One day, three exhibitions

Yesterday, I met up with five other OCA students in London. Our plan was to see the Taylor Wessing Portrait prize exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and then to pop up the road to Beetles & Huxley, which has a show of Joel Sternfeld prints on at present. I then parted ways with the others, except for Peter, and went south to The Radical Eye at the Tate Modern. It was a great day, finishing off with half an hour listening to Choral Evensong in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2017

This was the only exhibition at which I took notes, and photography was not allowed, so I have no images of my own. First prize went to a very plain image of a South African schoolboy in uniform against a blank white background by Claudio Rasano, and was part of a series of the same. It is a classic typological study of young people displaying their differences, while all wearing the same clothes, and has something of the “school photo” about it. While striking, I couldn’t really see why it had taken 1st Prize over some of the other works. For me, the second prize was much more interesting – a tintype of an American surfer and his girlfriend by Joni Sternbach. However, I can see that its small size and rather dark, monochrome nature makes it less of a show-stopper than the Rasano.

Thinking about the prints in the exhibition as a whole, they seemed to mostly feature the very young and the very old, the latter usually in a state of undress. There were a mixture of direct gazes and averted, but more of the latter. And the great majority were standard prints. Only a couple used alternative processes, which seems fewer than in recent years.

The prints that stood out for me were:

  • Judy Gelles Be Murdered – the back view of a South African schoolgirl, worrying that because her father is a policeman she might get murdered, and the only one with text on the image
  • Charlie Clift Nigel Farage Smoking a Cigar – an ebullient study of Farage, showing all of his braggado and energy
  • Paul Stuart John Harrison -38652 days old – sadly this was not very well lit on the exhibition space, and the catalogue version was much better, displaying a man of over 100 who still seems to be very much alive
  • Andy Lo Pò Simon Callow – stunning , almost painterly study of the actor
  • Phil Sharp John McCrea – this struck me as something I could try with my son. Sharp does headshots for actors, but as if they were in a performance rather than just straight.
  • Matt Hamon’s two prints from the series The Gleaners, which was probably the work that was most interesting to me, as it showed a way of life which is very different from our expectations of life in the USA.

Oh, and there is hope for us all yet. One image on show was of a small child eating soup at a table by Cécile Birt, a photographer who has never entered anything into an exhibition before!

Joel Sternfeld

Beetles & Huxley (bless ’em) allows photography in its gallery, so I was able to take quite a few photographs of the exhibition, which was of images from his American Prospects series. However, the link above shows most of them so I won’t add them all here. Readers of Assignment 2 of my blog will know that I am a big fan of Sternfeld and his deadpan images of the minutiae of American life. These were an inspiring selection and included his famous fireman looking at pumpkins image McLean, Virginia. It is interesting to see his work en masse, as the great range of tones and colours is very noticeable, as is the slight cast, which places the work firmly in the pre-digital age. Strangely, no copies of his book were available either here or at the nearby Waterstones, despite it having been reprinted in 2012. However, there were copies of The High Line for sale, and also a recent work, On The Site, Landscape I’m Memorium, an exercise in “late photography” which I must review in more detail elsewhere.

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The Radical Eye

I hadn’t particularly expected to like this exhibition, modernism not being my favourite period in photography, but it was quite fabulous. Original prints of some of the most famous black and white photographs in the world, alongside some I was less familiar with. There is a lot to see, and the majority of the prints were small, and even tiny, so one had to get right up close to view them properly. It isn’t the type of exhibition one can go to when it is busy as it would not be possible to appreciate a lot of the work in a crowd. All the framing was different, perhaps to reference the great number of photographers on show, and somehow the curators managed to give enough weight through the framing to images that might be as tiny as 3×2 cm in a huge exhibition space. Many of the images had multiple mounts of different thicknesses to give them sufficient gravitas. I was reminded of the miniatures room at the V & A.

The subject of the show was Modernism (1920s – 1950s) and the images ranged from portraits, through abstract work to studies of the nude. Each one was more exquisite than the last. It was not possible to take any photographs in the exhibition, but some of the images that stood out for me were:-

  • Irving Penn’s portraits of people crammed into a corner of his studio, including this one of Gypsy Rose Lee
  • gypsy-rose-lee-penn

    Gypsy Rose Lee, by Irving Penn.

  • the collection of Farm Administration portraits by various people, including “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange
  • the variety of multiple exposures and collage work, especially Harry Callahan’s Detroit. (shown below)
  • eleanordetroit-by-harry-callahan

    Eleanor, Detroit, by Harry Callahan

  •  I must go back and have another look at Callahan’s work.
  • Andre Kertesz’s Underwater swimmer, which was described in CNN’s review of the exhibition as:

a seminal purchase barely the size of a couple of thumbprints: a silver gelatin print of an underwater swimmer from the original 1917 contact sheet by the Hungarian master Andre Kertesz. You need a magnifying glass to appreciate its quality. From http://edition.cnn.com/2016/11/11/arts/elton-john-tate-modern-radical-eye-photography/

Overall, it was magnificent, and I might have to go back for another look.

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