Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitudes @ the Photographers’ Gallery

‘The fact that I never had a family, a place or a story that defined me, inspired a need in me to join the community of mankind. I did so by inventing a poetic form linking this community, at least symbolically, in my imagination, through this form.’ (Dave Heath)

This is the first major UK exhibition dedicated to the work of American photographer Dave Heath (1931-2016).

New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath started taking photos towards the end of his stint in the Korean War (1950-53). All his photos from Korea ignore battlefield heroics, firefights, explosions and hardware – instead showing the average grunt as isolated individuals caught in moments of thought, looking down, looking sad.

Korea, 1953 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC

Korea, 1953 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC

And this is the sensibility he brought back to civilian life. Of the 109 photos on display here, I only saw three where the subject is smiling or laughing. The other hundred and six show individuals or couples looking moody, intense, sullen, lost in thought. Inhabitants of solitude. Aficionados of introspection.

Elevated in Brooklyn, New York City, 1963 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Elevated in Brooklyn, New York City, 1963 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Even the handful of photos which aren’t of people, but of buildings or the sidewalk, manage to make them look lost in thought and downbeat. The result is tremendously atmospheric if, on occasion, a bit samey.

Biography

The downbeat tone was set early in Heath’s life. He was born in Philadelphia in 1931 to very young parents who abandoned him at the age of four after which he was sent to a series of foster homes before being placed in an orphanage. From then on he carried a sense of loss and abandonment which he projected, very successfully, onto everything around him.

Heath became interested in photography as a teenager, and joined an amateur camera club. He read the photo essays in Life magazine and cites one in particular as having a decisive impact on his future. Bad Boy’s Story by Ralph Crane depicted the emotional experiences of a young orphan not unlike young Heath.

In a flash Heath realised that photography could be a means of self-expression, a way of shaping the external world to fit his experiences, and a way of connecting to others.

In his early twenties he set about becoming an expert in photographic techniques, taking courses in commercial art, working in a photo processing lab, and studying paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His stint in the army as a machine gunner interrupted his career for a few years, but crystallised his approach to subject matter, his skill at capturing a wide range of people in moments of thought and vulnerability.

On his return, Heath developed this aptitude for capturing an ‘inner landscape’, seeking out the lonely and lost and fragile on the streets of big city America. Most of the photographs on display here were taken on the streets of Chicago and New York (where he moved to in 1957).

Heath’s subjects seem eerily detached from their physical context, shot either singly or in couples, but always intensely aware of – almost physically projecting – their isolation.

Washington Square, New York, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Collection Torosian, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and the Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Washington Square, New York, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Collection Torosian, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and the Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath is quoted as saying:

My pictures are not about the city but from the city. I’ve always seen it as a stage and I’ve always seen the people in the streets as being actors, not acting out a particular play or story, but somehow being the story itself…

It would be wrong to think that all his photos are close-ups of alienated individuals or couples. There’s more variety than that. At the busy end of the spectrum there’s a photo of a crowd gathering round a policeman in Central Park guarding the spot where a suicide has been discovered. At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes he picked out just details, lost property, street detritus, close-ups of parts of people’s bodies, which manage to convey a tremendous sense of loss and abandonment.

California, 1964 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

California, 1964 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath’s photos capture that eerie moment in American history just before the 1960s exploded, just around the time JFK was assassinated and Civil Rights began to become an enormous, society-sundering issue and then, of course the growing opposition to the Vietnam War.

He had always been interested in exploring how individual photos could be tied together into sequences which created something larger than the sum of its parts. Heath once wrote that ‘the central issue of my work is sequence’ and thought that the rhythm of images arranged in collages or montages created a deeper and more complex psychological state than a single image.

A master printer – so good that other photographers asked him to make their prints for them – Heath also crafted handmade books and experimented with multimedia slide presentations. All this thinking and experimentation culminated in the book which is considered his masterpiece, A Dialogue with Solitude, published in 1965.

A Dialogue With Solitude

A Dialogue with Solitude was conceived in 1961 but not published till 1965. Heath chose 82 of his best or most characteristic photographs taken between 1952 and 1962 and grouped them into ten chapters dedicated to variations on the theme of solitude, being: violence, love, childhood, old age, poverty, war, race and death.

Each one is preceded by a short quote from a literary giant including: Matthew Arnold, James Baldwin, T.S. Eliot, William Hazlitt, Herman Hesse, Rilke, Yeats and so on. In other words, all the names you’d meet in a basic undergraduate course in comparative literature – or at least before the explosion of feminist and black and queer studies added a lot more women and marginalised writers to the canon.

The book is commemorated here by a wall-seized display which places scores of photos next to the bookish quotes, to create a sort of immersive visual and literary experience.

Installation view of Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitudes at the Photographers Gallery, showing the wall-sized display of photos and texts from the book, Dialogue with Solitude. Photo by the author

Installation view of Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitude at the Photographers Gallery, showing the wall-sized display of photos and texts from the book, Dialogue with Solitude. Photo by the author

In the opinion of the writer whose wall label accompanies this display, Francesco Zanot:

The primacy of montage and sequencing in Heath’s work is made obvious. The result has nothing to do with linear narration, but rather resembles a vast poem, rhapsodic and tormented. Heath merges together on the space of a page references as refined as they are distant from one another. The book, then, becomes the ideal medium by which to carry out a reflection both through and upon photography.

Thoughts

I liked the Korean War photos best. Soldiers in a war really have got something to be pissed off about. Guys lying on their bunks or sitting on a crate smoking a fag reminded me of all the crappy labouring jobs I’ve had, and how it feels when you get a break and five minutes to just sit staring into space, too tired to think about anything, too tired or too mind numblingly bored to say or do or think anything.

The photos of sad people in Philadelphia and Chicago and New York are undoubtedly atmospheric and poignant, beautifully composed and printed with a grainy effect that carries the viewer back back back to a historic era.

And yet… and yet…. I think I’ve seen too many photographs of unhappy Americans recently – the hundred or more photos by Diane Arbus currently at the Hayward Gallery, or the long career of Dorothea Lange devoted to documenting American misery and injustice, celebrated at the Barbican last summer, or the enormous brightly coloured images of alienation and being lost in the crowd created by Alex Prager.

Upstairs at the Photographers’ Gallery, right now, the works of Mark Ruwedel don’t feature any people but they, also, convey a tremendous sense of loss and abandonment via pictures of run-down shacks in the desert or the abandoned sites of military tests.

Abandonment, loneliness, isolation, solitude, unhappiness. These seem to be the default subjects of American art photographers.

Washington Square, New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Washington Square, New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Independent movies

Off to one side of the main display rooms is a dark room where you can watch clips from cult independent films from the 1960s, contemporary with Heath’s works, which also focus on theme of solitude. These include:

1. Portrait of Jason by Shirley Clarke (1966), Jason being ‘a gay African-American hustler and aspiring cabaret performer’.

2. Salesman by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Mitchell Zwerin (1968) a creepy depiction of slimy American salesman.

3. The Savage Eye by Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers and Joseph Strick (1960)

Interview with Senior Curator, Karen McQuaid

Curators

  • Curated by Diane Dufour, Director of LE BAL.
  • Senior Curator for the Photographers’ Gallery, Karen McQuaid

Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion @ Hayward Gallery

Kader Attia is ‘one of today’s leading international artists’ and this exhibition is the first major survey of his work ever held in the UK.

Attia was born in 1970 France. His parents were of Algerian origin. He grew up in one of the banlieues or suburbs in north-east Paris, in a multicultural environment where Catholic, Jewish and Muslim religions mixed. Attia has dual nationality and has returned often to the family home in Algeria. In the mid-1990s he worked and travelled in the democratic republic of Congo where he held his first exhibition.

Since then he has gone on to forge a career as an exponent of deeply fashionable ‘post-colonial art’, working across a dazzling array of media to criticise western imperialism, western colonialism, western racism, western cultural appropriation of native lore and art, western control of its immigrant populations, and so on.

‘I try to trigger a political feeling in the viewer. My job is like all of us confronted with reality. What interests me is when a work poses a political question not only from a linguistic point of view, formal, but more from an ethical point of view.’

Political feelings. Political questions. Well, the show as a whole struck me as a sustained attack on western values, history, art and culture. The assault is sustained across six rooms on the ground floor of the Hayward gallery, plus the Heni Project space entered from the gallery lobby.

Transgender sex workers

When I learned that one of his earliest successes was a project to photograph and ‘document’ the lives of a community of Algerian transgender sex workers, and that a slideshow of 160 of these images won him international recognition when displayed at the 50th Venice Biennale, my heart sank.

What could be more crushingly obvious, inevitable and clichéd? Is there any other subject as fashionably outré and yet as well trodden? I immediately thought of:

  • Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde at the Barbican, which featured lesbian, gay and transgender artists and performers
  • diane arbus: in the beginning currently the sister exhibition to Attia, upstairs in the Hayward, which features a ton of male female impersonators and performers from the 1950s and 60s
  • Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers at the Photographers’ Gallery, with hundreds of photos of transgender and cross-dressing people from the past century, notable:
    • the well documented life of Marie-Pierre Pruvot, born a male in Algeria, who became a famous French transsexual entertainer with the stage name of ‘Bambi’
  • The photos taken by Olivia Arthur of the suppressed LGBT+ sexualities in India which featured in the Illuminating India exhibition at the Science Museum
  • Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins at the Barbican, which featured photos by half a dozen photographers of sex workers and transgender people, namely:
    • Daido Moriyama’s photos of prostitutes and transvestites in Tokyo
    • Walter Pfeiffer’s portfolio of photos of his young transsexual friend Carlo Joh, from the Zurich gay scene
    • Casa Susanna, a historic collection of around 400 prints taken during the mid-50s and 60s at a private retreat for transvestites in upstate New York
    • Paz Errázuriz’s project depicting the community of transgender sex-workers working in an underground brothel in Chile
    • Teresa Margolles’s series of enormous colour photos depicting transgender sex workers in Mexico
  • Queer British Art 1861-1967 at Tate Britain which was packed full of transsexuals, transgenders and same-sex desires

Identity and ‘trangressive’ sexuality are the fashionable subject of our age and yet curators and artists conspire to imagine they are still hugely taboo subjects which you have to whisper about and which an artist is oh-so brave to address.

Instead of a boringly predictable subject which has been comprehensively ‘explored’ by every art gallery in London.

This set the tone for my reception of Attia: he and his supporters think he is a grand rebel, an incisive critic of western historical narratives and norms – but all of his critiques seemed to me extremely old and over-familiar and passé.

When I went to the Sensation exhibition of young British Artists in 1997 I was genuinely bowled over by their dazzling new approaches to an amazing new range of subject matters. This guy is retreading ideas and approaches I got bored with decades ago.

Room 1 – modern architecture

Room one is dominated by an awesome projection which covers one entire wall of a camera very slowly moving up the facade of one of the shitty council housing blocks which make up the dreaded banlieues of Paris, the post-war sink estates where Paris sent all its working class and immigrant population to live and which, more or less every summer, erupt in rioting and car burning.

Post-war concrete high-rise council estates are crap. Not a new idea, is it?

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by Linda Nylind

The wall label tells us Attia is drawing attention to the way these blocks were built around principles of surveillance and control similar to those used to subdue colonial populations.

As it happens a) I grew up on the edge of one of Britain’s all-concrete post-war new towns and b) I’ve been reading a lot recently about post-war town planning and architecture in the social histories of David Kynaston:

Although the subject of post-war town planning was fraught with controversy and disagreement I’ve nowhere read anything suggesting that the new estates were designed in order to monitor and control their inhabitants.

Sounds like Attia has swallowed his Michel Foucault whole. (Michel Foucault was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, and literary critic whose theories address the relationship between power and knowledge and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions. He died in 1984. Foucault was awesomely fashionable in the early 1980s when I went to university and read half a dozen of his books. It was when I found myself reading an interview from the mid-70s in which Foucault explained how ‘we’ [the radical student movement] could use Maoist concepts to battle against the fascist French police, that I began to realise that Foucault had little or nothing to offer me in the actual political and cultural situation of Thatcherite Britain that I found myself in.)

The mistakes the planners made had nothing whatever to do with surveillance and control. In knocking down the old slums and rehousing people, they decided that, instead of rehousing them on the same locations, they would move them out to clean new locations which had no historic restrictions on design. All the architects were fans of the fashionable Le Corbusier who promoted cities in the sky and also adopted high rise builds as solutions to shortages of space.

It was only as tenants moved into these gleaming and fashionable new blocks that the drawbacks became clear: very often the planners had forgotten to build in shops and facilities, pubs and churches and you centres and the miscellaneous kinds of places where people meet and hang out. Public transport into the city centres was poor and irregular, and they were too far way to walk to.

More importantly it turned out that various elements needed expensive maintenance, especially the lifts without which people couldn’t get to their flats. Getting rubbish out of people’s flats down to collective rubbish collection points didn’t always work and anyway resulted in overflowing bins which bred rats.

Most subtly, it was discovered that traditional communities are self-policing. Where you had an old-fashioned street you had windows on the street and, in any kind of good weather, people sitting out on stoops and steps watching, generally congeries of mums watching their kids playing, or owners of the various small shops in a neighbourhood similarly watching what was going on.

These acted as an informal and highly informed police. If fights broke out, if kids did something dodgy or rude or bullying and so on, there were scores of eyes watching and people could intervene, often mums who knew the mother of the wrong-doer. Thus communities were able to police themselves with little or no intervention from the authorities. This is something I’ve seen described in Somerset Maugham’s novel Lisa of Lambeth, have read about in 2,000 pages of David Kynaston’s histories, and was really emphasised by a recent BBC 4 documentary about Janet Jacobs who wrote the classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) describing how over-intellectual architects and planners, dazzled by the futuristic designs of le Corbusier and other fashionable European architects, were destroying the neighbourhoods of old Manhattan, replacing rundown but friendly and self-policing communities, with windswept high ‘projects’ – just like the French banlieues. Into the projects American planners decanted a lot of their cities’ poorest which tended to include lots of blacks, just as Paris decanted its poorest, which included lots of Algerian immigrants, into its banlieues.

The result? Vast expanses of concrete high rise buildings where ‘community’ has been destroyed, and the public spaces belong to the worst kind of tearaway teenagers who patrol in gangs, peddle drugs, stab rivals and erupt in violence if the police try to intervene.

In everything I’ve read and watched on this subject, no-one has mentioned the idea these wretched estates were built to to monitor and control their inhabitants. A far simpler explanation is that they were the disastrous result of planners and architects falling under the spell of fashionable French and German theorists with sweeping intellectual attitudes: demolish the old, build the shiny gleaming new cities of the future.

This is what went through my mind as I stood in this first room looking at the awesome film of a camera slowly moving up the side of just such a concrete high rise building, next to a model of such a building.

My conclusion was that Attia is deliberately and wilfully ignoring the real motivations and the complex social history of these places, in order to turn them into a cheap and obvious jibe at the police and authorities. The claim that these places were built solely so the authorites could control their inhabitants is 1. factually incorrect 2. a deliberate distortion which allows Attia to quote Foucault and so sound wondrously intellectual and clever and 3. 40 years out of date.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, who is surveilling and controlling the inhabitants of these horrible slums if it isn’t the owners of multinational American corporations, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon, Instagram, Facebook and twitter to name but a few? But the internet is a bit too up to date for Attia. He is still lost in the 1970s when it was cool and path-breaking to take photos of transgender people (wow) and use new Left Bank ideas to deconstruct notions of power and control (“have you read Foucault, man, he’s just soooo cool”).

Away from the leather-jacketed student politics, I liked some of Attia’s more allusive pieces, such as this piece of minimalism, although I still found it weird that he made it some forty years after minimalism had become well established as a style in America.

Narcissus (2012) by Kader Attia. Concrete block, mirror and wire

Narcissus (2012) by Kader Attia. Concrete block, mirror and wire

Room 2 – joy, fear and humiliation

This is a massive room devoted to scores of big prints of his photos of 1990s Algerian transgender sex workers, capturing ‘moments of elation experienced in the course of an otherwise precarious and difficult existence’.

Attia is obviously yet another artist who subscribes to the view that prostitutes and sex workers are privy to a kind of special knowledge and insight concealed to the rest of us, that photographing hookers reveals a ‘secret world’, that the mere act of photographing them ‘breaks taboos’ and ‘transgresses’ conventional bourgeois values. Really?

La Piste d’Atterrissage (The Landing Strip) by Kader Attia (2000) © the artist

La Piste d’Atterrissage (The Landing Strip) by Kader Attia (2000) © the artist

He says:

I wanted to present the whole picture of their lives, to show that even illegal immigrants working as transgender prostitutes have moments of joy, of happiness, of hope.

‘Even illegal immigrants have moments of joy, of happiness, of hope’. How patronising. How patronising to his subjects to treat them like some kind of remote tribe in New Guinea, instead of people like you or me, and how patronising to us, the viewers, that he feels he has to explain that prostitutes are people who have feelings. Really?

As to the transgender thing, some of us have been totally comfortable with, not to say bored by, the whole idea of cross-dressing and transgender for nearly fifty years. (‘But she never lost her head, even when she was giving head…’)

Like the room criticising soulless concrete housing estates this took me right back to the 1970s.

The opposite wall displays a number of black-and-white press and publicity photos of world famous politicians and popular singers, entitled Field of Emotion. Apparently, this work

explores the ambivalent role that emotion plays in all areas of our lives… Attia asks us to consider how and whether powerful emotions might help heal rather than create conflict.

Emotions play a role in our lives. Hmm. Really. Do you see why I felt I was being patronised?

Anyway, what struck me about the display was how very dated all of the images were. Miles Davis, Fidel Castro, Idi Amin, Edith Piaf, Moshe Dayan, Lenin, Mussolini, Ella Fitzgerald. It looks like the wall of a radical student on the Left Bank circa 1974. “Right on, baby. Have you heard Lou Reed’s new album? And what about Foucault’s new book?” Dated dated dated.

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery

Room 3 – Chaos + Repair

I liked this big ball made out of fragments of fabric, broken mirrors and wire. Apparently it is an attempt to capture the ambivalence most people feel about aspects of their cultural, political or personal identity. Is that how it makes you feel? Do you feel ambivalent about aspects of your cultural, political or personal identity?

I just liked it as another example of the minimalist thread in his thinking and creating.

Chaos + Repair = Universe, 2014 by Kader Attia. Photo by the author

Chaos + Repair = Universe, 2014 by Kader Attia. Photo by the author

Room 4 – joy, fear and humiliation

Attia is, apparently, critical of

the museological impulse to classify and categorise [because it] is part of a much broader and more problematic system of control. In many of his sculptures and installations, he typically invokes the display methods and subject matter of a typical 19th-century natural history or ethnographic museum… in order to explore the ways in which colonialism continues to shape how western societies represent and engage with non-western cultures.

I profoundly disagree with this on all kinds of levels.

Abandoning all the achievements of science All western science is based on the collection and sorting of data. Medicine is based on a vast array of anatomical, chemical, biochemical and medical information which has been painstakingly collected, sorted and categorised over the last 200 years. Does Attia really think the inhabitants of Algeria would be better off without antibiotics, anaesthetics, innoculations and vaccinations which European scientists devised after years of collecting samples, experimenting and cataloguing? If so, he is an idiot.

Valorising voodoo His work, he says, is looking for a way we can escape from ‘the obsession of the Western modern mind to organise the universe’, which sounds very cool and Foucauldian. “Let’s smash the system, man.”

But just really, really think for a moment what it would be like to live in a world where there was no organising, classifying impulse, where knowledge was not recorded, and collated, in which each generation was born into the same old ignorance and fear. The world of the illiterate wode-painted heath-dwellers who the Romans found in ancient Britain, performing human sacrifices to placate the anger of the gods. Is that the kind of world you’d like to live in, ruled by shamans and witch doctors. Don’t think the transgender prostitutes would last long in that world. Or any woman who defies tribal customs.

Luckily Attia with his irresponsible views and the entire class of dilettantish modern artists to which he belongs, has absolutely no effect whatsoever on politics, economics, medicine, science or technology.

Classifying and categorising A few years ago I went through every room in the British Museum and discovered that the five dark, dusty, wooden-cabinet-lined rooms on the east side of the central courtyard are devoted to showing how everything we know today had its origins in the impulse of all sorts of people, from the Holy Roman Emperor to English parish vicars, to collect all manner of weird and wonderful objects, and to sort and organise their collections.

These rooms look boring but turn out to be full of quirky and highly personal collections of everything from bones and fossils to Roman antiquities, types of rock to the shape of clouds.

All human knowledge is based on the impulse to collect and categorise. The impulse to collect is a fundamental human attribute. Everyone does it. I arrange my books into categories. My daughter puts her photos into different Instagram albums. My son organises his music into different spotify playlists. Who doesn’t ‘curate’ their own content on social media and the web?

Well then, it turns out you are in the grip of the Western world’s sick and dubious ‘museological impulse to classify and categorise’. It turns out you employ ‘problematic system of control’.

Of course some of this classifying and categorising can be used for evil purposes, as the Nazis categorised humans into different races, starting with the distinction between Jews and Aryans, and imperial authorities may well have categorised people into ‘white’ and ‘native’ for all kinds of bureaucratic reasons. And it is very much this tradition of classifying people and in particular the inhabitants of the colonised nations of Africa and Asia which Attia has in mind.

But to say that the impulse to collect and categorise is in itself evil and to devote your work to finding ways ‘to escape this’ impulse is like deciding to abolish language because Hitler used language in his speeches and imperialists used language in their racist laws.

Hypocrisy And, it barely seems worth pointing out that all these works which are devoted to critiquing the wicked Western habit of wanting to organise and classify and categorise are being displayed in an art gallery where… they are being organised and classified and categorised :).

The walls of this exhibition abound in labels precisely dating each piece, carefully explaining the materials they’re made from, categorising them as photographs, sculptures, installations and soon.

The works are divided into rooms each of which has been organised around a central theme or concept.

And there is, of course, a big expensive catalogue of the works on sale in the gallery shop, ‘a fully-illustrated catalogue with an extensive interview between Kader Attia and Ralph Rugoff’, Director, Hayward Gallery, no less.

In other words, this exhibition itself demonstrates the very compulsion to categorise and organise which Attia claims to have devoted a career to trying to deconstruct.

When I was younger and experiencing the first heady rush of reading Foucault and Barthes and Adorno and Benjamin I might have interpreted this as sophisticated irony, or as ‘a playful deconstruction of the normative values which underlie the western historical narrative’, or some such.

Now I’m older and more impatient, I just see it as idiotic hypocrisy.

Technology Is Attia at any point using traditional tribal native-people’s media to create his art with? No. He uses digital photography, digital video, film, light shows and minimalist sculpture. All the hallmarks and media of the most technically advanced, post-industrial, post-modern Western art.

Ethnography But of course Attia isn’t really referring to the impulse to collect and categorise as a whole, whatever he might say. He is speaking much more personally about the West’s history of collecting and categorising the artefacts (and indeed peoples) of the non-Western, ‘developing’ world which he has taken it upon himself to be a post-colonial mouthpiece for.

No prizes then, for guessing that there might well be a room devoted to showing how Western culture has ripped off and appropriated non-western art and artefacts.

As long ago as the 1920s left-wing critics were criticising Picasso for ripping off African tribal masks. This accusation became a standard part of Marxist art criticism in the 1960s and 70s. Now it is entirely accepted, it is the utterly conventional wisdom of our time, that early 20th century artistic Modernism wouldn’t have existed if Picasso and Matisse hadn’t been able to see African and Oceanic tribal masks in the Paris Ethnography Museum. Which exhibition of Picasso and Matisse does not point it out?

Thus the Royal Academy’s exhibition on Matisse and his studio was at pains to prove how up to date and politically correct it was by ‘calling out’ Matisse for his ‘cultural appropriation’ of tribal artifacts, as well as his ‘orientalism’ for painting odalisques.

So – as with Attia’s pieces of minimalism, or his insight that concrete high-rise estates are horrible, or his oh-so-risqué photos of transgender prozzies – what really struck me about his western-modern-art-ripped-off-African-art pieces was how very, very, very old, clichéd and totally acceptable this fact is.

How he presents this is so glaringly obvious I thought it was funny, Here is one of his ‘artworks’ where he has placed a book with a cover illustration of Munch’s notorious painting The Scream next to a ‘Pende sickness mask’. Yes, Kader, I do get it. Munch would never have painted like this if it he hadn’t had sight of the African masks collected by wicked imperialists, and therefore his painting is a wicked wicked piece of cultural appropriation.

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Photo by the author

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Photo by the author

Naughty, naughty Western artists. Pablo and Henri and Edvard, you must all go and sit on the naughty step. Don’t you know that art must never copy ideas from other cultures. Only Europeans are this wicked. The Chinese, the Japanese, the Indians never copied art, writing or religions from of other people’s cultures. And even if they did, it’s alright, because they aren’t white.

What I found literally impossible to believe was the wall label for this work which explained that:

Several works in this room, including The Scream and Mirrors and Masks point to the still under-acknowledged influence of African art on the trajectory of Western art history.

Still under-acknowledged? By whom? This point of view has been knocking around for ages. I found it in full cry in an art history book from 25 years ago which I reviewed last year.

Do you really think this is news to anyone who regularly attends art galleries or knows anything about modern art? It is one of the clichés, one of the absolute bedrock certainties, of modern art history. Anybody who studies modern art will hear about it.

Room 5 – The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures

The biggest room in the gallery is given over to this massive installation.

Installation view of The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

The fundamental concept is ‘repair’. As Attia, a self-declared expert on Western and non-Western societies, confidently proclaims:

While Western societies seek to erase marks left by injury or trauma, ‘in traditional societies it’s the opposite: they have ways to fix an injury that also keeps it visible.’

Hence this collection of twenty or so metal warehouse shelf units as well as three vitrines which display hundreds of objects including African masks, vintage photographs, books, newspapers and a series of decorative, functional or devotional objects constructed by soldiers during the First World War.

In among all these objects are mingled busts which Attia commissioned from craftsmen in Carrara, Italy and Senegal, which depict members of an African ethnic group known for body modification including facial scarring – juxtaposed with busts of First World War soldiers with severe facial injuries.

The whole thing, then, is an ‘investigation’ into contrasting Western and non-Western attitudes to scarring and healing, repairing and fixing.

Another part of the display is a slideshow juxtaposing photos of First World War soldiers undergoing early and rudimentary plastic surgery, with African masks showing obvious signs of repair –

an unsettling series of juxtapositions that challenges our conventional ideas about wholeness, injury, beauty and otherness.

Ah. ‘Otherness’. Surprised it’s taken this long to get round to that familiar old shibboleth of cultural studies and critical theory.

The premise is that Western cultures try to cover, repair and occlude physical scars and injuries, whereas non-Western cultures don’t and often wear them with pride.

OK. I’ll buy that.

Room 6 – Shifting Borders

The most recent work in the exhibition is a set of three videos being shown on three big monitors with benches in front of them, and headphones for you to put on so you can listen to the talking heads.

Each of the videos features Attia interviewing mental health professionals, academics and survivors of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea in which more than 600 people, most of them students, were killed.

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

In one of the videos a Vietnamese spiritualist describes holding a ceremony for the spirit of an American soldier who had possessed her brother-in-law. In another a professional doctor declares ‘I don’t think a psychiatrist is the only one who can heal.’ In other words:

Through the spoken testimonies that make up the video element of Shifting Borders, Attia addresses different forms of healing and in particular the therapeutic role played by shamanistic and spiritualist practices in non-Western societies.

West bad. Non-West good.

Thoughts

The first impact is the scale and variety of the work, sculptures, photos, installations, videos on display – Attia is covering the whole waterfront of contemporary media.

Next I was struck by how very out of date so much of it seemed – finding 70s housing estates crappy, oh-so-edgy photos of transgender prostitutes, the claim that European modern art ripped off African masks, the claim that traditional non-western ‘healers’ know things Western scientists don’t understand, a wall of political and jazz icons from the 1950s – all of these struck me as old, old, old ideas and images. Non-western medicine might have alternative ways of healing? A new idea? Really?

He wanted a political response and so I have responded to the ideas on show and I find them thin, deliberately misleading, superficial and, although dressed up in fashionable curator-speak, in fact stunningly old and dated.

The one big theme which I did find thought-provoking or interesting was this idea of ‘repair’ which runs through many of the works. Thus in the room of African masks placed next to western books to prove how wicked wicked Europeans ripped off African culture, there was suddenly a big hole in the wall, apparently unconnected to the grim lecturing of the other pieces.

Untitled (2014) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Untitled (2014) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

I liked this. Like the ball made of fabric and broken mirror, I just found this an arresting artefact, object, thing. Not something you see every day.

I get so bored by hectoring, lecturing, dogmatic, ideological modern art. It’s a refreshing change to come across something which just… is. Which connects with you at some inexplicable level… Which gives you a funny feeling about space, and secrets, and interiors and wrecks and rubble.

It reminded me of some of the works of Anish Kapoor which play with the integrity of the surface of the gallery i.e. disappear into the walls and ceilings.

Something similar could be said of this hypnotic jumble of sheep horns, that it creates an eerie and uncanny sensation in the viewer, a kind of discomforting sensation in your mind as you imagine running your hands over its sharp surfaces.

Schizphrenic Melancholia (2018) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Schizophrenic Melancholia (2018) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Unfortunately the wall label then goes on to give a lengthy explanation which does its best to eliminate all of the mystery and surprise from the piece, and convert it into another part of the heavy-handed anti-western lecture.

In this sculptural work, Attia elaborates on the relationship between contemporary Western medicine and traditional healing practices, in particular those that deal with mental illness. Attia’s research in this area – a key subject for the artist – took him to Dakar, Senegal, where he witnessed an ancient healing ceremony called ‘Ndeup’, in which the horns of sacrificial goats and sheep form the centrepiece of a ritual that involves the whole community. According to the Lebu people, by the ceremony’s end these horns would hold all the ‘bad energy’ that had been forced out of the afflicted individual during the ritual.

“Yeah, man, western society has lost its way, it’s like traditional peoples, man, they’re like so much more in touch with nature and their true selves, man. I’ve seen stuff on my trips, man, things you people can’t understand, stuff which defies western medicine, man.” Neil the hippy.

It was only on leaving the gallery that I realised that the enormous poster / hanging / digital print opposite the main entrance is also by Attia.

Rochers Carrés (2008) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Rochers Carrés (2008) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

It’s a striking composition although, like everything else in the exhibition, it cannot be allowed to simply be: it must immediately be stuffed full of Victorian moralising and curatorial meaning-making.

It has to be categorised and defined and described, to be titled and dated and explained and interpreted, in just the kind of way which Attia has made a career out of saying he is trying to run away from. So:

Kader Attia is interested in boundaries – ‘geographical, cultural, sexual, religious’ – and the way they function as in-between spaces. the son of Algerian immigrants, Attia grew up in Paris but spent his summer holidays in Algiers where he spent hours smoking, fishing and – like the teenagers in this photograph – watching the ships going back and forth between Algeria and Europe.

Rochers Carrés – in English ‘square rocks’ – is one of a series of images that Attia made of this breakwater ‘beach’ in the Algiers neighbourhood of Bab El Oued. In Attia’s words, this beach is ‘the ultimate boundary’ that separates these young people from their dreams of a better life.

Really? Is it really that much of a boundary to youths like Attia who could take a cab to the airport, get on a plane and fly back to their homes in Paris, secure in the heart of the scientific, economic, technological and artistic bosom of the West?

Summary

The world is much more perforated and mixed up and heterogenous and immigrated than Attia’s simplistic binary definitions (West bad, non-West good) allow.

And this big poster is a classic example of the way every single piece in the show has to be dated and defined, contextualised and interpreted, labelled and explained.

If Attia is sincerely trying to ‘escape’ from the European obsession with collecting and categorising, then this exhibition shows his efforts to have been a self-defeating failure.


Related links

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

Turner prize 2018 @ Tate Britain

The Turner Prize has been running since 1984. It is awarded annually to an artist born or based in Britain. Each year four artists are shortlisted by a jury for an outstanding exhibition or public presentation of their work in the previous year. This year, for the first time since its inception, all four finalists are video film-makers, namely the organisation Forensic Architecture, and three individual artists: Naeem Mohaiemen, Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thompson.

You go through the exhibition glass doors into a big light lounge-type space dominated by a big square table ringed by grey sofas. On the table are books for visitors to read on the exhibition’s themes. These are gender and identity, race and sexuality, politics, repression and resistance. Pretty standard, down the line, mainstream art school stuff ideology, then.

Turner Prize lounge, sofas, table and books

Turner Prize lounge, sofas, table and books

From this comfortable if antiseptic space four black doorways lead off. Beside each is a set of wall panels explaining the work and biography of each artist. You read about them, then walk into the black space which, in each case is in fact a short corridor which leads to a corner, turning into a pitch-black projection space, the corridor and turn being to ensure the projection space is as dark as a cinema.

Naeem Mohaiemen

Mohaiemen was born in 1969 in London and grew up in Bangladesh. Now, inevitably, he lives and works in New York. In the opinion of the jury his works ‘explore post-colonial identity, migration, exile and refuge’. He presents three works

Tripoli Cancelled is a fictional film which follows the daily routine of a man who has lived alone in an abandoned airport for a decade. It is 93 minutes long.

Two Meetings and a Funeral recreates key meetings from 1973 and 1974 during which the Non-Aligned Movement, set up after the Second World War to represent newly independent former colonial countries, began to reject socialism and move towards religion as a uniting force. It is 89 minutes long.

Still from Two Meetings and a Funeral by Naeem Mohaiemen

Still from Two Meetings and a Funeral by Naeem Mohaiemen

Volume eleven (flaw in the algorithm of cosmopolitanism) is a pamphlet.

Luke Willis Thompson

Thompson lives and works in London. He makes silent 35mm films which are projected by an enormous and noisy film projector onto a huge wall, rather than a screen. In the words of the jury, he ‘investigates the treatment of minority communities and the way objects, places and people can be imbued with violence.’

He presents a trilogy of films which ‘reframe histories of violence enacted against certain bodies, and offers counter-images to the media spectacle of our digital age.’

Cemetery of uniforms and liveries (2016) is 9 minutes 10 seconds long and features doleful portraits of the descendants of two women hurt in London by the police. Brandon is the grandson of Dorothy ‘Cherry’ Groce, who was shot by Metropolitan Police in 1985 when they raided her home looking for her son Michael. The shooting, which left Dorothy Groce paralysed, led to the 1985 Brixton riot. Graeme is the son of Joy Gardner, a 40-year-old Jamaican mature student living who died as the result of being bound and gagged by police who had raided her home intending to deport her in 1983. None of the officers involved in these women’s deaths were convicted. Brandon and Graeme face the camera in stark black and white, unmoving, unspeaking, with serious, grim, maybe mournful expressions.

Still from Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016) by Luke Willis Thompson

Still from Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016) by Luke Willis Thompson

autoportrait (2017, 8’50”) I saw this at the Photographers’ Gallery where it had won the Deutsche Börse photography prize in May of this year. In July 2016 Diamond Reynolds filmed and live-streamed the moments after the fatal shooting of her partner Philandro Castile by American police, the footage of her then and subsequently distributed round the world being of a hysterical crying woman. Thompson approached her with the idea of recording her image as she chose to present it, in clothes of her choosing, expressionless, aloof, in control.

Still from autoportrait by Luke Willis Thompson © the artist

Still from autoportrait by Luke Willis Thompson © the artist

_Human (2018, 9’30”) There is a long essay about this film on the Frieze website:

It examines the small sculpture the late British artist Donald Rodney made, using scraps of his own shed skin, and held together with dressmaking pins, as he lay ill with sickle cell anaemia.

Forensic Architecture

Unlike the other three entries, Forensic Architecture is not an individual: it is an international research agency that uses innovative technological and architectural processes to investigate allegations of state violence. It’s a well-funded and organised body, with members including architects, archaeologists, artists, filmmakers, journalists, lawyers, scientists, software developers and theorists.

They work with internationally reputable charities such as Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and Amnesty International. You might well ask yourself what they are doing in an art exhibition.

Well, their typical working method is to be called in when deaths have occurred, often caused by state actors, and to investigate the events using state of the art techniques they have pioneered.

The big example here relates to an incident which took place on 18 January 2017, when Israeli police attempted to clear an unrecognised Bedouin village so the area could have an Israeli settlement built on it. During the confused armed confrontation between the villagers and the police, local Yakub Musa Abu al-Qi’an and a Israeli policeman Erez Levi were killed.

The Israeli police at first claimed he was a terrorist, amid a set of evidence which presented a narrative justifying the police behaviour. But pro-Bedouin Israeli activists were present and filmed some of the events and took photos.

Drone footage incorporated in The long duration of a split second by Forensic Architecture

Drone footage incorporated in The long duration of a split second by Forensic Architecture

Bringing to bear the full panoply of modern forensic reconstructive technology, the agency’s experts were able to assemble a detailed timeline into which the scrambled footage, scattered audio, stills taken by the activists and the police themselves could be used to reconstruct what really happened. The Forensic Architecture website gives a detailed breakdown of the series of events as they eventually established and proved them.

As a visitor what you experience is: 1. in a dark room the hectic hand held footage captured by a reporter who, at the sound of shots falls to the ground, and you get a lot of scrabbled shots of the rocky ground. 2. But you can walk through the projection room and into a normal white gallery space: along one wall is the timeline of events I’ve just linked to, and then a separate, related work, Traces of Bedouin Inhabitation, which is a really characteristic piece of Forensic Architecture. The Israeli government claims it has the right to move Bedouin off the land since they are only temporary settlements. However Forensic Architecture experts have gone back and found the original aerial maps of the area produced by the British in 1945, and been able to prove that Bedouin settlements existed then, i.e. are older than the state of Israel.

Installation view of Traces of Bedouin habitation 1945-present showing headphones which give commentary and explanation

Installation view of Traces of Bedouin habitation 1945-present showing headphones which give commentary and explanation

This is fascinating, worthwhile and cutting edge forensic, legal, scientific and image manipulation work being done by an international team of experts. The installation also includes details of workshops the organisation held where people could go along and find out more about aspects of their work (and maybe get involved).

I’ve left till last the fourth installation which, on 4 December, was announced as the winner of the 2018 Turner Prize.

Charlotte Prodger’s Bridgit

Prodger is a Scottish lesbian. She has been working with the moving image for over 20 years during which time she has experimented with the changing technologies we use to capture images. In the words of the jury, she ‘deals with identity politics, particularly from a queer perspective. Using a range of technologies from old camcorders to iPhones, Prodger’s films build a complex narrative exploring relationships between queer bodies, landscape, language, technology and time.’

Bridgit is her most autobiographical work to date. It was shot on her iphone over the course of a year, capturing scenes around her including (the ones I saw) her cat lying on her bed, some impressive standing stones in a field with a mountain in the background, and the back of a ferry recording the white wake continually unfurling across the sea behind.

Over this are ‘found’ sounds like the radio on in the background, cars, planes, the rain. But also Prodger reading out excerpts from her journal in which she talks about coming out, working in a care home, and the experience of going under anaesthetic.

The work’s title comes from the neolithic goddess, Bridgit, whose name and associations have altered across time and location. She is not only a sort of presiding spirit over some of the Scottish locations Prodger films, but an example of the way ‘identity’ is unstable and fissiparous.

Still from Bridgit by Charlotte Prodger

Still from Bridgit by Charlotte Prodger

I walked in just as Prodger was reading part of her journal:

Names themselves weren’t codified as personal descriptors until the Domesday book. The idea behind taking a name appropriate to one’s current circumstance was that identity isn’t static. The concept of one’s public and private self, separately or together, changes with age or experience (as do the definitions of public and private); and the name or label or the identity package is an expression of that concept.

Now, 1. I’m not sure that’s true about Domesday. I just happen to have been looking at the Domesday book a few weeks ago in the British Library’s fabulous exhibitions about the Anglo-Saxons and whereas Anglo-Saxon churls may not have recorded names, I’m pretty sure the Norman aristocracy had very clearly defined names, and names, and nicknames, which often defined their roles. William the Conqueror.

And 2. It was just like being back at school with a teacher at the front of the room lecturing me. Or in a lecture hall back at college, and being lectured about the ideology of queerness and identity politics.

It always amuses me how the more PC art curators and artists will accuse the Victorians of heavy-handed moralising – but then praise to the skies the kind of art included in this show as radical and subversive when, quite clearly, it is equally committed as the Victorians to promoting, sustaining and forwarding the values of the day, the ideologies of our era – jam packed with ‘important’ and urgent social and moral messages.

The content may change but the Urge To Preach is an enduring feature of a certain kind of art, and is lapped up by a certain type of critic.

Thoughts

The most obvious conclusion from the show is that ‘art’ is being swallowed by ‘news’.

What was once the specialist field of news and current affairs journalism is now slap bang centre stage in three of the four works shortlisted for Britain’s biggest art prize.

The judges and some critics I’ve read called this ‘a political show’, maybe ‘the most political selection the Turner has ever made’.

I think that flatters both artists and jury. They can attend their gala champagne prize-winning dinner, funded by Banque National Paris (the eighth largest bank in the world), hand out the cheques for twenty-five grand, and still be under the flattering delusion that they are ‘radicals’ who are ‘changing the world’.

But there is a very big difference indeed between politics and news. News flashes onto our TV screens, laptop and mobile phone screens in a blizzard of outrage and anger. Twitter storms. Social media hurricanes. Trump says something stupid. Corbyn says something sexist. Black man shot in Los Angeles. Riots in Paris. Brexit latest. Ukraine latest. Jose Mourinho latest.

News is about making a big splash with sensational or tricksy coverage of essentially ephemeral incidents. News is here in a great flurry of excitement and then… gone, forgotten, yesterday’s tittle-tattle, only good for wrapping up chips.

Politics, on the other hand, is defined as:

the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties seeking or trying to maintain power

Politics requires long-term planning to organise large bodies of people behind mass movements working for well defined social and economic ends, usually laid out in a manifesto or campaign pledges. It takes a lot of planning and involves mobilising millions of people.

If there is a spectrum with news at one end and serious, mass movement politics at the other, all the exhibits in this show are at the news end.

Moreover, when it comes to the use of video as a medium, the movement of news reporting away from newspapers and magazines, and its dominance by television coverage, has been one of the notable aspects of the past fifty years (with much lamentation from old-school journalists). Flashy footage of missiles taking off or people rioting has, during my lifetime, replaced the more sober analysis of events which you used to get in newspapers and news magazines. (They still exist, obviously, but their readerships have steadily declined.)

In this respect too – by virtue of the simple fact that all four entries consisted almost entirely of video footage – the Turner Prize hasn’t become more political – it has become more like the news.

Therefore, for what it’s worth, in my opinion this year was not particularly political. It was intensely newsy. It made big headlines with tricksy and inventive ways of covering essentially ephemeral stories.

In fact, even as news, the stories fall short.

The subjects tackled in these videos may epitomise long-running political issues – American police are racist, refugees have a hard time, the Israeli security forces can get away with killing unarmed Arabs – but none of these stories actually is news. They are the opposite of news. They are in fact very old stories. They were well-established tropes when I was growing up in the 1970s.

Given all this, you could sum up the Turner Prize exhibition as a selection of yesterday’s news.

Even though there are good moments in all the presentations, even though Thompson’s hauntingly silent black victims, or Forensic Architecture’s amazingly detailed and techno-savvy reconstructions, or Naeem Mohaiemen’s airport man or Charlotte Prodger’s standing stones all have their moments – there’s something about the medium of video itself which feels insubstantial, cheap, and unrewarding.

It may be all-consuming while you watch it — but then is almost immediately forgotten. Just like the TV news. Watch it, be horrified by this, scandalised by that, chuckle at the final comedy item, go to bed – forget all about it.

Prodger’s very personal film was the exception, so maybe that’s why she won. Footage of beautiful Scottish scenery. Footage of her cat. Footage of a sea ferry. All shot very badly with her fingers over the lens half the time. Edited deliberately clumsily. And with a voiceover telling us identity is flexible and fluid and that people have to be free to express themselves.

Maybe it was the very familiarity of these tropes which made the piece seem so already-seen, like a hundred other home-made art-school efforts lecturing us about queer identity – which gave the judges such a reassuring sense of familiarity. The stretches of it which I watched were certainly very restful.

Videos of the four finalists

There are short videos devoted to each of the four finalists.

Naeem Mohaiemen

Forensic Architecture

Luke Willis Thompson

Charlotte Prodger

A brief promo video for the whole show.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Roman Vishniac Rediscovered @ The Jewish Museum

The current exhibition, Roman Vishniac Rediscovered, is taking place at two London venues: half at the Photographers’ Gallery, just off Oxford Street, half at the Jewish Museum, a few minutes walk from Camden tube. I’ve already reviewed the half of the exhibition on display at the Photographers’ Gallery.

When he died in New York in 1990, Vishniac left his negatives, prints, correspondence and so on to the International Centre of Photography. The Vishniac Archive now houses more than 50,000 objects, including vintage prints, moving footage, contact sheets, personal correspondence, audio recordings, and a staggering 10,000 negatives. The process of digitising and reviewing them only began in 2012.

Sara, sitting in bed in a basement dwelling, with stencilled flowers above her head, Warsaw (c.1935-37) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Sara, sitting in bed in a basement dwelling, with stencilled flowers above her head, Warsaw (c.1935-37) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The result of all this is that:

  1. sorting through the archive is an ongoing scholarly quest, which has only just begun and has already thrown up surprises and discoveries
  2. already it has generated so much material that the first major exhibition of Roman Vishniac’s work, originally held in New York, wouldn’t fit into just the Photographers’ Gallery in London. And so it has been shared between the Photographers’ Gallery and here, at the Jewish Museum, where it occupies the entire top floor of the building.
Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Jewish Museum, London

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Jewish Museum, London

The lady on the door explained how the show had been divided between the two spaces: the Photographers’ Gallery show focuses more on Visniac’s technique, approach and achievements as a photographer; whereas the Jewish Museum selection, as you might expect, embeds him more into the Jewish tradition, bringing out his Jewish subject matter, and the themes of contemporary Jewry which he photographed and recorded.

An example is the room dedicated to the 1947 book, The Vanished World. This was issued by the Yiddish magazine and publisher, the Forward Foundation, based in New York, and brought together images of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe by a number of photographers, including Alter Kacyzne, Menachem Kipnis, Vishniac and others.

The Vanished World contained over 550 densely packed images (150 by Vishniac) conveying the richness of those communities even though, by the time the book was published, they had been almost entirely destroyed. In the room devoted to The Vanished World are displayed not only a copy of this rare volume, but a selection of individual prints, as well as correspondence and notes surrounding its creation.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Jewish Museum showing the room devoted to The Vanished World

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Jewish Museum showing the room devoted to The Vanished World

As at the PG, the JM show places a production like this in the broader context of Vishniac’s astonishing life and prolific output, all displayed in chronological order. I counted 15 distinct areas or themes, including:

  • 1920s-30s street photography in Berlin
  • 1930-37 the Nazi rise to power
  • German Jewish charitable organisations
  • Jewish life in eastern Europe 1935-38
  • agrarian camps for Jews in Holland c.1938
  • travel, refuge and internment in France 1938
  • Jewish life in the Carpathians – an exhibition held in New York 1945
  • New York studio portraits
  • New York night clubs
  • the face of America at war
  • Berlin in ruins 1947
  • displaced persons camps in Germany 1947
  • scientific microscopy 1950s – 1970s

Vishniac’s oeuvre as a whole amounts to an awesome x-ray of the tormented middle years of the twentieth century.

The blurb here and at the Photographers’ Gallery say that Vishniac is best known for the photojournalism he did among the severely impoverished Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in the later 1930s, and this photo of happy kids is meant to be his most famous image.

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Thus both exhibitions claim to be expanding – rediscovering – the full range of Visniac’s work, and setting the Eastern Europe stuff in the much broader context of his oeuvre. But since I’d never heard of Vishniac before, and wasn’t particularly aware that he is, apparently, the single biggest influence on ‘contemporary notions of Jewish life in Eastern Europe’, the whole thing – his entire oeuvre – came as an equal revelation to me.

Thus I was as entranced by his images of day-to-day life in the Berlin of the 1920s and early 1930s as by any of the specifically Jewish subject matter.

People behind bars, Berlin Zoo, ca. 1930-1935 © Mara Vishniac Kohn

People behind bars, Berlin Zoo, ca. 1930-1935 © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Certainly there seemed to be more about the photos he took in Eastern Europe in the late 1930s, more documentation and explanation of how they were used by the Jewish charities who commissioned Vishniac to take them, than there had been at the Photographers’ Gallery. But it was by no means all synagogues and rabbis; in fact, in a way, I was surprised at the relative scarcity of overtly religious photos. What came over for me, from this selection, was just the general poverty. The figures in the photos may or may not have been Jewish but, God, the snow and the pelting rain and the dirty streets and the shabby buildings and the filthy rooms. I was struck, horrified, oppressed by the sense of universal poverty, of millions of central and east Europeans living in poverty and want. And that was before the strutting Overmen goosemarched in with their plans for a New Europe which ended in typhoid camps and piles of half-burned bodies. What horror. What horror upon horror.

Isaac Street, Kazimierz, Cracow (1935-7) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Isaac Street, Kazimierz, Cracow (1935-7) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

It is an immense relief when the exhibition moves on to Vishniac’s arrival in New York, home of skyscrapers, comic books, movie stars, nightclubs, jazz, and about to see the birth of Abstract Expressionism. It is like escaping from a nightmare and presumably that’s how it felt to so many of the European refugees. Now they could just get on with living their lives. There’s no doubting that America really was the Home of the Free for the vital years at the centre of the Dark Century.

I always remember the way Kurt Weill – remembered for his collaborations with the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, most famously for the Threepenny Opera – as soon as he arrived as a refugee in new York, immediately dropped the politics and the poverty and the proletariat of his entire previous career, and switched to trying to write shiny, optimistic musicals to match Rodgers and Hammerstein and the rest. I can see how it was just not the need to make money in a completely different milieu. It was also the escape from what must have seemed like an endless nightmare. Similarly, W.H. Auden dropped his left-wing politics and completely rethought his position on the basis of a newfound existentialist type of Christian faith.

Well, similarly, Vishniac’s photos of New York are portraits of the famous, snaps of exciting, open and free nightclubs and jazz acts, and (something both exhibitions comment on) a focus on healthy young children. Possibly because that’s what the American market called for. But also as a release from the bottomless poverty and misery he had seen in central and eastern Europe. Civilisation, not barbarism.

Boys exercising in the gymnasium of the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn (1949) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Boys exercising in the gymnasium of the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn (1949) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The exhibition ends with a small dark room in which you can sit on a bench and watch no fewer than 90 slides of the colour microphotographs Vishniac took from the 1950s onwards, and which made him a much sought-after specialist.

He produced these stunning images for corporate clients like IBM, Westinghouse, and Pfizer as well as for magazines like Life, OMNI, and Popular Photography.

Again, the visual range is extraordinary, from wonderful photos of coloured jellyfish apparently suspended in black space, to close-ups of the eyes and bodies of various insects, and to unnerving microphotos of the structure of bodily substances like hormones, skin and hair, magnified so much that they look like modernist abstract paintings.

Central core root tissue by Roman Vishniac

Central core root tissue by Roman Vishniac

I sat there for five minutes, watching them all. Something about the rather lurid colour palette transported me back to the kind of basic science books I must have read as a kid at school or in the library in the late 1960s and early 70s.

As I mentioned in my Photographers’ Gallery review, the quickest way to get an overview of Vishniac’s career and importance is via this interview with exhibition curator, Maya Benton.

He was a wonderful photographer, and the necessity of visiting the two locations – the Photographers’ Gallery and the Jewish Museum – gives a kind of stereoscopic, three-dimensional effect, viewing the same story but from different angles, the same basic chronology illustrated with different examples of his work, bringing it wonderfully, sometimes harrowingly, to life.


Related links

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

Vasantha Yogananthan: A Myth of Two Souls @ the Photographers’ Gallery

When visiting the Photographers’ Gallery in Soho you are generally signposted towards the big exhibitions on the top three floors, so it would be easy to overlook the fact that there’s also a small exhibition space down in the basement.

Downstairs, next to the gallery’s extensive book shop, is the Print Sales Gallery where you can buy and order prints of a wide range of photographers, and where they also showcase the work of new and young photographers.

Currently three walls of the room are livened up by fifteen big, bright, digital prints by Vasantha Yogananthan.

Seven Steps, from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan © Vasantha Yogananthan

Seven Steps, from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan © Vasantha Yogananthan

Born in 1985 in France of Sri Lankan extraction, Yogananthan as a boy was read stories by his father, including the Indian legend of The Ramayana. First recorded by the Sanskrit poet Valmiki around 300 BC, the Ramayana went on to become one of the founding epics of Hindu mythology. The poem narrates the struggle of the divine prince Rama to rescue his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana.

Prince Rama travels the length of the country to find his wife, along the way meeting characters who have become embodiments of virtue and honour in Indian society. The story ‘touches on universal themes of violence, discrimination and infidelity’.

When Yogananthan first visited India in 2013, he came face-to-face with the pervasiveness of myth and legend on the subcontinent. In a land steeped in ancient history, folklore and veracity are deeply intertwined, and attempting to disentangle the two can be futile.

‘I realised the distinction between truth and falsehood wasn’t important,’ says Yogananthan. ‘This was an important discovery for me, that this is where my photographs should lie – in this in-between world between physical reality and the imagined.’

And it occurred to Vasantha that he could use the ideas and motifs of the Ramayana as the inspiration and buried sub-text for a series of photos he could take of present-day India. The photos could be posed or staged in order to illustrate, or comment on, scenes and situations from the classic poem.

Longing for Love, from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan © Vasantha Yogananthan

Longing for Love, from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan © Vasantha Yogananthan

The result is A Myth of Two Souls, an ongoing photographic project, which records Yogananthan’s journeys across India, capturing the impact and pervasiveness of this omnipresent cultural myth on everyday Indian life. As the press release puts it:

Working exclusively in analogue, using large or medium format cameras that intentionally slow down the creative process, Vasantha’s projects are generally developed over long periods of time and harness a distinctive colour palette based on natural light.

Juxtaposing colour and hand-painted photography, the series interweaves fictional and historical stories, old and new traditions and offers a lyrical photographic reimagining of a classic tale and sits somewhere between documentary, fiction, mythology and reality.

The goal of the project is eventually to produce seven books of photos, corresponding to the seven books of the Ramayana, to be published over three years. Some of the photos were taken in black and white and then Yogananthan had them hand tinted by traditional Indian artists, resulting in a subtly distinctive Indian use of colour.

The colours, creamy and diffuse, match Yogananthan’s palette, but some details seem a little off – oversaturated tones, purple skies, and luminous shades of skin. The unearthly sensation this creates intensifies the sense of invention, the blurring of the line between fabulation and realism.

Twin Wings, from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan © Vasantha Yogananthan

Twin Wings, from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan © Vasantha Yogananthan

On the two occasions I’ve been to India it was very full, packed and teeming with human life.

In contrast, Yogananthan’s photos are very big and very beautiful but often very empty. Even when there are human figures in them they appear rather spectral and this, along with the slight disorientation produced by the hand-tinting, conveys an eerie sense of ghostliness, of wordless presences haunting an other-worldly landscape.

Vanar and Markat, from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan © Vasantha Yogananthan

Vanar and Markat, from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan © Vasantha Yogananthan

Simple, easy, accessible and wonderful to look at. Prints of all 15 works can be bought in varying sizes at prices ranging from £1,400 to £4,000 (+ VAT).


Related links

Reviews of other Photographers’ Gallery exhibitions

Roman Vishniac Rediscovered @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Prepare to be stunned, upset and amazed at this major exhibition showcasing the incredibly long and varied career of Russian-born, Jewish-American photographer, Roman Vishniac (1897–1990).

The vast archive of Vishniac’s work in New York contains tens of thousands of items and so the exhibition is so copious it is not only spread across two floors at the Photographers’ Gallery, but is also being co-hosted by the Jewish Museum, in north London.

It includes recently discovered vintage prints, rare and ‘lost’ film footage from his pre-war period, contact sheets, personal correspondence, original magazine publications and newly created exhibition prints as well as his acclaimed photomicroscopy.

The quickest way to get an overview of Vishniac’s career and importance is via this interview with exhibition curator, Maya Benton.

I’d never heard of him before but the commentary tells us that Vishniac is best known for having created one of the most widely recognised and reproduced photographic records of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars. Maybe I’ve seen his photos in various history books of the period, but never registered his name.

Russia 1897-1920

Born in Pavlovsk, Russia in 1897 to a Jewish family, Roman Vishniac was raised in Moscow. On his seventh birthday, he was given a camera and a microscope which inspired a lifelong fascination with photography and science. He began to conduct early scientific experiments by attaching the camera to the microscope and, as a teenager, became both an avid amateur photographer and a student of biology, chemistry and zoology.

Berlin 1920-33

In 1920, following the Bolshevik Revolution, Vishniac immigrated to Berlin. Armed with two cameras, a Rolleiflex and a Leica, Vishniac joined some of the city’s many flourishing camera clubs and took to the streets to record everyday life.

He was influenced by the advent of modernist art with its interest in unusual framing, strange geometries, experimental camera angles, and the dramatic use of light and shade. His subject was the people of the streets: streetcar drivers, municipal workers, day labourers, protesting students, children at play, the eeriness of public spaces.

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Nazis 1933-39

The later 1920s saw the rise of the Nazi Party which finally achieved political power in January 1933. Jews were forbidden to take photographs on the street. German Jews had their businesses boycotted, were banned from many public places and expelled from Aryanised schools. They were also prevented from pursuing careers in law, medicine, teaching, and photography, among the many other indignities and curtailments of civil liberties.

Vishniac used his skills to document the growing signs of oppression, the loss of rights for Jews, the rise of Nazism in Germany, the proliferation of swastika flags and military parades, which were taking over both the streets and daily life.

Vishniac's daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads 'The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights', Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Vishniac’s daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads ‘The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights’, Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden

Charities had long existed in Germany to channel help to poor Jews in Eastern Europe. From 1933 onwards they also helped Jews in the Fatherland. Zionist and other groups flourished which trained would-be émigrés in the practical agricultural and vocational skills they would need in their new lives in Palestine.

In response to restrictions placed on Jewish artists, the Jüdischer Kulturbund was established and Vishniac was commissioned to record the work of several large Jewish community and social service organisations in Berlin.

His images were used in fundraising campaigns for an American donor audience. This work brought him to the attention of a wide variety of other charitable and philanthropic groups, in Europe and America, which were to provide him with further commissions from Jewish relief and community organisations throughout the 1940s and 50s.

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish life in Eastern Europe 1935-38

In 1935 Vishniac was hired by the European HQ of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – the world’s largest Jewish relief organisation – to document impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. The photos were to be used in lectures, magazines, presentations in the wealthy West to drum up donations.

Over the next four years Vishniac travelled extensively in the region, documenting the impact of anti-Semitic restrictions on populations who were already impoverished, in cities, towns and rural settlements. The technical proficiency and variety and impact of this big body of work ended up turning into something different from what was originally envisaged: it became the last extensive photographic record of an entire way of life that had existed for centuries and was about to be swept away forever.

Here, as in all the aspects of his career, the exhibition doesn’t just show the photos but also has display cases presenting the outputs of these projects: books, magazine articles, slide shows, with texts by Vishniac himself or other writers.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers’ Gallery

Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp 1938

As the plight of German’s Jews worsened many families got their children to join Zionist organisations or sent them to camps in neutral countries. Among these was the Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp in the Netherlands where young Jews could work at practical crafts while waiting for visas to travel to Palestine.

In 1938 Vishniac was sent by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to document the community. He used the heroic style common to Soviet propaganda photography of the 1920s – fit young men and women working in bright sunshine, shot from low angles to make them look big and powerful – to convey the sense of strong determined Jews building a better future.

In 1941 the SS ordered the inhabitants of the camp who hadn’t managed to flee to be sent to transit camps en route to concentration camps, where most of them died.

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

France 1939

From April to September 1939 Vishniac worked as a freelance photographer in France, while he and his wife struggled to get a visa to America. Vishniac was commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to photograph a vocational training school for Jewish refugees near Marseille.

It so happened that Visniac’s own parents had relocated to Nice in 1937, where he went to visit them and managed to take a series of light-hearted photos of Riviera beach life. So many angles, so many lights to his career.

Arrest and escape

In late 1939 Vishniac was arrested by the French authorities and placed in the Camp du Ruchard. His wife lobbied to secure his release and the pair, and their children, then took ship from Lisbon to New York, arriving on New Year’s Eve 1940.

Settling into his new American home opened up a range of possibilities. On the one hand Vishniac was still deeply attached to the Jewish community in Europe. He lobbied on their behalf and the exhibition includes a letter he wrote in 1942 directly to President Roosevelt, including five photographs, asking him to intervene in Europe to save the Jews.

Professionally, he was able to recycle the immense archive of photos from Eastern Europe in a number of exhibitions designed to highlight their plight, including a 1944 show Pictures of Jewish Life in Prewar Poland which has a slot to itself here, featuring images from Warsaw, Lublin and Wilno, presented on their original display boards.

In 1945 he was given a second exhibition, Jewish Life in the Carpathians. Both were organised by the Yiddish Scientific Institute of Wilno which had also fled to New York.

In the same spirit Vishniac’s work was included in a 1947 book titled The Vanished World edited by Raphael Abramovitch.

It was these exhibitions, books, magazine articles and reviews which established Vishniac’s lasting reputation as the chronicler of the now-lost world of European Jewry.

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Immigrants, refugees and emigre life

But many had managed to flee and now found themselves in an alien land. The exhibition devotes a section to ‘immigrants, refugees, and New York Jewish community life 1941 to 47’.

Through the network of philanthropical agencies he had developed in Europe, Vishniac got work with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the National Refugee Society who paid for him to photograph new shiploads of refugees, and document their efforts to start a new life, and the inspiring work of Jewish social services and community groups.

Surprisingly, maybe, this section features many shots of children looking remarkably fit and healthy and well-fed. After the abject poverty of Eastern Europe, and then the miserable persecution of the Nazis, Visniac, along with many immigrants, wanted to accentuate the positive and make images of the new life in America full of youth, energy and optimism.

America at war 1941-44

Alongside these is a section where Vishniac applied the street photography skills he had honed in Berlin to New York, in a strikingly varied series of shots which include sequences shot in New York’s Chinese community, shoppers queueing for rationed food, women’s entry into the military, off duty soldiers, and so on.

Customers waiting in line at a butcher's counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Customers waiting in line at a butcher’s counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

New York life

In New York, Vishniac established himself as a freelance photographer and built a successful portrait studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He used his connections with the Jewish diaspora to secure portraits of eminent Jewish émigrés including Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall and Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon. These VIP shots helped to attract other dancers, actors, musicians and artists to his studio and provide a steady supply of work.

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Alongside the studio work, he began a new series of shots made on location in New York’s countless nightclubs, featuring jazz musicians, dancers, singers and performers in a variety of settings, playing or relaxing backstage. Fascinating and evocative.

Back to Europe

In 1947 Vishniac was again commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, this time to return to Europe and document refugees and relief efforts in Jewish Displaced Persons camps, recording a wide array of relief activities such as the distribution of food and clothing, education and so on

He also got the opportunity to return to Berlin, city of his young manhood, now reduced to rubble. The same locations which hummed with life in his Weimar photos are now rubble-strewn ruins and vacancies. Pitiful remnants.

Photomicroscopy

As if this large body of invaluable documentary and street photography wasn’t enough, Vishniac never lost interest in his first love, scientific photography. And once he was financially secure in America he was able to pick it up with renewed enthusiasm, especially in photography of the very small, or ‘photomicroscopy’.

This field became the primary focus of his work during the last 45 years of his life, till his death in 1990. By the mid-1950s, he was regarded as a pioneer in the field, developing increasingly sophisticated techniques for photographing and filming microscopic life forms.

Classic examples of Vishniac's photomicrography (all magnifications as noted on originals): A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac's thumb," colorization", x40, 1950s-1962. Mara Vishniac Kohn recalls her father slicing this specimen from his thumb. (Radzyner 2106B) B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10, 1950s-1962. C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100, 1950s-1970s. D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100, early 1950s-1970s © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

Examples of Vishniac’s photomicrography: A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac’s thumb, ‘colorization’, x40 (1950s-1962). B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10 (1950s-1962) C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100 (1950s-1970s) D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100 (early 1950s-1970s) © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

In 1961 Vishniac was appointed Professor of Biology Education at Yale University, and his groundbreaking images and scientific research were published in hundreds of magazines and books.

The exhibition includes a darkened room where you can watch a slide show of 90 blown-up transparencies from the 1950s to the 1970s, of Visniac’s full colour plates of scientific subjects – ranging from the cells of various organs in the body, to close-ups of fungal spores or of insect eyes. Nearby is a case displaying the actual microscope and lenses he used in this work.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Microscope and lenses used by Roman Vishniac in his photomicroscopy work

What an amazing life! What a breath-taking achievement! This is a wonderful exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other Photographers’ Gallery exhibitions

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Silver Lake Drive is a major new exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, the first mid-career survey of American photographer and filmmaker, Alex Prager (b.1979). The exhibition stretches over two floors, tracing Prager’s career especially over the last ten years, bringing together 40 photographs and all six of her films to date.

Be warned: I loathed this exhibition. It epitomises for me almost everything I hate about modern America, modern art and modern culture.

3:14pm, Pacific Ocean, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist

3:14pm, Pacific Ocean, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist

The end of America

Let’s take a moment to consider, quite literally, where Alex Prager is coming from – the United States of America.

Although it has by far the largest economy in the world ($20.4 trillion, compared to China’s $14 trillion and Japan’s $5 trillion), is at the forefront of the digital revolution, and bombards the world with its cultural products and brands, to the educated outsider it sometimes seems as if America has become, in the past generation or so, in many ways a failing state. Consider:

– America’s war on terror, its invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, its extraordinary rendition, its black op sites, its legalising of torture and its waterboarding, its use of drone warfare to bring death from the skies all across the Muslim world.

– America’s dire race relations, its black men shot on a weekly basis by its racist police, home of the largest prison population in the world (2.2 million), mostly blacks and Hispanics.

– America’s war on drugs, kicked off by President Nixon back in 1971 and a dismal failure, 21 million Americans now battle serious drug addictions, the curator of the Thomas Cole art exhibition was telling me last week how terrifying the scale and destruction of the opioid epidemic is becoming.

– Entire American cities like Detroit, Birmingham and Flint have gone bankrupt, abandoned in smouldering ruins, urban wastelands, blighted generations.

– America’s high school massacres (23 so far this year) are just the most tip of by far the highest rate of murder by firearm in the developed world, some 11,000 homicides involving guns occurred in 2016, but despite this, the pitiful inability of America’s lawmakers to rein in gun ownership.

– America’s shameful healthcare system which condemns scores of millions of citizens (11% of Americans have no health insurance) to misery, unnecessary pain and death.

– America’s grotesque inequality, with 750,000 Americans sleeping rough every night and 21 percent of all children in poverty, a higher rate than any other developed country. In 2011 the 400 wealthiest Americans owned more wealth than the bottom 50% of all Americans combined.

– America’s elephantine consumption of resources, with 5% of the world’s population it consumes 25% of the world’s fossil fuels and creates half the world’s solid waste.

– America’s pioneering place in the forefront of consumer capitalism, vast corporations devoted to the creation of entirely false needs and wants, slick American marketing and merchandising of junk food, junk music and junk movies to screw money out of a glamour-bedazzled population of drones. Fat food and fizzy drinks rich in high-fructose corn syrup have helped just over 40% of Americans to be categorised as obese.

– America’s new wave of digital corporations busy embedding surveillance devices (mobile phones and tablets) in every home in the world, recording every phone call, tracking all your movements, logging every ‘like’, in order to build up data profiles of every human on the planet on a scale the Stasi or the KGB could only dream of.

– America’s rotten political culture which means the two main parties can barely talk to each other, a paralysing political polarisation which regularly prevents the signing-off of the federal budget and so brings the entire government to the brink of collapse. America with its Tea Party and its Moral Majority and its President Trump. Nations get the leaders they deserve and so America awarded itself a bullshit artist, a dumb-ass, know-nothing, braggart, pussy-grabbing bully-boy.

This is America today.

Thank you Lord Jesus for Donald Trump

Thank you Lord Jesus for Donald Trump (Photo NOT by Alex Prager, courtesy of Business Insider)

Why fetishise American culture?

Why on earth would any other nation look up to or respect this toxic, spoilt, inequitable, over-privileged, environment-destroying, resource-stripping, war-mongering, increasingly unhappy and fractured country?

But despite all this, the British cultural élite loves America. Film critics, art critics, literature critics, theatre critics, ballet critics, music critics, photography critics fall over themselves to praise the flood of cultural imports from the land of hyper-capitalism, drug abuse, gun violence and its mindless, debasing, consumer culture which pours over Britain and Europe like mass-marketed, slush-puppie-flavoured effluent (this week’s cultural highlights including Solo: A Star Wars Movie, Deadpool 2, Jurassic World and Ocean’s 8).

Alex Prager’s America

To me, Alex Prager’s photographs and films come right from the core of this drugged-out, unwittingly privileged, terrifyingly shallow and superficial culture. It takes a lot of effort to be this heartlessly narcissistic.

The Big Valley: Susie and Friends (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The Big Valley: Susie and Friends (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The big picture

Americans like big. Big Mac, Big Whopper, extra fries, large Coke, Cinemascope, three-D movies, Technicolor, widescreen, obesity, surplus, excess.

Same here. Prager’s photos are enormous, so big that each one gets a wall to itself.

Installation view of Alex Prager at the Photographers' Gallery

Installation view of Alex Prager at the Photographers’ Gallery

Not only big, but very LOUD – overlit and packed with pin-prick, crystal-clear, digitally-enhanced details, a surfeit, a superfluity, a plethora of minutiae.

There are no out-of-focus backgrounds in Prager’s photos, no receding depths of mystery. Nothing is mysterious, not visually mysterious. There is job lot after job lot of Americans posed and photoed in hyper-real, digital clarity.

Sets and actors

What is the source of this hyper-reality?

Well, from the start of her career Prager’s approach has been to shoot on movie sets, creating carefully staged scenes heightened by hyper-styled costumes, over-makeup, bright lighting and the use of a richly saturated colour palette, all of which are designed to give the images a relentless visual intensity.

There is nowhere for the eye to rest. There are no shadows or out of focus bits to provide light and shade.

Thus, all of the people in this photo are actors, hired for the job, elaborately dressed, made-up, staged and arranged in order to create an entirely fake composition, posing as a slice of reality, while all the time knowingly signposting its own artificiality.

The main strategy of all Prager’s photos (and films) is to draw attention to their own artificiality.

Crowd #3 (Pelican Beach), 2013 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Crowd #3 (Pelican Beach) 2013 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

That’s it. If you like elaboration, artifice, contrivance, kitsch and camp and fakery, then you’ll love the arch, knowing tone of Prager’s work. You’ll love the way her ‘Americans’ dress in a distinctively off-kilter way: the women generally wearing 1960s hairdos and dresses, many of the men sporting hats as if they’re extras from the Mad Men TV series.

Anaheim, 2017 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Anaheim (2017) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Grist for intellectual theorists

If you’re an intellectual who likes this kind of artifice and contrivance, this is precisely the kind of knowing, self-referentiality which has been celebrated and theorised by (predominantly French) critics for the past 60 years: the names of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault spring to mind and I’m sure appropriate texts can be mined from all of them to pad out descriptions of Prager’s hypertextuality and cultural intersections, with maybe a splash of Deleuze and Guattari thrown in, not forgetting Jean Baudrillard who theorised that reality had ceased to exist since we now live in a world entirely mediated by screens and images.

It is art designed to go straight from cultural producer to cultural analyst without its feet touching the ground.

Installation view of Alex prager at the Photographers' Gallery

Installation view of Alex Prager at the Photographers’ Gallery

And if you’re into film theory, there is literally no end to what you could find to write about Prager’s referencing of her 1960s filmic look and style, her use of actors and scenes and so on. And that’s before you get around to the fact that she has, with a kind of deadening inevitability, herself started making films.

Or, as the exhibition introduction puts it:

Prager’s distinctive works cross the worlds of art, fashion, photography and film, exposing the human melodrama and dark unsettling undercurrents that are threaded through her subject matter. Referencing the aesthetic principles of mid-twentieth century Hollywood cinema and fashion photography, as well as such photographers as William Eggleston, Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman, each of her images is packed with a multitude of emotional layers and narrative possibilities.

Are they ‘packed with a multitude of emotional layers’, though? Do they ‘expose the human melodrama and dark unsettling undercurrents that are threaded through her subject matter’?

Where is the melodrama in a load of actors posing on a set made to look like a beach?

Influences

Picking up on the photographers mentioned in that last sentence, some of Diane Arbus (1923-71)’s magnificent photos of circus ‘freaks’ were featured in the recent Barbican exhibition about Another Kind of Life. I’ve loved Arbus’s work ever since I watched a documentary about her back in the 1970s. She holds an unflinching lens up to a bewildering array of life’s outsiders, freaks and unfortunates. Unlike Prager, Arbus has soul (albeit a troubled, sometimes bewildered kind of soul).

Cindy Sherman seems a much more relevant comparison. Born in 1954, Sherman is known for her ‘conceptual portraits’ i.e. where she or a model dresses up in a persona, generally of a troubled, challenged or weeping woman, before photographing herself.

This approach, of dressing up and performing for the camera, in its knowing artificiality, in its arch mockery of any genuine feeling or emotion, seems to me a direct precedent for Prager.

Dazed women in the photos of Alex Prager

About half the time Prager’s photos focus on women, often in distress or with the blank ‘so what’ look of Valiumed-up housewives.

Here a characteristically thirty-something woman, dressed in a characteristically retro, 1960s dress and jacket, is having trouble coping with a flock of pigeons. A reference to Hitchcock’s The Birds, by any chance? Fancy writing an essay about Hitchcock and Prager? Go right ahead. Hundreds already have. Thousands will…

The empty road and dominating power lines (along with the comedy knock knees) emphasise the sense of abandonment, alienation and helplessness. Help me, help me.

The Big Valley: Eve (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The Big Valley: Eve (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Crowds

Prager’s best-known series is probably Crowd which depicts crowds on the beach, in airport lobbies, in seats at the theatre, each figure presented in isolated poses with a kind of hyper-realistic, super sharp focus. The curators think that these photos draw:

attention to individual characters and stories and hint at interior lives, separate from outward appearances.

Personally, I found them contrived, artificial and intensely irritating. Note the late 1950s/early 1960s clothes and haircuts in this photo, reminiscent, in its fake homeliness, of the Back to the Future movies.

Orchestra East, Section B (2016) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Orchestra East, Section B (2016) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The only upside to looking at some of the photos was that, after a while, I noticed the recurrence of certain faces, presumably the same actors dressed and set up in different scenarios.

In particular, I began to hope that the light-brown-haired woman dominating this shot, and who appears in a number of other photos, was really Matt Lucas who might at any moment start to mutter catchphrases from Little Britain. ‘Computer says no,’ maybe, or, ‘Want that one’, which would be particularly suitable for American gluttony.

But no. My puerile sense of humour is way out of place. There is no humour, no warmth, no emotion, not a flicker of irony or sparkle in any of these photos. Just digitally print-perfect robots dressed as people, sometimes in crowds (on the beach, in the theatre, drowning in the sea) sometimes solitary women having breakdowns, sometimes in deliberately bizarre and contrived situations.

3:32pm, Coldwater Canyon, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist

3:32pm, Coldwater Canyon, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist

For fans and devotees of Prager, I can see how there is not only masses to write about her artful ‘intersection’ of Hollywood, consumer culture and the artifice of everyday life but, also, and inevitably, with a feminist perspective on the role of women in her photos (and films).

American feminism that is, feminism drenched in American cultural values i.e. a particular type of rich, white entitlement. (‘Hillary should have won. It’s our time. Me too. I want more. Give us more.’) Thus the curators:

The female figure functions as a central protagonist in Prager’s tableaux and is singled out for attention through composition, camera angle and costume. The women in her frames are often shot in extreme close-up to capture exaggerated emotion, wear highly styled and codified clothes and sport elaborate, improbable hairstyles.

The Big Valley: Desiree (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The Big Valley: Desiree (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Does this photo of a woman capture her ‘exaggerated emotion’? I’d have thought that that is exactly and precisely what all of Prager’s photos do not do. Surely that should read ‘exaggerated indifference’.

Dehumanised

On a different floor of the Photographers’ Gallery there’s currently a wonderful exhibition of black and white photos by English photographer, Tish Murtha, a documentary photographer who took quick, on-the-hoof but nonetheless beautifully composed and deeply moving photos of the unemployed, the poor and wretched of her hometown Newcastle, during the 1970s and 80s.

In almost every one of her photographs the humour, the cockiness, the indomotable charm of her subjects leaps out, alongside her own empathy, her compassion, her concern and her tremendous artistry.

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha and The Photographers’ Gallery

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha and The Photographers’ Gallery

All these human qualities – care, compassion, empathy, humour, fun, larking about, playing, joking, being in real trouble, helping each other out, community and concern – every faculty and emotion which make human existence worthwhile, rich and full, seem to me to have been surgically removed from Prager’s artificial pictures of artificial people leading artificial lives.

It is as if someone has rewritten Ira Levin’s horror classic The Stepford Wives to celebrate the transformation of human beings into emotionless, perfectly made-up, lemon-dress-wearing zombies.

They are like photographic accompaniments to David Byrne’s many songs about rich white Americans having nervous breakdowns.

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here? (Once in A Lifetime by Talking Heads, 1980)

Alex Prager’s films

Having spent so much time working with actors, sets and make-up it was pretty inevitable that Prager would take the small further step into the ‘medium of film’ itself. According to the gallery:

In her films, (which draw upon film noir, as well as the work of Maya Deren and Alain Resnais), women take centre stage in open-ended narratives, portraying a range of sharply contrasting emotional states – often with the camera trained in extreme close-up on their faces.

Her first film, Despair starred Bryce Dallas Howard, while her second short La Petite Mort (2012) starred French actress Judith Godreche, with narration from Gary Oldman. Prager sees these immersive film installations as ‘full-sensory versions’ of her photographs; an attempt ‘to show the before, now and after of one of my images.’

Indeed, the exhibition presents Prager’s entire filmic oeuvre on various monitors and in darkened rooms around the gallery, her oeuvre to date consisting of six films, namely:

2010 Despair starring Bryce Dallas Howard
2011 Touch of Evil
2012 La Petite Mort starring Judith Godreche, Gary Oldman
2012 Sunday
2013 Face in the Crowd starring Elizabeth Banks
2015 La Grande Sortie starring Emilie Cozette, Karl Paquette

Some of them are on YouTube. Judge for yourself.

Despair (2010)

The use of Bryce Dallas Howard, star of the unnecessary Jurassic World (2015, box office $1.672 billion) and the just-released Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Jurassic World but with an exploding volcano) says it all.

When Howard throws herself out of the window it isn’t as a result of any realistic emotion or psychology, but as emptily as a fashion statement. And she doesn’t fall, she floats elegantly, dreamily down as you might float on Valium or opioids, floating high in American La La Land where nothing means anything, where any human not on a screen or the cover of a fashion magazine fills you with stress and anxiety and the wish to escape.

‘Portraying a range of sharply contrasting emotional states’? Really? Surely it’s the opposite.

La Petite Mort (2012)

A student friend of mine, very stressed about his degree course, one night made a list of all the books he’d have to read in order to get the good degree everyone expected of him. He left it on his study table and walked down to the railway station. It was late at night, no one around, so he climbed down onto the line and walked it a bit, before carefully laying down with his neck precisely on the rail. A train came along and decapitated him.

Compare and contrast the messy, deeply upsetting reality of death-by-train with the opioid dream of Prager’s female character in this pretentious film. Hit by a joke train from a Keystone Cops movie, she flies cartoon-style through the air and lands in a pond from which she emerges with her hair totally untouched by the water, Valium-open-eyed at the whole experience.

I can hear a brainless Valley Girl, film studies student cooing over it: “It was like so totally, you know, like completely random, like so crazee, it’s just such a cool film, don’t you think she looks so cool when she comes out of the water, it’s like such a great idea, I totally love her films.”

For me films like this represent the death of film, the death of psychology, the death of intelligence, the death of culture.

Broadly speaking American culture reflects American society and American politics, which are all in a kind of life-after-death situation. The entire reason for there being a nation called America as a refuge from troublesome Europe, as a place to go and build a new life, as a place to live out the American Dream –

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

has evaporated. It is dead, defunct. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. The Wild West frontier was closed a century ago, there is nowhere left to emigrate to, no escape. Americans are all locked in with each other now, with the result that they over-eat, take vast quantities of mind-numbing drugs, and go on shooting sprees at their local schools or shopping malls.

America voted for a leader whose Big Idea is erecting huge walls to keep them at bay – them, the outsiders, the Mexicans, the Muslims, the enemies – and hunkering down in a paranoid Fortress State, making the misery more bearable by munching opioid painkillers and watching Alex Prager movies.

No reason left to exist and yet 325 million people are condemned to go on living in the wreckage of all those historical illusions and expectations, they don’t know why – taking mind-suppressing drugs to cope with the suburban accidie, staring blankly at their multiplicity of screens – toneless, affectless, incapable of communicating with other people, staring in bewilderment at each other as if they’re magazine adverts come to life.

Still from Despair by Alex Prager

Still from Despair by Alex Prager. Help. Help me.

Do any of the people in Prager’s films actually talk? You know, like, maybe talk to another person, to another human being? Speak? Communicate?

No. Because they are each trapped within the doped-out prisons of their own consciousnesses. Trapped in the solipsistic nightmare which is contemporary America. Lost, in every sense.

La Grande Sortie (2015)

Paris. Style. Fashion. The ballet. The stage. Performance. Artifice. Parting lips of sexual arousal. The uncanny. The sinister. The face in the audience. Help. HELP!

The unhappy country

Pity the Americans. So rich, and so unhappy.

“Over a broader time frame, our subjective well-being has declined across the board in each and every state, even as the economy has sprung back to life. America is growing increasingly unhappy.”

For me, Prager’s photographs and films – highly professional, carefully contrived and immaculately finished as they undoubtedly are – are at the same time blank-faced symptoms of America’s epic cultural and social decline.

Through them an entire nation is crying, ‘Help us. We don’t know how to talk to each other, how to communicate, how to feel anything any more. We don’t know how to live. Please, please help us.’

The neediness of all these rich white Americans made me want to puke.

But then again, maybe you like it. I’ve tried to present enough evidence a) for you to make your own mind up, and b) to explain my own, personal, rather extreme, anaphylactic abreaction to her work.

1970s album art

I had a strong sense of déjà vu all the way through the show’s two floors, a sense that I had seen its slick, gimmicky, elaborate heartlessness somewhere before.

It was only later, scanning the Intertubes, that I realised Prager’s photos remind me of rock album cover art from the 1970s, which was also designed to convey a sense of alienation, contrivance and cynicism by creating apparently realistic scenes offset by jarring details.

For example:

On the Beach by Neil Young

On the Beach by Neil Young (1974)

Or:

Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd, cover art by Hipgnosis

Wish You Were Here (1975) by Pink Floyd, cover art by Hipgnosis

These albums are both over forty years old. Nothing, it seems, changes in southern California, land of rich white people in therapy and on tranquilisers and, like, God, so depressed.


The book of the exhibition

Thames and Hudson are publishing a hardback survey of Prager’s work, Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive to coincide with the exhibition. It contains 120 photographs summarising Prager’s career to date.

Curator

Silver Lake Drive is curated by Nathalie Herschdorfer and produced in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts Le Locle.

Related links

Other blog posts about photography

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