some thoughts on ‘constructing worlds’ at the barbican, london

looking through the exhibition space at the barbican

looking through the barbican centre exhibition space

I enjoyed this exhibition of photographs linking architecture and pictures hugely. As ever, I got there far too late in its run (it’s over next Sunday, the 11th); it would really be better to go early on and – if I like an exhibition – think about it for a bit and then go back again for a second look a few weeks later. What follows is not so much a review as a set of thoughts, written a few hours after walking through the gallery…

  • The more photographic exhibitions you go to and the more books you read, there more you realise how the same names keep turning up again and again: here there are pictures by Steven Shore and Walker Evans, Bernt and Hilla Becher and Ed Ruscha; there are pictures of Afghanistan taken shortly after the Nato occupation by Simon Norfolk that are also on show in a completely different context at Tate Modern. There is stuff that I’ve never heard of by names new to me too, but “Art Photography” certainly seems to have a shorter cast list than the extraordinary number of photographs taken every year might lead you to expect.
  • It is always good to see pictures you’ve only seen in books as physical prints – the differences in the way the blacks and the whites look in pictures by Evans and Berenice Abbott – differences in paper, i assume –  is interesting and worth thinking about, now that you can control almost everything in the digital domain, before you get your Digital C-Type or Giclee of Lambda print made. Likewise the sheer size (or, in the case of 8 by 10 contacts, the lack of it) is something you never quite get a sense of from looking at reproductions in books.
  • What is a Lambda print?
  • Ever since reading someone’s reaction to first seeing Diane Arbus’ Identical twins where he stated it wasn’t the sort of photograph he’d put up on the wall of his house, I’ve wondered whether I would and usually come to the conclusion that I wouldn’t, but I would certainly look through a portfolio of her pictures every now and then if I owned it. A lot of the prints here could be hung in your house if you owned one. I wonder if this has to do with the move of art photos’ primary viewing space from the book to the gallery? Certainly, these pictures seem happy on a wall with people peering at them.
  • I overheard two women discussing how poverty looks less awful in the country than in the city (we were in the Walker Evans’ room, having just left the Berenice Abbott pictures) and I wondered if that was because cities contain within them the constant presence of wealth (as Abbot’s pictures of decaying brownstones overshadowed by skyscrapers make explicit) whereas the poor parts of rural areas tend just to be poor.
  • The pictures of modernist Case Study houses by Julius Shulman are a nice contrast to the New Topographics stuff I’ve been looking at and reading about recently in their obvious support of the new 40s and 50s architecture that led to the tract houses, looked at more sceptically by Adams and Baltz in the 70s.
  • I knew that Niedermayer and Lucio Costa did a total design for Brasilia in the 50’s, but I hadn’t a clue that Nehru commissioned le Corbusier to build a new capital for the North West of India in Chandigarh in the 40’s. I also had no idea how much redundant modernist building is scattered through the former French, Belgian and Portuguese colonies in Africa.
  • I like closely hung formations of pictures a lot. The dark grid of pictures of high-chiaroscuro details of the Jewish Museum in Berlin by Hélène Binet is as inspiring as the neat, white-framed water-tower typography by the Bechers.
  • There is only one picture taken in London (Struth’s Clinton Road, London – 1977). It’s within walking distance of where I live. I should go along and see if it’s changed in the four decades that have passed since then. I should take a picture…
  • Shore’s postcards are just brilliant. For ages now (ever since I failed to find a single non-generic, not-heavily touristic, un-annoyingly royalist, not-utterly cliche-ed postcard of London for my son to send to his mother) I’ve been thinking of having some Walthamstow postcards made. I’ve thought that I should push on with this, ever since I read about Shore’s Amarillo pictures; having now actually seen them, I think I must…
  • It feels like the next step to take in terms of seriousness, is to start using the view camera I got off Ebay just before Christmas. So many of the pictures here (including the contemporary ones) are taken on large format cameras. There is a marvellous geometry in the way perspectives are corrected an focus controlled with the camera movements. I want to have a play…
  • Walker Evans is the Beethoven of photography, isn’t he? Or maybe the Mozart…

Sean O’Hagan’s review of the exhibition for the Guardian is here. The Barbican’s press release is here. Both links were accessed on 04-i-15.

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3 thoughts on “some thoughts on ‘constructing worlds’ at the barbican, london

  1. Pingback: Tate Modern – Conflict. Time. Photography | Simon Chirgwin's Learning (B)Log

  2. Pingback: The Photograph as Document #5 – Constructed Images | Simon Chirgwin's Learning Log

  3. Pingback: Assignment 4: “A picture is worth a thousand words” – Choices and Preparation | Simon Chirgwin's Learning Log

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