London is repeatedly badged as the world’s most creative city. A reflection of this accolade is that whatever your penchant, be it performance art or knitting, or even knitted performance art, you’re sure to find it somewhere. My own current addiction is photographic exhibitions.
I find photography more immediate than other art forms, perhaps because of the (often erroneous) assumption that it depicts reality. In analysing an image with no additional information, there is no way to ascertain if it is fiction, a set-up, or real life observed. But this elusiveness is part of the seduction. They are more fascinating for being uncertain. Although this doesn’t stop people from trying to pin them down: debates rage now over the validity of ‘documentary’ shots taken by Robert Capa in the Spanish Civil War. The iconic image of the falling soldier is purported to capture the split-second between life and death as the bullet hits, but is now declaimed as a finely-staged piece.
This unknowable-ness is, for me, an essential part of its charm, although it might undermine its validity as a historical source. Not totally – it just perhaps reveals more about Capa than the Spanish Civil War. He was trying to depict a situation he perceived to be worth seeing. As opined by Wolfgang Tillmans “The camera always lies about what´s before the camera but never what´s behind it.” In Capa’s case, soldiers were undoubtedly being killed. He wanted us to feel it.
There is a second, more troubling aspect to the Falling Soldier dilemma, a problem with which every photographer must grapple: the moral position of the photographer, as bystander, documenting without intervening. Or indeed, faking a highly emotive image – the moment of death – something which would feel, to most people, inherently sacriligeous.
Another photographer whose work (which can be seen in a retrospective, ‘England Observed’ at Kenwood House) provides a double-headed insight is John Day. His subject was more pedestrian: the lives and behaviour of the English. A German émigré, this perhaps made it easier to see British idiosyncrasies, which he clearly enjoys, and spent his lifetime documenting, occasionally exaggerating. An insistent perfectionist, he returned to the same shot over again, testing vantage points, waiting for the right moment. They are undoubtedly truly beautiful photographs. Landscapes are so carefully composed it is hard to believe he didn’t somehow rearrange the hills. People are spontaneous, honest, often comical. Day’s preferred medium was black and white and he had a deep understanding of the practice that is totally different to contemporary digital work. His control of shadow is masterly. Elements appear in silhouette or stark contrast, waiting for the sun to move into just the right place. There is a sensuality and depth to the images which sets them apart from the technical perfection of this digital age. The hand of lengthy experience is visible.
From pedestrian to extraordinary, the Deutsche Borse prize strays well into the bizarre. It is awarded for contributions to contemporary photography, and all the nominees are pushing boundaries, expanding the remit. This year there are four potentials, two of which are particularly striking. The work of Tod Papageorge is subtly weird. His images of a walk through Central Park isolate particular moments and by doing so render them strange. A fascinating survey of human activity seen through a very astute pair of eyes. Taryn Simon on the other hand is more defiantly off-piste, and clearly has a talent for talking her way into places she shouldn’t be. She has somehow found all sorts of unlikely locations to present An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. Included in this category are specimens from an inbreeding centre, the depths of rainforest and nuclear fuel rods that really do glow. Except they’re blue not green.
Each of these photographers, in making choices, and apparently unfettered by commission, reveals their own tastes, preferences and understandings. Which is probably why we find such displays fascinating – it is a simple way of really seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.