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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 a sub editor 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