Laura Letinsky @ The Photographer’s Gallery


Robert Enoch talks to an OCA group about the Laura Letinsky exhibition

“The series title Ill Form and Void Full continues Letinsky’s interest in playing with representations of space and time, but departs from the narrative potential of the still life. It focuses on the relation between positive and negative space, and a more muted depiction of a subject where two and three dimensional forms from different sources co-exist uneasily.” From The Photographer’s Gallery website

While looking at the photographs of Laura Letinsky which were on show at the Photographer’s Gallery, Robert Enoch suggested it would help to consider the meaning of the objects within the photographs, the way they have been juxtaposed and the overall effect this creates. Letinsky’s work can be considered still life; it is conceptual and experimental with a very meticulous approach. Not about narrative rather about dimensionality, different representations that question the nature of photography. It plays with time and space.

Listening to Robert, I am certainly more able to appreciate photography that could be dismissed because it does not conform to ideas of what a photograph should be. This is particularly true in relation to spatial dimension which in these works of Letinsky is not as three dimensional as one might expect. The use of collage (small cut photographs included in the main photograph) is one example of the way she achieves this effect but it is emphasised by symmetry and a short plane of focus that suggests the use of a large format camera which tends to have a small depth of field and is able to distort perspective. One starts to see shapes rather than objects!

The picturing of both fresh and rotting food introduces the notion of time passing.

One is aware of a layered effect in Letinsky’s images owing to different planes of focus. There is a lot of light (the pictures contain a lot of off-white) while the images overall have a somewhat pale glow to them.

OCA tutor, Robert Enoch, explains Letinsky's work in-depth.

OCA tutor, Robert Enoch, explains Letinsky’s work in-depth.

One photograph has a bent paper cup at the centre and I can not help but recall rather literally the “punctum” of Roland Barthes; it forms a focal point that draws the eye while the background is very much “schema” (another Barthes reference) which is the warp and woof of the image.

Letinsky clearly adopts the approach of an artist. What is real and what is unreal in these images? Letinsky makes us question the nature of photographic reality. Although the images are largely monotone there is also an exquisite sense of colour.

The objects are life size. They are carefully placed even though they may appear to be at random.

Amusingly, someone thinks that one of the photos has been damaged as he notices some dirty fluid drops on the paper; it does look very realistic but one sees them on another and realises that they are part of the photo and not a result of English rain! Such is the realism of Letinsky’s abstractions which draw one into their realm!

Downstairs in the bookshop, I come across a book of Letinsky’s photographs. They are interesting still life images but the body of work on show upstairs is quite different as a result of it’s “unfocused” appearance.

In a nearby cafe, we talk on into the late afternoon. I have not done much still life preferring instead to see the world outside and try to capture it’s fleeting nature. Robert talks about the constant experimentation involved in this genre, the need to see, to deconstruct – the placing of objects within the frame is not a random process as one considers not just the placement of an object but the way it juxtaposes with others.

One might start a still life by putting a glass down on a table and notice any shadows, employ backdrops and then other objects such as a knife, a fork, a spoon etc

I recall a phrase from William Blake ..

To see the world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour!

One can see a video of Letinsky … here!

Tutor Robert Enoch reads this blog and comments … “Really good points you’ve made here.  And remember those ‘drips’: questioning the picture surface?  Were they on the (very matte) print or in the photo? Just like the representations of fruit and the real fruit pieces in the photos, there is a questioning about our relation to reality.”

Light from the Middle East – new photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum


“You are always on these OCA days!” another student tells me as we wait at the V+A for the OCA visit to start. I certainly find it helpful to meet with other students and in particular tutors – it helps to give perspective on what one is doing and distance learning can leave one feeling isolated. For some people, attending an OCA day has kept them on track; they have been about to drop a course and attended an OCA day as a last ditch attempt and it has worked.

I share a coffee downstairs in the V+A cafe with a few other students. One complains about his tutor and enthuses about his camera; I wonder if the two are not connected – the OCA photography course is not about the best equipment or about how to use it as this knowledge can be freely obtained elsewhere rather it is concerned with understanding the medium and learning how to use it as an expressive tool.

Gareth Dent addresses the multitude

Gareth Dent addresses the multitude; to his right, tutors Robert Enoch and Simon Barber

As with most OCA days, it starts with a tutor, in this case Gareth Dent the CEO of the OCA, telling us what the day is about. One is to gain a personal perspective of the work on show (I try to pepper my personal perspective with as many other views as I can) and seeing photography in the gallery, a completely different experience to seeing it on screen or in a book. Gareth also asks us to question what is going on in the exhibition such as the way it has been hung and where images have been placed in relation to each other; he considers the three fold segmentation of the work into sections called “Recording, Reframing, Resisting” as somewhat arbitrary pointing out for instance, that Abbas does not merely record he also reframes. Certainly the work of Abbas, a Magnum photographer, is very skilled producing technically proficient images that print well but also creating compositions that both interest and inform the viewer. The images on show are about the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Mullahs and come from the end of the 1970’s when the Shah was overthrown and sent into exile. I am familiar with Abbas from his images of Islam and one can see he is getting closer enough to his subjects to make the pictures worthwhile; the grim spectacle of four generals in the morgue not only allowed Abbas to make a great document, it also probably helped the ruling party to show the populace that the generals were really dead.

What I like about this exhibition is that it is concerned with photography rather than attempting to make an artistic statement through the use of photography although the latter is present. The catalogue published by Steidl, currently one of the very best publishers of photographic books, also contains a helpful introductory essay by Marta Weiss, curator of photographs at The Victoria and Albert Museum, in which she mentions all the images on show and gives a brief description of what they are about that does enable one to understand photographs that might easily be discussed. She also makes pertinent remarks about photography in general. For instance, she starts by saying … “The immediacy, universality and accessibility of photography makes it an ideal choice for artists confronting the social challenges and political upheavals of the contemporary Middle East” which nicely contextualises the subject of the exhibition; she continues … “For many of them, photography is not just a documentary tool. Rather, it is a ubiquitous yet powerful creative medium to be exploited and interrogated.

She also has more general statements to make about the medium of photography saying “A photograph may be regarded as simply a window onto the world, as a picture of something. A photograph however, is not just an image, but an object, and the choice of how photographs use the medium and its techniques can be as important as what they choose to picture.” Weiss even suggests ways to look at the photographs with the following questions … “How has the maker exploited or challenged the medium? What is expressed by using photography in a particular way? Why was photography the medium of choice? To what extent does the work acknowledge pre-existing photographs that relate to the Middle-East?

Of course, Gareth is right to challenge Weiss’ decision to compartmentalise the work. Of the first section, Weiss writes that “the photographers … exploit and explore the camera’s capacity to record” a statement which can surely be applied to photographs from other parts of the exhibition. Yet one can hardly deny her statement that “photography is a powerful tool for documenting people, places and events. A photograph can serve a commemorative purpose or bear witness to historic moments” while she goes on to qualify this by stating “Despite their apparent authority, photographs can be ambiguous and difficult to decipher; they can trick or disorient. Their meaning can shift according to context, cropping or captioning.

If one wants a detailed account of this exhibition, one might read Weiss’s introduction. Here, I am just going to note down images that evoked a response from me at the time of viewing. For instance, Abbas Kowsari has made an interesting close up of a soldier”s tea shirt showing a Western male below which are the weapons he carries. Black and white photographs made over the course of 10 years showing a Sufi festival are striking since they show the practice of people gorging knives into themselves although this does seem rather sensationalist coverage. Another photograph of a bridge cracked and covered in graffiti does need an explanation since as an image it tends to say little – the bridge had collapsed sometime earlier to the photograph being made killing many people and so the photographer had made it into a monument.

The image of a square magnet surrounded by upraised iron filings might be read as a satirical comment on worshippers at the Qaaba in Mecca of which it is an obvious reference; however, one might also see it as an insight into the cosmic dimensions of this particular Isalmic practice suggesting that there is something deeply natural to the practice. The image used by the OCA to announce this study day visit is of a woman, one sees only her eyes and forehead since she holds a small blackboard over the lower part of her face as if it were a Burkha covering her; the woman is in fact a lecturer in English Literature at a university.

How honest a picture of the Middle East does this exhibition present? There is a political edge to it that might be expected in documentary photography yet is this representative of photography as a whole in the Middle East? Might not the exhibition be a response to our preconceptions of the Middle East? I do not know enough to answer these questions and yet there is another photographic book, Arab Photography Now that might – it seems highly unlikely that all the photographers reprinted here would be found in the other book and vice the versa? In fact, a review of this other book states … “All the leading arab photographers are ignored. Where is Walid Raad, Fouad El Khoury, Hrair Sirkassian, Adel Abidin, Ziad Antar, Akram Zaatari, Zineb Sedira, Meriem Bouberdala, … ?

Another image that I found meaningful was a large panorama by Mitra Tabrizian in which a couple of Mullah’s gaze down from a billboard onto a group of people; these people are staged models and their poises look strained. I can not help but see here the powerful control that religion has over people in Middle Eastern countries.

A pile of bricks in a characterless modern housing estate by Yto Barrada is the kind of photograph that makes one scratch one’s head a little. How to see beyond the banality of an apparently meaningless image? There is much to discuss though in terms of the shapes within the image, the slightly squewered verticals, the lack of people and of any character to the place etc

A video installation in a separate room had an eerie feel to it. The sound of American voices at one point could not stop the feeling that one was perhaps seeing some kind of military construction while the whistling wind further enhanced feelings of bleakness and alienation. The image was from the desert where the low sun of dusk and dawn may reveal what is not normally visible.

In the reframing section the artists “look to the photographs of the past for inspiration and as a point of reference … they research, copy and interrogate past pictorial traditions and photographic imagery.

One image that sparks quite a bit of discussion is Raeda Saadeh’s “Who will make me real?” She can hardly be called a Page 3 girl yet perhaps she is satirising this. For Gareth, there is an obvious reference to Manet’s Olympia although Marta Weiss makes the reference to a photograph of a Mohammed woman by Comtesse de Croix-Mesnil; Gareth also writes that “The title: ‘Who will make me real?’ could be a reference to the John Berger’s assertion in Ways of Seeing, that “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves…she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight”. Is it the looking at Saadeh that makes her real? Or is it a reference to her status as an Arab with Israeli citizenship – a status frequently ignored in the football team approach to considering and reporting the Palestinian situation ...”

It is really the gaze here that is important and this is similar to the Olympia of Manet.

Tutor Robert Enoch writes … “The reference to Manet’s Olympia is resonant because that is a painting of a prostitute. Saadeh is at the same time appropriating/using as she experiences being used/appropriated. It is a strange act of defiance. It also brings up the question of ‘who creates identity/history/reality?’ The newspapers over her body suggests more than oppression, but a sort of pressure from outside that both conceals and shapes the perception of self.

There seem to be different layers of meaning to this image; I question the assertion that “Any sensuality implied by her pose is disrupted by the harsh realities reported in the newspaper.” I can’t read the newspaper because I don’t know Arabic so this statement sounds a bit over the top. The newspaper prevents us from see her nudity just as often newspapers stop us from seeing the facts and the truth they suggest because of a particular slant that the newspaper adopts. Furthermore, the newspaper prevents us from seeing her sensuality by it’s physical nature not it’s content!

Another photograph from this section, a group of photographs in fact that were modelled on the style of the Becher’s project of photographing disappearing industrial buildings, was Taysir Batnaji’s Watchtowers, West Bank / Palestine (2008). I found this one of the more powerful pieces. The fact that the artist had to get someone else to make the photographs is a reminder of the ominousness of these buildings which loom out at one with much more drama than those of the Bechers. Batniji to whom these photos are attributed, is a Gaza-born Palestinian and therefore not able to travel to the West Bank. Should a Palestinian who wants to make an artistic statement about Israel be denied doing so? Tutor Peter Haveland commented … “I really don’t see why contracting out the taking of the images makes any difference to the work. This is an art work not a photography course exercise after all and the reference to the Bechers work brings a sense of irony and a historic reference to the piece. Much work is being made with found images, Mishka Henner for example, under the broad umbrella of ‘photography’ and no one is concerned if an image is printed by someone else and so often the shutter is pressed by an assistant anyway, so where is the difference?

Batniji comments on the photographs that …  “They are out of focus, clumsily framed, and imperfectly lit. In this territory one can not install the heavy equipment of the Bechers or take time to frame the perfect position, let alone afford to wait for the ideal conditions.”

There are a group of sepia coloured photographs by Shadi Ghadirian which look very much like antique prints until one sees reminders of modernity such as a bicycle, a pair of sunglasses and other contemporary objects in them. We jokingly wonder if she would pass the first assignment of the OCA module, The Art of Photography; the contrasts in this work do not relate to form however but to concept.

The final section is called Resisting where the photographers “resist the authority of the photograph: scratching out or digitally removing faces, inserting figures into new back-grounds, even burning the print itself.

Abiq Rahim for instance, has resorted to old technology in his making of small soft focus black and white prints of his native Kabul which he returned to after 18 years away. Joana Hadjithomas and Khali Joreige have used old postcards of Beirut which have been damaged to illustrate the way the city itself has suffered since the original photographs were made. There is also an interesting work by Sukran Moral in which a group of men sit in a boat (a black and white photograph) while on their shoulders sit brightly coloured birds (colour photographs) – the image is called “Despair”(2003) and refers to the fate of those who have to migrate.

Other images worth mentioning (actually they all are!) are those by Nermine Hammam whose dreamlike images of soldiers from a series called Upekkha references the Buddhist attitude of seeing the world with equanimity.

There was so much to see in this exhibition and consider and this blog only touches on it.

Exhibition Road entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum

Exhibition Road entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum

jogging across Hyde Park

jogging across Hyde Park



I like to visit an exhibition more than once since if it is a good exhibition, one is bound to deepen one’s perspective of it. Immediately, I think of the photographs that I liked first time that I did not spend time discussing because it seemed almost politically incorrect to do so since beauty was the mainstay of their appeal although there is much more to them than this – these are sepia toned images of a Arabian woman in traditional clothing yet what appear to be classical images are punctured by objects from the contemporary world … such as a soft drink can or a bicycle. The artist-photographer’s name is Shadi Ghadirian.

Much has been written on beauty over the centuries so it is not easy to define – my own perception of it here is certainly in part that of the male gaze! Recently, the OCA discussed the matter of beauty quoting from Elaine Scarry’s “On Beauty and Being Just” … this deserves a blog of it’s own!



A visit to the Royal Academy, London

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Hearing of an exhibition on English landscape photography entitled The Making of Landscape and featuring the work of Constable, Gainsborough and Turner, I decided to visit it largely because as a photographer, I am interested in landscape and the aura that surrounds this particular form of artistic representation.

On arrival at the gallery, I was asked to join a long queue which was a result of the Manet exhibition that was showing; when I reached the end of this queue, I found it was only for Manet! A gallery employee apologised and directed me to a desk on the other side of the entrance hall where I was able to purchase a ticket.

It was not a major exhibition and hence there was no catalogue other than a slim booklet that one received on buying the ticket; this gives out the information that is written on the walls of the gallery to support the pictures along with other information and references. It certainly helps to digest the exhibition not just when one is walking around but later such as now as I write this blog.

Much of the exhibition is taken up with engravings which are composed of light and dark without a trace of colour; these show how landscape developed from a “lesser” art to an art in it’s own right. The gallery guide states about work by Richard Wilson, an eighteenth century painter …

His fusion of grand landscape and mythical tragedy chimed with the fashion for the “Sublime” – the expression in art or literature of noble or awe-inspiring ideas – and established his claim to have created a new, more serious style of landscape painting.

The guide continues to put this into a more contemporary context …

” … the Sublime was contrasted with the gentler characteristics of the Beautiful, which engages the “passions of generation”, that is, of love and an admiration for the soft and feminine, in opposition to the passions of awe and terror invoked by the Sublime.”

(the quoted text above is written by Andrew Wilton and based on Edmund Burke’s Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) )

This exhibition although billed as being “Constable, Gainsborough, Turner” does not show much of their work, there being only a small collection of paintings; much of it is composed of engravings, a number of which are of originals by these artists. Certainly there are a few large and striking paintings particularly by John Constable and it is good to see these originals and notice the way the paint has been laid on the canvas and, for instance, the places where an alteration has been made.

After seeing this exhibition, I had decided to visit the Barbican but it was getting dark and time was short owing to my late train and having to queue unnecessarily. Since there was a Manet evening and there were a few returns, I took a ticket for the talk and the exhibition, soon finding myself in a hall where three people sat at the front, all experts in their subjects. The topic was Manet and the Opera.

It struck me that this might be quite interesting and it was but as soon as I learnt that Baudelaire was a friend and staunch supporter of Manet, I thought perhaps I had made a mistake in coming. Charles Baudelaire was one of photography’s fiercest critics it it’s early days, writing that is should be a hand maiden to the arts and not be considered more that that. There are still people who hold to that kind of view since photography struggles to find a coherent identity. It was nevertheless a good talk and I could not help but be intrigued and amused by the distinguished female speaker who exclaimed … “Of course Manet and all his group died of syphilis!”

Indeed this seems to have been the reason why Manet died at the relatively young age of about 50.

It was possible to hire an audio-guide for the Manet exhibition; this helped to guide me around the various rooms it was situated in. There were a lot of paintings mostly of family and friends and I struggled a bit to see what made them so great since one could often see the brush strokes and what might have been taken as shoddy craftsmanship. Indeed, the Salon refused recognition of Manet for a long time as influential people gathered around to give him support. Eventually, the Paris Salon did accept one of his paintings which did strike me as quite remarkable since the character portrayed did not look entirely happy with himself – another syphilitic sufferer perhaps.

It was the words of Mallarme, a poet and friend of Manet, who really sums up the genius of Manet by saying that the painting is not the thing itself but the effect it produces and at more length …

Each time he begins a picture … he lunges headlong into it … each work should be a new creation of the mind … the eye should forget all else it has seen and learn anew from the lesson before it. It should not abstract itself from memory seeing only that which it looks upon, and that as for the first time.”

I was interested in the photographs that were found in most of the rooms, portraits of the people Manet had also painted. Early evidence of the use of photographs by artists in making their work.

Landscapes by Edward Chambre-Hardman

Open Eye Gallery - Liverpool

Open Eye Gallery – Liverpool

After coffee, we went back to the Open Eye gallery to see another exhibition upstairs in the Archive Gallery. this time, another OCA tutor, Keith W Roberts, introduced the work to us since he is presently working on a Ph D about Hardman, focusing not on his landscape work visible in the gallery but the thousands upon thousands of portraits that Hardman made.

Keith gave us a brief introduction to Hardman, a photographer who worked in Liverpool during the middle of the twentieth century, and whose house in Rodney Street is preserved as a working studio by the National Trust; the Trust’s information says … “Explore the contrasting sides of this house: the neat, professional, spacious business rooms and the cluttered, cramped living quarters of the renowned portrait photographer Edward Chambré Hardman and his wife Margaret. They lived and worked here for 40 years, keeping everything and changing nothing. The business focused on professional studio portraits but their real love was for vivid landscape images. Some of their huge collection of photographs is on display in the house, along with the equipment they used to take and develop the iconic images.”

Hardman seems to have been quite an astute individual and was a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society; Keith hands us a copy of a talk delivered by Hardman about obtaining “Exhibition Quality” prints which seems a bit ironic since I am not the only one to find the prints on show as somewhat lacklustre; there are no bright highlights for instance rather a certain dullness pervades. Hardman recognised Alvin Langford Coburn as an influence and there is a similarity in style but at the time Hardman was working the technology of photography had increased in quality allowing Ansel Adams to make prints of much better quality. In his article, Hardman quotes a photographer called Ward Muir who encouraged photographers to “make your photographs sing!” and although the compositions of these images are pleasant, the photographs do not personally inspire me.

photographic prints by E.C.Hardman

photographic prints by E.C.Hardman

In his article, Hardman writes about pictorialism and points out that “Some critics – those belong to the world of journalism – would have you believe that it is almost a crime to produce a pictorial photograph. The highest praise goes to semi-documentary photographs showing life and action – often a very slummy kind of life. One could sum it up as a glorification of the instantaneous moment. Composition, balance, lighting, tone rendering, definition and all the other things which we pictorialists strive after, do not seem to matter in the least. In fact, the photographer’s personality must not intrude. It is subject-interest only which counts.” (from The Photographic Journal, Volume XCV, 1955)

Peter Haveland talks to us about this exhibition. He considers the subject matter as unrepresentative of the age in which the photographs were made. Hardman photographs not what was there rather certain views that he wants to make a picture of. For instance, a hay rick is included as what would appear to be the subject of the photograph yet apparently Hardman made the image because of the cloud formation in the sky behind; there is a similar image of a copse on a hill where clouds engulf the small wood and spiral up into the sky. To emphasise his point, Peter remarks that these images were not made of the 1950’s but of another time, they are not honest representations.

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Peter addresses OCA students in the archive gallery – Keith, bottom left

At this point, a woman storms through our group towards the exit exclaiming, “You don’t know what you are talking about! I knew Hardman, he was a friend, and I can assure you all his images were made by him in his time!” I call after her, suggesting she might like to join the debate but she replies that she has an appointment. She has misunderstood Peter by taking his remarks literally which is surely a mistake – if I took Peter that seriously, I would no longer be studying at the OCA but would have “exploded” and gone off on my own way. Peter has a reputation for challenging people!

For instance, Peter makes a reference to the Ansel Adams School of Anal Retentiveness which is amusing but not an easy pill to swallow. Personally, I feel I learnt a lot from the basics of the Zone System since it gives a grounding in the understanding of the photograph which many critics of the medium seem to lack. I can’t help that Hardman’s work would be a lot more appealing if he had understood Ansel Adams a bit more. However, we live in an age where the screen is taking over from the print and although the latter is not redundant, most photographs are viewed on screens.

The fact is though that we all photograph things to which we are attracted since photography is a selective process. Hence, the view expressed through our images is bound to be slanted and can never be total.

There is a good review of Hardman’s work to be found on the internet that was published in The Independent while a blog called That’s How the Light Gets In has accounts not just of this exhibition but also other work of Harman such as his book, Life through a lens.

Lecture Upon a Shadow

Open Eye Gallery Liverpool

Open Eye Gallery Liverpool

Before considering this exhibition, it seems appropriate to quote the poem by John Donne from which it takes it’s name …

by John Donne

STAND still, and I will read to thee
A lecture, Love, in Love’s philosophy.
These three hours that we have spent,
Walking here, two shadows went
Along with us, which we ourselves produced.
But, now the sun is just above our head,
We do those shadows tread,
And to brave clearness all things are reduced.
So whilst our infant loves did grow,
Disguises did, and shadows, flow
From us and our cares ; but now ’tis not so.

That love hath not attain’d the highest degree,
Which is still diligent lest others see.

Except our loves at this noon stay,
We shall new shadows make the other way.
As the first were made to blind
Others, these which come behind
Will work upon ourselves, and blind our eyes.
If our loves faint, and westerwardly decline,
To me thou, falsely, thine
And I to thee mine actions shall disguise.
The morning shadows wear away,
But these grow longer all the day ;
But O ! love’s day is short, if love decay.

Love is a growing, or full constant light,
And his short minute, after noon, is night.

The Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool that is holding the UK exhibition (it has also been seen in Shanghai, China) describes it thus …

“A Lecture Upon The Shadow brings together new work by six artists from the North West and Shanghai. Using different approaches, the artists play with light, shadow and form to re-imagine familiar situations, exploring photography’s relationship to illusion and the everyday.”

entrance to the Open Eye Gallery

entrance to the Open Eye Gallery

The Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool is a modern angular building in black that looms over the docks. It is free to visitors and contains a small shop. We, a group of students from the OCA along with a couple of tutors, meet near the entrance around 11 a.m. and Peter Haveland, senior lecturer in photography at the OCA, gives us a chat about the exhibition, explaining the context; the fact that it is a collaboration between Liverpool and Shanghai is of interest as is the title of the exhibition “Lecture Upon a Shadow.” I wonder whether the title of the exhibition was something that the photographers consciously responded to or whether the curators looked for work that conveyed the subject of Donne’s poem. Perhaps the poem was used later as a way to cobble the works together! Peter is interested by my question but unable to answer it.

It is worth considering the input of the curators for they do have considerable effect upon the exhibition. For instance, David Penny’s images were actually chosen by Patrick Henry, the director of Open Eye Gallery who writes that Penny “makes absorbing, provocative still life photographs. It’s not easy to do this. Photographs are bound up with our desire to know something about the world out there – their lifeblood is contingency. The canon of photography (as art) is dominated by the documentary tradition. The further still life photography gets from the language of documentary, the more it swims against the tide. Still life at worst circumscribes an airless space, cut off from the world, accessible only by the obscure, absolute desire of the photographer.

John Umney looking at work be David Penny

John Umney looking at work by David Penny

Penny has found some unusual ways to breathe life into this space. He creates simple, meticulous compositions, photographing single objects against plain backgrounds, populating his frame with undecided objects – objects that pose questions and engage the imagination. His approach is tentative and interrogative – it makes us look again at what surrounds us and where it has come from. It’s photography from first principles – innocent photography, strangely reminiscent of the earliest experiments in photographic picture-making by Niepce, Talbot and others.”

Penny’s images entitled “Dutch Painting” is as Denis Joe writes “a series of images of small detailed sculptures, behind coloured glass is an interesting work. Penny takes a reproduction of a painting from an art book he found in a charity shop. The picture is cut then bent into a shape, held erect by wire. As Penny states: “There is a movement from the original painting, to the book as an object, to the torn out single page, which in turn becomes a sculpture, and then is photographed, framed and exhibited as object.”

This is the kind of work that deserves reflection. What are they about? What are they saying?

Curators of exhibitions do make decisions that effect the way an exhibition is perceived; for instance, the method of attaching the images to the walls (many in this exhibition were unframed and simply stuck on the wall) as well as laying out bodies of work in a particular way.

I first heard of the exhibition from the Open College of the Arts website where it was discussed by Dewald Botha, an OCA photography student from South Africa. He had “mixed feelings” about it.

Accompanied with notes from his tutor, he initially “had a walk through, to try and find or feel a connection between the work of all the artists, and made notes on images that pulled (or pushed) me more than others, to return and work out why.”

In regards to connecting images, he noted “The six separate wall spaces for each artist didn’t connect to each other as much as I’d somehow expected, and this disappointed me a little, but I can only put it down to not really having looked at group exhibitions before, to know what to expect in terms of ‘connected-ness.”

Eldon Grove - Tabitha Jussa

Eldon Grove – Tabitha Jussa

He proceeded to then turn his gaze to particular images and artists who were Jussa, Fan and Man. Tabitha Jussa’s image “Eldon Grove” from the UK of an “abandoned utopian social housing development” is striking and Dewald could relate to it partly through the work he has been doing yet also because “Like most of the prints in the exhibition, Tabitha’s print was nailed neatly to the wall, unframed. The print quality was beautiful, sharp and colours rendered beautifully, to bring across the gray drab British weather, but also, this allowed her to show minute detail. Her image seriously demands a first glance, followed by a second much closer analysis, because at first view it’s a beautiful place, seemingly (possibly) under paused construction, but is in fact the opposite – a slowly deteriorating once-idyllic ideal.” Personally, I found this image striking by it’s subject matter of what looked like an attractive housing estate that had gone to rack and ruin; one sees dilapidated buildings with slates missing from roofs and an overgrown area of waste ground in front of it. The fact that this image was cobbled together from a lot of digital photos is not noticeable.

The Memory of Water - Man Yi

The Memory of Water – Man Yi

Another of his choices is Man Yi’s “Memory of water” which is a collection of black and white prints. Again, it is because he can relate to the way the photographer is working as a result of his own practice, that he is attracted while also “his exploration around the element of water, and the near impossible-to-detect details, creating a strange unease … ” further intrigues Dewald as does the feeling that he is almost intruding upon the photographers personal vision. There are only 10 images in the exhibition which makes it easier to understand than the plethora of images on the website.

viewing work by Fan Shisan

“The Two of Us” – viewing work by Fan Shisan

However, it was the work of Fan Shisan that really struck him and I likewise find it the most absorbing body of work. Entitled “The Two of us” this body of work explores the one-child policy of the Chinese government. Of it she writes … ”

I started “Two of Us” in 2009. I photograph people who grew up as an only child in China. They are the result of the strict 30 years of One-Child Policy.The One-child Policy in China restricts the number of children a married urban couple can have to one. In fact, nearly every Chinese born after 1980 in urban, including myself, is only child with no siblings. The policy is enforced at provincial level through fines and other punishments, leaving a result of over 100 million only child in China.Beside the Rusticated Youth of China, and the Culture Revolution, the only child generation was the nation’s most turmoil in post-Mao China, but it is more personal and internal. To me, the imaginary of “Two of Us” is much true than today’s reality, the progress of shooting “Two of Us” is a ceremony, to record the tragedy history of One-Child into memories. ”

Dewald wonders whether such work will be understood in the West since it relates to a kind of politics with which we are unfamiliar; I find myself a passive supporter of the one-child policy as it addresses probably the number one problem humanity faces (too many people) and one which Western governments completely ignore preferring to believe in the Christian ethic of “Go forth and multiply”. As Denis Joe writes, “In the West one finds much criticism of China, mainly from environmentalists, and those who fear the country’s rapid economic growth. But there is one policy that some sections of the environmentalist movement and Malthusians such as the Optimum Population Trust, are delighted with and that is China’s one child policy for urban families.” He continues, “It is this that Fan Shi Sanʼs work is criticising. But this is a very measured outrage. The quality of the images captures an existential crisis. The individuals within the image do not cry out to us; in fact they appear to be empty of emotion and Two of Us does not demand our sympathy but, perhaps, our outrage.”

Dewald sees loneliness in these images. OCA tutor Jose Navarro had also apparently seen “The Two of Us” and commented that the “Two of Us is a powerful body of documentary work. Moving in the no-mans-land between real and imaginary, the photographs convey a strong message and the photographer’s intention. In fact, it is the photographer’s point of view that comes across in the images, rather than the sitters’. It is the photographer’s feelings about the one-child policy that clearly transpire in the photographs.Subjective, performative documentary at its best I would say. I don’t think we can draw any conclusions re. the feelings of the people photographed. The only conclusion we can come to is how the photographer feels about the one-child policy. And that’s precisely why I like it so much. No claims of objectivity in Two of Us. The photographer felt strongly about something and let us know in his own personal, artistic way.” Looking at these images for myself on the internet and in the gallery space, I can not help but feel this is something much more than a portrayal of the one-child policy rather it reflects on the inner self, playing with the idea of the “double” and self. This metaphysical aspect is the first reference I find to the work of John Donne whose poem is full of meaning and not easy to identify in any particular way.

Dewald’s explained the nature of his  “mixed feelings”; “I’ve come to the realization that I personally find work which creates and questions, invites and includes me in a conversation, much more interesting than something where I can find the answer (too easily), or even where no communication is elicited.”

I have mentioned Dewald’s views because it was he who alerted me to the exhibition as well as the fact that he is one of the most promising of OCA photographic students and more advanced along the course than I am. Following his post, I communicated with him about this exhibition; my text was “I would like to see this exhibition in Liverpool partly because I think one does need to see photography from around the world. It may not be the best example of Chinese photography but it is at least relevant.” The desire to see “Chinese photography” is perhaps a superficial reason for seeing this exhibition but it is not the only one – it is clearly accomplished work and apparently different to what one might expect to see in a UK gallery. In fact, some students do not see anything in the work by the Chinese photographers preferring that of the UK ones; this is perhaps a result of their cultural conditioning suggests Peter. Like Dewald, I also consider this body of work the strongest; I may not be aware  of the side effects of being a lonely child but this work is obviously about more than just that. One can so easily project one’s own emotions onto work like this and it is surely a mistake to read too much into any body of work.

At the beginning of this blog, I quoted from a review by Georgina Wright (a writer based in Liverpool) who describes what the exhibition is about. She concludes by saying, “Overall this exhibition unites the work of all six artists in a captivating and sequential manner, provoking both analysis and sheer visual delight.” I am still left wondering though about the cohesion between these different bodies of work – where does the John Donne poem come in? As Peter points out, the metaphysical poets were philosophical and produced meanings that are hard to identify; my own experience of them is that since my teenage years when I first came into contact with their verse, the words have been echoing inside me like Zen koans, their essential meaning apparently beyond the grasp of the ordinary mind. For Peter, photographs are themselves metaphysical in their very nature by the way they construct and deconstruct; the fact that this exhibition does not seem to hang together is itself metaphysical. John Umney suggests that there are a lot of crossovers within the exhibition such as between the old and the new, between east and west and so on.

Peter goes on to talk about the state of art at the present time asking us what we think characterises the present day climate of change. I suggest a shifting attitude in our perception of death! For Peter, art is at a transition point and no one can see where it is going (could they ever?) in a world experiencing unconstrained growth and globalisation. In a post-modern world, there is no truth only truths. The discussion is not heated rather it draws us in and other students start to make comments.

was this the image by David Jacques that offended the Chinese authorities

was this the image by David Jacques that offended the Chinese authorities !?

There is also a review by Denis Joe that is more extensive and reflective; he also interestingly mentions the fact that the Chinese authorities took exception to the piece by David Jacques. The work of David Jacques entitled Corpus Mercatorium is interesting perhaps because of it being banned by the Chinese authorities when the exhibition was shown in Shanghai. Was this just an authority trying to be seen to be doing something or was it reacting to satire that might be considered too outrageous for Chinese tastes or did perhaps the element of demonology evident in the work and admitted by the photographer play on the sensibilities of the Chinese who have quite a strong tradition of spirituality in spite of communism? On looking closely, one can see one of the little photo-montages in which characters that look like high ranking military personnel yet are in fact corporate heads are pictured; there is a Chinese face stuck onto the body of what appears to be a yak while a western military man rides the beast – Tibet is always a touchy subject with the Chinese but this domination by a westerner and the bovine status of a Chinaman can hardly have pleased the Chinese authorities. It is only after reading Denis Joe’s review that I come to understand that the faces in this work are actually of the CEOs of international companies; this knowledge helps to further understand the context of the work.

Is it preferable to look at the photographs in an exhibition before one researches them or vice the versa? No direct answer to this! I question the practice of reading reviews of an exhibition before actually visiting it; this practice can help one get more out of one’s visit since one is prepared yet it may also prejudice one’s view as other people’s ideas crowd in upon one’s own. My question is the extent to which this exhibition covers the brief of John Donne’s poem. Did the entrants make work in response to John Donne or was his poem used as a way to consider the work on show? Peter does not consider this very important – it is the show that matters on it’s own merits rather than the way it responds to a particular brief.

The important point is that when looking at photographs in a gallery, is one needs to be aware of the environment they are in – the way they have been hung may be of interest (David Penny’s wooden frames and coloured flexiglass are of interest and an important aspect of his work which he sees as a blending of artistic disciplines) while the positioning of the photographs in the gallery space might be making a point. John Umney, OCASA secretary, admits to perhaps being a little cynical when he says that he thinks the prettiest photos have been hung where there is the most light; however, I am not sure this is true since some of the ugliest pictures, the demonological photo-montages of David Jacques, are in one of the brightest parts of the gallery – there is not much evidence of any sequencing of the work but decisions might have been made in regard to light reflecting possibly refracting off some of the works. The four images by David Penny for instance are covered in perspex.

Talking about photography

Talking about photography

One worthwhile aspect of OCA study days is that one gets to meet the tutors and chat with them, not about the weather but photography in general. Peter asks a question in his inimitable way … does one need to understand more than one sees in a photograph? Does one need to understand it? Perhaps confusion might be the artist’s intention! Furthermore, different people see different meanings.

John Umney is very informative on Shanghai which he describes as an output of western civilisation rather than a Chinese city. It was around here that the Opium Wars took place. He describes it as “Manhattan on steroids!”

Sometimes photos reveal, sometimes they obscure. They may not be want to convey any particular meaning (ambiguity is a recognised trait of the photograph) and what may be of interest is references contained within the image. Peter considers the exhibition to be of fine art that happens to use photography; he clearly thinks this is true of a lot of art photography exhibitions.

After seeing Lecture Upon a Shadow and having a coffee break with discussion, we went to see an archive exhibition upstairs of landscape photographs by Edward Chambre-Hardman.


outside the "carbuncle on the face of a much loved friend" advertising Seduced by Art

outside the “carbuncle on the face of a much loved friend” advertising Seduced by Art

This exhibition at The National Gallery in London, is something of a momentous occasion since it is the first major photographic exhibition by an institution that is largely concerned with painting and has been since the mid-nineteenth century. Hence, it is not surprising that the exhibition is concerned with the influence of painting on photography and does not appear to consider very much the effect photography has had on painting. Of course, photographers have been seduced by painting, I admit to this myself, but the influence of painting on photography has not necessarily been a beneficial one since photography operates under a different set of limitations to that of the painter and a “good” photograph is going to have different characteristics to that of a “good” painting. In fact, the relationship between painting and photography can be an interesting one and the subject of much debate; the painter Degas, featured in this exhibition, is an example of a painter who took this relationship seriously and endeavoured to use it in his art, such as in his Portrait of Princess Pauline de Metternich. One wonders whether this exhibition might not be presenting a one-sided view and instead of The National Gallery welcoming photography, their view is more guarded and is really encouraging photography as a lesser art, subjecting the medium to a set of rules which work well for painters but not so well for photographers.

The view expressed above is not merely my own, there are others who question the value of this exhibition such as Jonathan Jones who writes in The Guardian newspaper (october 30, 2012) that “A new exhibition at London’s National Gallery hopes to prompt a conversation between photos and their feted inspiration. Does it work?” Well it has got me going! Jones seems to think this exhibition does work, writing “It celebrates the more civilised side of photography, and the result is a cultural cringe before fine art.” Although interesting, a lot of the juxtapositions between photographs and paintings do not work for Jones yet he admits to being seduced by art!

Writing in The Times on October 30’th 2012, Rachael Campbell-Johnson is more generous towards The National Gallery, heralding the exhibition as evidence of photography’s emergence from the ghetto; Jeff Wall, a photographer who has previously exhibited at The National Gallery, had coined the term “photo ghetto” over the self-contained nature of photographic art. For Campbell-Johnson, the question of whether photography is art or not, is over and not just because photographs can now demand high prices such as the 4.3 million dollars paid for a work by Gursky. Photographers have drawn from “the pictorial language established by painting`’ as well as “photographic pioneers.” While exploring such concepts, the exhibition also encourages one to question in what way the photograph can be an object in it’s own right as well as a replica, the boundaries between truth and fiction, the role of the viewer’s imagination and the way in which a photograph captures time. Hence, not only is one being asked to reconsider the history of art but also to consider “a new appreciation of current possibilities.”

Brain Sewell, “national treasure”, writing in The London Evening Standard on 1’st of November 2012, assumes a more traditionalist stance, comparing his views with those of Charles Baudelaire. For Sewell, photography is an upstart and does not deserve to be considered as art. He refers to the exhibition as “a provocative investigation of photography’s enlistment of the ancient traditions of painting (and, less frequently, of sculpture)” and sees photography as a rapist. For Sewell, photography’s role is primarily that of documenter, a valuable resource that explains such phenomena as war, far away places and other naturally occurring things that he would otherwise find hard to comprehend. However, to consider photography as rivalling art is another matter. Sewell does admit to moments when photography can be called art such as “in the work of those photographers who accompanied Scott and Shackleton in the Antarctic, men who in those then unique circumstances had eyes to see that with the coolly calculated technology of their clumsy cameras, they could enhance the ice and snow, the darkness and the light, even the numbing chill of the deep distant south, in ways far beyond the dramatic romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich and Frederick Church, and the dabbing of the Impressionists, their near contemporaries.” He also mentions sports photography as being art.

However, Sewell does not accept “the notion that the photographer is, in genius, the equal of the painter.” I find myself amused by Sewell and interested; for instance his comment that the photographs are “glossy ghastliness and scale, aggressively large, aggressively coloured, aggressively lit, subtlety never their point.” to be rather accurate of much exhibited work; as one of the exhibiting photographers, Craigie Horsfield wrote of another exhibition,“The surface of a photograph does not act; the surface of a painting does, but the surface of the photograph is redundant, it is not engaged by the artist.” Sewell sees vulgarity where others see art and refers to the catalogue as “repellent, the nastiest example of book design ever issued by Yale University Press.” For him, The National Gallery has been not only seduced but debauched by showing this exhibition.

My visit to this exhibition starts with a talk in a National Gallery room by a member of staff. Unlike Sewell, it is balanced and I soon become aware of how this momentous show is not really an attempt to shock, Ori Gerscht’s photograph on the cover of an exploding bouquet might imply that, rather it is an attempt to examine and explore the interaction between European Fine Art represented by painting and photography. The National Gallery has a long association with photography that started with an early daguerrotype photo being made of it and the first director’s wife, Lady Eastlake, one of the first people to write intelligently about photography. This exhibition has also been run in collaboration with WIlson Centre of Photography, USA.

Generally speaking, photography is associated with truthfulness yet this is not as simple an approach to the medium as might at first be imagined.

The premise of the exhibition is to show that “historical art was an engine for early photographic invention” and yet it does admit that photography did influence art. For instance, Delacroix who is featured in the first room, was one of the first artists to use photographs as drawing aids which nowadays is a common practice. However, for photographers who had “nothing to go on, painting provided some legitimacy” and so it is suggested that photography has a debt to traditional painting. I shall return to this at the end of my piece as the question that hovers over this exhibition is surely how accurately the relationship between photography and painting has been treated.

In the first room of the gallery, the walls are painted black and the lighting is low avoiding the garishness that characterises some photographic exhibitions. One sees a reproduction of the work by Eugene Delacroix “The Death of Sardanapalus”(1827) that some photographers have referenced such as Jeff Wall’s “Destroyed Room” that “quotes historical art without directly referencing it” (p.20) although it lacks the humanity of the art work unlike Tom Hunter’s interpretation which is more tactile and has some of the sensuousness of the original.

Oscar Gustav Rejlander was an early photographer who was inspired by art producing such works as “The Two ways of life” (1857) which is a composite made from 30 glass plate negatives and hence an early challenge to the notion of photographic truth. Here the photographer is presenting a kind of tableau that speaks of the way of debauchery and the way of sainthood as the two paths of life; this kind of allegory was popular at the time while nowadays a less dualistic and moralising view would be more acceptable.

Another interesting photograph is Karen Knorr‘s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, a pictorial reference to the well known essay of the same name by the art critic Walter Benjamin.

While the first room is concerned with narrative photographs whether of a biblical, historical or allegorical nature, the second is concerned with portraiture. The order of rooms follows the hierarchal view of art adhered to by the French Art Academy in the 19’th century; hence room 3 is concerned with the figure, room 5 with still life and the last room with landscape. Room 4 deals with the tableau and combines different genres.

In the portraiture section, the first image is one by Martin Parr from the series, Signs of the Times. A couple stand apart in their living room, looking rather uncomfortably at the photographer who achieved this effect deliberately by waiting before releasing the shutter of his camera. This couple have been described as upper middle class but their surroundings do not suggest it as the stairs are situated in the living room while behind them one can see only grass and a wooden fence. This photograph is alongside an unfinished yet remarkable painting by Thomas Gainsborough of a couple in their large estate who look quite happy.

There is another photograph by Karen Knorr, a black and white of a couple in a smart living room with a caption that suggests the need for security. Tina Barney shows a photograph of an aristocratic family likewise standing in their obviously well endowed home. These images presumably mirror the way artists often painted the wealthy in their homes as a way to earn a living.

Thomas Struth has an up close and personal image of a family posing in front of shelving, their faces carefully composed for the shoot while Craigie Horsfield who has spent a great deal of time in Spain where he has undoubtedly been influenced by the approach of Spanish portraiture with it’s emphasis on self-worth and self-prosperity has a photograph of a Spanish man, Fernando Gomez that echoes with an aura of painters like Velazquez. Besides this image is another one by Julia Margaret Cameron, a nineteenth century photographer, who features strongly in this exhibition as a photographer who has influenced later photographers.

Portraiture has always been important to European Fine Art and it is the same with photography. Portraiture has the ability to explore different aspects such as the psychological, emotions, the allegorical and deals with a wide range of people from celebrities and royalty to the ordinary poor. There is a sharing of stylistic devices between these two media.

There is a striking photograph by Nicky Bird. She had her niece, Jasmine, sit and imitate a photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron which is of a slightly blurred girls face. At one point, Jasmine burst into tears because she felt she could not act well enough and perhaps it is these tears that helped to soften her face and produce and image that not only imitates the original but is in many ways more beautiful.

The third room is about the “figure” which has had a contested “artistic and critical background” for ages while “photography intensified the debate”; it was perfectly natural for photography to take up this subject. The figure tended to be seen not as an object of lust (this became a covert yet popular intention in photography with the advent of photo-realistic pornography) rather as a form that has the power to elevate thinking,

The photographer Rene Dijkistra has photographed a young girl standing on a beach on an overcast day in July 1992; she is lit however by strong direct light from a flash gun. Comparisons have been drawn with Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” largely because of the pose and yet the photographer did not ask her model to pose in this way, it was naturally adopted. Did social convention received as a result of exposure to media influence the girl or is she just relaxing in a way that feels right for her body?!

Richard Learoyd’s photograph of a man with an octopus tattoo is a remarkable image yet it is also interesting in the way it has been made. The model was carefully controlled in the assuming of his pose, the hands for instance had to be clenched in a certain way, while the actual mode of making the image used a camera obscura, a box with a minute hole and a lens that projected an image on a wall from which photographic paper hung thereby recording the image. There was no negative used in the making of this image so it is similar to art in the sense that only one copy was made although this has since been photographed!

Room 4 container tableau, large images that tend to have a narrative. Here biblical and battle scenes feature, there is a sense of history as well as use of the allegorical. Thomas Struth’s large photograph of people looking at a religious painting in The National Gallery is a picture in a picture and one we are drawn into as we are also in a gallery looking. The subject of the painting is Christ allowing Thomas, the doubter, to touch his wounds to show they are real and in the photograph people are examining the photograph closely perhaps asking similar questions. The exact nature of truth in photography is also being posited one might think; in fact, the photographer did not set this photograph up, the people in the image are not models but ordinary people whom Struth has managed to catch in a decisive moment.

War photography played an important role from the early days of the medium and can be seen in the work of Roger Fenton. A contemporary war photographer is Luc Delahaye whose image of a battleground in Afghanistan is over 2 metres wide. Apart from a bunker, the only signs of war are a large puff of smoke with more in the background and it is only the title that is left to actually inform us of the subject. Yet this seems to be a realistic image of what war is these days and a change from the more conventional images of bombed out villages. Delahaye does not consciously reference painting although a large painting above his photo mirrors the scene Delahaye has recorded, rather he is asking questions about warfare and it’s consequences.

An image of the Madonna and Child is a photomontage constructed from photocopies made by the subjects coming into direct contact with a large flatbed scanner, a recording device that acts like a camera in recording what is placed on it. A number of these photocopy images have been placed together and some paint added to produce the final art work.

Maisie Broadband has made a look alike version of Simon Vouet’s “An allegory of wealth” painted in 1635; she describes herself “not a tortured soul” but “makes work because (she) feels happy”.

Room 5 is devoted to still life, nowadays the most successful of photographic genres unlike the early days when colour was not available. Still life can have great symbolic effect.

There are a couple of photographs of a rose bush, from the front and the rear. Flash has been used so as to render the background black, a device used by artists, that helps to highlight the flowers rather than diminish their presence by a complex background containing details. The experience is of the objects being isolated in a space of their own.

The centre piece here though is Ori Gersht‘s “Blow Up!” which is of an exploding bouquet made using ten high speed digital cameras from which an image was found that records the most dramatic moment when a bouquet of flowers was blown up. The bouquet was “frozen” using liquid nitrogen so that it shattered when exploded. The image is remarkable, the restrained use of colour apparently inspired by a painting that hangs nearby.

Nan Goldin who has photographed the graphic details of her life on the United States eastern coast, shows fruit lying towards the end of a bed; in the background, one can see the blurry forms of a couple of notebooks. There is a sense of the ephemeral here which echoes previous art works. A detail of fruit from a Carravaggio painting is shown which is interesting because Carravagio is considered to be an artist who made use of the camera obscura as explained by David Hockney in his book “Secret Knowledge.” However, there is no comment about this as this exhibition does not seem to cover such an angle in the painting-photography ddialectic.

The last room showed landscape. It started as a background to more classical paintings but has had an important role since the 16’th century conveying magical places, national character, industrial issues etc It can present a purer vision of the world, uncorrupted by art’s mannerisms, “furnish the fact on which art is based.”

Richard Billingham‘s “Storm at Sea” (2002) may not look particularly stormy yet the wind was blowing so hard at the time that he could not stand up properly. Some of the storminess can be seen in the waves yet the eye is drawn to a strip of light on the horizon above which dark clouds hover. The work is referenced to Gustav Le Gray’s photographic seascape hanging nearby (an image that used 3 different negatives to perfect) and a painting by Balkes called The Tempest.

One photograph I liked was Edward Muybridge‘s ‘Moonlight Effect” (1868) for it’s highly realistic effect enhanced by stereoscopic vision.

Another group of photographs that I found strangely compelling was Jem Southam‘s pool photos, all taken of the same spot but at different times so that the images looked very different. Besides this, covering the wall at the end of the room, was a large view of a scene once described by Van Gogh. The images that make up this scene are photo-gravures.

On the way out, there is a large photograph by Luc Delahaye which consists of many images composited into one giving a sense of heightened drama to the scene. Delahayes comments that “his photographs do not refer to specific works of art history: any similarity comes from shared pictorial and cultural references.”

One comment about photography is that it is “like engravings – only exquisite and delicate beyond the work of graver.”

Sometimes one feels photography is simply photographing what is there to be photographed rather than consciously or subconsciously mimicking artistic conventions. Can the making of self portraits for instance really be attributed to the influence of painting? It seems to be a natural response to the camera though the way one does it may be influenced by former practices.

How much does photography owe to painting? To a certain extent, photography’s development has been limited by the influence of art which has imposed inappropriate rules. For example, if photography has to conform to certain compositional concepts such as the “rule of thirds” then many great and important images would never be made.

Does making a photo the same size as a painting ensure its role as art? Of course not but this seems to be an underlying assumption among some contemporary photographers.

I found the exhibition catalogue worth the price; it helped one to reflect further on what was a magnificent exhibition even though it might have done more to explore the subject. It seemed to be more about art than photography itself yet engrossed one – there is more I could write about this exhibition but for now the above will suffice!