Sunday, 17 February 2013

Paris Exhibitions – Belated Notes

Assignment Three has gone off to my tutor; I have caught up with the reading/writing exercise on photojournalism; now my last bit of catching up is to blog some notes on the exhibitions I visited in Paris.  Embarrassingly, that was way back in mid-November!  I did write up notes by hand immediately after the events, but I just haven’t got round to transposing them and blogging in here.  Time to put that right!

Le Bal Gallery - Paul Graham – ‘Beyond Caring’ & ‘The Present’

It’s worth mentioning the gallery itself, first of all.  It is at the site of a former dance hall/ballroom – hence the name – in Montmartre.  There’s a book shop, cafe, and some good exhibition spaces – smallish rooms at ground floor level and then a big space downstairs where the ballroom was.  Dedicated to photography and worth a visit.  There were two Paul Graham sets on show.

Beyond Caring – These are Graham’s images from DHSS offices in the mid-80s.

It’s hard to escape the political angle with these – for those of us who recall that era.  But. Setting that to one side, one observes the use of colour for ‘serious’ documentary photography images – not that common even in the mid-eighties. (Though I do seem to recall these photographs making it into the colour supplements at the time.)  As one would expect, the clothes etc are indicative of the time, but the themes are timeless.  Literally so, in the sense that the images depict waiting, wasting, emptiness, boredom, pointlessness.  They were shot surreptitiously, of course.  We get that sometimes, from the angle of the shot.  It does leave a bit of a sense that we’re eavesdropping.  And, at the time, it did lead me to compare this version of the surreptitious with, say, Bruce Gilden’s ‘in your face’ street shots.  I didn’t enjoy the latter but I mind Graham’s images much less.  ‘Beyond Caring’ is about the people and the situation they (and millions of others) were in.  Gilden’s approach, I felt, was about him.  Despite the colour, these do portray the drabness and the pointlessness – confirmation that gritty documentary doesn’t have to be in black & white.  In fact, if these were mono, they would feel separate, of another time – to me anyway.

The Present – And speaking of ‘another time’, these images are bang up to date – Graham’s relatively recent work from the streets of New York.  Pairs (and occasionally trios) of images made in the same location and separated by just a few seconds.

We see time shift on, slightly, from one fleeting moment to another.  Exquisitely printed and very large, they create a sense of being there, in the scene, but also, inevitably, a feeling of serious intent on the part of the artists.  The size, formality and pairings invite you to look closely and consider thoroughly.  The exhibition notes refer to ‘The extraordinary from the ordinary’ but I’m not so sure I agree with that.  It’s the monumental size and the pairings that are ‘extraordinary’, not the subject or content.  I would prefer to say that the images express the significance of the ordinary – but that it remains ordinary.  I like the undermining (for me) of the ‘decisive moment’.  Here are two, sometimes three, decisive moments presented one after the other, each no more or less significant than the other.  The exhibition worked well in this space, which was big enough to let you choose your own perspective – step back or step in, either worked well.  Certainly it worked better than the big Thomas Struth prints that I saw at the Whitechapel Gallery eighteen months ago.  For one thing the prints were much better, but also the scale was right for the images.

Maison Européenne de la Photographie – ‘La Photographie en France, 1950-2000

Perhaps a bit of a misnomer, this, in that there were plenty of photographs from non-French photographers and plenty taken outside France, but it would be churlish to dwell on that.  Actually, it was a real ‘tour de force’ and impossible to encapsulate in a brief note.  Let’s start with the scale.  In what is an excellent building, devoted entirely to photography, this exhibition occupied 2 floors, with 2 landings on each floor, and multiples rooms/spaces on each landing – literally hundreds of images.

From 1950’s art photography and advertising images, through photography that questioned its own art credentials, to documentary, it spanned all genres.  Yes, eclectic and occasionally superficial, it was, though, well-presented, not overly curated/labelled, and a really interesting couple of hours.  There were four other, smaller exhibitions in the same building, but I didn’t have to take those in.  This is a place to visit again.

Jeu de Paume - ‘A Photographer on the Watch, 1902-2002’ – Manuel Alvarez Bravo

There were around 150 prints of Bravo’s work on show – mainly from c1926 to c 1945, but with a few examples of later work, including colour polaroids and 8mm film footage.  Having seen a Cartier Bresson retrospective at the National Media Museum a few years ago, comparison between the two is inevitable.  The similarities of formal qualities, in particular, is clear – as is the influence of Weston, the surrealists, and apparently, constructivism.  The exhibition certainly showed off an emphasis on observation (hence the title) – of form, abstract shape, tricks of the eye, conceptual opportunities and of the extraordinary possibilities in ordinary life.  As well as the beautiful tonal qualities that one associates with photographers from this period, I was definitely struck by the formal and the abstraction especially – which, of course, compares directly with Cartier Bresson.  In fact, the work seemed almost more poetic and personal in comparison to C-B’s intellectual approach, I would say.  The accompanying notes refer to his watchful process – setting up the camera and waiting for something to happen – and the work is watchful, even a touch voyeuristic at times such as the dead or the sleeping.

Jeu de Paume – ‘Between’ – Muntades

I went into this exhibition ‘blind’.  I have to admit that I had never heard of Antoni Muntades and had no idea what he does/did when I walked into this part of the gallery.  I now know that he is a Spanish artist of some repute, who specialises in installations using all manner of media - more here.  As such, presenting his work in a gallery becomes a bit of a challenge.  I would say that some of it worked in this context and some didn’t.  But I admit that it might have meant more if I’d known more myself beforehand!  I certainly enjoyed the simply subversive nature of his work, such as a series of plaques surreptitiously erected to commemorate urban planning disasters.
It’s also interesting to record my own, ‘innocent’ response to the first piece of work on display.  It’s called ‘On Translation: the warning’; and in the Jeu de Paume exhibition were a series of posters and leaflets in different languages, with photographs of where the posters were posted, so to speak.  They all read (English version) – ‘Warning: Perception require involvement’.  First thing to say – I liked that; its simplicity & then the potential it has to really make you reflect.  But because I had come to the exhibition ‘blind’, as I put it, I found myself wondering whether this installation had actually happened or whether the ‘art’ was the creation of these photographs and leaflets etc suggesting that it had!  The installations were real, I now know, but my own response demonstrates how the study of contemporary art plays with one’s perceptions of reality and truth.

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