Seduced by Art

Posted on January 25, 2013

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I made it to the National Gallery’s ‘Seduced by Art’ exhibition in its last few days. I am very glad I did. It gave me much food for thought.

SEDUCED BY ART Exhibition National Gallery London 2012

SEDUCED BY ART Exhibition National Gallery London 2012

The exhibition had pretty mixed reviews and seemed to unearth old prejudices about the status of photography as art. The National Gallery is clearly hallowed ground. Brian Sewell was particularly scathing in his Evening Standard review:

“Vulgarity is, indeed, the almost common factor among these present-day photographers (most of them fiftyish or so) — the vulgarity of the commonplace subject, the vulgarity of colour, the vulgarity of scale (now common in every current form of art) and the vulgarity of surface, too often utterly repellent.”

He went on to conclude that it [the exhibition] is:

“Shoddy, mischievous and gravely mistaken, intellectually the work of students at some post-polytechnic university, those who devised it have seduced the National Gallery, led it astray, debauched and corrupted it.”

The introduction to the accompanying exhibition book (Kingsley, 2012) acknowledges the conflicting views on photography as art as illustrated by these selected extracts:

‘Through many permutations, photography has been valued as an imaging system with extraordinary powers to record the surface facts of the world. Did that splendid reckoning of material reality have the attributes of art?’ (Kingsley 2012, pp 15)

‘A photographer is more than a camera operator, it is the idea that made the photograph’ (Kingsley 2012, pp17)

The conflict has always been that the mechanical nature of the medium on the face of things restricts the scope for the artist/photographer to inject their own ideas into the work – what you see is what you get. On the other hand one can take the view that the artistic input of the artist/photographer occurs when he/she determines the conceptual basis for the work, which asks what questions are to be explored and how this might be done using the medium. In my view it is at this conceptual level that the real artistic value of photography can be created. If it is the case that there needs to be a strong conceptual basis for a photograph or series of photographs to be recognised as art this does however seriously question  the artistic status of much documentary photography which has been displayed in art galleries. No doubt there are many other definitions of what constitutes photographic art.

In my review of the exhibition I have presented my thoughts on a room by room basis. I did not spend a great deal of time in the area given over to still life, so I have not commented specifically on this. This reflects my own interests and not on the quality of the work. I have presented my review in the form of comments about specific photographs which caught my attention rather than trying to cover the whole exhibition.

Photography and the art of the past

Walking into the first gallery room, I was immediately struck by how imposing the photographs were in comparison to the meagre paintings represented there. A small copy of Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus was on the side wall and extending round the room were three very large photographs which had used this painting as their inspiration. I spent the most time with Jeff Wall’s The Destroyed Room and Tom Hunter’s Death of Coltelli. 

What seemed most important to me about these photographs is that they quote  ‘historical art without directly imitating it….that intention is important for comparisons of works of art should be more than imitative’ (Kingsley 2012, pp20). Both Wall’s and Hunter’s photographs do this.

Looking at Tom Hunter”s Death of Coltelli,  it is unmistakably a photograph of a modern day event. However, presenting the work as a large scale photograph with its composition referencing Delacroix’s history painting he has elevated the photograph from the ordinary and mundane to a theatrical extraordinary event.  The very fact that it is a realistic ‘photographic’  portrayal of a contemporary event serves to make the work yet more edgy than an oil painting of similar event in history. So Hunter is not trying to deny its photographic nature rather he is using the ‘authentic objectivity’ of photography as a powerful tool.

In her interview for the exhibition book Maisie Broadhead makes the point that ‘There’s something in the water at the moment with this idea of looking back’ (Kingsley 2012, pp 55). The many photographs in the exhibition which rework original paintings is testamony to this. It seems that Historicism (the revival of the content materials or techniques of historical forms) and Modernism (the breaking with precedent and searching for new modes of expression) both are alive and well in our post modern world.

I was intrigued by Jorma Puranen’s Shadows and Reflections (After Goya) 2011. This is not a reworking of a painting rather rather it is a photograph of the artefact itself, showing it surface and texture and relections. It is not a conventional portrait. In fact there are two subjects the long ago person (the Duck of Wellington) and his representation in the painting by Goya.

The exhibition book makes the point that photography can ‘commemorate the people whose contributions to history will never be marked by a grand oil painting’ ( KIngley 2012, pp43).  Dave Lewis’s portraits of West Indian ex-servicemen does just this. His approach has some resonance with that of Tom Hunter, see my previous post here.

Luc Delahaye resists any contention that his work is inspired by art-historical sources. Yet works such as US Bombing on Taliban Positions  have the feel of a grand history painting with their sheer scale and panoramic perspective. This work reminded me of some of Simon Norfolk’s photographs of Afghanistan.

Portraiture

Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographic portraiture is given much prominence. It is referenced backwards to portrait paintings by great masters and forwards to contemporary photography. Four of Cameron’s photographs are presented in the exhibition. By comparison Thomas Struth warrants a single portrait. I was surprised by this.

Cameron’s photographic portraits were constructed using Pictorialist principles. They were designed specifically to emulate painting and were intended to engage an emotional response.  Her subjects poses, averted gazes, downcast eyes and such like, allude to their state of mind. Backgrounds are plain leaving room for imaginative interpretation. Soft focus (due to shallow depth of field and motion blur) adds to the emotional charge, giving the portraits a dream-like feel. Cameron herself thought that she was genuinely trying with all her soul to record ‘…faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man’ pp79.

The exhibition book seems to suggest that Cameron was successful in revealing the inner self. If so I find this surprising particularly given these introductory remarks in the book: ‘If it [photography] cannot be authentically expressive, then it should be authentically objective. Photography must celebrate its inherent strengths instead of compensating for its weaknesses by imitating painting through tricks and manipulations.’ At the end of the book’s portraiture section they also make the point that portraits concentrate our attention on ‘physiognomy and demeanour’.

My own view is that a photographic portrait certainly shows us how someone looks; their clothes, hair, and such like give an indication of their lifestyle; and their demeanour also tells us something about their emotional state at the time of the portrait. The setting in which they are pictured can also add information about them. I also believe, however, that photographers can manipulate the representation of the subject’s appearance and demeanour by their choice of viewpoint, lighting, lens, framing, setting etc. and through their edit of the images from a photo shoot. In turn the confident subject can also manage how they present themselves to the camera through self conscious posing. After all when we see a movie star playing a part in a film we don’t immediately assume that the character they are playing is true representation of their ‘inner self’. With regards to Cameron’s work I have the distinct feeling that her portraits were ‘theatrical’ events. Others may well disagree.

Several of the photographs had some relevance to my own long exposure work. Nickie Bird’s portrait of her niece Jasmin was inspired by Cameron’s photograph of Kate Keown. Both young girls are/were from the Isle of White. Bird uses  a long exposure for her portrait as did Cameron. The portraits have a touch of motion blur giving them a soft feel and introduce a dimension of time. This work is part of a wider project in which Bird tracked the genealogies of Cameron’s sitters, although in this particular case Jasmin is not a descendant of Kate. I must confess this work made me think about the conceptual integrity of making ‘copies’ of earlier work – I have been doing this with my portraits of Rotary colleagues. This approach does not seem to ‘more than imitative’ and was one of the reasons why I took a different track with my own work.

One of the photographers whose work most impressed me was Richard Learoyd. Learoyd makes studio portraits using a camera obscura. The photographs are made directly onto Ilfochrome paper. They are very large. The photographs have a curious presence about them, which is hard to pin down. It is probably due to the very limited depth of field (Learoyd has indicated that it is about 5mm only). They are also slightly larger than life size which adds to their imposing nature. Learoyd’s subjects are placed against a plain background. Most often they do not address the viewer, averting their gaze or even looking away. Their expressions are neutral. Without the engagement through eye contact, any discernible expression, and background context one is given very little insight into the subject. They are a kind of open book. I have been thinking about why I like about this deadpan style. I think it is because I don’t feel that I’m being manipulated by either the photographer or the subject. What I am  looking at is a relatively unmediated representation of someone as I might see them in everyday life. I am free to use my imagination and to make connections drawn from my own memory. I think part of my reason for relating to this type of portraiture is as a reaction against celebrity portraiture in popular visual culture.  I’m not sure if I am making sense here, but I am drawn to Learoyd’s work. Here are some of his portraits and still life’s.

One of Martin Parr’s portraits from Signs of the Times  is included in the show alongside Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews. Parr’s portraits of family groupings in their homes have as one might expect a satirical flavour. Parr apparently deliberately delayed releasing the shutter when making the portraits to make his subjects self conscious. There is an edginess about the portrait which I don’t really like. I get the feeling that Parr was making fun of his subjects.

There is also a video of a crew of people preparing a set for a remake of Hill and Adamson’s early photographic portrait of Elizabeth Rigby. It is by Maisie Broadhead and Jack Cole. The work is intended to show how an apparently simple photograph is an amalgam of a series of creative decisions. The video was fun to watch but what I took from it was that there a great number of creative decisions in producing the video rather than the original portrait, which I sense was a straightforward photograph in Hill and Adamson’s studio using props and a background used in many of their other photographs.

The divine ideal

A great deal of the exhibition and the book is devoted to the nude study. Whereas the painted nude could be represented as an idealised figure representing a mythic or allegorical character, the photographic nude is undeniably a representation of a naked person.  Therein lies the difficulty of representing the photographic nude as art. The excuse for showing a woman without her clothes on (and it most often is a woman) cannot be ‘dressed up’ in higher ideals. There are many examples of early photographic nude studies in the exhibition. Some were made as reference works for artists. Others were just plain old pornography. Some were intended as artworks. The dividing lines between these different uses appeared very blurred.

I was very impressed with Learoyd’s huge ‘camera obscura’ nude study of a man with Octopus tatoo. It had an amazing presence. I found it interesting too that Learoyd had in mind that the male nude study would challenge the viewers to be detached from concerns about objectification.

It was also great to see Rineke Dijkstra’s best known Beach Portrait Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 26 1992. This portrait/figure study has an amazing presence and stood up well alongside the paintings alongside. In the book’s interview with Dijkstra she comments on the scale of her photographs. She believes that this gives the photographs a presence and a capacity for the viewer to observe them from different distances. She also explains why she works with a view camera. She believes it is a point of engagement with her subjects.They are generally curious about it. She also makes the points that when taking the picture one is forced to stand back and look at the subject and that it slows down the process and forcing the photographer to study the subject not to just shoot fast and hope for the best. In her words ‘Using this kind of camera creates a different kind of experience for the subject and they accept that it is going to take longer than a snapshot. People also feel a kind of concentration or intensity which comes into the image.’  (Kingley 2012, pp130) These are all interesting insights for me as I continue to develop my own experience with large format portraiture.

Landscape

I was surprised and a little disappointed with the very limited coverage of Landscape in the exhibition. Frankly none of the work on show really grabbed my attention. I did however relate to a couple of comments made in the exhibition book which refers to issues I have raised in recent posts on Landscape photography.

The first relates to the questioning of the celebration of nature within art which has grown since the 1970s: ‘Landscape does not connote freedom; it is property and power….To this is added a postmodern suspicion of beauty as a superficial blandishment to the viewer’ (Kingley 2012,  pp184).

The second remark refers to the way in which even the most topographic of landscape depiction probably triggers an emotional response from a viewer: ‘[photographs] of the landscape should be simple things, direct and objective depictions of the material world. But they never are: being human, we are always adding – allegories, emotions and spiritual insights. Landscape and its representations fulfil more than an aesthetic impulse; they are nostalgia, escape and divine inspiration’ (Kingley 2012,  pp187)

Reference

Kingsley H. (2012) SEDUCED BY ART PHOTOGRAPHY PAST AND PRESENT London: Nation Gallery

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