A slap In the Face of History

The inspiring content of an exhibition of twentieth-century photography is undermined by the curators' emphasis on the particular and the subjective.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Culture

The Barbican Art Gallery’s exhibition In the Face of History: European Photographers in the Twentieth Century brings together well-known masters like Brassaï, Eugène Atget, André Kertész and Robert Doisneau with lesser known photographers, some of whom have never before been exhibited in the UK, to ‘map a century of European life and experience’. The 22 photographers were chosen because of their proximity to their subject matter, their work being rooted to a particular place and time, and their use of photography as an artistic rather than professional medium.

Often it seems these criteria are ideals embraced by curators Kate Bush and Mark Sladen rather than by the photographers themselves. Their claim that the photographers are ‘committed to the act of photography as a dynamic process of enquiry, into self and into human experience’ is a grand – and defensible – one. But it is a curious choice of words considering that they only seem comfortable with acknowledging the authenticity of the photographers’ insights because they record their native surroundings, or environs that they are intimately familiar with. According to the brochure, each of them ‘has created images which gather their power from the particularity of the photographer’s personal experience’.

According to Bush, the ‘humanist flavour’ of the selected work should not be confused with the Humanist school of photography of the mid-twentieth century. In fact, as she writes in the introduction to the book accompanying the show, it has been arranged in contradistinction to Edward Steichen’s 1955 Family of Man exhibition and its ‘universalising ethos’. She also contrasts the artists shown here with ‘macho globetrotting photographers’ like Magnum founders Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa.

The curators have focused on ‘subjective documentary’ by photographers who do not work to a pre-defined brief, but are ‘artists’. Yet the biography which accompanies the selection from Atget’s 30-year long systematic recording of Paris, during which he produced some 10,000 images, says that he often made photographs on spec for possible sale to artists, designers and antiquarians. It continues: ‘His art – although he hated to be called an artist – was to imbue these simple “documents” with layers of metaphoric and existential suggestion.’

Budapest-born Kertész does not fit the description of either the stay-at-home-photographer or the purely non-commercial artist. At the age of 20, he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army and served at the Eastern front. He moved to Paris in 1925 where he worked as a freelance photographer for various magazines in France, Germany and England. In 1936 he was forced to emigrate to New York, but regularly travelled to France until his death in 1985.

But only images from the early period of Kertész have been included, such as the photographs he took with a camera that his parents gave him at the age of 18 which, lacking an enlarger, produced tiny contact prints. Kertész brought the camera with him to the front and later used it to make nude studies of his brother Jenõ and other artistic experimentations. It seems that the curators have selected only the parts of a photographer’s oeuvre that fit in with their narrow outlook.

The exhibition is divided into four sections and each photographer is given their own room marking their individual contributions to documenting and saving pieces of history for posterity. The first section, ‘At the Brink’, spans the beginning of the century to the start of the Second World War, which makes up the following part. The third section, covering the years 1945 to 1989, is entitled ‘East and West: Cold War’. The final, Fukuyaman, part is called ‘The End of History’ (and, in fact, includes a Japanese photographer). Here, the end of history qualifies as a historical period and apparently we are still living through it; despite this being an exhibition of twentieth-century photography, the final section stretches to 2005. Finishing off with an image of Seiichi Furuya’s mentally ill wife shortly before she committed suicide, In the Face of History doesn’t exactly end on a positive note.

According to the brochure, each of the photographers ‘work in what is known as a “documentary style” – that is, with a realist approach, and without an overt political or social agenda’. But what was the Jewish ghetto photographer Henryk Ross’ intention of ‘leaving a record of our martyrdom’ if not an agenda? And was there really no political or social message in Ukranian Boris Mikhailov’s series Red, a seven-year long satirical response to Soviet occupation?

It is the fixation with stressing that the photographers are subjective, while at the same time acknowledging that they can, through their art, map out and understand human experience that makes the message of this exhibition confusing.

A strong point of In the Face of History, however, is the opportunity it gives us to see the work of some of the great masters alongside contemporaries who they, and we, have not necessarily had the chance to engage with and with one or two exceptions they are inspiring and thought-provoking.

Subcultures, urban eccentricities and seedy underworlds have been a source of fascination for many photographers. As American photographer Diane Arbus had her ‘freaks’, so many European photographers were drawn to marginalised individuals. Brassaï’s ‘secret Paris of the 30s’ is full of prostitutes, pimps and lesbians in drag. The Swede Christer Strömholm lived with and photographed a community of transsexual prostitutes in Paris in the early 1960s and his pupil Anders Petersen spent three years with the down and out clientele of Café Lehmitz in the red light district of Hamburg. His photographs have the spirit of a Bukowski novel or a Tom Waits record – in fact Waits used a Petersen photograph as a cover for his album Rain Dogs.

While the exhibition gives the overall impression of the twentieth-century being bleak with the major events of war and social revolutions sweeping through Europe leaving individuals vulnerable and photographers introvert, there are many humorous, humane and heartening moments captured. Ed van der Elsken’s well-timed photograph of three women crossing an Amsterdam street in miniskirts and high heels shows the playfulness of both the mid-1960s, the photographer and his subjects.

Many photographers took great personal risks to record their surroundings. Emmy Andriesse, for instance, was a Jewish fashion photographer who was forced into hiding and joined an underground artists’ resistance group. In 1944, she ventured outside to document the devastating ‘Hunger Winter’ famine in Amsterdam. Her contemporary Henryk Ross was employed as an official Jewish ghetto photographer in Lodz, but instead of just producing propaganda and identity photographs as ordered by the Nazis, he recorded daily life and suffering in the ghetto and also showed that basic human interactions continued even in those times of extreme hardship – while in one photograph a child has collapsed from hunger, in another a couple is kissing in some bushes and elsewhere children are playing on the streets.

According to the curators, the 22 photographers have the anthropological sensibility of a ‘participant-observer’. But this analogy is somewhat superfluous, as the camera necessarily imposes that distance between the observer and the observed and renders the photographer, however immersed, at once insider and outsider. Yet this exhibition shows that the camera can also be a source of intimacy and can provide a unique entry into unknown worlds, bringing us – the viewers – into closer contact with times, places and people we would not otherwise know of. Despite the shortcomings of the curating, In the Face of History reminds us of the potential of photography to both capture and express human experience.

In the Face of History continues at the Barbican Art Gallery in London until 28 January 2007.

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Topics Culture


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