I’ve bracketed these two together because (a) they were both on at the same place at the same time – The Photographers’ Gallery in London – and (b) I thought they might be good research for my current assignment. The title of the assignment is ‘A Sense of Place’ and both of these exhibitions relate to a place: the former a gigantic country and the latter a hip London district. I thought they might in some way give me inspiration on how to capture the essence of a place in photographs. I was only partly right… a brief review of each follows.
Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia
The exhibition showcases the development of colour in Russian photography from the 1860s to the 1970s, and so is a partial history of Russian photography and a partial photographic history of Russia. There are a few very distinct styles of photography on display, each pertinent to a particular era in Soviet history:
- Hand-tinted images: the early (18th c.) pictures here are mainly very formal portraits and landscapes – the influence of traditional painting is so overwhelming that these seem closer to paintings than photographs; some of them were so over-painted as to give a faintly Monty Python-esque quality to the images
- Montage and collage: in the 1920s and 1930s photography was heavily used as a propaganda tool; utopian imagery and the colour red were very prevalent
- More propaganda: in the post-war era, colour film was expensive and rare, and photography itself was tightly controlled by official government publications, spreading the ideology of the time
- Counterculture: the 1970s access to cheaper colour slide film meant that an underground photography scene had developed, with intrepid amateurs shooting non-sanctioned images to share with friends in home-viewing slideshow evenings
I was initially a bit disappointed that the essence of ‘Russia’ wasn’t really coming through for me in the collection; it seemed on first viewing to be very much an examination of the development of photographic technology than a cohesive portrait of a nation. However, I went for a second go around the two exhibition halls and looked again at the pictures in their chronological groupings.
What emerged on this re-examination was something much more subtle than I’d expected: the sense of ‘Russia’ that comes through isn’t so much in the pictures themselves, it’s in the ways they were made – the underlying story is of how the Russian people used what technology and materials they had to hand in order to make their images. And for long periods of time, what tech and materials they had access to was different to the rest of the world as it was artificially restricted by the communist government. So the history of colour photography in Russia is different to its history anywhere else. This underpinning narrative tells you more about the ‘sense of the place’ than individual photos do. It’s an example of the old maxim: the medium is the message.
This was another thing entirely. Very surreal, very avant-garde. A mixture of photography and ‘urban sculpture’ made from discarded items from a market in east London. The photography was striking: lots of strong colours, and subject-wise a heady mix of rotting rubbish (arranged in intricate still-life poses) and wilfully arty street portraits. The sculpture parts left me cold; for some reason I can appreciate a good photo of, say, a pile of street trash, but when someone sticks a load of it together into a 3D piece of ‘art’ I find it faintly ridiculous. Lorenzo Vitturi is a former cinema set designer and painter, and this does come through in his work. He is unbound by conventions of photography and happy to experiment across media in an ‘art installation’ kind of way.
So very imaginative, pushing the boundaries, very playful, very visual. But did it offer me a sense of Dalston as a place? In a way, it did… not to be too judgemental (!) but my perception of Dalston as an outsider (I confess I’ve never been) is that it’s a hipster haven, full of highly pretentious Nathan Barley types being painfully trendy. And this collection lives up to the stereotype! Sorry, Lorenzo…
To be fair, some of the street portraits did give a flavour of the place. The rotting bananas balanced on rotting vegetables, not so much. Maybe I’m missing some deeper metaphor here.
So was this an interesting way to pass an hour? Yes, no doubt at all.
Did it help me on the assignment? Maybe a tiny bit…