8 November 2017 § Leave a comment
Anyone familiar with the work of Wim Wenders may suspect that he has more than a passing interest in photography. In two of his movies in particular the use of Polaroid cameras is a vital part of the narrative: in the road movie Alice in the Cities there is a photo-obsessed protagonist whilst in The American Friend, Dennis Hopper snaps himself repeatedly. Both make appearances in the exhibition, the film clip of Hopper showing alongside multiple images taken during the period of filming.
It is not however necessary to have any knowledge of his films to enjoy this exhibition for Wenders is a fine photographer. He is reluctant to admit this, and wants the Polaroids to be enjoyed rather as illustrations of the period and a record of the people and places.
He says “I was learning the craft of filmmaking in those years, and Polaroids were the perfect complimentary tool: as a visual notebook, a quick way of ‘framing’ the world, a verification of my interest in people, places, objects, or simply as a way to remember things.”
Wenders was a prolific Polaroid user, so much so that the company would supply him with cameras and film to test. He himself estimates that he took more than 12,000 Polaroids between 1973 and 1983 although only 3,500 remain. “The thing is,” he says, “you gave them away. You had the person in front of you, whose picture you had just taken, and it was like they had more right to it. The Polaroids helped with making the movies, but they were not an aim in themselves. They were disposable.”
The images are wonderfully evocative. The are instinctive and clever. Sometimes they make clever use of colour and light at others there are moody black and white street scenes. He dips in an out of recognisable styles. In one a car door hangs loosely open, inviting us to complete a story perhaps. In another a pair of spectacles looks back at in front of a blurred cityscape.
There are moments of leisure – a casual image of a bottle of ketchup on a table is cleverly composed and invokes Martin Parr’s casual inspection on culture. An image of Dennis Hopper cigarette in hand is a perfect off-screen image of a celebrity. Stacks of Campbell’s Soup are clearly a reference to Andy Warhol.
Often they were his visual notebook – a way of testing out frames and ideas – but more than that they offered him a kind of liminal space between the subject and the photograph, the photographer and the act of taking a photo, the intention and the outcome.
He is also well aware of the place in photographic history of the Polaroid. “The entire Polaroid process has nothing to do with our contemporary experience, when we look at virtual and vanishing apparitions on a screen … This was a true THING, a singular object of its own, not a copy, not a print, not multipliable, not repeatable.”
Sadly it is now 30 years since Wenders took any Polaroids. “It’s not just the meaning of the image that has changed – the act of looking does not have the same meaning. Now, it’s about showing, sending and maybe remembering. It is no longer essentially about the image. The image for me was always linked to the idea of uniqueness… that whole notion is gone.”
Despite his insistence that this is ephemera not to be taken seriously, when displayed in a gallery and viewed as a body of work there is no doubt that these are important images and easily elevated to the status of ‘art’.
Wenders insists “The meaning of these Polaroids is not in the photos themselves – it is in the stories that lead to them. That’s why the exhibition is called Instant Stories – the catalogue is a storybook more than a photo book.” This is a ‘story’ that is absolutely essential viewing for any photographer or film maker whilst still being a rich and fascinating experience for everyone.
CELLOPHANELAND* were guests of The Photographers’ Gallery
2 November 2017 § Leave a comment
Do not come to the latest Barbican Gallery exhibition Basquiat: Boom for Real expecting a straightforward show of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work. This is rather more than that and all the better for it. This is an exhibition where, in the words of Jane Alison, the Barbican’s Head of Visual Arts, we can “see those works in the context of the New York scene of the 1980s.” We therefore get videos, photographs, music, film, books and paintings, where Basquiat is presented as a multidimensional artist weaving between media.
New York at that time was certainly a rich melting pot. A dangerous and violent city on the edge of bankruptcy, it housed a thriving cultural scene. Basquiat, young and black has often been pigeon-holed as a a poor outsider, who developed from homeless graffiti artist to gallery favourite. The truth is rather different.
From a relatively wealthy family, Basquiat went to a private school, was well educated and a talented artist and was admiring Renaissance masters in New York galleries in his teens. Having dropped out of college, he briefly ran away from home, stayed with friends and scrawled graffiti as ‘Samo’ (a play on ‘same old shit’), although its style was not ‘from the streets’ but always from an artist insider critiquing the contemporary art scene.
The Barbican Gallery divides the show in to some fourteen sections. From Samo graffiti we then see the beginning of his stratospheric rise in a recreation of the New York/New Wave exhibition. A landmark show where despite including the likes of Andy Warhol, Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe, the young Basquiat was singled out for admiration.
Between examples of his work we get to learn plenty about the post-punk underground art scene: The Canal Zone, a graffiti covered downtown loft/art space brought him together with collaborators for collage and postcards; the Mudd Club was where he hung out and performed with his band; at Area he hung out with Keith Haring or Madonna whilst dj-ing sets on a Brian Eno created sound system.
A key element of the exhibition is a remarkable film, Downtown 81, a chronicle of a day in the in the life of a down and out artist, for which Basquiat was chosen to play the leading role. It is essentially a prescient version of his real life as we see him spraying Samo-tagged graffiti and hawking his art (some of it in the show) around galleries as he visits clubs, watches bands and interacts with the larger than life local characters.
If so far we haven’t mentioned his art much, it is with good reason – there is not a lot here. We do see his graffiti, collages, postcards, sketches, polaroids and even his graffiti covered fridge. We also see books, records and photographs as the Barbican outlines his jazz, art and classical influences.
Where we do see his larger works – vibrant, raw imagery, abounding with fragments of bold capitalised text – they offer insights into both his encyclopaedic interests and his experience as a young black artist with no formal training. New scholarship sheds light on some of his most acclaimed works – sampling from an extraordinary breadth of source material – anatomical drawings to bebop jazz to silent film.
“Untitled” (1981), for example, includes variations of the name Aaron. While Basquiat’s father understood it to be a reference to baseball player Hank Aaron, the Barbican Gallery posits other allusions: a character in Shakespeare’s play “Titus Andronicus,” and the brother of Moses in the Old Testament. Two letters also feature individually, “A” and “O,” and relate to a passage from Revelation that fascinated Basquiat: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.”
The label for his 1982 painting Jawbone of an Ass, he lists historical figures including Hannibal, Machiavelli, Savonarola, Sappho and Rameses II, is a vision of world history as a ceaseless round of wars. Cartoon monsters with savage teeth express the violence of the painting’s Biblical title. In the bottom right, a black boxer hits a white opponent.
He worked surrounded by imagery: open books, pages from magazines and photographs laying around him as the TV flickered and jazz music played. He worked rapidly absorbing influences from anything and everything. Sometimes the resulting art is hard to like, at others remarkably fresh, powerful and multi-layered.
Strangely there is nothing here about his heroin addiction and untimely death at just 27, and we do not know if there were lost chances to save him from self-destruction. We are ultimately left to ponder what sort of art this talented and elemental force would have continued to produce if it were not for his tragic end.
All images © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Licensed by Artestar, New York
14 October 2017 § Leave a comment
Now that Frieze, Frieze Masters and the PAD art & design fair are packed up we can move our attention to what else is going on in London this month. October is always chock a block with inviting exhibitions it is hard to know what to recommend first.
The exhibition reveals the extraordinary breadth of her career over three decades, from the four early sculptures shown in her first solo show in 1988 to works made this year especially for Tate Britain including Chicken Shed, a new concrete sculpture installed outside the gallery.
It is particularly interesting to see the remarkable consistency of vision right from her work as a student at The Slade and up to the present day. The curator, Ann Gallagher has herself also noted “through consistency of process there is an incredible variation”.
Early works from her fist solo exhibition at the Carlile Gallery in 1988, just one year after her graduation include domestic objects like a wardrobe interior and underside of a bed.
From this point onwards we see the interests that define Whiteread’s ongoing practice – the process of casting forgotten space, with an experimental use of materials.
With ordinary, everyday objects she manages somehow to draw an unexpected emotional power. Each work managing to resonate with the history of human presence. A series of multi-coloured hot water bottle interiors cant help but bring to mind strange limbless and sculptural torsos.
Known for her signature casting technique, Whiteread’s work ranges in scale from the modest to the monumental in a variety of materials such as plaster, resin, rubber, concrete, metal and paper. Toilet roll tubes, furniture, windows, doors, rooms, stairwells and even libraries, all are prey to Whiteread’s attention.
The large spaces that Tate Britain have devoted to the exhibition allow us to gain some distance from the larger objects, whilst partitions allow places where there are more intimate groupings.
The centre of the room is dominated by a cast of ‘Room 101’ – a room in the old BBC Broadcasting House that may have inspired George Orwell. We not only see the large bulk and presence of the room but, moving closer, see the the fine details of the cracks, textures and marks on its internal wall.
Another monumental sculpture is of a large stairwell. From any angle it has an eerie familiarity as a stairwell such as one in an industrial spaces or concrete car park. However, of course it is the empty space that has been made solid – reminding us that it is our mental equivocation that brings a particular resonance to Whiteread’s work
Out in the expansive Duveen Gallery another highlight of the exhibition is Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) 1995 – a colourful installation of 100 resin casts of the underside of chairs.
Less impressive to us – but interesting to see nevertheless – were the special sections are also devoted to archive material and to the artist’s drawings. Working with pencil, varnish, correction fluid, watercolour and collage, these works on paper constitute a distinct area of Whiteread’s practice but do not have anything like the impact of her sculptural work.
On the way out be sure to see the internal cast of a chicken shed located in the gardens, an arresting sample of the remarkable visual power of Whiteread’s work as well as a reminder of the breathtaking cultural short-sightedness vandalism committed by Tower Hamlets council when they demolished ‘House’ in 1994.
The exhibition is co-organised with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, where it will be shown in autumn 2018, and will also tour to the 21er Haus Vienna and the Saint Louis Art Museum.
CELLOPHANELAND* were guests of the Tate Gallery
For more information visit www.tate.org.uk
10 September 2017 § Leave a comment
In a peaceful square in the heart of Islington the Estorick Collection is easily overlooked but well worth a detour. This is one of London’s most delightful and interesting smaller galleries. Featuring only Italian modern art it not only holds a regularly changing exhibition schedule but also houses one of the world’s finest collections of Italian Futurist work.
The collection was founded by American sociologist and writer Eric Estorick (1913–93), who began to collect art when he moved to the UK after WW2. Rejecting numerous offers he set up the Estorick Foundation, to which he donated all his Italian works.
Its premises at Northumberland Lodge were ironically blighted by traffic soon after construction in the early 19th century but now represents a delightful backwater in a busy part of London. There is a lovely cafe and garden and a bookshop alongside half a dozen elegant exhibition spaces.
Ever bought a woolly jumper? Then you will recognise the woolmark – one of the most enduring legacies of artist and designer Franco Grignani This was an artist who, in his younger days, was briefly affiliated with the futurist movement before turning toward geometric abstraction in 1935 when he opened a studio in Milan specialising in design and graphics.
Over the years he produced advertising campaigns for a variety of high-profile companies, including Pirelli and Alfieri & Lacroix, and designed covers for a number of science fiction novels published by Penguin Books.
Alongside such commercial work he continued to create paintings which revealed a growing fascination with optical effects. His ideas were not understood by the art establishment, and he worked largely in isolation creating pieces characterized by their use of blurred forms, and warped and dynamic ‘virtual’ shapes that seem to emerge out of, and recede back into, the surfaces of his compositions.
The exhibition focuses on his favoured black and white works. These are obvious precursors of Op Art and of course Bridget Riley, and Grignani must have been a huge influence on the movement.
The exhibition features a series of works that leave you stunned by the power of his creativity and imagination. It is a dizzying array of inventive and hypnotic optical effects – some are sharply angular whilst other more organic, perhaps twisting spiralling or intersecting.
Vitrines hold a display of penguin book covers and magazine work whilst wall hung work also includes those for commercial clients. As the exhibition subtitle suggests, this is a great reminder of how the border between powerful graphic design and fine art can overlap, shift and morph. An enlightening, impressive and dizzying exhibition.
Exhibition runs until 10 September 2017
For more information visit www.estorickcollection.com
The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology ed. William Ewing and Barbara Hitchcock
4 July 2017 § Leave a comment
This post is also featured at www.cellophaneland.com
Remember that time, not so very long ago, when we all rushed down to the local Boots to drop in our films for printing? From this frustration of impatiently waiting anything from an hour (for those willing to stump up extra) to a week, to see the results of all the careful holiday snapping, lays the foundation of the Polaroid.
Back in 1943 Edwin Land, having been asked by his young daughter why she couldn’t see her photo right away, immediately set to work. Within an hour he had conceived the technology and the story of instant photography had begun.
When the long and painstaking development process (no pun intended), documented in the book by prototypes, models and test images, had been completed, the result was not only scientifically groundbreaking but also heralded a new chapter of artistic expression. The New York Times proclaimed “There is nothing like this in the history of photography…”
Nowadays Instagram is the leading representative of the world of instant imagery. It should therefore not be surprising to know that prominent in the lobby of their California HQ sits a collection of Polaroid cameras, the most noteworthy being the 1977 OneStep featuring the rainbow logo appropriated by Instagram in its own design.
Land had in the seventies already predicted escalating use of cameras saying that they would soon be used ‘All day long…. like a telephone’, whilst probably not anticipating they would often be one and the same apparatus.
In this lay the recognition that the world, and people, had irrevocably changed; the barrier of subject and photographer had started to disappear in line with Barthes ‘Death of the Author’ and there was a continuous recording of lifes events and expansion of the ‘sharing’ experience. The almost instant sharing of Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat seem to be a natural development of what began with the Polaroid.
For the more artistic the new product was impressive but came with many built in limitations. Images were usually of limited size (save by using larger studio-bound cameras), fixed formats, limited camera adjustments. Laboratory colour and exposure manipulation were impossible.
Despite, or perhaps because of, these very particular restrictions it invited users to become ever more inventive. Artists like Lucas Samaras and Bruce Charlesworth manipulated or separated the emulsion or used repeated exposures. David Hockey used multiple images overlaid or arranged in grids to increase dimensions. Other painted, drew or scratched on and around the developed image.
Andy Warhol took all his portraits with a Polaroid and incessantly snapped his way around New York, Others like Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, Robert Rauschenberg and Chuck Close often used it, whilst film makers, commercial, advertising and fashion photographers found the instant images essential for planning their shots.
It’s colour initially put off many art photographers, black and white being up to then the choice for ‘serious’ practitioners. This however was the era of ever more portable 35mm cameras and also of photographers like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore and Polaroid were in a perfect position to tap in to the wider acceptance of their casual colour snap-shot aesthetics.
The Polaroid Project leads us through this story via a series of essays that look for example at Polaroid’s foundation and history, the development of the technology, artistic developments and its relation to social networks and the selfie. They are interspersed with an impressive array of widely varied imagery with plenty of ‘how on earth did they do that?’ moments.
The book is subtitled ‘At the intersection of Art and Technology’ and it is published to accompany a major touring exhibition, so it is not surprising to see that text and illustrations are geared towards the artistic. Perhaps a future show and accompanying volume can show what the public, as well as industry and business, created with the technology – but that’s yet another story.
There is a frequent lament here to the death of Polaroid, tied to the winding up of the company and closure of the factories, but, as with vinyl, this seems hugely premature. Instant film lives on in Fuji and Impossible, as does the use of Land’s cameras. The Polaroid Project itself shows us that interest in this technology and its uniquely ‘authentic’ aesthetic is increasing, whilst here at CELLOPHANELAND* we even have a couple of cameras of our own and Polaroids pinned on the wall. The king is dead – long live the king!
The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology ed. William Ewing and Barbara Hitchcock, published by Thames & Hudson. To purchase (currently at a 20% discount) visit www.thamesandhudson.com
A touring exhibition organised by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography opens at the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas June 3 to 3 September 2017 then travels to Europe. fep-photo.org/exhibition/polaroid/
1 July 2017 § Leave a comment
This post also appears on www.cellophaneland.com
Any history of photography would be incomplete without substantial mention of the famed photographic agency Magnum, now celebrating its 70th anniversary. Within its 1947 origins are both the reasons for its success and for its often rocky journey: the diverse founding group included both Robert Capa who represented the ultimate in involved photo-journalism and, at the opposite end of the spectrum Henri Cartier-Bresson whose imagery was detached and artistic. This stylistic inclusivity both made it important but at the same time ensured that members would rarely see eye to eye.
What they had in common however was a desire to break the traditional model of the photographic business – a system where the publishers had total control. Magnum Photos Inc sought to break this with a disruptive model worthy of Uber. The photographers would take control of their images, owning their rights, dictating editing and presentation and even creating content and photo-essays.
Despite the canny catch-all basis of the business – which included not only photographs but for example printing, cameras, moving images, design, studios, materials and equipment – image quality always remained high in the agenda. Magnum would always stand for intelligence in combining both reporter and artist in the photographer’s role.
The story to be told in the Magnum Manifesto therefore is formidably complex. It is one that includes the Magnum’s founding, its ever-changing membership, the business models, the personal relationships and the artistic and cultural events that shaped the whole. In an often uneasy amalgam, its constituent photographers were often in conflict and a steady intake of new members, carefully screened and slowly inducted, meant an organisation in continuous flux.
Over and above this are of course the photographs from a roll call of the best in the world in all fields – Capa, Cartier Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Alec Both, Alex Webb, Eve Arnold and so on. Their archive is represented by a steady stream iconic and event-defining images. These not only represented what was happening in the world but often shaped public opinion and by doing so could be argued to have moulded future events.
A deep look into the organisation is therefore so much more than a book of photographs and in fact the anniversary is being marked not just by this hugely impressive book, but by a global programme of events and exhibitions.
The title Magnum Manifesto makes it clear that this is not just a photo book featuring their ‘greatest hits’ but a deeper look in to everything that it represents. The book infact takes the opportunity to display plenty of lesser known, but still impressive, works. After some introductory essays, the preface looks at the four founders at the time that they created the organisation – all working busily around the globe in a rapidly changing post war world – before dividing Magnum’s story in to three key periods.
Human Rights and Wrongs represents the period from its founding until 1968. A time of widespread unrest it was also the time of the UN Declaration of Human Rights – a proclamation with the same values of liberty, equality and dignity espoused by the agency. We see representative images of hunger, postwar Soviet Union, black power, strikes and student riots before a series of longer photo essays that look at universality – a theme that at least partly inspired Edward Steichen’s landmark ‘Family of Man’ exhibition at MoMA in 1955, where nearly a fifth of the images were supplied by Magnum.
An Inventory of Differences describes the subsequent period, from 1969 to ’89, where the focus became more on differences and otherness. We find the unemployed, deformed, immigrant, minority and marginalised of the world and memorable images like Steve McCurry’s Afghan Refugee. Portfolios include Inge Morath’s Masquerade, Philip Jones Griffiths Immigrants and Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies.
Finally Stories About Endings shows the postmodern era up to the present day. Cultural expansion led to greater ‘artistic’ output and a flowering of methods of distribution of the imagery – books, exhibitions, gallery displays and the internet. Photographers looked at what was disappearing. We see Martin Parr’s Still Lives and Colonial lives, Thomas Dworzak’s Taliban and Donovan Wylie’s The Maze.
That the Magnum Manifesto succeeds in its task is great credit to the editor Clément Chéroux who must be commended in producing something that has combined all these aspects in to a cohesive whole. We get a compelling story that draws us through the ups and downs of the organisation even whilst great historic events unfold. We also get enough stunning imagery from the great photographers to realise why Magnum is something unique and special.
An absolutely essential book on the most important photographers collective the world has ever seen.
Magnum Photos’ 70th anniversary will be celebrated with a global programme of events throughout 2017. For more information visit www.magnumphotos.com
To purchase Magnum Manifesto (at a 20% discount) visit www.thamesandhudson.com
The first accompanying exhibition is at the International Center for Photography NY until 3 September 2017 and will then tour internationally.