London Trip January 24th 2017

A University arranged trip, primarily to see 2 exhibitions firstly around 200 images from Sir Elton John’s extensive collection of modernist photography being shown at the Tate Modern in an exhibition called The Radical Eye.

The exhibition traces the development of photography between 1920 and 1950 and includes iconic images by masters of the medium at the times such as Man Ray, Edward Weston, André Kertész and Edward Steichen. Interestingly, it includes many of their lesser known works as well as work by less famous names such as Harry Callahan, Berenice Abbott, Imogen Cunningham, Emmanuel Sougez and Paul Outerbridge.

Curated by the Tate’s Shoair Mavlian with help from Newell Harbin, director of John’s permanent collection of more than 7,000 images usually located mainly in a huge, purpose built apartment in Buckwood, Atlanta. the exhibition is divided into seven themes that ranged from portraiture to abstraction.

It really is a fascinating collection of really great photography in a crucial period of photography’s development and it has attracted much critical acclaim for the artistic values it represents. Less impressive, in my opinion was the chosen methods framing, with a preponderance of gold and silver gilt frames often on a scale that seemed inappropriate to the photographs – often dwarfing them. The photograph below in Sir Elton’s home shows some of the less obtrusive examples of the framing employed.

I was not the only one taken aback by the framing and in this Sean O’Hagan Guardian interview with John about the exhibition the question is raised and rebuffed in typical style by the pop star.

“One surprise in The Radical Eye show is the framing of the images, which is, well, a bit bling – gold and silver gilt rather than, as he puts it, “boring bloody black”. That will, I say, almost certainly annoy the purists. “Oh, they can fuck off,” he says. “All I am saying is, look at them in a different way – as magnificent works of art that should be magnificently framed.” I put it to him that Britain has been slow to accept photography as art. “I know. I know. For me, this country has always turned its nose up at photography and treated photography as the poor relation of art. That’s why I’m doing this show – I want people in England to see this incredible work and to look at it and discover photography as art. The very fact that I am having to say this is a bit ridiculous, but we’re stuck somehow. I just want people to react in awe and wonder, like I did when I first saw these works. I really hope they do.” (Hagan, 2017)

At the end of the day the prints are Sir Elton’s property and he can chose how he likes to display them, nor should we lose sight of his generosity in sharing them with the public but nonetheless personally I found it a more than a little sad that the stunning photography from these giants of photographic history was being overshadowed by the display aesthetics chosen.

That said it is a truly brilliant exhibition of a key period in the development of photography and there is hope we may get to see more of the collection as what currently on display is but a fraction Sir Elton’s collection. This, at least according to this Guardian article which indicates a long term plan to donate the collection to the nation.

Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition

British photographer Edmund Clark and counter terrorism investigator Crofton Black have assembled photographs and documents that confront the nature of contemporary warfare and the invisible mechanisms of state control. From George W. Bush’s 2001 declaration of the “war on terror” until 2008, an unknown number of people disappeared into a network of secret prisons organized by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency—transfers without legal process known as extraordinary renditions. No public records were kept as detainees were shuttled all over the globe. Some were eventually sent to Guantánamo Bay or released without charge, while others remain unaccounted for. – See more at the Aperture website.

I was left cold by this exhibition, not that I don’t understand the importance of the issues. Maintaining civil liberties when faced with enemies who don’t fight by the same rules is a huge challenge for Western Democracies, a choice made more stark just this week with the shocking events at the Manchester Arena. Terrible as these events are I was even sadder listening to the radio going to Bath as some politicians demanded the government implement a State of Emergency which would give the state draconian powers with little recourse to scutiny by the ordinary citizen. It is this question which is at the heart of the motivation for this exhibition, i.e. the alleged abuse of power by the US government, aided and abetted by others including the UK to deal with people who they regard with deep suspicion but cant quite bring adequate evidence together to deal with in a normal court.

Personally I think the desire by governments is to do the right thing in dealing with evil people intent on stoking hate and diviseness. However, as a society we have to be very, very careful not to throw baby out with the bathwater when considering short cutting democratic processes that have evolved for good reason over centuries simply because its expedient.

So there is no question that the subject is a vitally important one, it will affect our society for generations to come and the authors have done an admirable job in tracking down the evidential trail for this work. What I am left cold by is the photography with few exceptions, such as the image above of restraint manacles used at Guantanamo Bay facility, is in fact largely very boring and mundane. I write as someone attracted to the mundane but photographs of documentary evidence or anonymous concrete buildings used as transport stops are, whilst important as a record, simply do not make for a visually appealing display.

Personally I think this was a missed opportunity to highlight the many and varied types of work going on around this topic, the only images that had any impact on me were the one taken inside Guantanamo facility where a number of the more interesting artefacts as described in the title were located.

So in summary it was an interesting and important topic, well researched and lots of evidence but lacking much in the way of visual appeal.

This entry was posted in Professional Contexts 3.

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