A Handful of Dust @ The Whitechapel Gallery (2017)


I made two visits to this exhibition.

27th of June 2017

I arrive late morning to see this exhibition and within minutes bump into people I know! The first is Stan Dickinson and his wife who I got to know in Paris a few years ago on a student lead expedition and bumped into again at this very gallery, The Whitechapel Gallery, for the Black Square exhibition so to see them again here is surreal, a wonderful case of synchronicity.  Stan who got a first class honours in his Photography B.A.  received this in a ceremony with the UCA who have now more or less taken over the OCA. Apparently, my name was mentioned at the event  as times past were recalled by the outgoing CEO Gareth Dent. If this coincidence is not enough then Wendy Mc Curdo, a tutor from the OCA also arrives with a friend so for a moment we stand and gossip before Stan makes his apologies as they have a train to catch. Somehow this meeting of OCA (Open College of the Arts) members seems to mirror the message of this exhibition which is about the way a particular work of art has survived almost 100 years in different manifestations and in different contexts as well as influencing other art works (Sophie Ristelhuber’s elevated photograph of the Gulf War for instance); our incidental meeting is like that of the art works in this exhibition!


The central artwork  in this  exhibition is a photograph made of dust by Man Ray in New York while visiting the studio of Marcel Duchamp in 1920. Ray was actually just testing his equipment setup before reluctantly engaging in a commissioned project to photograph other people’s artwork. It is not really known exactly why this photograph was made but it seems Marcel Duchamp had something to do with it and the resulting print, there are a number in existence, was signed both by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. The curator of the exhibition, David Campany, has taken this image as the starting point for the whole exhibition which seems to offer an alternative narrative to modern art, one not centred around Steiglitz’s photograph of a urinal that Duchamp had exhibited, but around a photograph that is not merely reproducing something as in the urinal photograph but manages to make what it represents, here it is dust, into something ambivalent.

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Another presentation of the Handful of Dust image

As a whole, this exhibition does not represent a single artist or photographer, rather it is concerned with an alternative history of photography, a theme based around dust, and so it is really the work of the curator, David Campany. It does however, include a number of photographic artworks by different photographers which are interesting for their own sake.



The first room contains a print of the original dust photograph from 1920, made in 1968. From this there are instances of it being reproduced such as in a contemporary publications like and later publications such as Charles Henry Ford’s Poems for Painters from 1945. Also in this room, are photographs of aerial views taken during wartime which produced effects similar to the original dust photograph.

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The first room of the exhibition

The difference between seeing the exhibition and just reading or looking through the catalogue, is that the information is presented in a less linear fashion with the ability of the onlooker to wander around the rooms at will even though works are presented chronologically. Immediately concepts aired in the book become clearer notably the various names the original underwent such as being called Dust Breeding when Man Ray came to print it later on.

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Is the curator’s alternative history merely a parallel history in which recognised art photographers feature? One example is the work of Walker Evans which although showing rocky desert is not obviously dusty though it might well be described as a place where dust breeds!

Some of the artists are new to me!

Some works from the original exhibition are not here. For instance, Simon Norfolk’s photograph of an abandoned open theatre from Afghanistan. A haunting image that shows the pock marks of warfare along the back of the stage. It is an example of a photograph that has a very definite context.

07-A Handful of Dust screen-6705-20170902I personally like Nik Waplington’s photographs of rubbish dumps and works of art inspired by them that are reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism.

However, in the final gallery, there is also a black and white video of a forest in which the wind slowly picks up so that the trees are shaking wildly by the end. What makes this relevant to the theme of the exhibition, dust, is that the forest of trees when viewed from above is somewhat reminiscent of detailed imagery of dust as in the photograph by Man Ray and Duchamp.

The catalogue includes all the art works as well as some that are not seen here but presumably were in the Paris exhibition. The essay that comes in a detachable booklet of its’ own is also an interesting read and explains in greater depth what this exhibition is actually about.

September 2’nd 2017 (with Open College of the Arts students)

A guide from the Whitechapel Gallery tells us that the gallery has no permanent collection before introducing us to the geography. I ask if there is any recording of the conference held in connection with the exhibition; it is suggested I contact the gallery direct and have a look on YouTube. There is a YouTube video introducing this exhibition which I watch; I immediately start to see the exhibition in a different way as about Dust and the representation of dust rather than a historical trajectory resulting from a Man Ray/Duchamp photograph.

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Although originally shot in black and white, prints are often sepia toned.

The original photograph is interesting because unlike so much work from this period, the contrast is low and not being used to emphasise detail or create contrast. It is more a grey print than a black and white one!

Photographic subjects include aerial map making, other aerial views, dust on Mussolini’s car, gravestones, cave wall paintings, atomic bomb post-Nagasaki, dust off spray, American dust storms both in print and video, deserts, close ups of surfaces like roads and rocks, volcanic explosions, vandalism, sculpture made from flour, dust on Mars, garbage, mud etc

Photographers represented include Man Ray, Shomei Tomatsu, Brassai, Walker Evans, Aaron Siskind, Jeff Wall, Gerhard Richter, Nick Waplington, Sophie Ristelhueber among others.

There are also official photographs taken from private sources such as Holland House Library, Kensington, London.

Good to see prints that are black to white rather than black and white. Printing does effect the way we read an image.

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Sophie Ristelhueber

Interesting to see Sophie Ristelhueber’s artwork at the end of the exhibition; she references the original Duchamp/Man Ray photograph as a source of inspiration in her work. The original photograph made in 1920 has a definite trajectory even if the other photographs in this exhibition were made without knowledge of it.

And of course, photography has a very ambivalent relationship with Dust. It has to be kept away from the camera, but it is extremely photogenic.” David Campany


OCA student discussion

references: Sean O’Hagan review in The Guardian ..

“From the surrealists to the moon landings and on to the 9/11 attacks, A Handful of Dust traced a kind of shadow history of photography through a substance that evokes all manner of ominous suggestion. Curated by David Campany, it ranged from the vernacular (postcards of American dust storms) to the art historical (Man Ray’s Dust Breeding, a photograph of dust-coated glass in Duchamp’s studio). A show of interesting juxtapositions, with dust as the abiding metaphor for time, history, memory – and photography.”

David Campany website for FT review

Gap between knowledge and vision brought out in exhibition.

First room more about historical context, archival process, much lower viewing light while last room was also dark.

Photographing private spaces in return for the owners using those photographs for their own purposes.

Cerebral show more about ideas than imagery. Captions necessary part of understanding the artwork. Tends to be true of modern art as a whole.

What about dust from Icelandic earthquake from a few years ago!? About the 20’th Century rather than contemporary. Anologue era rather than digital!

Prefer to see the dust image rather than the urinal image made by Steiglitz that is seen as the birth of conceptual art.

Dust exhibition not a blockbuster but if it had been in a big gallery like Tate Modern, the response to the exhibition could have been very different. Academic atmosphere to the show.

Study of photography not just about making images also about studying the theory of photography as a whole. Campany a useful teacher to be aware of as is Lucy Soutter.