The Radical Eye

This exhibition, in the new extension of the Tate Modern, is part of Elton John’s enormous photographic collection which he holds in his home in Atlanta. Setting up the exhibition took about four years. It consists of almost 200 photographs spanning the period from 1917 to 1950. It is almost overwhelming in its extent but also overwhelming because the photographs have been framed in gold frames. I found this distracting in the beginning but as I went on the frames got less important.

The first section of this exhibitions is entitled Documents. It was surreal to be looking at Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother from 1936. Elton John is very particular that his images are prints made within five years of the authors making the image. So this was the actual Migrant Mother.

I have always felt ambivalent about this images because the woman in the picture never benefited from its subsequent success. Having said that its clarity and poignancy is very moving. This and the image of the child are John’s favourites in his collection as he tells us on this video.

Then there is a section on Objects, Perspectives, Abstractions. Knowing the limitations of the equipment and developing materials of this time it is astounding what these photographers were capable of producing. Solarisation, for example, is something we can create today in Photoshop in a matter of a few clicks. At this time the photographers had to understand exactly what was happening in this process and create it.

Portraits play a big part in this exhibition. Irving Penn’s selection of famous people photographed in a tight “v” shaped corner is wonderful. The idea is simple and by getting the sitters to behave differently he brings out the different characters. (1). Many Ray’s “Noire et Blanche” apparently hang above Elton John’s bed when not on exhibition.

Lazloly Moholy Nagy’s view from the Berlin Tower is also there. All these images about which I have read are there before my eyes. Man Ray’s “Larmes” almost leaves the wall it is so vibrant.

If it were possible I would love to visit this exhibition every day for a week so that I could walk by each photograph and look deeply at it.

What a priviledge to be the guardian of this collection. I understand that Elton John intends to leave some of his collection to the Tate. That would be such a generous thing to do.

 

  1. The Guardian. 2017. The Radical Eye review – Elton John’s ravishing photography collection | Art and design | The Guardian. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/nov/08/the-radical-eye-review-tate-modern-switch-house. [Accessed 25 March 2017].
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Behind the Mask Another Mask: Wearing and Cahun

On a recent visit to London I visited the National portrait Gallery to see this exhibition. I did not know either of these two photographers before my visit.

I find the extent of self obsession, needed to photograph oneself continually, impossible to understand. Does it mean the photographer loves or hates themselves? I hoped to come to some conclusion after this exhibition.

The two artists are quite different. Cahun, born Lucy Schwob in Nantes, France, into a fairly wealthy, intellectual family in 1894. She described herself as neuter gender. Her mother was institutionalised for mental illness and her father remarried. Schwob fell in love with her half sister, Suzanne Malherbe, and they set up house together in Paris in the 1920s. They both changed their names Schwob to Claude Cahun and Malherbe to Moore. This was a gay couple in the time when homosexuality was hidden.

About Wearing we know very little other than she was born in Birmingham. in 1963. Her father was a shopkeeper, divorced from her mother.  Her gender is not in question, she is heterosexual living with her husband, Michael Landy. Wearing is a winner of the 1997 Turner Prize.

Claude Cahun

The exhibition opens with images of Wearing dressed almost identically to Cahun in her original image “I am in training. Don’t Kiss Me “. There are some differences:Wearing is carrying a mask of her own face and she does not seem to have the sewn on the nipples visible in Cahun’s image. There are other images of Wearing copying Cahun’s alter ego images. However I cannot see what Wearing is trying to say with these images.

Gillian Wearing

I could see where Cahun was coming from. She was a lesbian living with her lover, who happened to be her step sister, during the Nazi invasion of France. She was half Jewish. So she understood the risks she was taking. In the many disguises she adopted for photographing she was, presumably, trying to hide her true self. Or she may have been trying to find out who she really was by adopting these guises. She befriended many of the surrealist artist of the time but was never wholly accepted by them presumably because she was a woman. Her work was rarely exhibited in Paris before she fled to Jersey with her lover. She was an activist and when the Germans invaded Jersey she and Moore became activists and created anti Nazi posters. They were arrested and jailed. They were released when Jersey was freed by the allies. But she remained defiant to the end. In an image after her release she had Moore photograph her with the Nazi Eagle symbol between her teeth. She died eleven years after her release due to complications caused by her incarceration.

Wearing, on the other hand, is a heterosexual woman with an apparently normal life. Why she would want to adopt the guise of a dead french lesbian photographer, I have no idea. However the guises she created were absolutely perfect. She used the expensive services of mask  and wig makers for her work. We have no idea how Cahun created hers. Cahun’s photographs were found by a removal man when clearing her house.  He had an interest in surrealism. The box contents did not, apparently, offer any light on how Cahun created her images or even who clicked the camera. Many of her images have been lost which is a great tragedy.

Wearing did make many other works of herself as different people. These are exhibited in this exhibition. There is one set where she adopts the persona of each member of her extended family from her grandparents to her three year old self. These are expertly executed but again I kept asking what is she trying to say. Was it that we are the sum total of all of our ancestors on to which we put our own masks. There is also a whole wall of Wearing disguised as an ageing lady. What is the comparison here with Cahun’s work. I could find none.

The brilliance of Wearing’s work and the attention to detail was palpable.Behind In no guise did she allow us to forget it was Gillian Wearing behind the mask. She left an obvious eye hole through which her own eyes were staring. I found this quite upsetting. I am not sure why. We were four people who visited this exhibition. Each one of us had a different experience but two of us felt quite disturbed by it. Having read about her other work with video where she interviewed people either disguised or facing the camera, I find her penetration into other peoples lives quite unnerving and voyeuristic. She is one person I would not like to meet.

 

Just for Passion by Laetizia Battaglia

While in Rome this weekend I visited the MAXXI museum. The museum itself is worth a visit even if none of the exhibitions are of interest. There was five different exhibitions showing this weekend. I wanted to visit just one. Just for Passion by Laetizia Battaglia. She is an Italian photographer born in 1935. I think she now lives in Paris but she was born in Palermo, Sicily.

Her early life was uneventful. She married at sixteen thinking this would make her free. But her husband, who was older, did not approve of her continuing her studies. She wanted to be a journalist. She stayed with her husband for twenty years and bore him three children. But at he age of 38 she took her three children and moved to Milan. She was penniless but she found work as an independent journalist. She soon realised that she needed to have photographic images to support her stories so she started to take pictures. She met her second partner Franco Zecchin in Milan and they moved back to Palermo. She worked as a journalist for L‘Ora for almost twenty years taking over 600,000 images. Much of her work was to try to expose the brutality of the Mafia. The images are heart breaking.

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She also started several magazine many devoted to anti-mafia material as well as feminist work. Eventually she decided that the only way she could truly fight the Mafia was in politics. She became an elected member of Parliament for the Green Party. But she left politics and returned to her camera. At 58 she decided to let her husband, who was twenty years her junior, go. She felt he still had a life to live but not with her. He was the love of her life.

Eventually in her late seventies she left Palermo to move to France. Her mantra to her grandchildren was “I tried” and she certainly did. She was fearless in going to places where the Mafia had committed atrocities. She recorded what had happened there. But in the end she felt defeated. She says, of the Mafia, in a video, at the exhibition, “they do not kill anymore, they have no need to, they are in power”. I found this really chilling.

She is a woman to be admired for sticking to her principals. I would love to meet her.

Exhibition: Marilyn: I Wanna Be Loved By You

I visited this exhibition in the Hotel Caumont, Aix. This is a magnificent old refurbished house in the centre of Aix. It is very well adapted for exhibitions.

The exhibition starts with a video of some of the iconic photographs of Marilyn Munroe. I had not noticed that it was forbidden to take pictures of the exhibition and took this first one before the guardian asked me not to take any more images.

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From here the exhibition is divided into five section which follow the different periods of her life and the different photographers who made images of her.

It starts with Andre de Dienes who first spotted her when she started modelling and was still a brunette and called Norma Jeane in 1945. But she was beautiful, I would say more beautiful than she appeared in the next set of images, by Bruno Bernard and Earle Moran, where she was portrayed as a pin-up girl. This was the style of the time and the images were meant to appeal to the young men who were returning from the Second World War.

Marilyn always courted photographers as she understood very well that a good image could promote her career and she was very ambitious. Most of the photographers who worked with her said she was a natural before the camera. They hardly had to ask her to do anything as she understood what was required to make a good image. Among these photographers who made images of her between 1949 and 1959 only one woman appears on the list, Eve Arnold. They became close friends. Marilyn seems to have made many friends with the photographer with whom she worked. She stayed with Milton Green and his wife for example. She worked with the best and most famous photographers but she also made the careers of some young photographers who were only starting out. Among those whose photographs are exhibited are Sam Shaw, George Barris, Richard Avedon, Ed Feingersh and of course Milton Green.

The last set of images of her were made by Bert Stern. There is a very detailed presentation by Stern where he describes the three sessions he made with her.

She was a beautiful and very sad figure. Married several times she eventually died of an overdose. alone in her hotel room where she lived.  But the exhibition, I felt, did her great justice, concentrating on the beautiful images which were made of her and not on the sex, bimbo idol which is often the picture we get of Marilyn Munroe.

There is a review of the exhibition here with a good video.

BnF exhibition: AVEDON’S FRANCE

The subtitle of this exhibition at the Biblioteque National de France, is “Old World New Look”. Avedon was always highly influenced by Paris and Parisian style. While working for Harper’s Bazaar he travelled every year to Paris. In the sixties he collaborated with Jacques Henri Lartigue and then with Nicole Wisniak on the magazine “Egoiste”. The exhibition contains a number of images from both these collaborations. The image of Marguerite Durras, a writer for Egoiste and one of my favourite writers, was hilarious. My image of her, up to this point, was that of a serious writer but this was a very amusing image of a lady of advancing years. Avedon’s work on Diary of a Century is shown both in a projection and in displayed pages of the book.

The exhibition opens with the work Avedon did on the movie, Funny Face. He made beautiful stills of Audrey Hepburn from the film sequences. These are displayed in huge format on the walls with the film sequences on small screens below. He was also responsible for the film titles.

For me the best section of the exhibition was the French Portraits. Notwithstanding the fact that the “French” portraits contained a number of people who were definitely not French… Among these I spotted Francis Bacon and Samuel Beckett. avedon_1However I have to admit that Beckett lived most of his adult life in Paris and Bacon was a frequent visitor being heavily influenced by what was going on in France. Bacon presumably met Avedon in Paris perhaps while he was exhibiting there. These small criticisms aside, I loved Avedon’s large and small portraits. There were more than forty including Marc Chagall,

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Catherine Deneuve, Pablo Picasso (come to think of it he was Spanish…) and Igor Stravinsky was Russian…. avedon_2

 

 

 

 

 

 

avedon_3These portraits captured something of the soul of the sitters. They were splendid. Although this is a small exhibition the BnF is a great exhibition space and displays Avedon’s work at its best.

Phot’Aix

Each year, at this time, the city of Aix en Provence organises an exhibition of photographers work in a number of different venues. Thirty three photographers took part. The venues varied enormously from galleries, through cinema vestibules to furniture shops. Some venues suited the work better than others.

I did not get to see all of the work as the venues were quite spread out. The work was themed and one group had no theme.

I visited most of the work in the theme “Myth or reality” which consisted of seven photographers.

ludivine_largebesetteThe first set was entitled Adaption by Ludivine Large-Bessette: They were a little quirky but suited the space which was a theatre.

 

 

 

 

clara_feder_3Next was an interesting set called Double Sens by Clara Feder. These were most interesting and did not suffer from the fact they were being exhibited in a furniture store. The space was large and the furniture very tasteful.

 

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The next photographers was Sylvia Cloua. Her work was exhibited in a really strange Spanish cafe. The work suited this environment and the clientele were really interesting. These were excellent images. Each one was of the same model but the poses were different.

 

 

jean_marc_valladierThe next photographer Jean-Marc Valladier with a set entitled “Quelque part“was let down by his venue. The shop was narrow and badly lit. The work was interesting using a well know technique of copying one side to the image on to the other side as a reflection.

nora_constansIf the last venue let Valladier down the next one destroyed the work of Nora Constans…. it was in a general store and the images were behind a set of hang in bulbs…

 

The Body Politic: Contemporary photography from Austria

According to the publicity material:

The Body Politic highlights the strength and diversity of contemporary photography in Austria. The work reflects the concerns of five established and emerging photographic talents

This exhibition is taking place in the Photography Gallery, Meting House Square, Dublin.

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I had not heard of any of the five photographers. Three were exhibiting on the first floor and two on the second. I did not read the publicity material about the artists before I viewed the exhibition. I did not want to know which of the artists were established and which were the emerging photographers.

Ulrike Lienbacher asked models, both male and female, to pose in, what she described as typical model poses. The catch was that they were dressed in normal outfits. I thought this was incredibly effective as one would not have given a second glance at these images in a glossy magazine. Is it true that “the clothes maketh the man“?

My first impression of the three photographers exhibiting on the first floor was that the images were ‘ordinary’. I needed to read what they were ‘about’.

I was drawn to a collage of works by Ulrike Lienbacher. The blurb says the work was spurred by her interest in feminism. She used models, both male and female, and asked them to adopt typical poses that they would use in professional photo shoots. The difference was that they were wearing ‘normal’ clothes. The collage she created was interesting.

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The title of Erwin Polnac’s series of images is “8820 +/-“ which at first reading is a little confusing until one realises it is the postcode for the village. Neumarkt in Austria, where Polnac grew up. The + and – represent the neighbouring villages which are also becoming de-populated. Polnac said Neumarky was a difficult place to grow up, difficult to find oneself is how he expressed it. He did not want to depict touristic images of his native village so he “worked his way into the village by the back door”. He certainly achieved his purpose. The images are fairly stark. However I did not get the feeling of desolation or indeed of de-population. For this I would have expected abandoned houses or schools.

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Christopher Mavric entitled his collection “Wildfriend (Totally Strangers). I do not know why but I had no lasting impression of these images. They made no impact on me. I am really interested in Street Photography but despite the blub saying his images were ‘live and unstaged’. These people were not doing anything nor were they behaving in an interesting way. His images could have been of his aunts..

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Stephanie Moshammer’s work entitled “Young Gods” was, for me, the most appealing of the five photographers. Her subjects, on the cusp of adulthood, were bursting with energy.

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I missed the fifth photographer altogether.