Sunday 6 January 2013

Moving pictures

Finger merely on nodding terms with the pulse, as ever, I finally managed to see 'Everything was Moving'. This is an exhibition of 60s/70s photography at London's Barbican, and it's one of the most overwhelming and thought-provoking collections of images I've ever seen.

Taken at face value, it's a gathering of key work by 12 photographers. A few of them have now died, but many are still active today. All the same, the images gathered here provide a... er... snapshot of what they were all up to during one of the most turbulent periods in recent history.

So, while the photographers are linked by the timeframe and, as I'll explain, often the subject matter - the exhibition does not attempt to lever in any mutual stylistic or aesthetic influences between them. If anything, this is one of the most compartmentalised displays I've encountered. There is a strict geographical division in the gallery space: South Africa and North & South America downstairs, and you go up to level 2 for Africa, Asia and the USSR. On top of that, each photographer has his (and in one case, her) own section, and with one exception, I can't recall any of the information presented about any of them referring directly to one of the others.

That said, the gallery is of course still editorialising in the background. As I've already hinted, it says something about the era when only one of the 12 photographers represented is a woman. Equally, we see nothing of the UK or 'Western Bloc' Europe. What perhaps inevitably emerges is a history of segregation and oppression, balanced by moments of ingenuity, beauty and spirit that burst through the gloom like rays of sunshine through stained glass windows.

Two views of South Africa dominate the lower level - black and white photography in its most chilling sense, as apartheid is chronicled by white South African David Goldblatt, who used his privileged status to record the destruction and poverty all around him, and the black Ernest Cole, forced to take his pictures in secret split-seconds, often hiding his camera from sight. The legacy of apartheid has weighed heavily on these men: Cole dying as an exile in 1990, Goldblatt still documenting the lasting effects of the system on his home country. On the same floor, Bruce Davidson takes on the US Deep South, with images of Martin Luther King and the civil rights marches. Extraordinary to see such similar depictions of hatred and endurance on opposite sides of the world. It would be easy to gloomily conclude that as a human race, one thing we all have in common is our ability to persecute, were it not for the two photographers downstairs who overturn all that.

Graciela Iturbide of Mexico presents powerful images of Juchitan (a society run by the women) and the Seri desert nomads, while William Eggleston's colour-rich portraits and near-abstract landscapes - his work reminds me simultaneously of painters Alex Katz and Edward Hopper - conjure up a kind of eerie, surreal Americana. I felt an almost tangible relief to be in front of something so unashamedly 'arty', a refuge from the reportage.

Upstairs still has its fair share of horrors, but overall the pieces are more diverse. Li Zhenshang managed to find himself on the wrong side of Mao's Cultural Revolution but continued to capture images of rallies, public humiliations and 'criticism sessions' (at great personal risk), while keeping up a series of wryly humorous self-portraits. And two more photographers are defined by their relevant wars: Larry Burrows and his shockingly vivid pictures of Vietnam, and Shomei Tomatsu, compelled to photograph US army bases in Japan, and commissioned to provide a photographic record of Nagasaki.

The remaining participants give a far greater impression of being suspended in their own particular universes. Sigmar Polke is represented by a single series of images showing a bear/dog fight. This macabre set-piece - somehow made even more appalling by the final picture of one of the spectators grinning broadly - is, according to the gallery notes, an allegory of the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR in 1979 (Russian national symbol = bear). More interesting to me was the technique where the images seemed to be blurred and decaying, as if the fabric of order was crumbling - probably what it might have felt like at the barbaric scene.

We saw more colour on the upper level - Boris Mikhailov, oppressed aesthetically this time, in the USSR - smuggling nudity and subversive imagery into his pictures and coming up with bizarre superimposed effects almost by accident. A particularly pleasing example was the massive ear superimposed on an exterior wall - appearing to listen in on the conversation between two folk in the street. This must have had particular resonance for Mikhailov at the time. Raghubir Singh's almost hallucinogenic images of India, overpowering in their colour, detail and warmth, were a genuine joy, as were Malick Sidibe's images of young clubbers in Mali sporting a dizzying array of epileptic-fit-inducing threads and throwing spectacular shapes for the camera's benefit.

I realise that the events chronicled by the photographers might make the experience sound rather depressing - and because of the timeframe, no-one comes along with pictures from 20-30 years later to show how (or if) things have improved.

If anything, though, the effect is the opposite. It's an IMPORTANT exhibition, true: there are a lot of photos and we took just over two hours to see it all. It's sobering, eye-opening and unfailingly interesting - if you are prepared to be educated, surprised, and affected by still images in a way that wouldn't always happen with more conventional portraits or landscapes.

It also made me think about photography as an art, rather than a recording method. There is a Tomatsu quote on the gallery wall discussing the act of taking a picture as acknowledging there is something alluring or attractive about the subject matter - even if it is devastating or shocking in some way. And elsewhere, Mikhailov talks about how his photos failed to satisfy the Soviet authorities' notion of 'beauty'. I think both of these quotes are getting at that intangible skill of 'knowing what makes a picture' - all of the 12 have this ability, and every image betrays the uncanny knack they share of getting the composition right, drawing your eye in, and making you stop and look. Burrows's Nam pictures feature carnage and its aftermath, but in beautiful colour with heartstopping scenery in the background. Manipulating that contrast and managing to appeal and appal at the same time gives his photos an almost physical power.

Photography of this kind relies on the further ability of the person holding the camera to stay detached and make sure the right image with the right message gets out into the world. You can feel a photographer like Goldblatt wrestle with the moral implications of this. And it seems to me that as the viewers, we're at one more remove, in splendid isolation from whatever these people went through to get those pictures. As I stood and looked at both suffering and beauty - often in the same image - I was only too aware that I am yet another privileged white man, drawn towards the 'Other'.

PS: I feel a bit bad blogging about the exhibition since it's only on until 13 January. All I can do is implore you to go this week if you can - and at least, it will live on in the accompanying book (which the Barbican is selling through Amazon). Depends where you're based, of course - but if you are a photography nut like me, consider: what you would have spent getting to London, plus the price of the gallery ticket, and your lunch etc may be more than the price of the catalogue. If it makes sense for you to do so, treat yourself. I felt this was one of the most significant exhibitions I'd seen in a long, long time.

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