People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Exhibitions: Early Colour Photography in Russia and Dalston Anatomy

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

Official exhibition page

Tinted portraits

Tinted portraits

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.

Dalston Anatomy

Official exhibition page

© Lorenzo Vitturi 2013

© Lorenzo Vitturi 2013

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.

Summary

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…

 

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Exhibition: Steve McCurry Retrospective

The Théatre de la Photographie et de l’Image in Nice is running an exhibition of Steve McCurry’s work until the end of September 2014, and I was fortunate to be in Nice at the right time to visit.

Like most people I knew McCurry first and foremost for the iconic ‘Afghan Girl’ image, so famous that I don’t need to include it here. Beyond that, I knew he had worked a lot in Asia and in war zones throughout the world – but I didn’t know much else. It turned out to be one of the best exhibitions of photography that I’ve seen in a long time. Given that I am studying a degree module called ‘People & Place’, his work is hugely relevant and an excellent source of inspiration.

People

Pul-e-Khumri, Afghanistan © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

Pul-e-Khumri, Afghanistan © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

At the heart of McCurry’s work are people, and the first hall in the gallery is dominated by head-and-shoulders shots that are reminiscent of Afghan Girl, with the subject staring deep into the viewer’s eyes. The technique of getting the subject to stare intently at the lens looks deceptively simple, but I can’t imagine that every time you do so, you produce work as powerful and affecting as this. Whether through empathy, patience or some other interpersonal skill, McCurry has the knack of drawing the gaze of his subjects in such a way that you feel they are revealing something of themselves to the camera/viewer.

Pure portraiture isn’t the whole story though – in fact it’s a fairly small proportion of the 127 images on show here. The greater part of the body of work is concerned with placing people in the wider context of their place in the world – their community, their traditions and sometimes the extraordinary circumstances in which they find themselves.

For me, some of these are more interesting than others. The images of war zones – and they are not overly graphic, they are not scenes of combat but rather of the effects of war on the people and their environment – were surprisingly less affecting to me than I expected. Similarly, the images of the aftermath of natural disasters didn’t really resonate with me. This is a subjective view, of course, but a certain amount of ‘disaster fatigue’ kicks in after a while and as a viewer I became somewhat desensitised.

On the other hand, the images depicting specific traditions of peoples from around the world, I found genuinely impressive. The ones chosen here really lend themselves to being captured photographically, from a point of view of colour, composition or both. The Indian festivals where they paint their faces and bodies bright colours, the Shaolin monks hanging upside down, the Sri Lankan stilt fishermen – they make amazing photographs. They make you think about the wonders the world has to offer, the unusual rituals and sights that most people will never see in person – the variety of human life. Put cynically from a visual interest point of view: misery tends to look the same the world over, but people find a limitless number of ways to celebrate and be happy.

A sense of place

I was particularly interested in seeing how McCurry conjured up the sense of place in his images, as this is the brief for my next assignment. For the most part he does this with people in the context of the place – sometimes posed environmental portraits, often candid moments. The light, the architecture, the clothing, the landscapes. After a while, looking at photos before reading the captions, I became pretty good at guessing where in the world the picture was taken, and this is testament to his ability to distill a place down to its essence. With regard to the balance between people and place in his images, on the evidence of the work here he concentrates very much on the people, with the place as a secondary character.

One of the best examples of this, as well as demonstrating his love of vibrant colours and his eye for composition, is ‘Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India’.

Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India. 2007 © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India. 2007 © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

Verdict

My overwhelming first impression was that I was in the presence of a photographic master, the kind of annoyingly brilliant genius that makes me disappointed in my own shortcomings! Once I got past the general sense of awe I looked more closely and saw that what I really admired were two quite distinct aspects of his work: first, on a purely aesthetic level he captures some beautiful images, full of colour and with a careful eye for composition; secondly, he has a rare skill of highlighting the human elements, making you feel like the subject has shared something of themselves with the photographer, and by extension, the viewer.

One simple sign that I’ve been impressed with a photographer is whether I subsequently seek out more of their work. Straight after getting back from the exhibition I ordered ‘Steve McCurry: The Iconic Photographs’ [1], which seems to be a comprehensive source of more great McCurry images to feast upon after having this show whet my appetite.

One of the things I find myself thinking with regard to certain photographers is “I like the way s/he sees the world”… and with McCurry the emphasis is more on the last word. He brings to life amazing, exotic aspects of global culture, opening windows onto parts of the world I’ll most likely never see in person. If anything, the fact that he is so associated with one iconic image is something of a shame – it overshadows what is a consistently excellent body of work.

  1. Purcell, K.W. (2012). Steve McCurry: the iconic photographs. London: Phaidon