The Olympics through the lens

London launched a rich variety of Olympic photography exhibitions last week.

You could be forgiven for not knowing where to look first as the capital city launched a myriad Olympic photography exhibitions last week. Whilst Tate Britain opened its nostalgic vintage homage to the metropolis "Another London", The Photographers Gallery by contrast unveiled its ambitious long term project "The World in London". Staged as a large outdoor portrait exhibition that is best encountered via bike (and while wearing imperviously waterproof clothing), it showcases 204 commissioned portraits of Londoners, each originating from one of the Olympic game’s competing nations by 204 acclaimed photographers. The exhibition is repeated across two sites; the BT London Live site in Victoria Park, Hackney and at Park House development in central London’s Oxford Street. Despite the struggles presentating such a project -- the simplistic large scale posters that imbricate slightly with little consideration to pacing -- the depth and breadth of this project is a huge achievement, especially when considering the many pitfalls that a large publically funded project such as this can be faced with. The ensuing exhibition is as much a survey of London’s diverse cultural heritage and identity as it’s a celebration of portraiture itself.

In refreshing contrast and far from the saccharine buzz of the Olympic celebration, "Residual Traces" at Photofusion Gallery, Brixton is a group exhibition of 6 photographic projects concerned with the consequences of the London 2012 Olympic Games and the subsequent marginalisation of a community in one of London’s least known and contentious areas, the Lea Valley. A formerly overlooked and undeveloped enclave of urban neglect - pylons and graffiti, Tower blocks and abandoned sheds, compulsory land purchase orders and hipster regeneration - this polemical exhibition explores the hastily engaged transformation of one of London’s most loved hinterlands. The work included in this exhibition documents aspects of this transformation of Lea Valley and includes work by Sophia Evans, Stephen Gill, Zed Nelson, Jason Orton, Jan Stradtmann and Gesche Weurfel. The exhibition is curated by Bridget Coaker, Director of Troika Editions.

"The World in London" : Victoria Park Dates: 27 July - 12 August 2012, Park House Dates: 27 July - 30 August 2012; Admission: Free Venues: Victoria Park, E3; 453 - 497 Oxford Street, London, W1. 

"Residual Traces": a group exhibition curated by Bridget Coaker: Troika Editions, 27 July – 7 September 2012, Photofusion Gallery, 17A Electric Lane Brixton, London SW9 8LA, 020 7738 5774.

"Another London": 27 July – 16 September 2012, Tate Britain Millbank, London SW1P 4RG.

 

Manor Garden Allotments London, 2007 by Jan Stradtmann on view at Photofusion
Rebecca McClelland is photography editor of the New Statesman
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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump