22 October, 2012Issue 20.2Photo EssaysThe Arts

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Glimpses of Revolutionary History

Kevin Brazil

Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s
Barbican Art Gallery
13th September 2012 – 13th January 2013


Movement: as a theme for the Barbican Centre’s major new survey of photography from the 60s and 70s, it is almost too clever for its own good. The theme points to the paradox of photography, the medium that captures a still moment, as it tries to capture the vast currents of social change sweeping the world, through protest marches, migrations, and the ever-increasing expansion of multinational capitalism. The poor photographer is left with the impossible task of capturing history passing in what Walter Benjamin called the image of the ‘‘now-time’’, or history’s ‘‘dialectics at a standstill’’. And if that sounds a bit grandiose in our own disillusioned age, it is worth bearing in mind that it is exactly such quickly forgotten glimpses of revolutionary history that appear in this exhibition: Jyoti Basu on a Calcutta billboard, Malcolm X addressing a crowd in Harlem, the humiliation of Buddhist monks in Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

If there is any criticism to be made of Everything Was Moving, it would be about its lack of coherence: there is so much on show that the exhibition can feel overwhelming and disconnected at times. The South African pairing of a David Goldblatt retrospective with rediscovered prints by Ernest Cole is worth a visit in itself. But when an exhibition frustrates our received critical categories, especially one like this which is engaged in a conscious effort to expand the story of mid-twentieth century photography, it is always worth pausing to think: who exactly do these critical categories serve, and why?

The 60s and 70s saw the coming of age of photography in America and Europe as a modern art form and the appearance of the most over-referenced book on photography criticism by a certain Susan Sontag. Photography here comes of age in the alienated urban portraits of Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. But this was also the era of pan-African and pan-Arab solidarity, of half the world becoming free in a dawn of post-colonial hope, of Japanese boom and Chinese self-destruction. Better, then, to take the chance to see a sample of photography from around the world, and see which new connections can be made, which lines can be drawn, and how different the more familiar works of William Egglestone, for example, might look in a different light.

Everything Was Moving features the work of 12 photographers, from familiar names—Bruce Davidson, David Goldblatt, William Eggleston, Sigmar Polke—to the lesser-known Boris Mikhailov, Graciela Iturbide, Larry Burrows, Malik Sidibé. Some are on show in the UK for the first time: Shomei Tomatsu, Raghubir Singh, Ernest Cole, and Li Zhensheng. They are each presented separately and are best taken in that way if the subtle patterns of connections which thread their way through their works are to be picked out.

 

Raghubir Singh

Raghubir Singh (1942-1999) Below the Howra Bridge a Marwari bride and groom after rites by the Ganges, 1968 (c) Succession Raghubir Singh

 

As good a place as any to begin is the richly chromatic world of Raghubir Singh’s ‘‘Ganges modernism’’. That India should have a special claim on colour photograph as an art form makes intuitive sense, not least when it is used to pick out the subcontinent’s dislocated response to modernity. In ‘‘Below the Howrah Bridge’’ a steel suspension bridge hulks over the brown Ganges, on the banks of which a luminous coloured Marwari bride and groom celebrate their wedding: an austerely balanced image of tradition and progress. And Singh’s images of Calcutta pick out against Bollywood film billboards statues of the independence leader Chandras Bose and the long-time Marxist leader of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu.

Working against pop culture stereotypes of the greyness of life under Communism, Boris Mikhailov’s works also push the edges of the colour palate, but in a much more introspective and surrealist mode. His ‘Sandwich’ pictures feature two superimposed images, mostly sexual and grotesque, like a wrinkled old penis over a young woman’s pink underwear. It is the colour of Soviet life that drips out of these sandwiches, but lest this come across as a form of what the Germans call Communist Ostalgie, a montage of blistered orange feet, gas masks, and a bald woman’s head intimates the repressed horrors of Soviet life. In contrast, Sigmar Polke’s use of over-exposed images in a series of works depicting a bear fight in Afghanistan is the weakest room in the collection. The bear fight is an allegory of Russia’s military forces; the chemical stains that cloud the image are allegories of Polke’s distance as a Westerner. It is cheap one-trick conceptualism, surprising from an artist with Polke’s critical abrasiveness. Graciela Iturbide manages much more successfully to integrate the Surrealist and Dadaist traditions of European photography into her studies of Mexico’s native tribeswomen, creating a distinctively Mexican blend that could be summed up in the title of one her most striking works ‘Our Lady of the Iguana’ (1979). Her use of visual puns ties her to Mikhailov in one way, but mostly her approach feels singular amongst the exhibition as a whole, which may well be a credit to her achievement.

 

Li Zhensheng, Several hundred thousand Red Guards attending a "Learning and Applying Mao Zedong Thought" rally in Red Guard Square (formerly People's Stadium), Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, 13 September 1966 (c) Li Zhensheng, Courtesy Contact Press Images

 

Mirroring Mikhailov’s introspection and formal experimentation in response to Communist totalitarianism are Li Zhengsheng’s tiny series of self-portraits, collected into little books. But Zhengsheng also turned this experimentation outwards, creating composite panoramas, inspired by Eisenstein’s cinema, of the vast rallies that appeared in support of Mao during the Cultural Revolution: seamlessly never-ending monochrome seas of people. His room also contains some of the only photographs taken of the Cultural Revolution in action: anti-bourgeois rallies, public self-criticisms, and unbearably small and distressing images of Buddhist monks humiliated on stage. The Revolution ended with 5 million people being sent to ‘‘re-education schools’’, Zhengshen among them, and he captured an image of these young cadres pointlessly tilling frozen earth. These images, buried in the ground for years, like the manuscripts buried by the narrator in Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, are the most important images on show: the means by which the tragedy of those endless rallies becomes horribly real.

 

Shomei Tomatsu, Coca-cola, Tokyo 1969 (c) Shomei Tomatsu, Courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery and Nagoya City Art Museum

 

Shomei Tomatsu grappled the suppressed violence of history in his works, but in this case the violence came from the West. ‘‘If someone were to ask me what characterizes Japan’s post-war history’’, he has written, ‘‘I’d reply, without hesitating, Americanization’’. Nagasaki and Okinawa are the two recurring sites of exploration, through subdued black-and-white street photography snatches of Chevrolets, factory girls with bouffant hair, or ubiquitous Coca-Cola signs. Suppression is his stylistic approach, often to the point of incomprehension: we see American marines accosting Japanese women, though it is unclear why, and mysterious also is a portrait of a Western man in drag. Less mysterious are the stopped watches and melted bottles of Nagasaki. Little wonder that the sequence as whole ends with a series of blurred snapshots of the Tokyo student riots in the late 60s. Larry Burrows’s photographs of American soldiers in Vietnam, in part the cause of these riots, approach violence full-on, in monumentally posed, richly saturated colour prints, drawing on the traditions of iconographic history painting. Yet there is something ambiguous in this approach; the individual soldiers adopt heroic dimensions, pushing empathy over into possible glorification.

 

Bruce Davidson (b. 1933) Black Americans, New York City. From the series "New York (Life)". From New York 1961-65 (c) Bruce Davidson, Magnum Photos

 

A coherent group can be assembled of those photographers who explore the history of the African peoples in the 60s and 70s, revealing an increasingly shared experience. Malick Sidibé, the “eye of Bamako”, captures the optimism of independence in a study of Mali’s nightclubbers, each brandishing their records of choice: Ray Charles or James Brown. Soul records appear at the other end of the continent, in one of the few middle-class homes that appear in David Goldblatt’s studies of life in Soweto. There is too much to mention summarily in this miniature retrospective, which is really a show in its own: Johannesburg street corners; an almost ethnographic series of rural Afrikaner families; life among the mines. Suffice to observe that an image of the funeral of 58 Basotho shaft miners is depressingly relevant to South Africa’s current mining labour disputes. A view of apartheid from within is shown in a recently discovered set of prints by Ernest Cole. They are from within in a literal sense: many of these pictures were taken with a camera concealed in a paper bag, as Cole, who was black, had only restricted rights to photograph. What is revealed are segregated buses, whites and tsotsis mugging each other in broad daylight, and desert banishment camps for the offending black. Cole provides what is, for me, the photograph of the exhibition: a portrait of a child squatting in an over-crowded, over-heated classroom, all the humiliation and shame of apartheid captured in a line of sweat running down his face, the form of black-and-white photography almost too appropriate for the content.

 

Ernest Cole (1940-1990) Pensive tribesmen, newly recruited to mine labour, awaiting processing and assignment. From House of Bondage, Period: 1960-1966 (c) Ernest Cole Trust

 

Cole’s prints were unknown up until now, but their images of racial segregation connect him to the much better-known documentary photography of Bruce Davidson. Davidson’s images are icons of the 60s civil rights movement: the terror of the Ku Klux Klan, of people on the freedom rides taken to integrate buses in the wake of Rosa Parks. But there is hope too, in the portraits of John Lewis, the civil rights leader who dedicated himself to the study of the philosophy of non-violence, and in the Million Man March on Washington.

The ability to perceive these recurring images of the violence and struggle of history throughout the world is a measure of the achievement of this often unruly exhibition, and it is a sign of its success that it changes one’s viewing of one of the most canonical figures in American art photography, William Eggleston. What brought Eggleston to fame was the seeming meaningless of his portraits of the landscape and people of Mississippi, but in this exhibition rural Coca-Cola signs recall those of  Okinawa, and his portraits of sharecroppers connect back to South Africa and beyond. Even Eggleston’s most famous photograph, the searing red roof and bulb of ‘Greenwood Mississippi’ (1973), while losing none of its power as an artistic statement of the independence of colour photography, begins to look a little different. I’d never really known what was happening inside this cramped, claustrophobic blood-red room, but now I think that it’s what was going on outside that mattered.

Kevin Brazil is reading for a D.Phil in English at New College.

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