Photography from the 1960s and 1970s. This is what the latest Barbican Art Gallery’s exhibition proposes to explore. The task is huge and daunting. The choices made in this exhibition are worth observing because they participate in a construction of the history of photography, as well as offering a reading of history itself.
Let’s first tackle two obvious comments about this show: that it is both very pleasing and much too big. Pleasing because the space is vast, the colours soft, the rhythm varied and the wandering easy. Too big because the ambition of this show is enormous. It would be closer to reality to say that there are 12 mini one-man shows linked together by the dates of execution of the works rather than one unified show. The number of images (over 400) and the amount of text imposed upon the viewer is incredible.
Now, as it is impossible to make an exhaustive review of such a mammoth show, I will make a few comments, with always these few questions in mind: what does this show tell us about these two decades? Why were these particular photographers chosen over others? What statement do these choices make about the history of photography?
First we can note the very strong presence of political images, or of photographic work that documents important historical events, such as South Africa’s apartheid (through the work of David Goldblatt and Ernest Cole), the Civil Rights movement in the US (Bruce Davidson), the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe (Boris Mikhailov), the Vietnam War (Larry Burrows), the game of political domination between the Soviet Union and the UK in Central Asia (Sigmar Polke) or the Cultural Revolution in China (Li Zhensheng). Among all of these not-so-uplifting subject matters, such work as that of William Eggleston or Malick Sidibe, which do not take politics as their subject, seem oddly displaced.
The geographical division between the bottom floor (South Africa and the Americas) and the top floor (USSR, Asia, West Africa) is somewhat artificial, in my opinion. For example, the bottom floor is dominated by race issues, but awkwardly includes the work of colour photography pioneer, William Eggleston. As for the top floor, it seems to be more focused on issues of the Cold War, even though Singh’s vision of India, Tomatsu’s vision of Japan and Sidibe’s portraits are not necessarily related to it. Therefore eclectism and an awkward linkage between each photographer pervade the show.
Along the same lines, each section has a different feel to it, since in some of them, the photographer himself has chosen the pictures and/or written texts to accompany the images, while in others, the descriptions are made by someone else.
But one can find in this show a large spectrum of the uses and functions of photography, illustrating its versatile nature. Many images are documentary in purpose and aesthetic, from Ernest Cole’s will to inform and denounce in the US the apartheid in his home country, to Larry Burrows’ brightly coloured images taken at the heart of the fighting action in Vietnam. Some images do not necessarily adopt a strictly documentary, frontal aesthetic, but nevertheless educate and simply show to western viewers a foreign country: it is the case of Iturbide’s and Singh’s pictures. But with both these photographers, a reflection upon the visual quality of the images has also been made. Singh talks about the role of colour as fitting his country’s philosophy, while Iturbide takes her style after her master Manuel Alvarez Bravo.
At the other side of the spectrum from the strictly documentary and indexical, one can find photographs that were taken with a more artistic and aesthetic mindset. The case of Eggleston’s research on colour is definitely unique in this exhibition, and for me, not studied in-depth enough to fit and make sense with the rest. Other images were interesting as much for the visual effects they created than for the information they provided on a specific political situation. That was the case in Boris Mikhailov’s and Sigmar Polke’s rooms, even though, notably, they both commented upon politics with their work. Mikhailov specifically used double exposures, which removes his images from reality in some way, yet speaks of soviet censure. Polke used the technique of the metaphor and created picturally striking tableaux that come very close to painting and even abstraction.
The exhibition is remarkable in its inclusion of artists from the then developing world. It therefore avoids remaining centered on a generally western narrative of the history of photography.
Finally, the exhibition was really interesting in its diversity, because it opened one’s eyes on the complexity of this period’s art. This must be put into context: this period came right before the real recognition and appreciation of photography as an art form. We really see with this array of photographers the spectrum of uses of photography, from what was considered at the time non-artistic (purely journalistic – Burrows – or downright inacceptable as art – Eggleston), to the beginning of the use of the medium as an art form (Mikhailov, Tomatsu, Iturbide,…). This aspect is not at all emphasized in the exhibition’s wall texts, which focus more on the place of photography as a privileged recorder of political history and as a medium for political expression or protest.
Everything was moving : Photography from the 60s and 70s | Barbican | 13 September 2012 – 13 January 2012