A couple of shots from inside the YSP Visitor Centre with light streaming through the ceiling to floor length windows
While I was in Manchester last Saturday I called into the City Art Gallery to take a look at Strange and Familiar, an exhibition curated by Martin Parr featuring photographs of British society and culture by leading international photographers from the 1930’s onwards. It had previously been shown at the Barbican in London. It’s a large scale exhibition with over 250 photographs by 23 photographers and shown in a chronological order. There was a lot to take in and it is difficult to do justice to it in a relatively short post.
Publicity for the exhibition quotes Martin Parr as saying
“The exhibition will reveal a very different take on British life than that produced by British photographers. It is both familiar and strange at the same time.”
Having visited the exhibition a couple of times (I’d been previously not long after it first opened) I’m not certain I fully agree with him. The picture of Britain shown in the photographs from the 30’s up to the “swinging sixties” were familiar rather than strange, although taken from the perspective of International photographers from a number of countries, the photographs probably represented a realistic view of British culture and society.
The exhibition starts in the 1930’s with works by Edith Tudor-Hart. A lifelong Socialist, her work reflected her political commitment and the exhibition includes photographs by her of ordinary people in London’s East End and living in the slum housing areas of Tyneside.
Child Staring into Bakery Window, London ca. 1935 by Edith Tudor Hart
Other highlights for me included
- the marvellous photographs of people and landscapes from the Outer Hebrides in 1954 by Paul Strand, who left America in 1949, anxious about anti-Communist witch-hunts. They depict a proud, stoic community living in a stark, yet beautiful, environment.
- the Dutch photographer Cas Oorthuys photographs of Cambridge, London and Oxford – commuters queuing at bus stops, bowler-hatted city workers and London markets.
- The Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank’s photographs of a Welsh mining community
- The Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain’s expressive, Modernist photographs of London shot from unusual angles, with ground-level viewpoints, double exposures, blurring and innovative focusing.
- Photographs of London during the “Swinging Sixties” by American photographers Evelyn Hofer and Garry Winogrand, the German Frank Habicht and the Italian Gian Butturini
- The photographs of Bruce Davidson from the 60’s, especially his wonderful Girl Holding Kitten and his photographs from the Welsh mining community
- German photographer Candida Höfer’s photogrpahs of people and places in Liverpool in the late 60’s , many of them reminiscent of when I lived in Liverpool in the mid 70’s.
- The massive, closely cropped, stark colour portraits of ordinary people, (not exactly pretty) from Essex and West Brom
So much to see. So many excellent photographs. Much to learn from them.
St Martin-in-the-Field, Trafalgar Square
Back to London on business this week. I had a course to run on Monday and had to stay over on Sunday night so I decided to take a train that got me into the big smoke around midday so that I could spend the afternoon doing something interesting.
When we visited Tate Modern during our short break in London before Christmas, I didn’t get chance to see the exhibition of Modernist photographs from Elton John’s collection. Tate Modern is so big, especially since the new extension– the Switch House – opened. But as I’m particularly interested in the work of radical, inventive photographers from the 20th century, typified by Man Ray, I was particularly keen to visit the exhibition. So this was a good opportunity.
Elton John began buying photographs in 1990, and has since then his collection has grown so that he has around 8,000 prints covering the walls of his apartment in Atlanta, Georgia. He’s accumulated one of the world’s great private collections of modernist photographs. A relatively small proportion have been selected for the Tate’s exhibition. There were plenty of photographs by Man Ray and other well known 20th Century photographers, but there were discoveries too.
With over 70 artists and nearly 150 rare vintage prints on show from seminal figures including Brassai, Imogen Cunningham, André Kertész, Dorothea Lange, Tina Modotti, and Aleksandr Rodchenko, this is a chance to take a peek inside Elton John’s home and delight in seeing such masterpieces of photography.
Like the reviewer from the Guardian I didn’t particularly like the picture frames,
often intrusive and over-elaborate; all that gold and distressed silver gilding, all those deluxe mats and rebates.
They weren’t really appropriate for the stark Modernist style images, but, like the reviewer, after a while, I stopped noticing them. The images themselves demanded my attention.
The photographs were displayed in 5 rooms, each taking a different theme. The second room was devoted to portraits of celebrities from the early 20th Century, mainly artists, writers and musicians. Elton John is clearly dazzled by celebrity (I didn’t find that surprising) but I found this the least interesting room. Although I could admire the skill of the photographers, I became bored with looking at a procession of famous faces and figures. The next room was more interesting. Although it still focused on the human form it concentrated on
Experimental approaches to shooting, cropping and framing could transform the human body into something unfamiliar. (Exhibition website)
Wilhelm Dancer by Ilse Bing
The next room concentrated on the work of documentary photographers including Dorothea Lang
The final room was probably my favourite, including photographs that pushed the boundaries of photography as art. .
It shows the still life genre reimagined by photographers who used the technical capabilities of the camera to reveal the beauty of everyday things. Objects captured at unconventional angles or extreme close-up become strange, even unrecognisable. (Exhibition website)
Shukhov Tower (1929) by Aleksandr Rodchenko
My favourite photograph from the exhibition, though, was one of the first ones I saw – in the first room – the View from the Berlin Radio Tower by László Moholy-Nagy
It looks like an abstract painting rather than a real landscape. It was apparently one of the first photographs bought by Elton John.
It’s always satisfying to discover a new artist when visiting an exhibition, and in this case I discovered two – both of them relatively unknown radical (artistically and politically) female photographers.
Tina Modotti was born in Italy and emigrated to the USA in 1913 when she was 16.
She had a fascinating life – she was an actress appearing in theatre, opera and several silent films. She modelled for the photographer Edward Weston, taking up photography herself and becoming his lover for a while. She moved to Mexico with him and got involved in radical politics joining the Communist Party . Later on she went to Russia and then to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. After the defeat of the Republicans she went back to Mexico and died from heart failure in Mexico City in 1942. Her photographs reflected her politics and passion for Mexico.
Workers Parade (1926) by Tina Modotti
Woman With Flag (1928) by Tina Modotti
Elfriede Stegemeyer was born in Germany in 1908, She studied art in Berlin and later in Cologne, where she joined the Cologne-based artistic circle Kölner Progressive in 1932. She travelled to Paris Ibiza and Eastern Europe, returning to Germany just before the outbreak of the Second World War. An anti-Nazi, she was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941 for high treason, but was released again.
Untitled (Electrical Lines) by Elfriede Stegemeyer
She produced photograms, photomontages, and still lives, and experimental compositions. Many of her photographs featured everyday objects, including drinking glasses intended for a book Die Schule des Sehens. Unfortunately, much of her work was destroyed in Berlin during World War II.
After the war, she worked under the pseudonym elde steeg.
She died in 1988.