Beetles & Huxley, London. 20th September – 20th October 2016.
More of a print sale than an exhibition, and in one of London’s smaller photographic galleries, this is a compact but excellent collection, featuring 23 large black and white portraits – all of the globally great and the good, from the 1940s to the 1980s.
Karsh described his career as “a search for greatness”, and he sought out subjects that were famous and respected in their own field. He seemed to be trying to capture the indefinable qualities that make a person ‘great’, and by all accounts treated each subject with an enormous amount of respect and dignity.
His most well-known image and the one that kickstarted his portraiture career is the iconic shot of Sir Winston Churchill where the subject’s belligerent scowl is famously down to the photographer having snatched a cigar out of his mouth the moment before the shutter was pressed. It’s not only iconic but highly topical, as I realised when I got one in my change that day that it is the image on the back the new £5 note…
Karsh’s images are technically superb. As noted in the catalogue, the detail in his portrait of Ernest Hemingway is sufficiently rich that the beard and woolly jumper look so three-dimensional that you could stroke them.
His 1956 portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the most striking portraits I’ve seen. O’Keeffe was, of course, no stranger to being photographed, being the wife and muse of the great Alfred Stieglitz, yet it is this portrait of the later, mature, widowed O’Keeffe that touched me more than any of the earlier images.
Karsh usually employed tightly controlled studio lighting but in this instance relied on natural sunlight, illuminating O’Keeffe’s noble profile. The skull and antlers hark back to both O’Keefe’s own artwork and some of Stieglitz’s portraits of her, and simultaneously act as a signifier for mortality. Visually, the twists and curves of the antlers echo both elements of the rest of the picture – the swirls of grey in her hair, the curve of her hand – and the gymnastic poses of her youthful Stieglitz portraits.
It’s such a magnificent portrait. If only I had the £30,000 to buy it…
I can’t write this up without mentioning the catalogue. It’s one of the most beautiful and tactile catalogues I’ve encountered, a black velvet hardback with all of the 23 images as plates inside, plus a detailed biography. And it was an unfathomably inexpensive £10 – the best money I spent all weekend.
I wouldn’t normally go out of my way to compare one exhibition with another, but the context is that I saw this immediately after the William Eggleston Portraits show at the National Portrait Gallery, and whilst I loved them both, in many ways they couldn’t have been more different. Where Eggleston’s subjects were mostly unknowns, and his portraits mostly colourful, informal and loosely composed, Karsh’s are the opposite in every way.
This led me to ponder what it is I like in a portrait, if I found these two practitioners equally interesting. The conclusion I came to is that a good portrait makes you think you know more about the subject than you really do – the photographer has managed to tease something out of the sitter and hold it up for closer inspection. Eggleston does this with unknowns that he knows well, Karsh did this with people that we think we know.
National Portrait Gallery, London. 21 July – 23 October 2016
I was fortunate enough to have a day in London last week and managed to fit in four photography exhibitions. Two were portraiture-themed (the other being Yousuf Karsh) so I will write about them on here – the others were documentary-focused so will be covered on my Documentary learning log.
I only took a serious look at Eggleston a matter of months ago, when I got Guide (1976) for the first time. I was struck not by the colour aesthetic that he is most famous for (I guess the shock of the new wears off after a few decades) but by the subject matter and the mood – he captured suburban inertia better than anyone I’d ever seen. There’s a banal, static kind of melancholy at which he excels.
What I didn’t take away from Guide was the notion that Eggleston was primarily a portraitist, so it was with much interest that I went along to see this exhibition, buoyed by uniformly good reviews. I came away with the impression that Eggleston should have done much more portraiture, as I found it more interesting than his regular output.
A few of the pictures are in black and white, but they still come across as recognisably Eggleston. It’s in the naturalistic poses, I think – he’s very good at capturing facial expressions, for a start.
Most of the work is in his trademark colour, and a good few of them were in Guide, though overall there were more pictures that were new to me than familiar. A few of his most famous pictures are portraits to one degree or another, though the one of his uncle and his uncles’s driver below is perhaps more of a study of a relationship than a double portrait.
I was particular delighted to see his iconic 1975 colour portrait of Marcia Hare (known to me as the cover for a 2006 Primal Scream single), alongside a similarly-posed black and white counterpart. Printed large, the images are both as much about the dress as the girl – in the mono version it’s the sharpness and clarity of the pattern that is striking, while in the famous colour version it’s the selective focus that renders buttons sharp and lower flower patterns soft. It’s fascinating to see the two side-by-side.
His posing and lighting are almost always very natural, and in the rare instance where this is not the case, it sticks out like a sore thumb. There is one in the set below that is not like the others – it’s almost Bruce Gilden-esque. I’m not sure why it was included in this set.
There are a couple of his portraits that I hadn’t seen before that evoked the same static melancholy that pervaded Guide, and in both instances they were close friends of his. Viva, a member of Andy Warhol’s circle who became Eggleston’s lover, and artist William Christenberry. In both cases the composition, off-camera gaze and gestures give the same sense of contemplative isolation that I admired in my first reading of Eggleston’s work.
I think one of the marks of great portraiture is that it gives the viewer an impression of knowing something about the subject, even if they are entirely unknown. It’s the implication of depth of character that the photographer catches. Based on this collection, Eggleston was a natural at this game of making you think you know the sitter when you don’t, and I get the sense that this works because he knows the sitters so well.
I’ve done a post on my overall observations on my first visit to Les Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles. This post is to cover the individual exhibitions I saw.
The festival is grouped under a number of headings: a mixture of genre, subject matter and arbitrary miscellany. I will use these categories for ease of organising my thoughts.
This is going to be pretty long. Once I started writing I couldn’t stop. Put the kettle on.
If you want to skim to my highlights, these are titled in red text.
Premise: five eminent photography figures nominate two up-and-coming artists each. I saw this in a group with four other people, and we agreed to view all the entrants’ works and then compare notes, including individually ranking the best three and the worst one of the ten projects on display…
I confess I wrote this one off quickly and didn’t give it long enough to ‘get’ the underlying narrative at first. On re-watching, having had the premise explained by someone more patient, it made more sense. He photographed lorries entering and leaving an industrial abattoir over a period of years, and the (extremely banal) images are presented sequentially in a slide projection. The reality of what you are seeing unfolds slowly. Maybe I should be a little more patient and forgiving with seemingly uninteresting art? Or is the onus on the artist to engage the viewer with strong imagery first? Discuss.
Black and white, fragmentary street photography with a few underlying themes – absence, emptiness, consumerism. Some of the images are presented as split images with white space in between, in box frames placed on the floor. I found myself thinking about the connections between images, not always to the point of resolution. I liked this series more than my fellow exhibition-goers did, and rated it as my ‘bronze’ award of the set.
This was a combination of video, appropriated images and a wall-sized room replica – and it did nothing for me, I’m afraid. We must not have been on the same wavelength.
Yokota exposes rolls of photographic paper to light, creating abstract patterns that sometimes resemble dreamy landscapes. The presentation method was quite distinctive – long rolls suspended from above, seemingly to resemble a waterfall. Unfortunately it also reminded me of a wallpaper display. A vaguely interesting curio.
Like Kiwitt, quite disparate and fragmentary in subject matter, but employing a strong colour aesthetic. There’s a sense of narrativity to her images but any story is usually opaque and implied, leaving the viewer to fill in most of the details. She uses masks a lot, suggesting that identity is one of her interests. There’s a surreal and dark ‘Twin Peaks‘-y feel to many of her images. I like the way she sees the world. I voted this my ‘silver’ pick (no-one else agreed).
Four small photos (three of underground pipes, one of flowers) and three urban water features. Unanimously voted the ‘merde’ prize by all five of us. Balls of steel to be given a huge stand at Arles and do this with it.
A study of people with disabilities in Addis Ababa. He has a good eye for simple, human moments, and captures his subjects without patronising them. One could question why such a (good but) straightforward documentary project was nominated for the Discovery Award, surrounded by more conceptual work – maybe it is recognising that places such as Ethiopia don’t have the same photographic history as other countries, and in that context it is progressive work.
My ‘gold’ pick for this set (we all agreed on this one) and also one of my highlights of the whole festival, so I go into more detail. And it deservedly won the overall Discovery Award. The series Stranger in a Familiar Land is a set of staged images of albinoism in Africa. The sole model is striking enough for the lightness of her skin, let alone her beautiful intricate purple hair braids. Posing her in the backdrop of Kibera slums makes her stand out even more than usual, giving a dreamlike quality to the images. The presentation made this project even more engaging: each photo was framed alongside a physical artefact; the viewer must navigate between the photo, the artefact and the title to interpret the image. A masterful series.
Garish, pseudo-surreal, self-consciously wacky photoshoppery. Not my cup of earl grey.
More photo-illustration art than photography really. Much use of appropriated imagery to build kitsch collages about the passing of time. I found the presentation of one half of the exhibit – images laid out in a consecutive horizontal line – more interesting than the individual images; it reminded me of Martin Parr’s Common Sense installation.
I hadn’t heard of Grossman (active in the US from the 1930s to the 1950s) but I liked much of his work, especially his later period when he got more expressionistic and abstract. There’s an inherent historical interest in a lot of the work, though, and one needs to look past that to get to the ‘so what?’ of his work (he reminded of Vivian Maier in that regard). A handful of his images are exemplary though – in particular I loved ‘Pants Store’.
Ethan Levitas / Gary Winogrand
This paired the contemporary New York street work of Levitas with iconic 1960s images of Winogrand. It’s a bold gambit to invite comparisons with a great like this, and I don’t believe Levitas pulls it off. His work is more contrived, more distant than Winogrand’s. The Levitas work gets displayed here better than Winogrand’s though, which is presented as blown-up contact sheets. The dissonance between the two parts of the show is bewildering. I found myself wondering how and why this pairing came about. Odd.
I was really looking forward to this, but felt oddly let down by the presentation. It’s an exact re-staging of the 1979 show A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission, which used as its conceit that aliens had been studying Earth in the same way as we’d been studying Mars. Photos of urban Yorkshire and London scenes are presented in ‘space chart’ frames. My assumption is that Mitchell wanted to emphasise the ‘otherness’ of the scenes being depicted. The problem is that in this re-presentation 37 years later, no such device is needed as the passage of time is enough to make this an ‘alien’ world. The extra-terrestrial conceit just distracts now. A missed opportunity for re-contextualisation I think.
My undoubted highlight of the whole trip. In fact, the one purchase I made out of the Arles trip, aside from the catalogue, was Doyle’s End. The presentation is awe-inspiring. A combination of colour images in grids, wall-sized b/w prints, colour-washed posters, graphic illustrations – it’s a multi-media, multi-format extravaganza.
But none of that would matter if the images didn’t work. Doyle’s trilogy of Dublin works over the last three years (i, ON, End) have brought a poetic, expressionistic form of street photography, and given a sense of place like none I experienced from any other photographer at Arles.
Monsters & Co
The one part of this segment that I really wanted to see was Charles Fréger’sYokainoshima, but unfortunately it had closed the day before I got to Arles…
This is a compilation of images of monsters of various sorts in cinema. It’s a fairly pedestrian theme for a photography festival in my opinion, and horror/sci-fi aren’t my favourite movie genres, so I didn’t hang around long enough to discern any deeper meaning in this one.
This is a collaboration between three Danish photojournalists – Sara Galbiati, Peter Helles Eriksen and Tobias Selves Markussen – and looks at the phenomenon of UFO enthusiasts. It’s a surprisingly sympathetic depiction that avoids mockery. It contains lots of individually strong images and also works as a cohesive overall set, despite the shared authorship. It’s a low-key, quite sweet set that is as much about faith as it is about aliens.
Only two of these three shows were still open by the time I got to Arles.
Part retrospective, part contemporary catchup, this looks at the Mali pop music scene in the 1960s. Much of the interest in the first part is the historic context – all black and white photos from five decades ago are worth a look. I found more to see in Karen Paulina Biswell’s smaller set of contemporary pictures catching up on the band members. This show did also give me the earworm of the trip, the impossibly catchy ‘Rendezvous Chez Fatimata‘!
Tear My Bra
An eclectic celebration of Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry. Some of it was visually striking, like the the Godfather pastiche and the recreations of iconic Hollywood scenes. However, these two sections were also the most derivative and timid of the lot, as they leant heavily on the audience’s knowledge of existing Hollywood tropes. Maybe Nollywood hasn’t yet defined itself enough of a distinct identity – that’s what came through in these images anyway.
Platforms of the Visible
An odd title for what the programme describes as a look at “Investigation as a photographic topic and the photographer as a detective combing through photo archives”.
This project A History of Misogny, Chapter One: On Abortion is a powerful series, and one which I have picked out as one of my highlights, but perhaps oddly not for the photographic content. The subject of abortion and its effects on women who have them, particularly the dangers in the many countries where it is illegal, is not easy to depict photographically without being gruesome. The images here are portraits with testimonies, photos of artefacts such as surgical instruments, biological diagrams. Without the accompanying text they may not mean as much. However, the two exhibits that had the most visceral effect on me weren’t photographs but physical installations: a surgical chair with stirrups, and a pile of wire coat hangers. These two objects spoke more about the experience and dangers of abortion than the images.
I probably didn’t give this the attention it deserved as the premise didn’t grab my attention. It’s a varied examination of a particular building on the outskirts of Arles, meditating on concepts such as memory, identity, passing time. What I saw of it I found quite clinical and lacking in any emotive connection. But as I say, maybe I didn’t give it a chance (it was one of the shows that I rattled through on day three…)
I missed the Don McCullin show by a day, but having looked through the catalogue it features many of the images I saw at his Photo London show in May, so I’m not too concerned.
This is a set of 80 images of battlefields long after the battles. I find this genre of (very late) aftermath photography quite curious: without the context of the historic warfare these are perfectly ‘nice’ landscapes; it is only when one understands what had happened in the years before that they acquire gravitas. The significance from reading the caption triggers a re-evaluation of the image. One finds oneself searching the photo for ‘clues’ as to what happened there, but of course in most of them there are none, so it becomes largely a work of triggered imagination. Part of me finds this genre of photography a kind of manipulative mind trickery…
Nothing But Blue Skies
This, a compilation of media and art responses to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, is a mixed bag for sure, but on balance I felt more of it worked than didn’t. The first part is a recap of how the attacks were reported at the time – a room covered floor-to-ceiling with newspaper front pages, and a smaller room made entirely of old TVs looping through rolling news footage. Both are quite an assault on the eyeballs and the mind. Only after sifting through the imagery does one start to appreciate the nuances of how different nations and outlets reported the events.
The second half is made of artistic responses to the attacks and aftermath. One piece that I found particularly engaging was Just Like the Movies by Michal Kosakowski. It’s a skilfully edited compilation of clips from Hollywood blockbusters that recreate the narrative of the attacks on the twin towers. I got a bit of a Debord/Baudrillard vibe from watching fictional footage standing in for a real event – the sense that despite describing the events as shocking and unprecedented, we had in fact pictured and rehearsed such events already as entertainment. The other takeaway from this is that it has slightly reset my previously dogmatic stance that documentary must show things that really happened – it turns out that you can present a documentary ‘truth’ using only fictional material.
I am Writing to you from a Far Off Country
This expansive and beautifully presented exhibition, The Jungle Show, takes a trip along the Amazon. Rather than employing a straight documentary photography approach, however, Gross stages scenes that give an impression of the people and the locale. He captures facets of Amazonian lives in an artistic, expressive yet non-condescending way.
PJ Harvey & Seamus Murphy
The Hollow of the Hand is a poetry-photography-video collaboration based on the duo’s travels through Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC (this last seems out of place, but it hangs together better than you might imagine). It’s a looping video installation that alternates between fragments of film footage with slideshows of Murphy’s photos with Harvey reading her poems over the top. The overall result is suitably ambiguous in terms of narrativity yet gets across lingering impressions of the places filmed. Once strange sensation I had watching it was that I found Murphy’s short film clips to be like moving photographs, in terms of composition and aesthetic – I found myself mentally freeze-framing when I saw the ‘decisive moment’ in each clip.
The title of this group show is somewhat disingenuous, as few of these are ‘failures’, more deliberate attempts to subvert photographic norms. It’s a very entertaining collection of surreal, playful and downright silly visual experiments. It wasn’t what you’d call profound, but I enjoyed it a lot.
Where the Other Rests
This group show is all about appropriation, as subject I am a little ambivalent about. I get that one can create a ‘dialogue’ with pre-existing imagery and make new pieces of art that carry a different message, but I found a lot of the work on show here to be uninspiring and lacking in originality. As noted elsewhere, I find some appropriation to be too self-referential and insular – photography about photography.
The one piece that I did admire here was Broomberg & Chanarin’sAfterlife, which took an image of a Kurdish firing squad execution and deconstructed it, isolating figures from the background and mounting the photo fragments on multiple glass plates – like a collage where none of the pieces touch. I found this detailed dissection of a photograph brought its meaning closer to the surface, in a strange way.
Themed archival collections.
A look at the hitherto hidden world of 19th and early 20th century LGBTQI amateur photography. Gender fluidity and cross-dressing in particular has an enormously rich visual history, but for various reasons the images have been kept private. Sébastien Lifshitz has collected and curated a wide-ranging and fascinating alternative history, proving that the accepted version of society’s history always leaves things out.
An interesting enough visual summary of the construction of the Statue of Liberty. Not sure there’s enough there to justify it being part of a major photographic festival though.
Hara Kiri Photo
The visual archives of the satirical French magazine (kind of Charlie Hebdo forerunner?). What you could get away with showing on newsstands in France in the 1960s and 1970s is mind-boggling. Out of the context of the time these images just look variously surreal, profane, pornographic and grotesque. A prurient curiosity.
Outside the Frame
The Cardboard Museum
A self-consciously wacky funhouse-style installation with various rooms containing surreal images and objects in. Like a class of sixth-form art students had been let loose. It would have been a nice lightweight palate-cleanser if I’d visited it halfway through the more serious works in the Parc des Ateliers, but as it happened it was the first thing I saw, and I was simply bemused. It did include the pic below though, that made me laugh.
This section picks out emerging talents.
An Unusual Attention
The work of three graduates from ENSP (the Arles photography school). Guillaume Delleuse was the only one to make an impression. His gritty, sexually-charged black and white urban photography reminded me of Anders Petersen and Jacob Aue Sobol. Clémentine Roche’s repetitive (found?) street scenes and Vincent Marcq’s deconstructed house didn’t do much for me.
Subtitled New Forms for Contemporary Image Production, this was put together by theLUMA Foundation in Arles. It featured four exhibitions, only one of which was particularly good in my opinion.
Curated by Walead Beshty, Picture Industry is described as “an array of images whose formats reveal the complex and evolving relationship between the photographic medium and its many modes of distribution“. The bare thread that connects these eclectic images is that they were originally presented in different visual formats. So we get prints, slideshows, video installations, 70s porn mag spreads etc. I presume the point is to highlight how images are (at least in part) interpreted based on the distribution channel and/or physicality.
Elad Lassry apparently wants to investigate “what kinds of engagement are possible with pictures“. For reasons best known to himself, he felt the best way to do this was to display large, colourful pictures of dental procedures. Gruesome and fairly pointless.
Collier Schorr curated a collaboration with his near-namesake Anne Collier, but unfortunately I found little of interest in the collection of nudes, self portraits and porn pastiches. Supposedly about “exposed subjects [who] are frequently framed by the formats of the medium itself“, it came across as very self-indulgent.
Photographer and activist Zanele Muholiprovided the one highlight of this section. Her ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama is a set of stark, dark self-portraits in various states of costume and make-up, often based around her hair – a key cultural signifier for African women. Each portrait is visually dominated by the strong contrast between the darkness of her skin and the whiteness of her eyes. Her gaze into the lens is penetrating. Striking is an understatement.
I experienced my first Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles a couple of weeks ago, and as I’ve been on holiday since then this is a belated attempt to corral my thoughts into some kind of sense.
I didn’t manage to see everything at the festival as timings conspired against me (I arrived the day after about 10 of the shows closed) but I bought the catalogue to get an idea of what I’d missed. In the end I think I’m only really disappointed in missing one show, Charles Fréger‘s Yokainoshima.
I am indebted to some Arles veterans – fellow student Helen, Gareth from OCA and their respective other halves – who provided advice, company and discussion that turned the trip into a kind of (very) informal study visit.
I’ll start with an overview of some of the themes that emerged for me before talking about the exhibitions themselves in a separate post.
The official 2016 festival theme is ‘Storytellers’. Some of the artists on show are undoubtedly telling stories in a traditional sense, while others demonstrate that this theme is sufficiently broad to be able to cover just about any kind of photography if you wanted it to.
Telling stories in an overt way, or at least giving the sense of narrativity in covering a subject, were shows such as Frank Berger, Nader Adem, Phenomena (a collaborative show about UFO enthusiasts), Lady Liberty and Swinging Bamako.
Taking a more ambiguous and often fragmentary approach to storytelling were people such as Guillaume Delleuse, Stephanie Kiwitt, Marie Angeletti, PJ Harvey & Seamus Murphy and Eamonn Doyle. These works were more like connecting dots than reading a linear narrative, and not in a bad way – it’s good for the viewer to have some space to piece things together in their own mind.
The historic image
A surprising number of the exhibitions were, in one way or another, predicated on the use or re-use of existing images – there was a little less original contemporary photography than I had expected. There was a wide continuum of existing image use:
Straight recreations of historic exhibitions (e.g. Peter Mitchell‘s A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission from 1979) and single-source magazine photography (Hara Kiri Photo)
Retrospectives of particular photographers (e.g. Sid Grossman, Garry Winogrand)
Curated trawls through themed archives (e.g. the Sincerely Queer collection of historic LGBT images, the Swinging Bamako look at 1960s Malian musicians)
Appropriation, in particular the group show Where the Other Rests which is built entirely around “quoting, borrowing and re-using images” but also evident in a number of other works elsewhere such as in the Systematically Open?, Discovery Award and Tear My Bra (Nollywood) exhibitions
For the first three categories above I found myself trying to work out if my interest in the images was purely the historic detachment – any and all images of, say, 1940s New York can invoke an otherworldly fascination, for example – or whether the photographs themselves stand as interesting and thought-provoking regardless of age. To generalise, there was more of the former than the latter.
I also pondered the reasons why these particular collections were being presented at this time; is it because of some potential relevance to contemporary times? to re-evaluate works that are now seen in a different light? to show previously unseen archives? More questions than answers, certainly, but an interesting train of thought.
For the appropriation-based work, my question was whether the re-use or incorporation of the existing image(s) had genuinely created something new and interesting. Sometimes it’s the appropriation technique that’s memorable, other times it’s more that some individual images ‘work’ while others do not.
There’s a lot of appropriated image work that I admire, but overall I am a little concerned that the well of photographic inspiration sometimes seems to be running a little dry for some folk. I was left with the feeling that a lot of current practitioners are trying to push photography ‘forwards’ by reaching back into the past. It becomes quite self-referential. Photography about photography may be of more interest to other artists than to a wider audience?
One major takeaway for me was the variety of methods of displaying photography, and how the presentation method can greatly help (and occasionally hinder) the interpretation of the work. Four of the standout shows for me – Eamonn Doyle, Sarah Waiswa, Laia Abril and Fabulous Failures – presented their work in unorthodox ways, and it was part of their success. It made me think about how best to present my own work, beyond the printed-mounted-framed paradigm.
On the other hand, some of the presentation techniques in shows such as Peter Mitchell’s and Nothing But Blue Skies (art based on media imagery from the 9/11 attacks) went beyond thought-provoking into gimmickry, and actually detracted from the work in my opinion; sometimes a straight presentation of the images serves the subject matter best.
That’s it for the general observations – specific exhibitions will be covered in a separate post.
At the Théâtre de la Photographie et de l’Image in Nice, France, from 17th June to 25th September 2016.
I wasn’t particularly familiar with his work before this, and at first assumed that Lartigue (1894-1986) merited the exhibition here mainly because he was a local lad (he lived in and around Nice for most of his adult life). The content was seemingly quite lightweight: mainly upper class French folks at leisure in the first half of the 20th century.
However, the premise of the show, once I understood it, piqued my interest. The exhibition leaflet explains it as follows (my emphasis): “The exhibition brings together around 200 photographs on the theme of fleeting moments, the brevity of joy and the fragility of life itself“ (Florian Rodari, 2016).
Maybe this is a stereotypically philosophical French way of looking at a set of photographs! Even so, it made me look at the photos again, and see something a little deeper and more affecting in the images.
Lartigue was known as a painter for most of his career, though had been taking photograph since childhood. He was not recognised by the outside world for his photography until his late sixties. This means that, like Saul Leiter or maybe Vivian Maier, his work stayed true to himself without the unnecessary influence of peers, critics, buyers or gallery owners. He shot what he wanted to, and retrospectively much of it was accepted into the canon of photographic art.
Date unknown by Jacques Henri Lartigue
Renée, Biarritz, August 1930 by Jacques Henri Lartigue
Renée Perle, 1930 by Jacques Henri Lartigue
Given the course module I’m on right now, I was particularly interested in his portraiture. There’s an overriding sense of playfulness and curiosity in Lartigue’s work, and this often comes through in his portraits. He mostly shot the upper class at play, and so there’s a real sense of capturing carefree moments of fun and happiness. Most of his portraits are of women, mainly friends and family. This familiarity comes through in the informality – in some cases intimacy – of his images.
There’s one image in particular, above, that stayed with me. The sea, the swimsuit and the wet hair all denote summery leisure but it’s the mask that makes it. It draws attention to the eyes in a direct and unsubtle way, but once you look inside the mask you see that she’s not addressing the camera (/viewer) but looking off to the side to something out of shot. This use of eye-line to drive the viewer out of the frame has the effect of making you imagine what has distracted her, what other fun is being had just out of frame that is more interesting to the subject than looking at the photographer. The composition is exquisitely simple too, with the very slightly askew horizon conjuring up high jinx and the slender triangle of hillside pointing in the same direction of her off-camera gaze. With a portrait like this one can imagine life happening beyond the frame, and that is for me a mark of a great photo. It exudes interest, it’s more than the sum of its parts, it gives the viewer something to contribute to the resolving of the image. I love it.
What have I learned from looking at Lartigue’s work? To be honest, not a massive amount new that I hadn’t learned from other practitioners of the same era. He certainly had an eye for capturing fleeting moments of joy but I wouldn’t put him in the category of the ‘old masters’. He produced a handful of excellent portraits though, including the Marie Belewsky one above that has instantly jumped into my all-time favourite portrait list.
Unofficial OCA study visit, The Photographer’s Gallery, London
10th February 2015
I’ve been a fan of Leiter since I discovered the documentary In No Great Hurry (Leach 2012), shortly before he died. He’s a fantastic example of my theory that ‘good people’ take good photographs – he came across as light-hearted, humble and utterly bemused by the belated attention – which is wholly deserved: whilst he wasn’t a total unknown à la Vivian Maier, he was definitely unsung.
He was a pioneer of colour photography in the 1950s, a couple of decades before Eggleston’s supposed New Colour Photography broke through. Leiter combined street shooting with a painterly aesthetic, finding a dreamlike beauty in the everyday and bringing abstract expressionism to the New York streets that everyone else saw in gritty black and white.
It’s a well-curated selection that features enough of the ‘greatest hits’ whilst simultaneously shining a light on his lesser-known work. A surprising chunk of space is devoted to his early black and white output. Whilst a handful of these bring to mind other photographers (Friedlander, Cartier-Bresson), what struck me about most was how identifiably Leiter they are. Even with colour absent, his signature motifs – reflections, windows, rain, people framed by street furniture and so on – are all there.
A painter with a camera
Leiter identified himself as a painter more than a photographer, which is either overly modest or delusional, as his photography is much more accomplished that his painting. His experiments in merging the two were of some interest; the over-painting of nudes in particular was a successful style. What came across in the best of these was the underlying composition being undeniably photographic no matter how much paint he applied; it’s almost as if one is looking at a photograph and a painting at the same time.
The Leiter look
The stars of the show were the classic Leiter shots that attracted me in the first place: the strong colours, the ethereal aesthetic, the other-worldly use of mirrors, steamy windows, rain, umbrellas, street signs. I like the way he saw the world, with a painter’s eye for form, light and of course colour. There may not always be a lot of depth to his work – he once said “I don’t have a philosophy, I have a camera” – yet they bear repeated viewing.
One of the aspects of such impressionistic art that really appeals to me is that it gives the viewer something to do – the mind needs to take the visual information provided and try to make some sense of it, so it feels more like a collaboration between the artist and the audience than a more indexical image.
Leiter managed to capture the essence of a scene rather than a forensically sharp document. These scenes existed in life, but it took Leiter to see them, and to know where to stand and when to press the shutter (and to load his camera with the right kind of out-of-date film…)
A key stylistic element in his work is the use of some kind of veil or barrier between camera and subject: windows, mirrors, rain, steam, mist, snow, umbrellas. Even his fashion work broke with norms by often obscuring the subject’s face. This comes across as possibly an unconscious response to his own introversion or wish for ‘invisibility’; one gets a sense of a shy observer peeking, but not entering, into other worlds.
One aspect of Leiter’s work that stood out to me was his preference for the vertical ratio; he used this format much more than a lot of photographers. Was this another influence from painting? I guess more often than not a painter’s canvas on an easel is in portrait ratio? (correct me if this is wrong). It wasn’t Leiter but another photographer, Ralph Gibson, who attempted to articulate a rationale for vertical format: the eyes are horizontal so landscape ratio is more natural – but what if you want your images to not look natural…?
Coupled with this portrait orientation, Leiter often chose quite unusual compositions, placing items of most focus at edges, selecting partial crops of subjects, adding in a secondary point of interest and so on. He followed no conventional rules of composition yet created distinctive images that draw the eyes in.
Back when I first discovered Leiter and got the Saul Leiter: Retrospective book (Taubhorn & Woischnik 2012) I made notes on what words sprang to mind as I absorbed his images, and I’ve just dug these notes out to revisit them in the light of the exhibition:
I think these first impressions still stand. As I noted at the time, that’s quite an intriguing set of responses to what is basically a set of New York street scenes. It’s hard to think of anyone else that would have seen what Leiter saw.
It was good to see this show with other OCA students (Jayne Kemp, Richard Brown, Carol Street, Sarah-Jane Field, Catherine Banks and Holly Woodward) as it gave us an opportunity to discuss the photos while we stood in front of them – it’s my first meetup of this kind and I found having people to bounce thoughts off was really valuable.
In summary, this was an exhibition that I was very much looking forward to and it did not disappoint in any respect.