Wednesday 20 February 2013

The Merits of Exhibitions

A room in the Ansel Adams Exhibition at Greenwich

A little while back, I found a slot in my current tight schedule, to make an enjoyable trip up to London for the purpose of taking in some photographic exhibitions.

"Why do you go to exhibitions when you can see it in a book or on the internet?" I get asked

If you have ever visited an exhibition of work, and in particular, work which comes over as outstanding, then you will have half an inkling as to why viewing work in a gallery has merit.
I had already planned to see two exhibitions:
The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize National Portrait Gallery (The final day was imminent)
Ansel Adams Photography from the Mountains to the Sea National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (Until 28th April)
Then I became aware of another must see, prompting a snap decision to go to London.
Lewis Whyld
Riots Revisited, Strand Gallery (On for one week only)

All such very different exhibitions both in subject matter and modes of production but all worthy of note.

Each year I endeavour to visit the Photographic Portrait Prize where it is always interesting to observe styles and trends. 2012 broke the trend set in 2010 and 2011 where the winning images sported young red-haired girls associating with animals. Although not the winning image, the exhibition did open this year with a hard looking man with a ginger animal! However, the winning image of an anxious young woman in Boliva had emotions which this time I was comfortable with (unlike the 2010 winner)

The background to each of the portraits was posted on the wall of the gallery, and made enlightening reading for me but only after each image had been contemplated. (A note here to the NPG, it would be lovely to have this information included in the catalogue for all of the images, not just the winning images) It is perhaps important not to read this information prior to viewing as it puts us, the viewing public, into a similar position to the judges, who always select the images on their visual merits alone.

Looking at other trends within the sixty images, the dominance of colour images was once again clear, and there were no trendy angles or jaunty poses, just pure classic positioning. The biographies also revealed that there was a high proportion of UK linked photographers who had been successful in 2012, as was the fact that many were either art school graduates or photographers working in the industry. Equipment varied from high end medium format cameras, through to all levels of pro and semi-pro equipment... except for one. An image by 'photo-interested' Nathan Roberts, taken of tourists at the National Gallery cafe provided a shard of hope that anyone can be successful here. His atmospheric image was taken on a... smart phone.

Moving on to another contemporary exhibition, Riots Revisited was a calmly located airing of a selection of images by Lewis Whyld, taken during the London Riots in 2011.
A photographer for the Press Association and based in London, he was one of the first photojournalists on the scene on the first night and was also there during the days that followed. As the tensions mounted, it was said that Whyld was at times forced to use his mobile phone to record the images for fear of his own safety. Some of his images were subsequently seen the world over and many were published in our own national press.

On entering the peaceful gallery, it wasn't long before the heat of those nights was rekindled. Recalling my own fears from the reports of those unsettled summer nights, the overwhelming red glow of the burning buildings jumped out from the exhibition prints. Silhouetted riot police and hooded youths was a motif often repeated in the imagery, the tensions clearly visible. However, it was one image in particular which made a big impression on me. Against a burning red background, swirling smoke provided the movement in towards the focus of the image; four on-duty police horses.
The most striking feature of the image, a single white horse produced emotions first of compassion then of bravery. His hard work during those awful days was ultimately recognised as Boris the Met Police horse did indeed receive an award for his bravery.

An outstanding set of images from Lewis Whyld, which deserved to be aired for longer than the week they were afforded. However, may they also be a reminder of how close to volatile some situations become and remain thankful that we seldom experience incidents such as this in this country.

Finally, having been suitably refreshed, I set off for a complete change of scene at the Thursday, late night opening of Ansel Adams Photography from the Mountains to the Sea exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. Sadly I misjudged my timing to reach Greenwich and ended up lacking time to do the exhibition justice.

Adams, an American, began his life in photography during the 1920s and went right through into the1970s and beyond. Being noted for his stunning black and white landscape images of places such as Yosemite, his dedication to photographing and then producing the very carefully tonally balanced images, gained him respect. His images were being shown in galleries alongside conventional art, something almost unheard of for photography. Today, his images are considered as fine art, with reproductions of his work regularly appearing, and on countless items, such as calendars and greeting cards.

My first impression was of the almost timeless quality of the images, although landscapes such as these often wouldn't show up the man-made progress of time. However, it was the water and seascapes which drew my attention on this occasion. With many of his images using long exposures, he succeeded in capturing the movement of the water whilst still maintaining an element of crispness. One image in particular illustrates my point. The Atlantic Schoodic Point 1949 was taken after two days of setting up and waiting for exactly the right conditions, such was Adams perfectionism. The long exposure "blurs the water, giving the picture a tender melancholy feel"

Now, I have written before about my personal view on 'milky' water and my dislike of the current popular trend to horrendously 'over-milk' images, so much so, dynamic seascapes are becoming flat to the point of 'why bother'. Adams illustrates beautifully that it is possible to capture the dynamics and the beauty of the action of water, in both this image, and also many of his waterfall images too, without losing sight of what water is. In the short amount of time that I was viewing his work, it made me think carefully and come to one conclusion. It is high time to reconsider how we might view our own images. As true representations of what we see, or of abstract imagery? For me, milky water falls into the latter category and as such, I feel has an imminently finite place in today's true photography. The tides are changing. Without actually harking back to the past let us reconsider the merits of the skills of the old photography masters.

So, the merits of exhibitions? If they are nothing more than thinking space then that is value in itself.
Enjoyment? Now that is valuable.

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