The Place Where We Live: Robert Adams exhibition at The Jeu de Paume, Paris

The place where we live is a major retrospective exhibition by the American photographer, Robert Adams; it covers more than 4o years of work. For Adams, there is “a beauty that endures despite our trobled relationship with the natural world, and with ourselves.”

What I like, what I really really like about Adams, is his ability to make a black and white print! Perhaps the appreciation of such work is an acquired taste; for anyone who has acquired the taste, these images are little short of masterpieces. As for writing, I am not sure I agree with Adams. A recent quote from Alain de Botton’s “Architecture of Happiness” is ” What can I believe where? This is the issue that drives every artist – to make a place where you can believe important things.” I find it necessary to read well between the lines to comprehend this statement.
Adams seems to be expressing his view through words as well as images and echoes Christian sentiments; the following is from his introduction to the book, What can we believe where? … I began making pictures because I wanted to record what supports hope; the untranslatable mystery and beauty of the world.
Text in this book is limited to the first page and a few more at the back giving captions; the rest is pictures.
What I also like about Adams’ work is that it is contemplative; there is a peaceful feel to much of it even though there may be some kind of disturbance in the images such as a crashing wave.
The work of Adams who is now approaching eighty years old might be considered rather dated; he speaks from a world that knew black and white as the medium. His prints however are beautiful and he manages to allow that quality to seep into his work so that we are also able to look at what is banal and understand that it too will pass.
Some chat with Eileen who has arranged this trip to Paris and this exhibition in particular. We both enjoy the work of Adams which contains beauty and that other aspect of the Sublime, the darker side that I jokingly refer to as awesome. I have another discussion about the Awesome with Francis, the French photographer accompanying us; here we joke a little about the American word that can be applied to the taste of a beef burger as well as a landscape.
Eileen later says she does not like digital black and white because one is cheating in a way; if one is visualising in colour and using a colour sensor then it can’t be black and white! This leads to a more general discussion about black and white in the digital age. I for one, feel she is taking a rather simplistic view which she does not deny as if she is making a stance for the purposes of discussion.
One sees images here that do not conform to the modernist view of photography which tends to emphasise deep blacks with a dynamic contrast; the work of Adams is perhaps more post-modernist in consisting much more of grey tones with more subtle tonal distinctions.
The first room of the exhibition contains work from The Plains of the Western United States; this also includes a series called Eden. I could continue to write about Adams’ mastery of the black and white medium, he certainly seems to be playing with it in his carefully framed and exposed pictures, but this might too easily become boorish particularly to those who are not familiar with the medium itself. One also needs to consider content in contextual terms.
Adams is not just photographing the landscape of wilderness, he is also concerned with what is happening within it. In this his work recalls that of medieval painting where landscape took a back seat being there primarily to add a sense of reality to the scenes being depicted. Similarity, with Adams, we see perhaps a modern building around which pristine landscape exists; here the point is not so much the building rather the scar it creates against the background. This dichotomy which might be understood in terms of Barthes’ studium and punctum, is often what these photographs are about.
In “South of the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, Jefferson County, Colorado, 1977” we at first see an appealing landscape, even if it may not be a very inviting one owing to it’s arid nature. Then we spot a road, see there are cars upon it while the caption informs us of the serious nature that this image is drawing our attention to. This photograph appears on the cover of his book, “From the Missouri West”.
Some other images such as “Boulder County, Colorado, 1975” has only a road moving through the centre of a landscape to point out Adams’ recurring dichotomy, the conflict between nature and man.
In “Weld County, Colorado, 1994” we see a few trees standing amidst grassland; here might be a simple image of the beautiful yet it is part of a series about a small area of countryside being redeveloped.
Adams has produced a lot of books. Some are of images, others of text that discuss photographic themes such as “Beauty in Photography”. In the galleries of the exhibition, these books are shown behind glass in tables at the centre of the rooms.
Adams does portraiture as one might expect. Here location plays an important part, at least it does in the images on show here. An exception to this is the series called “Bodhisattva” in which he makes close ups of a Buddha head. Here the framing is important as is the texture and the almost landscape effect of the facial areas as if the features are like marks in the landscape. The main collection of portrait images is called, “Our parents, Our children” about which Adams writes “We come upon innocence, beauty, caring, joy, or courage, even in lost places, are we not obliged to acknowledge them in defiance of ironists?”
His work does have a contemplative feel particularly in the sea photographs which make up some of his later work. Here the dichotomy inherent to so much of Admas’ work is less distinct; there is the sea and possibly the shore yet it may just be a matter of rolling sea and sunlight.
Does one buy the catalogue? The cost here is considerable at almost Euro 150 yet what is the reproduction like!? The answer is that Steidl have done an excellent job but an original print which is to say one made on photographic paper and processed chemically has a certain edge that a mass reproduced book image does not. “Time Passes” is another book, a catalogue of his show at the Foundation Cartier-Bresson in 2007 which also can be bought in the shop here at the Jeu De Paume.

Reflections, Somerset Floods, One Year On : exhibition in Bridgewater

I received an invitation to this exhibition party just a couple or so hours before it was due to start; after making the obligatory “leave of absence” request, I drove over to Bridgewater and parked by the River Parrett, the very river I had been busy photographing a year ago when it was flooding in some places and threatening to in others. I did not know exactly where the gallery was but seeing some banners outside a nearby building, I made my way there and it turned out to be the Bridgewater Arts Centre where this exhibition about the Somerset Floods is running. Called  “Reflections, Somerset Floods, One Year On” it features the work of Matilda Temperley whose book “Under the Surface” I had bought last year and have read from cover to cover; it is a remarkable example of a photographer covering an event of which they are themselves part. It is largely free of the photo-journalistic element being more of a personal response.

The information about the exhibition on the Arts Centre website runs, “Reflections : Somerset Floods, One Year On” is a stunning photographic exhibition that documents the impact of the devastating floods that transformed the landscapes and communities of the Somerset Levels in early 2014. It is a creative collaboration between photographer Matilda Temperley and Bath Spa University’s Department of Social Sciences. The eerie beauty of a landscape impacted by the incursion of flood water is documented in Matilda Temperley’s stunning photography. She details and records the lives, homes and businesses turned upside down during those traumatic events of one year ago. Accompanying the images are the reflections of families whose existences were devastated by the waters and who were visited by Bath Spa University social researchers in late 2014. They share their experiences of recovery from this natural-social disaster and their hopes and fears for the future of the communities on the Levels.”

Function for the Somerset Floods exhibition

Function for the Somerset Floods exhibition

The exhibition was referred to as a display by a number of people I met during the exhibition party. This partly seemed to stem from an unawareness of photography as art that can be exhibited rather than mere document yet also because in some cases, a couple or more photographs had been printed together on a board with text added. The was the work of Bath Spa University who were responsible for this exhibition and have been working with Matilda, the photographer, and interviewing people affected by the disaster. Beside the photographs, they have included text from interviews with the people affected; this use of text and photograph make for a powerful record.

The event was covered by local press; Matilda Temperley near right.

The event was covered by local press; Matilda Temperley near right.

On one wall of the gallery, a rather awkward internal space not purpose built, was a large photograph of the flooded church of Moorland with before and after photographs to one side including the local vicar and interviews with her (see below). The photographs gives substance to the text and vice the versa. This documentary approach seemed to dominate and effectively describe what happened and what life was like for those who had to endure it.

Display with photograph

A large photograph of the flooded church with a further display of photographs and text from a recorded interview.

Personally, I would like to have seen more of a photographic exhibition in which text was secondary; visual delight rather than information overload. Yes, it was an event that needed to be recorded but looking through the prism of art, one is encouraged to see beyond the muddy reality. This exhibition has the stamp of sociologists and geographers rather than the photographer who made it possible.

Conflict, Time, Photography @ Tate Modern

approaching the Millennium Bridge

approaching the Millennium Bridge

An early train to London but I miss it; although at the station on time, they change the platform and I hear no correction of this though I might have seen it on the notice board. An hour’s wait but this gives time to review the exhibition catalogue a little more before leaving. I have seen it briefly and was impressed by the photographic content; the exhibition I saw in Antwerp about the First World War was fascinating but it only showed photography from the time most of which was amateurish. The exhibition did examine the way photography had been used and that was fascinating particularly in the controls put upon it which were however, often ignored.

view of Tate Modern

view of Tate Modern

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entrance to the Tate Modern

“Conflict, Time, Resolution” is different in that it uses photography to make a statement about war, presenting images rather than analysing them. There is no interpretation although there is a catalogue with essays and much reference is made to the novel by Kurt Vonnegut called Slaughterhouse 5 which starts by discussing the difficulties in presenting warfare through an artistic medium. In particular, the problem for Vonnegut is “that’s of looking backwards in time without becoming frozen and numb” (as curator Simon Baker writes in his essay “Armageddon in Retrospect”) and so he moves about in time, relating not only to the past events but to his present as well as an imaginary future which with characteristic Vonnegut humour, is based on a planet from “where the flying saucers come.”
Time has a special significance in this exhibition since it is not confined to the photojournalistic recording of the present but sees the event as a record from the past reverberating in the present. This non-chronological approach is neatly summarised by Leo Rubinfien writing about Japanese Photobooks who says that such work “asks us to see through the now that it is showing us, into the then that pervades the now and gives it its meaning.”
notice at entrance to the galleries showing the Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition

notice at entrance to the galleries showing the Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition

Simon Baker writes about Japanese photographers such as Moriyama, Tomatsu, Domon, Kawada and Kimura; the Japanese contribution reflects Hiroshima and Nagasaki yet these are established photographers. He writes that Moriyama “best encapsulates the sense in which the physical and the impalpable coexist in the very essence of the photographic medium.” Philosopher and critic Koji Taki wrote in the 1960s “The specific truth of the photograph is not objective and not a ‘universal truth’. I do not ask of the photographer an explanation of his subject. For me it is enough that the image appears, a one time deal, irreplaceable.”
One photobook about Hiroshima states, “The purpose of this book is to arouse in its readers such emotions as will guide and encourage them in their efforts for peaceful progress towards those goals to which we all aspire.”
Tomatsu is one photographer who has continued to photograph in Nagasaki, aware of two times; the moment the bomb was dropped and the unravelling story that is a consequence of that event, describing a Japan that is “characterised principally by Americanisation.”
The photographer Kawada has included final letters from suicide pilots to their families while Tsuchida has photographed objects found in the city of Hiroshima that bear some kind of memory of the event; for instance, a wrist watch was found in the river in 1955, a decade after the event, the hands of which showed the exact time of the bombing.
Kurt Vonnegut’s book is about memories as “bugs in amber” and it seems to me that photographs are a bit like this in appearance particularly older photographs which were sepia toned, part to help preserve them and for aesthetic effect as well as reduce excessive contrast.
Fortunately, there is a multimedia guide for this exhibion which can be listened to free on an iPad via the Tate WiFi –
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OCA tutors, from the left … Russell Squires, Sharon Boothroyd, (Keith Greenough) and Clive White in front of a Don McCullin photograph of the Somme

Meet tutor Russell who suggests considering the nature of the curation including the selection of images. He also talked about the way in which Caesium released at time of nuclear fall out now used in testing for art forgery. Russell points out Sherman’s contacts of plate camera photographs which show incredible detail.
On my second initial view, I note a few works that appeal … Luc Delahnaye, Chandarin and Broomberg (their multi-coloured panorama and multi image wall display), Simon Norfolk’s colour images, old Anthony-Thouret images of bomb damage, Fenton’s phoney yet iconic Valley of Death, Taryn Simon’s colour images revealing lost family members, Don McCullins images of Berlin Wall being erected, Bunker Archaeology of Paul Virilio, Tomatsu’s post Nagasaki prints with a selection of books loaned by Martin Parr, Schulz-Dornburg’s Becher like prints from a nuclear site in Kazakstan, Susan Mieselas’ work in particular the video work showing being shown in its original locations, An-My’s fine Gelatin silver prints from Vietnam, Tsuchida’s large prints of objects from the time, Waplington’s prints of artwork by POWs interesting once you know what they are of, Wilson’s photographs of architectural remains from the war spoilt by excessive contrast, Chloe Dewe Mathews whose Shot at Dawn work I saw in Brighton; her images are sombre in appearance which seems to appropriate the subject rather than imply lack of photographic ability …
Interesting the way the word “conflict” seems to have replaced the word “war” and it strikes me as an intelligent change, more descriptive rather than emphatic.
OCA discussion gets underway

OCA discussion gets underway

The OCA get together for a discussion afterwards; including tutors of which there are three, we are almost 30 people!
This exhibition makes one think abut the far reaching effects of war! Effect of time on the events! Wonderful historic insight which is one reason I like photography.
Has photography lost its balls? Has to reinvent itself nowadays! Work in this exhibition needed explanation as the context is often not clear. Conceptual art!
Is one looking at it as photography or a record of conflict?
Interesting sometimes confusing relation to time.
Large size of photographs! Filling walls with images such as in the Sophie Ristelhuber exhibit which formed a Photobook called “Fait” that has been especially re-released in a Book on Book. I am initially not impressed by these photographs and their surreal colour although they do give a clear idea of what the subject is after a certain amount of looking while others do not as in the case of Chloe Dewe Mathews for instance where text is needed to bring out the meaning. On revisiting it, I can see the way in which the Sophie Ristelhube has expertly captured conflict without need for captions although knowing the context does enhance one’s understanding of the work.
About traces of conflict!? Memories. Scars both obvious and hidden.
Complex presentation. Not easy to understand without some conceptual prompt.
Two ways to see exhibition; as history, as photography!
A group of micro-exhibitions rather than one? Exhibition uses late photography.
Text often required to give location or a similar context.
Photographs of Hitler’s office not really about conflict? Seem a little sensationalist.
Were the photographers involved taking sides? Does the curator present a polarised view? The answer to this is apparently not although images are sometimes made from one side.
McCullin’s bomb shocked soldier iconic – does not need context unlike many of the other images. Says something about the modern human condition. The meaning of this photograph has gone far beyond the intentions of the photographer.
Lack of human suffering revealed in show? What about woman with stretched skin and scarred face along with others. Susan Mieselas shows elements of human suffering with body bits. Do we need to see body parts? They connect us to the human reality of war. Photographs of people blinded by the event.
Reflects on the nature of photography rather than just the historical facts.
Photographs of weeds growing long after the event.
Man on ladder, a negative caused by the blinding blast of the bomb.
Large format photography used in early days is impressive; still used these days but in a different context.
McCullin never thought he was making photographs for the gallery or as art yet nowadays photographers do consider such results.
Curator placing photographs together for further effect.
Exhibition more about the responses of photographers rather than war? Keith reckons.
About three things .. Conflict, time and photography as is made obvious in the title of the exhibition.
Visual bias to the exhibits; not about warfare rather a record of conflict, a much wider meaning.
In regard to presentation, Jim Goldberg’s work was different as he had some photographs lying on the floor with haphazard placing of other photographs. Mostly the curation was fairly straightforward with photographs being framed.
Did photography loose the Vietnam War? Attitudes of the military have changed towards freelance photographers. Clearly, there is an impact on war by photographers, mainly because of the widespread influence of media.
Perhaps this exhibition serves to remind one that photographs are not meant to be entirely visual delights; words give further meaning and depth, context, that goes towards making them such unique documents with a quality that painting can only attempt.
The OCA write up of the day is here
St.Pauls cathedral at night seen from the Millennium Bridge

St.Pauls cathedral at night seen from the Millennium Bridge

In an essay entitled The Modern Archive of Conflict, Shoair Mavlian discusses both photography and the archive which are “children of the nineteenth century” sharing a “relentless appetite for recording, measuring and categorising.” They are inextricably bound together and often result in “two extremes of literalism and abstraction.”
Photography has influenced the archive by its ability to accurately record and also the apparent authority it holds over recording the past.