Another London – photography exhibition at Tate Britain

ANOTHER LONDON : exhibition at Tate Britain

“Another London” is an exhibition of 100 photographs taken by photographers from abroad. It coincided with the Olympics last held in London over 60 years ago.

I decided to buy the book of the exhibition since not only does it contain the images from the exhibition, it also contains an essay called “Overseas photographers view the city at mid-century” by Ben Gidley and Mick Gidley. It may help to deepen my insight into this group of photographers and the subject they have chosen, namely London. Photography has this power to inform even educate and it is surely a mistake to ignore that potential of the medium. There is a certain amount of political history in this exhibition as records of racial tension, for instance, in the 1960’s feature. Yet photography does not just document, it also has the power to be of universal significance and one sees this perhaps in a photograph by Bill Brandt of a woman placidly scrubbing her doorstep. As the Gidleys write, ” … the photographs in the collection represent a range of visual strategies and approaches, but taken together say something important about the time and place of their making.”

The photographs were all made in the middle of the twentieth century, from 1930 to 1980, and during this time London faced considerable growth with building projects actually devised during the war and executed afterwards. There is a lot of nostalgia about a London that no longer is which some of these photographs recall yet there is also detail that reveal that this past London was not idyllic. There is a vast array of subject matter within the exhibition; Bill Brandt is recorded as saying that what Henry James, the American novelist, called “multitudinous life,” was “something too complex to be caught” wondering “if anyone would ever succeed in photographing London.” Of course, there are certain symbols of London such as the red buses and Big Ben much of what constitutes London comes from outside, in the form of immigrants and the role of London as a hub of Empire although this was of course dwindling during this period. Street photographers are often looking to catch some kind of juxtaposition to make their photographs meaningful yet a lot of photographs in this exhibition rely on their ability to record different types of people such as hippies or char women among many others.

The exhibition features a variety of photographers. Some are well-known such as Henri-Cartier Bresson who has provided a source of inspiration for many others. A lesser known photographer is Sergio Larrain who was not afraid to make much looser compositions, more post-modern than the modernist conventions of the 1950’s. Some of the photographers featured were sent on commission to photograph London by different kinds of magazines who were looking for certain sorts of images while other photographers came independently. There were those, most notably Brandt, who became naturalised British subjects with Dorothy Bohm going on to found the Photographer’s Gallery.

These photographers from abroad brought their own vision and experiences, such as Leonard Freed who was fascinated by both Jewishness and the police, and hence the exhibition title, Another London, and yet the place they photographed is still recognisable as London.

The exhibition was made possible by The Eric and Louise Franck London Collection as Tate curator Simon Baker points out in a short, one page introduction. The photographs were collected over a period of 20 years and form a small part of a collection of other 1,000 images.

David Campany has written at length about this exhibition and his essay is available on the Tate Britain website.

My own visit came with a few days of the exhibition closing. I had been thinking about it for quite sometime, wondering why the college ignore these kind of exhibitions (presumably because they are not contemporary) and suggesting to others that they might like to accompany or meet me there. Finally, I found the time to make the visit, slightly daunted by the sheer size of the exhibition which encourage one to sweep past images that given more time, might have opened up their secrets. A little study beforehand perhaps can help avoid this but one does not want to go just to see Henri Cartier-Bresson, for instance; there is a lot of other work that deserves attention. I guess I shall glide past in the time allotted and soak up what I can without being too overwhelmed.

The gallery is crowded when I arrive in the afternoon yet there is still room to move around and see the photographs; to see them as prints rather than as images in a book makes a difference yet the book is well printed. Beside very photograph is a short biography of the photographer; these can be interesting (I was unaware that the photographer Dorothy Bohm had started The Photographer’s Gallery in London) yet it would take too long to read them all and there is barely time to see all the photographs before one starts to feel exhaustion. Some of these photographs would be considered as having questionable quality these days since the shadows are often dense to the point of obscuring detail and yet their aesthetic charm helped by excellent composition often pleases the eye of the viewer. It was during this period that Ansel Adams was developing his techniques of black and white film development; it seems he never photographed London because if he had,

I noted certain images that had an immediate impression on me; the following group of impressions is not meant to be exhaustive of the excellent work on show. Rene Groebli’s “Tram on Westminster Bridge, 1949) is a bold and striking composition; the uncomplicated arrangement of objects is quite different from many other photos that contain a wealth of fascinating detail. Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s photo “Bibi in London, 1926″is near the very beginning of the exhibition which is put together on a loosely chronological basis, a completely different order to the book where “Bibi in London, 1926” appears as the first photograph and is certainly the oldest, falling on a date that contradicts the title of photographs made between 1930 and 1980. Although this image is technically amateurish, it is nonetheless evocative; the dark shadows add to the atmosphere surrounding Bibi.

Looking at a display of photos by Bill Brandt

Ivan Shagin has photographed a street artist, busy at work on a pavement, while a young woman glances back at him. There are a number of photographs by Bill Brandt who came to London before the war and stayed; he photographed London extensively, producing two books on the place. Norah Wilson commented of his work that his “pictures of London people are not portraits; they are generalisations.” I am also attracted to the work of E.O.Hoppe whose photograph of a seagull “Calmly sitting on the parapets of her mighty bridges, 1932′ is an amusing study of a sub-adult gull while another Hoppe, “London Stock Exchange, a typical young businessman, 1937” is a much more austere reminder of life in Britain. Auerbach’s “London, 1936” is a view down on a London cross-roads (we are not told exactly where) with a group of iconic London buses passing by.

I am diverted from my “tour” for a few minutes by what sounds like an alteration between a photographer and a couple of security guards; the photographer has a V+A badge giving her permission to photograph but the guards appear to be question her motives; I hear the photographer saying that she is not interested in photographing individuals rather in photographing people looking at photographs. This is exactly how I feel about photographing in this situation although for the purposes of this blog, I am also photographing groups of photographs to show to some extent the way in which the exhibition is laid out. SOme people actually photograph individual photographs – this strikes me as copyright infringement but as long as one does not publish such images, there seems to be no harm done. When the women eventually move away to their continue their discussion elsewhere, I look into the cabinet they have been standing around; inside is a book called London by Alvin Langdon Coburn which was published in 1909; an open page shows the imposing lower part of Nelson’s Column reflected in nearby water.

Henri-Cartier Bresson’s photographs are of course excellent. It is not only the symmetry of his compositions but also their subject matter; here there is technical ability too, allowing one to stare into the shadows and find things there that might have otherwise been blotted out. One photograph strikes me – taken during the Coronation of a man who has apparently fallen off his place on a wall and now lies sleeping contentedly on a newspaper strewn pavement. This photograph is not illustrated in the book. Another Cartier-Bresson photograph of a London Ball is quite different in approach – low light conditions have prevented detail in some areas and the resolution of the photograph is also quite soft as couples dance in swirling forms.

A well made photograph (even though the blacks are solid!) is Felix H Mann’s “The lights go up in London, 1945” which is a view of London at night in which Big Ben is highlighted; this print is made on ferrotype paper.

Robert Frank’s “City of London. 1951” is like Hoppe’s photograph of the London Stock Exchange; the street draws one in yet a striking character in a bowler hat, the only person facing the camera, makes one stop to sense the awe inspiring character of the place. There is a photograph by Ernst Haas of a preacher at Speaker’s Corner, “Hyde Park, London 1953”; the composition mirrors the “Pillar of Fire Society” lectern from which a woman is speaking in no uncertain terms. This is one of a number of photographs of imposing women to be seen in the exhibition. There is for instance, Bruce Davidson’s “Bus conductor woman with ticket machine, 1960” in which the photographer is getting a very stern if not disapproving look from his subject. Jeanloup Sieff has photographed an “English Nanny” in 1936 who looks down at him, impassionately from the top of the frame. However, some photographers have a more compassionate view of London’s women such as Eve Arnold who photographed “One of four women who share a flat in Knightsbridge, 1961” having a bath while Dorothy Bohm has made eye contact with more fashionable women walking the streets of London. There is a portrait photograph by James Barnor of a black woman, “Eva, London c1956” in which the woman is shown as she is, without artifice.

Marc Riboud has made a telling image of London boys playing Cowboys and Indians; one of the boys is carrying a toy gun. Behind the street is almost deserted with just a vehicle or two parked in the road. Life on London streets is very different these days with boys more likely to be carrying real guns or knives than toy ones while most children are not able to play on the streets instead more likely to be found playing inside with electronic gadgets. Another of Riboud’s images is of a gentleman eyeing a sculptured horse’s head in “The British Museum, 1954”

On the whole, the typological approach of some photographers is not very interesting. Two prints by Irving Penn which are taken in studio conditions are rather poorly rendered although the subjects are of interest; more British women, this time a jovial couple of cleaners in “Cleaning Women, 1950” In the case of Martin Franck, it is a sensitive woman who is photographing rendering her subjects as they are such as in the young girl wearing a top hat with a Union Jack marinated upon it in “Greenwich, London, 1977.”

Another London exhibition – 12 photo display of Al Vandenburg

Towards the end of the exhibition, there is a display of Al Vandenburg’s black and white photographs. These are relatively small prints with large white borders and the subject matter is often of interest such as the 1975 image of a young woman standing while holding a cassette player, a popular device of the time, from his series “On a good day”. Vandenburg had studied with the well known photographer, Avedon.

The exhibition features only black and white photographs. By the 1980’s, colour was becoming much more acceptable and if there was to be an exhibition of the decades following 1980, it would more likely consist of colour images with just a few black and whites from those who like to specialise in the medium.

Having seen the exhibition, I reread David Campany’s “On the hoof and shooting from the hip.” He mentions the difficulty in defining London, Paris is apparently easy, and references the work of the American Walker Evans who wandered out photographing things of apparently little consequence such as doorbells, quiet corners and masonry; he was not the only one to photograph an apparently deserted London. However, most of the photographs do contain people going about their daily working lives. There appears to have been more variety at this time for nowadays many suburbs with their brand name shops and restaurants look much the same.

Campany, who has written extensively about Art and Photography, writes that “Photography appeals because it escapes narrative and wrongfoots the easy explanations it can seduce us into making. Like the visitor with fresh eyes, the camera takes in everything. It sees without hierarchy or intention, with no knowledge of the before or after. In fact, it sees more than any human can, recording surfaces and objects with unimaginable realism. Its voracity and its veracity are inseparable.” His comments seem apt as does the following, “In the final print the smallest things may become insistent signs, calling inexplicable attention to themselves across time.”

Tate Britain – visitor reading

What of the many details recorded here that have now vanished or become obscured? Photography can easily undermine artistic ambitions because all photographs end up as documents; this is what has happened here as inviting vignettes have become interesting records of a London that no longer exists in quite the same way. This period and kind of photography was made possible by the development of lighter cameras such as the handheld Leica and film that did not require such long exposures as before.

Since these photographs were made, photography has ceased to be documentary based and developed to be more artistic in it’s aspirations. However, says Campany, Another London is not just a group of nostalgic photographs, it is exemplary of a shift in photography marked in part by a renaissance of street photography, an attempt to get back to showing the nitty gritty of life rather than it’s synthesised equivalent.

One last point. The cover of “Another London” is of a black man just like the cover of the exhibition catalogue of “How We Are”, the first major Tate Britain photographic exhibition. Political correctness? It seems there is still the need to make up for the under-representation of black people in the past. How much of this exhibition is about photography and how much is concerned with other considerations?

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One thought on “Another London – photography exhibition at Tate Britain

  1. Pingback: Amano on Another London | EastSouthEast

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