Tate Britain: exhilarating and exhausting

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Tate Britain bowls me over again. In one hit – in retrospect, a mistake – I get to take in the work of Vincent Van Gogh and Don McCullin with Mike Nelson as the bonus prize. These three stunning exhibitions could not be more different. I only have the morning. I move through them perhaps too quickly; the resulting cocktail of emotions takes me surprise.

Van Gogh came to London in 1873 at the age of twenty; he lived here for three years. England and english people inspired him; when his work became well-known, he in turn inspired English writers and painters.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Prison Courtyard” Oil on canvas 1890 (after Gustave Doré, “The exercise yard at Newgate Prison” Engraving on paper 1872.)

Long after leaving England, he painted a prison exercise yard. This was inspired by a fascination for London’s seedy underbelly and descriptions of the city’s prisons by Charles Dickens: a writer whom the young painter admired greatly.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Starry night” Oil on canvas, 1888

Years after his death in 1890, Van Gogh’s work was labelled “post-impressionism.” Some found the style shocking but exhibitions of his paintings in London drew thousands. The hall-mark brushstroke technique was eagerly adopted by the Camden Town Group of painters.

Soothed and enchanted by Vincent’s starry, starry night, I believe myself ready for Don McCullin. Wrong again!

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Don McCullin “Londonderry, Northern Ireland” 1971

Don McCullin is a legend. This comprehensive show covers his extraordinary sixty-year photographic trajectory through the world’s worst trouble – misery spots. There is a reason that the Tate has an advisory notice pertaining to his images. Much of the subject matter is heart-wrenching; the outstanding quality of the (self-printed!) photographs only serves to make them more powerful still. And there are hundreds of them. I recoil from the man-made suffering, the executions, the starvation and the dead bodies. It cuts just that bit close to my bone. I notice that the many viewers fuse into a sort of silent, shuffling, heavy-weight-around-neck chain gang tasked with looking at McCullin’s photos. Some of us loiter around his own escapism in the relatively few but exquisite landscapes and still-life studies.

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Don McCullin “Shell-shocked US Marine, the battle of Hué” 1968

I confine my focus to his portraits. Even these can be harrowing. Probably the best known is the Vietnam shell-shocked American soldier of whom he took several photos and who neither moved nor blinked over several minutes. In the trade, this is known as the “thousand-yard stare.” McCullin admits that receiving praise for photographing the suffering of others sits uncomfortably in his soul.

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Don McCullin “A boy at the funeral of his father who died of AIDS, Kawama cemetery, Ndola, Zambia” 2000

I try – and fail – to imagine how McCullin has been able to cope with the extreme insecurity and distress inherent in his chosen contexts and then function professionally and creatively. I leave this landmark exhibition steeped in admiration for the man, his endurance, his compassion and for what he has achieved with his talent.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

I literally stumble into the Duveen galleries; the main central space of Tate Britain. I am looking at some old telegraph poles and a section of a wide concrete pipe laid out on some canvases all in a kind of makeshift roofless shed.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

The galleries are full of old machinery and a variety of heavy objects mostly associated with manufacture. Everything sits on a neat stone plinth. Is it an industrial museum? Is it a contemporary installation? Is it a tongue-in-cheek collection of big old heavy mechanical and electric stuff. Well…. all of the above! And what’s more, it contrasts rather deliciously with the classic architecture of the space. What I am standing in – and enthralled by – is “The Asset Striipers” created by Mike Nelson for the annual Tate Britain Commission.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

Nelson’s concept for the commission is that the Duveen Galleries become a kind of warehouse of objects that serve as monuments of Britain’s former industrial wealth just as the industrial is being superceded by the digital; as manufactrure is being superceded by service. To make the point, he selected and purchased all the objects through on-line auctions of asset strippers and company liquidators. I find the concept at once brilliant and intriguing.

Then suddenly I am drained. I feel as though I have just climbed off one of those roller-coaster rides that is supposed to be fun but, in reality, precipitates spells of wheeeeee… and white-knuckle nausea. I head for the main exit with a haste that surprises me. I find calm on Millbank; the black taxis, the River Thames and the unseasonably warm May London sunshine.

All images reproduced here thanks to Tate Britain.

Discarded Hollywood Glamour

Neighbours moved away yesterday. They must have dropped a picture and left it on the street. Familiar faces catch my eye; one in particular always gets me thinking.

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I separate the damp poster from its smashed frame and lay it on the pavement. The photo is at once charming and amusing; it was taken at the premier of “How to marry a millionaire” in 1953. I love the interactive snap-shot-moment of these three stars.

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Lauren Bacall seems to be admiring – and tolerating with good humour – her husband, Humphrey Bogart, who is clearly admiring something else. I imagine that he has just wise-cracked something risqué to Marilyn about some juicy titbit that he has eaten and the need to wipe his fingers afterwards. And then of course, there’s Marilyn, the greatest female icon ever, just lapping up all the attention.

Everyone would know that smile. Not everyone would know of her courageous stand and work for women in the male-dominated Hollywood of the day. Few would know that after her death, investigators’ photos of her lying in her bed were published. Worse still, mortuary photos of her awaiting a post-mortem examination were likewise published. I know of no other celebrity whose person has suffered this particular violation of privacy nor been the subject of such a gross breach of medical ethics. I find it sad that such a bright star should die with such indignity.

Three favourite snaps nominated for the 2018 Geneva Photo Awards

I’m at Galerie La Cave, this week hosting 2018’s Geneva Photo Awards. There are lots and lots of photos on the walls, all submitted by local photographers. One of the friendly hosts hands out pens and papers and asks visitors to “vote for your three favourite photos.” The most popular photos will be announced at finissage on 25 March.

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I look. I stop. I think. There are photos of people and animals, landscapes and streets, concrete and abstract. Many of them are technically accomplished. Some capture moments, others evoke emotions. But there is no common narrative or theme, and there are no captions. I struggle, but manage to narrow down my favourites to three. I take photos.

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“Karnak” by Arnaud Chamorel

I love the harsh contrast and light in Arnaud Chamore’s photo from the Karnak Temple Complex in Egypt. It reminds me of Gabriele Croppi’s photos of European metropolis. Whatever camera and editing software Arnaud used, the contrasty and monochromatic result is bold, moody and elegant! Unfortunately, there’s little space on the wall at home.

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“Le Tram Blur* by Neil Maccormack

Neil Maccormack’s photo of Rive is fun! The fisheye-distortion combined with a long-exposure makes the whole place look like a funfair. We all know that it’s not, but that doesn’t matter. I appreciate photographers who go that extra mile to find a fresh view of a scene often experienced from only one or two perspectives.

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“La Jonction Canard” by Frédérique Tissandier

The third and last photo getting my vote is shot by my colleague Frédérique Tissandier. The one-legged duck looks happy, ready take a dip in river Rhône. A simple composition with balanced colours like this can never go wrong. Well done, Fred!

Unless memory fails, this is the third year the Swiss Photo Club hosts the Awards. It’s clearly a very clever way of encouraging local photographers (their family and friends) to share their best photos and meet up with people who share the same passion. Well done, guys! I’m looking forward to next year’s edition, and perhaps I will then submit one of my photos…

Rio 2016 through the lenses of four photographers

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I visit the Olympic Museum to check out “Rio 2016 through the lenses of four photographers” even though sports photography has never been my thing. I consider myself a decent photographer but before I even see the first photo, the exhibition challenges me. “Everyone’s a photographer” it states in the introduction and then, rather like Orwell’s pigs, goes on to say “some more than others!” I discover that this is true and am humbled by what I find.

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Four professional photographers – obviously from the group “some more than others” – were invited to exhibit their favourite shots from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

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Mine Kasapoglu Puhrer (TUR), John Huet (USA), David Burnett (USA) and Jason Evans (USA) have done much more than capture great moments in sport. They provide an archive of the passion, emotion, and even unintentional comedy that is the human face and real draw of the Games. In addition, each great image is garnished with a little unexpected detail.

Great sports photographers have an eye for the image and for the moment. I mean, just take a look at the cover photo of David Burnett’s book (above). And the photographers admit that they are constantly exploring new angles, new compositions, new techniques and new narratives even though they’ve been in the business for many years.

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What a contrast between these two images: women’s hockey and women’s golf!

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The video interviews of the four photographers fascinate me:

“Sometimes winners have this different face before they win, it’s really exciting. I like to play with that photographing the moment before the race, the start.” – Mine Kasapoglu Puhrer

“You have the best photographers in the world coming together and creating their own photo Olympics. It’s like the athletes, every photographer is trying to be the best, they want to beat the people next to them, they want to beat everybody in the room. – David Burnett”

“You still need an emotion, you still need a story, you still need to find what that is, even though the technology helps, it’s just a tool. You have to use it wisely and properly. – Jason Evans”

“If you see the photograph through your camera lens, you don’t have, it’s when you don’t see it is when you have it.” – John Huet

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The photographers also make reference to the implications of technology for their work. Twenty years ago, sports photographers shot on film. From clicking on a top shot through development to sale for publication took about 40 minutes. Now, a captured image can appear on a news website anywhere in the world in under one minute.

The exhibition lasts until 9 November. It’s a must-see for everyone (who’s a photographer!)

Gavin Bowyer’s Hanoi Twins

Social media pushes thousands of images across my visual field daily. Why am I stopped in my tracks by a photograph taken recently by Gavin Bowyer that captures a pair of the cutest smiling twin girls on roller-blades in Hanoi? I study it minutely. I return to it. I download it. I show it to friends. I decide to talk about this beautiful stuff.

Roger Clark

Copyright: Gavin Bowyer 2017

The photograph is beautifully composed and would have been very difficult to stage. The scene is set in a road but there are no cars or bicycles. An ignored pedestrian crossing gives space between the twins and the backdrop of out-of-focus people, trees and buildings; this gives an impression of social distance or even separation. The delightful and delighted twins set up a sort of symmetry tangled up by their arms and their heavy plastic-metallic footwear. Their matching black hair-dos quad the black of the roller-blades. The bright red of the roller-blades picks out the pinks of the motif on the right twin’s t-shirt, their lips and some muted reds in the far background. The bright machined metal cluttered around the twins’ unsteady feet contrasts with pretty much everything in the picture especially their bare legs; their legs, in turn, stand out from all the legs in the backdrop. Bravo Gavin! Good eye!

At first pass, this is an accomplished photograph that is at the same time very, very cute especially as the clinging twins seem so happy to be photographed. Gavin has established a rapport with them. But what I admire more about this photograph is that it generates so many questions. Are the twins clinging to each other for stability on their roller-blades or did they simply grab hold of each other in a fit of twinsome giggles when the attention of a westerner with a big camera was turned upon them? There are no obvious scratches or bruises on their knees or elbows. Is there a parent or older sibling out of field who has held their hands to prevent them falling? Why are they not wearing helmets and protection for their elbows, wrists and knees? Is this because the family is too poor? Or are the two of them simply expert roller-bladers? They seem so happy but maybe they are street children who have worked out how to appeal to and pose for snap-happy tourists? (The possibility of their being orphaned or abandoned is visually accentuated by all the background adults walking away.) This sets up a darker reflection. Are our little not-so-street-wise roller-bladers vulnerable to much, much more than scratched knees? I find that the longer I look at this totally compelling photograph, the more questions arise and the more I move from being charmed to being intrigued or even concerned. I started by admiring a twin-portrait photograph and end up wanting to know the story of its two subjects. The last question I find myself asking is: Who else thinks this is a perfect photograph?

Epilogue

Whoops! I originally attributed this photograph to Roger Clark. It turns out that the talented image-maker is Gavin Bowyer photographed here by Roger Clark with those adorable twins.

Copyright: Roger Clark 2017