“Cheese” Seems to Be the Hardest Word

The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography From The Sir Elton John Collection (Tate Modern, 10 November 2016–21 May 2017)

So Elton John got sober in 1990 and sold much of what he owned – but an art dealer friend showed him some black and white photographs and he became hooked enough to buy a dozen on the spot. Since then he has amassed something like 8,000 of them, which grace the walls of his Atlanta apartment in Academy style frame-by-frame, check-by-check. About 150 of them are on display, in John’s frames, in the new exhibition space at t’Tate t’Modern.

It is an extraordinary collection of modernist images, from the big names and the less well known, from the 1920s to the 1950s. Inevitably, it needs stamina – and the sudden bursts of colour on two walls is a relief from black and white, no matter how beautiful black and white is. As these are photographs as art, colour is mostly banished from the practice until the 1970s anyway. But when the photos can be as small as a cigarette card and no larger than A4, a certain amount of (sorry) focus is required.

Broadly speaking, the images split into three categories: the portrait; the document; and the estrangement. To my eye, the last is the most interesting, the first the least, but the categories overlap.

A lot of the portraits are of artists, authors or musicians, as artist photographs document their own circle. There are muses, teachers and pupils – so we have Man Ray, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Alfred Stieglitz as subject or object. Alfred Stieglitz’s portrait of Georgia O’Keefe is unusual as her face takes up the left side of the print, with wood, perhaps fencing, forming the right half; usually he chops her up into body parts. We have a row of artists and composers, André Breton and Ivor Stravinsky among others, where we are invited to perceive the artistic impulse at work in the face staring back at us.

Projection, much?

Along one wall, almost appropriately, are Irving Penn’s images of celebrities jammed into the corner of a wall apparently structured for the purpose. Noel Coward looks especially tall and wiry, although the caption, “Noel Coward was a playwright, director, composer and noted wit”, whilst not wrong, seems a little… off. Spencer Tracy did indeed win two Oscars, but that seems a little clipped too. Meanwhile, Carl Van Vechten depicts Leo Coleman as Toby in The Medium 18 May 1946, but doesn’t explain Leo Coleman was a black dancer in the Katherine Dunham troupe who appeared in an opera, The Medium, premiered at Columbia University ten days earlier. Dora Maar appears, but it’s assumed that you know she’s one of Picasso’s muses as well as a photographer and painter.

There is a room devoted to documentary, with some of the greats – Ansel Adams, Ilse Bing, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt and so on, the great projects of the WPA in the 1930s and images of cities. Of course, there are all kinds of ironies and paradoxes – not least the millionaire rock musician and philanthropist owning and empathising with an image of poverty such as Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936). We have the art of poverty rather than the poverty of art, but we are projecting the story on the image. Part of the documentation is possible due to new smaller format cameras or faster films; some of the pictures are snatched street photographs, taken without their object’s knowledge, others would have been carefully set up. The distinction is not clear here; you’ll need to go elsewhere (the catalogue?) for technical details. I appreciated a picture by Robert Frank of Paris, I suspect the only living photographer from the exhibition.

Finally, the estranging, the avant garde, the experimental. Lazló Moholy-Nagy’s View From the Berlin Radio Tower (1928) is a good starting point, as objects blur into abstraction when viewed from on high – as does the Boy On Bicycle From Brooklyn Bridge by Ralph Steiner. There are several radio towers and aerials here, some as vantage points, others a view from below, as choice of bird or worm’s eye view collides with modernity. In distinction from distance, there is the close-up of objects (eggs, cups, plants) or tight cropping, to make us question what we are seeing. The photo as still life become abstract. Paul Strand – a protégé of sorts of Stieglitz and underrepresented here – combines both with the play of shadows of the commuter against the columns of Wall Street. And then there are the distortions in the photographing or developing stages, the double exposures, the scratches and damaged. I knew Herbert Bayer’s Humanly Impossible (Self Portrait) (1932) with the missing underarm chunk, but I hadn’t connected him to Lonely Metropolitan (1932), the eyes on hands in front of montaged buildings, which I half recognised. There is Man Ray’s Glass Tears, the titular drops like beads across a tightly cropped face, I think a mannequin’s? (It’s telling I can’t tell – take that, uncanny valley. Apparently he made it just after he split up from Lee Miller; I don’t think there were any of her photos on display here but it’s a depressing though that she would be so replaced.) And of course, there’s the Rayographs, one of several versions of the technique of camera-less pictures where objects are placed on light sensitive paper.

There is much here to enjoy and appreciate, if you can have the patience to slow down and admire. John evidently has taste, or has been well-curated (odd labelling aside). Ideally, I think, you’d go in and see half a dozen pictures and then go and stare at a bright coloured painting to recalibrate. But the thought of whatever selection there is of eight thousand pictures on his walls – where inevitably they must become invisible, feels me with a sense of unease.

Don’t Confuse Her With the Actor

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War (Imperial War Museum, London, 15 October 2015-24 April 2016)

Do you know you are not allowed to drink beer in the Imperial War Museum? Or – given that I’m fairly surely they sell it in their café – you are not allowed to drink beer you’ve brought with you in the IWM? Also, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen themed beers in the shop.

I was forced to use a locker for the bottle of Solaris I’d bought for the train home.

I think the last paid exhibition I saw at the Imperial War Museum was Don McCullin – his fantastic war photography. Other photographers, of course, specialise in fashion, or in art, or landscapes or people.

Lee Miller (1907-1977) does art, people, landscape, fashion and war. A rare combination, especially, one might say, for a woman. I’ve seen various exhibitions of her work of late – as if her son Antony Penrose is a man on a mission – most recently her photos of Picasso and her family at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and there’s a vast website at www.leemiller.co.uk. She’s shown up among women surrealists, too.

I don’t think I’d picked up before that she’d been raped as a young child, nor that her father had photographed her in the nude. I recalled nudes of her, including self-portraits, and some of these are on display, along with Paul Homann’s cast of her torso (1939) – an echo of Man Ray’s photo of her – and this suggests an apparent degree of bodily freedom that seems a little odd. Exhibitionism as defence?

She’d worked as a model in New York for Arnold Genthe, George Hoyningen-Huene, Nickolas Muray and Edward Steichen, before going to Europe in 1929 and working with Man Ray as muse, model and photographer. She experimented with the solarisation process – which was also to be used by Barbara Hepworth. On her return to New York in 1932, she set up her own studio, but married wealthy businessman Aziz Eloui Bey and moved to Cairo. Her photography shifted from surrealism to landscape, focusing on the desert and ruined villages in the sands. On a trip to Paris she met the collector and artist Roland Penrose, beginning a long affair with him that would eventually become a marriage. She took photographs in the Balkans, as well as Syria and Egypt, before war broke out.

In theory she should have gone back to the United States, but she had taken a job with British Vogue. Initially she was working as a fashion photographer – it was Vogue, after all – and part of the work was to keep spirits up with the keeping up of standards. But as the war went on, it intruded on the photographs. Models posed in bomb sites or wore gas masks – fashion colliding with surrealism. She took photographs of women in uniforms and doing war work, as well as nurses.

By 1944, she was accredited as a war correspondent for Vogue — there’s an intriguing photograph by David E. Sherman of her in uniform in front of the Vogue cover with a soldier, women and a stars and stripes flag – and she got more involved in the war. The way she tells it, it was almost a lark, but that might be a survivor talking.

She was meant to go to Normandy, after the landings, and to avoid trouble, but she ended up in Saint-Malo, still under German control but heavily shelled by the American army. Unlike other journalists, Miller mixed with and apparently had affairs with the military, and didn’t buckle down to follow the official itinerary. She ended up in liberated Paris – where she photographed fashion shows – and went into Germany. The photographs on display include some of Dachau and Buchenwald, the concentration camps, one being feet in boots, somewhere between a dancer and a fashion shoot. In Munich she entered Hitler’s apartment, Scherman taking a photo of her in Hitler’s bath, nude of course, her muddied boots on the mat, a photo of Hitler on one side, a statuette on the other. It is a grim jest.

That was almost it – she returned to Britain in 1946 and took more photos of Budapest, finally reconciling with and marrying Roland. In 1948, Antony was born; Picasso continued to visit and remained a friend of the family. Miller gave up photography almost entirely – there’s a 1946 photograph of Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, with Ernst as a giant and she had photos in the 1955 The Family of Man exhibition curated by Steichen at MOMA, New York – in favour of becoming a cordon blue cook and writing about it for British Vogue.

Antony apparently didn’t know about the war photographs until after her death, which seems incredible. Miller was also focusing on helping Roland with his various biographies of artists.

But the body of work is remarkable – black and white, sharp, often square and remarkably well framed. Sometimes the fashion influence is discernible in the reportage, sometimes there is staging, but a dark humour and sense of surrealism often bubbles through. She wasn’t the only female war photographer – the exhibition mentions Margaret Bourke-White (1904-71), who was also with the US Army and had been in the Soviet Union in 1941 when the Germans invaded – but hers remains an impressive body of work.

Caspar: The Ori Gersht

John Virtue: The Sea (Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, 17 January 2015-12 April 2015)

Ori Gersht: Don’t Look Back (Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, 7 February 2015-26 April 2015)

Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

As an incomer to southron lands, I guess I should never speak ill of Kent, but Sussex has the edge over it in terms of galleries — Updown, Anthea Turner Contemporary, Mascall’s and Sidney Cooper weighed up against Pallant House, the De La Warr Pavilion, the Jedward and the Towner, not to mention Brighton. Against Chipperfield’s retread of his Wakefield Hepworth design in the (oh go on then) Turner Contemporary, they have a number of glorious modernist or modernist-style buildings and (oh go on then) the Jerwood. More to the point, alongside exhibitions there are collection strategies, but that’s another story.

Towner

That being said, as with the De La Warr, the Towner needs a lick of paint.

First to the top floor, and John Virtue’s monochromatic renderings of the sea. I went to see Maggie Hambling’s Walls of Water, in part because of the virtriolic review by Jonathan Jones,  and that works on a similar principle of abstract expressionist versions of naturalism. Whilst Hambling allows herself colour, Virtue barely gets to grey. Would the Blakeney Tourist Board be chuffed? I was a little disappointed by the paintings simply having numbers and dates (I like that kind of hermeneutic unpacking) and I wondered how some of them can take three years… And yet, that sizeable floor space of the Towner allows for distance and, once you stop, pause, focus, lose yourself, there is something powerful. I reckon you need Ralph Vaughan Williams’s symphony being played, but there is something going on here. Despite myself, I liked.

And then to Ori Gersht, on the second floor, and a photographer who teaches in Rochester.  Central to this show are two films — and I confess to a certain amount of impatience with art films (as opposed to film as art). All too often it’s poor cinematography and I’ve got the joke fairly quickly and how the hell can you view it properly in gallery conditions?

First here, though, a room of photographs, treescapes, mountainsides, a little blurred, a little resembling an album cover, something by Led Zeppelin?

Something, someone, at the back of my head — Caspar David Friedrich, the romantic artist of the mountain top?

Through to a second room — there’s a double, jarring, out of alignment photo of a tree, a silver birch? I have a memory of a painting, I think by Johan Christian Dahl, of a tree, that represented Norway.

And then a further memory, more recent, of someone who did this for Germany. The mind is blank.

Is Gersht in this tradition? [ETA: yes, well, of course… see below]

Onto the film Evaders (2009), a twin screen production which begins… well you watch it on a loop, so you come in partway through, and I’ve lost track, but we have a bearded man in a hotel room, and we have him walking in the dark, and we have wind, we have a storm, we have mountainsides. There is a voiceover, reading Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in relation to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, and Gersht is clearly making a link between Benjamin’s words and his fateful attempted walk to freedom in 1940 from Nazi occupied France across the Pyrenees to Spain. But emigration from Portbou was forbidden  and Benjamin, in ill-health, faced deportation back to a concentration camp. He chose to kill himself. Benjamin is played by Clive Russell (I knew I recognised him) and the music is by Scanner.

A number of the photographs shown near the tree were taken almost blindly out of a moving window, from a train Gersht travelled on between Krakow and Auschwitz — a route Jewish prisoners would have been taken on to the camps, but on windowless trains. There’s a problem with art “about” the holocaust, about aestheticizing atrocity — Adorno’s line “Kulturkritik findet sich der letzten Stufe der Dialektik von Kultur und Barbarei gegenüber: nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch, und das frißt auch die Erkenntnis an, die ausspricht, warum es unmöglich ward, heute Gedichte zu schreiben”, normally paraphrased something like “no [lyric] poetry after Auschwitz”, springs to mind. But it must be engaged with. The moving camera gives an uncanny blurring; in the next room, Gersht is in Galicia, modern western Ukraine, home of his father and other ancestors. These are overexposed, tending to white out, again haunted. Friedrich is invoked in the notes, the romanticisation of the landscape.

This brings us to the second film, The Forest (2005), again on a loop, mostly of a forest and stillness, but with slow, dreadful, ear-splitting, felling of trees. The film slows into slow motion (he filmed at high speed?), again playing with the durée of the image. The loop means you lose the beginning and the end, until there’s a fade to and from black. Where does the work (of art in the age of mechincal reproduction) begin?

The words “The Clearing” allude to Martin Heidegger, and his sense of Being as standing out as in a clearing.

In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a clearing, a lighting… Only this clearing grants and guarantees to us humans a passage to those beings that we ourselves are not, and access to the being that we ourselves are.

In the film, the labour is invisible,  missing, and I think from an ecological perspective, the clearing hear is ambivalent at back. Sustainable forestry? A century or two of growing over in an extend second of fall? And again, we are viewing this within the context of the mid-twentieth century atrocities of the Second World War. There is a sublimity at work here, but a terrible beauty was born.

ETA:

 Der Einsame Baum

Caspar David Friedrich, Der Einsame Baum (The Lonely Tree, 1822, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin)

A little digging pointed me to Der einsame Baum (The lonely tree, 1822) by Caspar David Friedrich. I’m not entirely sure where I came across it — possibly in a book on Peder Baulke (who was Norwegian but active in Germany). The consensus is that this tree is an oak, and among the interpretations is that it represents the German people — although in 1822 it was still Prussia. The Riesengebirge/Krkonoše mountains in the background (if it is them) are now in the Czech republic but marked a division between Bohemia and Silesia. I’ve been unable to find a copy of Gersht’s photo, which looked to my untrained arboreal eye to be a silver birch. It’s a very different image from Friedrich’s, of course, but  it’s still within the context of German identity.