As an incomer to Kent, I’ve always had a guilty preference for Sussex. We lay claim to Turner (hence the Anthea Turner Gallery), Hamish Fulton walks down the road and H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad were locals, but after Tommy Cooper, Mary Tourtel and Peter Firmin there’s a sense that you run out of culture. (Tracey, I forgot Tracey.)
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.
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.
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.