25 October 2011

New Gallery!

Gustave Le Gray. The Brig, 1856
Well, I say 'New Gallery!' - I actually mean 'expansion and re-launch of a previously-existing gallery/ collection!', but it's not really as snappy... I'm referring, of course, to the opening of the Victoria & Albert Museum's new Photographs Gallery, a permanent space for the display of the V&A's massive photography collection, now half a million items strong. Yep, you heard me - half a million items. The V&A was the first museum to collect and display photography as an artform (or documentary tool, or scientific/ technological marvel – I don't think the Victorians had really decided) in its own right and now has one of the oldest, most significant and most wide-ranging collections in the world.

According to my (not nerdy) V&A magazine, by the time the museum opened in 1857, the director, Henry Cole, had already amassed quite a collection of photographs.  Some of these early works were donated by Prince Albert himself and others were acquired by Cole on studio visits to new practitioners; I love the idea of this – an English civil servant, whose picture probably appears next to 'Victorian' in the dictionary, going on studio visits to see the innovators of the new art form.. Anyway, in the years since, the collection has grown and grown, keeping pace with developments in the medium so that now, not only does the museum have a remarkable record of the very first developments in photography, but these works exist alongside recent acquisitions by contemporary artists - both established 'names' and up-and-coming practitioners. I love the V&A.

Curtis Moffat, Dragonfly, c. 1930
Anyway, history lectures aside, I have always loved going to see the photography displays at the V&A, been totally amazed by the range of work on display and the thoughtful way it is arranged, and always been slightly disappointed that this gorgeous collection (and its skilled curators) are relegated to a tiny room, off a dark corridor, behind the bookshop. Now, however (as of 24th October 2011), that space is to be joined by a large, renovated gallery. Two floors up, the new gallery will be dedicated to the existing, historical collection, with temporary displays of contemporary work to be shown in the ground-floor space. Several major newspapers have reported on this opening – which opens with a 'historical sweep' of the collection, including a special focus on the figures of Julia Margaret Cameron and Henri Cartier-Bresson – and the curators/ arts editors/ V&A press representatives have chosen to emphasize many of the collection's earliest works in this coverage. I, for one, was pleased to revisit (and discover) some of the works posted here - cigar-chompin' Brunel features in one of my favourite photos ever..

Robert Howlett, Isambard Kingdom Brunel..., 1857
I am massively excited about going to see the new display and will aim to report back as soon as I've seen it. I'm looking out for the pics above especially, as well as some more recent work that I've never seen in the flesh, including Ed Ruscha's Every Building On The Sunset Strip and some Ansel Adams landscapes. Get in touch if  you've seen it and have any favourite works!

18 October 2011

Los Jardines de México, Janelle Lynch

Photographs by Janelle Lynch. Published by Radius Books, Santa Fe, 2011.

Los Jardines de México is a meticulously crafted book, with every aspect of its production – from the choice of paper stock through to the finishing on the page and the choice of image printed on its endpapers – calculated to facilitate and enhance your experience of the work contained within. This care over the details of the bookmaking is particularly fitting, as Janelle Lynch uses photography to conjure up a very particular and rarefied world – she cultivates an atmosphere that you can’t help but think would suffer in less sympathetic conditions.

The particular quality of Lynch's work can be felt most intensely in the fourth and final series presented in this book: La Fosa Común. Here, 11 full-page images are arranged, one per spread, on large, glossy leaves of paper, beginning with Untitled 8 – a photograph of one, spreading, moss-encrusted tree, whose branches reach round and through each other and out of the frame into the surrounding foliage. Like all of the images in this series, the photograph is visually complex, the frame crammed with textural information, and, as with all of the works in the series, the subject is plant life, to the exclusion of all else - no animals, humans or signs of human civilization intrude upon the tangle of bushes, grasses and trees. The effect is claustrophobic and not a little repetitive, but also decidedly, intensely, eerie and otherworldly. The combination of abundant foliage with a lack of any other visual reference – even the sky is obscured – and Lynch's frequent use of soft, misty lighting conditions gives you the impression of stepping into a science fiction novel in which humans have receded and plants reclaimed the surface of the earth.

This sense of animism and almost threatening fecundity is picked up by author and architect José Antonio Aldrete Haas in his essay for Los Jardines. He argues that Lynch's photography is informed by the notion that life and death are not separate but continuous and 'of the same reality,' and points to another series – there are four presented in this book, made by Lynch between 2002 and 2007 – to illustrate his point. Akna (translated by Aldrete-Haas from the Mayan as 'mother') is a series of portraits of individual tree stumps. These remains – dead or decaying matter appears throughout the book - are in fact now burgeoning with life, each of them sustaining communities of smaller plants and grasses. They are even given names by the photographer, 'Vladimir' and 'Albertina,' to go with the focused, individualizing portrait style of her photography in the work.

Loss, through violence or through simple neglect and decay, is another theme of the book, drawn out by author Mario Bellatín in the fictional element he contributes. The fact that Bellatín's short story deals with the death of a child gives Lynch's work in the series El Jardín de Juegos added resonance, as it is the abandoned pieces of playground furniture in the overgrown parks photographed here that give them their special sense of stillness and absence. Again, this lack of human presence is made conspicuous by the way Lynch arranges her photographs, emphasizing the anthropomorphic qualities of slides, climbing frames and basketball hoops to somehow evoke the playfulness and liveliness that is now only present in this space as a kind of haunting.

All of the above-mentioned elements are bound together in this book in a tightly-structured narrative, so that one has the impression of wandering from series to series like the last human survivor exploring a post-apocalyptic world. This idea is even made explicit through the foot's-eye view of photos in the Donde Andaba set, which show fragments of green foliage as they appear through the cracks in buildings and sidewalks in an urban setting. These images even seem to have been treated differently in production, so that they have a grainy, gritty texture subtly evocative of the dusty streets they depict. The overall effect is of moving through a world carefully constructed by the photographer, as if it were a stage-set.

It can sometimes feel, moving through Lynch's world, like a too seamless experience. The claustrophobia I mentioned earlier slips into tedium occasionally, and the book itself could feel a little overcooked for some readers. Why is it necessary for the cover of this book to be a close-up of the grass shown in countless photos within? Why use the same image again as a graphic theme within – monochrome and negativised, so that the washed-out feel of neglected spaces is stated yet again? These details can feel a little forced rather than poignant, as is perhaps intended. However, this is not to detract from the work within, which is a rigorous, yet affecting, statement on the natural world and its ambivalent beauty.

This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 17th October 2011, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are from Los Jardines de México by Janelle Lynch, published by Radius Books, 2011.

1 October 2011

Three things of note..

1) W.G. Sebald in the London Review of Books

I started reading this excellent article in the LRB because I happen to like Sebald's books, especially Rings of Saturn, and wanted to see what was new in the world of German history, cultural memory and esoteric allusion.. Quite a bit, as it turns out. There is a new edition of Sebald's novel Austerlitz due for release, and James Wood, who has contributed a new introduction to the book, has written a thoughtful summary and study of it for the magazine. This, dear reader, is where I get to the point of this post.  It's frustrating that the article doesn't appear in full on the LRB website, because Wood, after providing a basic introduction to the (convoluted) structure and character of the novel, goes on to focus on Sebald's use of photographs in his books, and it's a really fascinating, original read.

For those who haven't read any Sebald, I should point out that one of their many unusual features is the use of fairly poorly-reproduced, black-and-white, anonymous and unexplained photographs scattered throughout the text. These usually allude to particular characters or locations in the novel, but the reader is left to surmise how they were sourced, who took them and whether indeed they show the real (or imagined) people and places described. Wood reminds us that Sebald was a collector of second-hand 'junk' photos and postcards and that, according to the author himself, over 30% of the photos in, for example, The Emigrants, 'had an entirely fictitious relationship to their supposed subjects'. Wood weaves this fact into a broader argument about Sebald's use of photography, which, he argues, is in constant dialogue with Barthes' Camera Lucida and the notion that 'photographs shock us because they so finally represent what has been'. Essentially, photographs are an evidence and embodiment of mortality and, for an author who deals with historical trauma, a way of challenging the reader to remember all those who have passed on before us and been made anonymous by time and forgetting. Cheery, no? Anyway, I strongly recommend the article and Austerlitz itself, if you've never picked it up. Onwards to...

2) Jonny Lee!

These beautiful, luminous shots were taken by my friend Jonny, who has a fancy website and 'photography' in his e-mail address and can therefore be said to be doing this stuff FOR REAL. I noticed the pictures on Facebook and asked to post these for your viewing pleasure, as I really think they're lovely - unpretentious, atmospheric and with a real voice of their own. Here's to more photos from this man and his camera..

And last but not least...

3) Photography, Postmodernism and the V&A

I recently visited Signs of a Struggle: Photography in the Wake of Postmodernism at the V&A and have been meaning to recommend it via PLATE ever since. This small display is dwarfed by the main exhibition in the museum's Autumn programme – Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 – but is well worth a visit in its own right and, from what I've heard, might even be the superior show.

On display in the ever-excellent V&A photography rooms, Signs of a Struggle is a relatively small exhibition, and does not pretend to be a comprehensive survey of 'Postmodern' photographic practices - instead, the curators have given themselves the humble task of exploring photographs that 'make reference to themselves, other media and texts'. The exhibition is coherent and thought-provoking, with so many great individual works on show that you could easily spend the best part of an hour touring one room -  big hitters include Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, Anne Hardy and Clare Strand. Clare Strand, in particular, is given a whole three walls for the work that gives this exhibition it's title - this series of prints is one of the more challenging works on display, but it is engaging and mysterious, making reference to forensic and domestic photography, as well as the less-commonly mined sources of instructional and functional imagery.

Admission is free and it's well worth a look!