A big exhibition, not least in it’s (or rather Ewing’s) ambition given the scope of the sub-sections: Sublime, Pastoral, Witness, Landmark, Scar, Control, Datum, Delusion, Hallucination, Reverie. Looking back at this list I started to wonder about the curating of such an exhibition – some 80 odd photographers and something like 170 photographs. Courageous? Curious? Did Ewing decide on these sub-genres beforehand and then decide what is out there to fill the alcoves in Somerset House? No, I think perhaps he chose the images and then decided on how best to narrate the exhibition with them.
Whatever the means, the end is a part monumental, part untold, part curious juxtaposition of sometimes seemingly disparate images in close proximity – which overall didn’t tell a story, rather told lots of stories – even within those hallowed halls off the Strand. Talking of Strand I had just read, before setting out, David Bate’s essay “Art, Education, Photography” in Liz Wells’ “The Photography Reader – p435 – 442 and in particular, and in relation to, the “Modernist” movement that Strand at one time inhabited. Bate talks about how that modernist movement revelled in the single image, how “..Strand’s call for the ‘integration of science and expression’ (machine and human vision) is most famously consolidated in Edward Weston: “Sharp focus and full light were to be combined with the new post-cubist principles of composition’ and paralleled in Europe by the ‘new objectivity’ photography of Albert Renger-Patsch, etc.)…. Despite the modernist emphasis on the single print, it was the series or suite of pictures that showed the constancy of vision of the photographic seer as ‘genius'”. – p437
There was plenty to think about, for example why did Ewing put Shibata’s prints of momumental subjects next to Burtynsky’s monumental images. To start this review with an overall feeling about how I felt at the end of the exhibition might seem an odd way to start, but I felt I had witnessed an explosion of beauty, whatever the subject these photographers had decided upon they have utilised technique’s to extol the (or perhaps their) wonderment of the beauty of the landscape. Whether the subject/object of the image was a natural wonder or the unnatural wonder the images were nearly all produced with a craft honed through careful attention to the techniques of the tradition of landscape photography and it was no surprise that Adams, one of the progenitors of the modernist movement was represented, and indeed perhaps also misrepresented by Friedlander, who raised the question about what it is we see (witness) in the section entitled “Witness”. Whilst David Maisel’s abstracted visions of water had me questioning my belief in the veracity of image making with the apparent transgressive toning of his images.
Ghengis Khan’s “Le Dust Bowl Chinois” was another that asked very direct questions. “Were they really there?” I asked myself of what appeared to be cigarettes, or models of cigarettes, or superimposed cigarettes into a nicotine toned vista of what appeared to be a central location in Beijing. That Beijing is one of the most polluted Capital cities in the world, that the Chinese are one of a few countries that has a ‘growing’ market for cigarette consumption, that it (China) is a global economic force for capitalism and therefore a prime target for what it (China) used to describe as the pollution of the West. An interesting and haunting image.
I was amused to see Struth’s ‘El Capitan’. For those that know the scene the people on the right of the image who appear to ignore the “largest piece of granite on the planet” – as the Californian’s like to sub-title El Capitan, and are in fact looking across to “Half-Dome” and the “Bridleveil Falls” – and why not? They are just as iconic, yet here we are repeating the Ansel Adams road to the sense of image and place in a single image. Struth though invites us, or at least those not vested in a prior knowledge of AA’s work, to wonder at why that lump of granite isn’t a view of awe and wonder for these tourists on the ground floor of the image. That Struth sets the image up at around 10 feet on a square, situates El Capitan as the “big’ thing to be wondered at, perhaps nothing else in the exhibition comes close, except maybe Epstien’s BP Carson Refinery , California. So was Struth inviting us to mock these tourists? Or wonder at our incredulity at their apparent insouciance at the ‘common-placeness’ of such an apparition in the West of America, and a photographic icon being wilfully being ignored?
Talking of big. Elger Esser’s “Sacramento River” was another huge picture that dwarfed others around it. Robbed of tones I wondered about why this image was produced in such a way – surely not to subvert the genre, it was in the ‘Pastoral” section, so perhaps to look back and romanticize the past, to look as perhaps an (another) Outsider into the panorama that is America, this time the West Coast with it’s resonances. Again I am reminded of Bate’s essay as the artist seems content with collections of individual images, despite his proud assertion that he studied under Bescher in Dusseldorf. And in the show these 170 photographs from just over half that number photographers meant that the viewer is left liable to extrapolate to understandings (readings) that perhaps weren’t meant by the artist, but instead a projection of the curators choice.
I have notes on many of the photographs in the show, the essence of which might suggest as many strands of possible research, but they won’t all get done. Too many thoughts in too small a space, too many thoughts on too many big subjects, about the environment, about politics, about the human condition, both observed and, in this case, observing. And I suppose the photographer who lit most bulbs for me was Burtynsky, and he offered, for this viewer at any rate, the most beautiful images in Somerset House.
I am very glad I went.