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How the light gets in

Two ambitious photography exhibitions reviewed.

Seduced by Art
National Gallery, London WC2

William Klein + Daido Moriyama
Tate Modern, London SE1

If Britain ever lagged behind the US and Europe when it came to exhibitions of photography, in recent years the academic art world seems to have seen the flash and is taking the medium much more seriously. The is-it-art-or-just-aphoto debate has been definitively silenced and left in a very dark darkroom.

In London you can currently go to see the US legend Ansel Adams’s epic American landscapes at the National Maritime Museum; “Everything Was Moving”, a survey of 1960s and 1970s photography at the Barbican; Cecil Beaton’s deeply personal “Theatre of War” photos at the Imperial War Museum; while the Photographers’ Gallery has “Shoot!

Existential Photography”, “photo-shooting” images from funfairs, as well as Tom Wood’s “Men and Women” – evocative shots of Brits from the 1970s to the early 2000s. At Somerset House there’s the excellent “Cartier-Bresson: a Question of Colour”, showing his lesser-known monochrome street scenes alongside work by photographers such as Joel Meyerowitz and Helen Levitt, his technicolour successors.

Elsewhere, there are the German 20th-century photographer August Sander’s socialdocumentary portraits at the New Walk Museum in Leicester, modern street-culture shots by Ewen Spencer at the White Cloth Gallery in Leeds and the Czech photographer Jitka Hanzlová’s post-cold war images at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

“Seduced by Art” is the National’s first big foray into photography and, almost gingerly, it remains rooted firmly in the traditions of its permanent collection. Divided into three strata – Old Master painting, early photography and contemporary photos – it academically positions fine-art photography as a direct descendant of the master painters and sculptors, holding that historical art was the “engine for photographic innovation”. From the advent of photography, in 1839, far from seeing themselves as merely craftsmen or second-class artists, its earliest practitioners were undaunted by traditionally “high-art” subjects.

The gallery displays clusters or family trees of related works that stretch down through the years. There’s a painting of the photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron by George Frederic Watts (1850-52) alongside Cameron’s 1866 sepia photograph of a young girl, Kate Keown. Along from that hangs the contemporary portrait Jasmin by Nicky Bird. Both were taken on the Isle of Wight, with long exposures, making them blurry yet intense. Cameron’s startlingly handsome photograph Iago (1867) is shown alongside Craigie Horsfield’s eerily similar Hernando Gómez (2006); but both can be traced back to Van Dyck and his pointy beards.

Other pairings include Gainsborough’s landed gentry Mr and Mrs Andrews (1750) with Martin Parr’s awkward “Signs of the Times” couple (1991) in their suburban semi. Tina Barney’s photo “The Ancestor” (2001) depicts its subject beneath an ancestral family portrait, while Thomas Struth’s The Smith Family, Fife (1989) has more than a little resemblance to anonymous Victorian family snapshots.

A striking contrast is drawn between Émile- Jean-Horace Vernet’s painting Battle of Jemappes (1821), with its uniformed cavalry and victorious young duke, and Luc Delahaye’s 2001 photo US Bombing on Taliban Positions – a barren, unpeopled landscape near the beginning of a long war of attrition with a far less quantifiable enemy. Roger Fenton’s image of sepia-tinted hussars in the Crimea is next to Simon Norfolk’s 2011 soldiers in Helmand.

There are many beautiful works here by contemporary artists such as Rineke Dijkstra, Helen Chadwick and Richard Learoyd, as well as early nudes by Oscar Gustave Rejlander, but together I found their power diminished. The constant, sometimes arbitrary game of compare and contrast distracted from the purity of the images. Next time I hope the gallery will be braver and ditch the Old Masters altogether to hold up photography as a master art form in its own right.

Completely different and yet similar in terms of artists influencing one another is Tate Modern’s parallel retrospectives of the American photographer and film-maker William Klein and the Japanese Daido Moriyama. The show is the fruition of a ramped-up photography programme that began with the appointment of Simon Baker in 2009 as the gallery’s first dedicated photography curator. The show is a largely monochrome, moody sprawl across one of the gallery’s largest exhibition spaces. It examines the relationship between the two men, taking as its central theme the cities of New York and Tokyo. From the older Klein, we get joyous New York street portraits, rebellious Parisian students and stylised fashion plates, giggling geishas and toothy Italian nuns.

Moriyama’s imagery is more noirish and disturbing, depicting postwar Tokyo in a powerfully fresh way. The influence of Klein’s photos of Tokyo and Paris is clear in Moriyama’s grainy, confrontational shots and his depiction of life on the streets, protests and performers. Yet there are fewer smiles here: it’s a rainsoaked, edgy, run-down Tokyo that you don’t see very often: alienating and seductive. I guess when it comes to photography, I’m a purist.

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.