I spent Tuesday of this week taking in several exhibitions in London. Four of my favourite photographers – Alec Soth, Julia Margaret Cameron, Saul Leiter and Joel Meyerowitz.
Soth’s exhibition was a retrospective with work from each of his major series over the last 12 years. Seeing the series one after another in separate rooms was very interesting. The whole appeared to me to be very autobiographical.
SLEEPING BY THE MISSISSIPPI is a freewheeling almost lighthearted road-trip. In NIAGARA Soth searches for love. But BROKEN MANUAL which explores the world of recluses and hermits could be read as an investigation into how he might personally withdraw from society. SONGBOOK is more lighthearted but is a throwback to Soth’s early days as a photographer – a wish to restart his career??
I enjoyed the Soth exhibition greatly and reaffirmed that SLEEPING BY THE MISSISSIPPI is my favourite of his series. The work seems to flow perhaps the continuity of the river and the many beds which Soth discovered along the way. Many of the images are quite beautiful. And the portraits are fascinating insights into those pictured – Bonnie (with a photograph of an Angel) has always been my favourite, see here.
The scale of the photographs went up a notch in the NIAGARA section with pride of place given to an image of the falls.
This landscape is aesthetically one of the most appealing images but I got the sense that its function was to represent the cliche of Niagara as a place of beauty and as a place for lovers (or lost love as one could easily imagine someone jumping over the falls in an act of suicide).
Curiously the aspect that I found most interesting about the NIAGARA installation was the love letters in a glass case. Their presence illustrated clearly Soth’s approach to his work – he forages lots of ‘stuff’ which provide context for his images.
As I mentioned above, I found BROKEN MANUAL quite depressing and sad. I read the entire work as autobiographical representing Soth’s desire to quit public life. I have no idea if this was really the case. I found it fascinating the way he had collected lots more stuff – survival manuals, diagrams of home made tools and so on. Most of the portraits also place his subjects at a great distance as if they want to disappear into the background.
SONGBOOK has never captured my imagination. As I indicated above I feel that it is driven mostly by Soth’s desire to return to his roots – my opinion, could be wrong. Nor does his move to a more freewheeling style of photography appeal to me. I did like however the way it was first published as a series of quasi-newspapers. The extension of this into a book and exhibition with huge prints did not work for me.
Julia Margaret Cameron was my next port of call. The truth is that I was disappointed. Seeing so many of her portraits/scenes in one place was too much for me. There is no doubt that Cameron’s work was highly original. The use of blurring and photographic defects as expressive devices is pretty unique. She maintained that this was a deliberate strategy. Others felt it was due to lack of skill. I am open minded about this. What also came through to me in seeing so much of her work together was how she was driven to make images for commercial purposes. I could almost imagine her thinking that some of the apparently religious scenes would ‘sell well’ to book illustrators and so on. My response to this exhibition was a surprise to me, as I was really looking forward to seeing her work!
On to the Photographers’ Gallery, lunch and Saul Leiter. This was probably the highlight of the day! Lester’s black and white images share the same complexity in compositional terms and lighting effects as his colour work – reflections, shooting through windows, extreme compositions are all present. The resulting images have a dream-like, impressionistic quality – nothing is quite clear. However, it is his colour work which I really love. The full sized prints are quite beautiful. Apparently Leiter frequently used out of date Kodachrome, resulting in images with muted, painterly colours. His photographs are shown alongside some of his paintings many of which are abstracts full of colour. This gives a further insight into what motivated him as a photographer. I must confess that I viewed Leiter’s work as aesthetic objects and I have not really contextualised his work – time to read the catalogue I bought! Snow, 1960 remains a particular favourite, see here.
My final port of call was the commercial gallery Beetles and Huxley on Swallow Street near Piccadilly Circus. A Joel Meyerowitz’s CAPE LIGHT is on show there. CAPE LIGHT is one of my all time favourite photo books. The large format images are quiet, contemplative and quite beautiful – its the light and colour that makes them so. It was great to see his work on show at an exhibition BUT I was quite put off by the raw commerciality of it all. The smaller, 20×24 inch, prints were on sale unframed for £7,500 as an edition of 20. Larger print prices reached up to almost £18,000. Knowing that these photographs were all made with an 8×10 inch Deardorff, I had thought that the images might be traditional photographic prints. Not so, they are inkjet prints on some form of paper – the gallery staff had no idea what paper was used. The whole thing came over to me as a money making venture rather than a celebration of great photography. I should not have been surprised after all it is a commercial gallery and Meyerowitz has to make a living.
So all in all quite a busy day. What did I learn? Not sure if I did learn anything new as I was familiar with all of the works on show beforehand. Except that I was highly conscious throughout of how the presentation of the work influenced my perceptions. It also set me thinking about whether curators’ wishes are generally aligned with those of the photographer, or not.