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Archive for May, 2010

Photography’s arrival originally meant that the privilege of having your portrait painting was no longer reserved for the commissioning nobility. It was all about reporting simple fact. But the rapid popularisation of photography to capture life had two significant implications. The first relates to the art of painting, which, beaten in speed and price by the photograph, turned to conceptual abstraction and symbolists, in movements spearheaded by the likes of Monet and Seurat, and then Picasso and Braque. The second relates to photography itself, as we see in the Tate Modern’s major summer show this year, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera. What the camera could do which painting could not was capture a moment instantly, and discreetly – the photographer was driven, then, to explore this difference, and expand it. This makes for some intriguing voyeurism. Featuring snapshots from all walks of life, from the iconic to the anonymous, the exhibition reveals how there really can be no way of escaping the watching eye – or at least the camera in front of it.

One thing to note is that the show is, well, pretty huge. Sprawling through 14 rooms, it needs a good morning or afternoon to fully absorb. Adding to this is the fact that the pictures are in general small, often tiny. It’s not exactly a one-painting-per-wall situation – it’s a visual archive.

Often the unavoidable case with large exhibitions, the pigeon-holing of images into rooms, with names like “The Unseen Photographer,” “Voyeurism and Desire” and “Celebrity and the Public Gaze” seemed a little forced. But it did serve to draw attention to the question of the purpose of the image. The issue of the show is largely whether what is really photojournalism, or the handiwork of paparazzi, can be seen as art. In its fundamental intentions to adorn front pages perhaps not. The images of Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Burton taken by Felice Quinto, hailed as the world’s first paparazzo, were hardly “intentional art,” just as those of Princess Diana on holiday with Dodi Al Fayed prior to their deaths were not. But as a comment on today’s society – its unshakable concern with celebrity, spectatorship, surveillance and voyeurism (why else would there be a need for Heat, Hello or OK?) – is the purely documentary transformed into art? A photo may not have been born as art, but it may be transcribed as art – which probably says a lot more about us, now, than them, then. It’s rare to find a contemporary artist these days who is not making a statement, however subtle or restrained – that is what the market calls for.

Some of the comments made through Tate Modern’s show are shocking – lurid scenes captured by Mitch Epstein and Yoshiyuki come to the forefront, alongside Merry Alpern’s Dirty Windows series and Jordan Crandall’s unnerving film art.  The guilty pleasure of celeb-watching, demonstrated in images of stars from Marilyn Monroe in that famous white dress to a tearful Paris Hilton on her way to court, is extended to include a strange intrigue into gritty reportage. A man about to leap from a building, the same man mid-fall, the view of an execution chamber from the family viewing room, a woman being simultaneously groped by four men, a teenaged boy snorting drugs from a dirty bathroom….it’s all there, shot, framed and put on display for the viewing public until October. You may need a few trips to take it all in.

Having said that, there were some real gems that stood out. Among the Henri Cartier Bressons, Helmut Newtons, Man Rays, Lee Millers, Walker Evanses and Robert Franks (the exhibition does seem to cover everything it should cover) are new and fresh images by contemporary photographers printing on larger scales and using imaginative methods. In the first room, Walker Evans’s Subway Passengers, taken of unsuspecting subjects on the New York underground in the 1930s, are juxtaposed with Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads, photographed in the same city 70 years later, and yet blown up into adversely vast proportions. Here comes an interesting fact: when one of diCorcia’s unwitting subjects took legal action against the photographer, a landmark ruling came down, asserting the precedence of the artist’s right to self-expression over the subject’s right to their own image. In essence, the image was literally ‘captured’ – trapped and no longer belonging to its original owner. As did the widespread support of the I’m a Photographer not a Terrorist! campaign and the gathering in Trafalgar Square, this ruling was yet another sign of public re-evaluation of photography, now widely considered a legitimate art form.

Another contemporary piece, Oliver Lutz’s installation piece The Lynching of Leo Frank, was one of exhibition highlights, implicating the viewer not simply as spectator, but as part of the scene. Positioned within the frame, we are forced to imagine ourselves as part of the throng witnessing the 1915 hanging of Leo Frank, a Jewish man accused of murder but now regarded innocent. The work reminded me of another young artist, Reynir Hutber, whose Catlin Art Prize winning piece, Stay Behind the Line (a piece of video/performance art using looped video footage) allows the viewer to engage with a curled up figure in the room, when in fact the installation space is empty. Similarly in Lutz’s piece at Exposed, the encounter (determined by the audience’s interaction) prompts the question of responsibility – what part do we really play as the spectator?

In my eyes, this was one of two stars in the show. The other was the Minox Model B from 1958, a miniature camera in a size comparable to the niftiest designs today. This was something to wonder at, as were the old Leicas and Kodaks, glistening authoritatively in their weighty metal casing. Other artefacts from the 40s and 50s included mens shoes hiding cameras in their heels and miniature cameras designed to fit inside walking sticks and shirt pockets. Very James Bond. If James Bond were a photographer.

I could go on and on for hours – so you really should go see it. There will be things that excite, intrigue and offend, that cross lines of privacy and propriety. The images will provoke you and prompt you to think – which is what, after all, if we are to call photography a contemporary art, it should do.

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