothing here.

Although we all live in cities, the British are notoriously sentimental about our countryside which can be ravishing, from the cliffs of Cornwall through the rolling West Country to the mountains of Wales or the spectacular Lake District. Nothing of that here. We are also a nation of gardeners, in love with thousands of species of flower and plant. Not reflected here. We invented football and cricket and rugby. Not here (with the exception of Hans van der Meer’s Sunday league shots, the exception which proves the rule).

People

It’s overwhelmingly an exhibition of people, and people on the streets or in urban settings (with the notable exceptions of Hütte’s empty housing estates, Dow’s empty shops and Höfer’s derelict Liverpool).

I wondered if this is some kind of intrinsic bias in photography itself, which biases it towards the human face and form?

Are people just more interesting than buildings or hills – is the part of the brain which processes faces and expressions and postures capable of infinite stimulation?

Or, if you’re a freelance photographer and paid to produce a photobook on London or England, do you dare not include buses and taxis and men in bowler hats? Is the narrowness of the subject matter a function of the photobook commissioning process?

Or, given that the entire show is curated by Martin Parr who has a well-documented fascination with the strangeness and quirkiness of people, does the focus on people and the absence of many other ‘British’ subjects reflect his particular interests?

Or a bit of all three?

Trends

A few obvious trends emerge over the 70 years the show covers.

  1. The prints get bigger – a LOT bigger, reflecting maybe the technology which allows for bigger prints, maybe the trend for photographers to think of themselves as Artists, commanding the same size and status as painters.
  2. More colour – As you approach the present day more of the photos are in colour. Colour, as I noticed at the exhibition of Martin Parr’s big colour prints at the Guildhall Art Gallery – is more unsparing of its human subjects, showing up blemishes and imperfections. Black and white for romance and glamour (even scenes of poverty have a certain nostalgia in black and white); colour for irony and satire.
  3. Cynicism – As a result of the above two trends, the most obvious thing about the more recent photos is their distance and detachment, bordering on cruelty. Tudor-Hart or Strand’s photos are full of compassion. Modern colour photography, on this showing, is characterised by its heartlessness.

Photography and identity

One wall label suggests that it is a ‘timely’ moment for an exhibition like this to shed light on our national identity, at a time when the independent or devolved nations are threatening the complete unravelling of the United Kingdom. But is it?

That unravelling shows no sign of happening any time soon. And, anyway, the show doesn’t shed any systematic light on cultural identity – instead it captures scattered moments, personal views, or aspects of quite narrowly conceived photographic projects: only tiny aspects of Scotland (the Outer Hebrides in the 1950s, the mean streets of Glasgow circa 1980) or Wales (lots of miners), and only the Ulster of ‘the Troubles’. And time and again England is represented by London and London is represented by the same shots of buses and bowler hats, cheeky chappy market traders or hippies in Notting Hill.

So I don’t think the exhibition sheds that much light on issues of national identity. I just think it’s a massive collection of quite brilliant photos, which can be enjoyed in their own right as works of art and, taken together, comprise a fabulous journey of discovery through the visual worlds of some of the world’s greatest photographers. What’s not to love?


Related links

Reviews of past exhibitions at the Barbican

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