Issue Number: 117
The London Art World has taken its time in bringing photography fully into its fold. Now, with several major exhibitions devoted to photography opening in the capital, Liz Jobey tracks its path to becoming an art form in its own right.
Twenty years ago, an exhibition of photographs on the wall of a major public art gallery or museum in London was a rare event. I remember an American friend coming here in around 1992. She was a publisher of photography books, and assumed things here were pretty similar to New York. She called on a Sunday morning and said, ‘Let’s go see a show,’ by which she meant photography. This was before the Photographers’ Gallery opened on a Sunday, before the V&A had a permanent gallery for the national photography collection, before the Tate even admitted photographs into its galleries unless they were works by ‘artists who used photography’, a phrase in the tangled vocabulary of curatorial distinctions that tripped up many ‘lens-based’ artists before the millennium was out. Even the Royal Academy, which had marked the first 150 years of photography with a major exhibition in 1989, seemed unwilling to follow up with anything more.
Man Ray, 'Le Violon d’Ingres', (Ingres’ Violin) of 1924, puns on Ingres’ famous back-view nudes and his equally famous hobby of playing the violin. The model, Kiki de Montparnasse, was Man Ray’s muse and lover in the 1920s. This work is on show in ‘Man Ray Portraits’ at the National Portrait Gallery. Museum Ludwig/© Man Ra y Trust. For a few years in the early 2000s, the RA’s Burlington Gardens space did become a venue for photography, when the PhotoLondon festival attempted to match the success of ParisPhoto. But when, after three years, it moved to the old Billingsgate market building in 2007 and limited works to post-1970, it effectively destroyed its future by being so hard to find that it wasn’t worth the investment for galleries that could do all their European business in Paris.
At the same time, the practice of photography had been going through its own painful revolution – not just the shift from analogue to digital, but the shift from photojournalism into art (and for some photographers into imminent redundancy), brought about principally by the retreat of the magazine and newspaper press from international reportage into an obsession with international celebrity, which guaranteed circulation no foreign war or famine could compete with. Gradually, as commercial art galleries began to include more photographs in their exhibition schedules, and to add photographers to their list of artists, gallerists produced limited editions of prints, thereby pushing the prices for photographs towards those of painting and sculpture. And the nature of photographs changed, influenced by the works of artists such as the Canadian, Jeff Wall, or German artists from the Dusseldorf School, such as Andreas Gursky. Photographs, which had rarely been larger than 24in x 30in, were being printed the size of a Rothko or a Titian, and the aspirations were obvious.
Ori Gersht, 'Blow-Up: Untitled 5', 2007, on show in Seduced by Art at the National Gallery, London. © Courtesy of the Artist and Mumm ery + Sc hnelle, London In 2003, Tate Modern held its first major photography show, ‘Cruel and Tender’, which brought together some of the greatest American and European photographers of the 20th century. It followed, a year later, with ‘Robert Frank: Storylines’; there was Diane Arbus at the V&A in 2005; ‘How We Are: Photographing Britain’ at Tate Britain, and ‘The Painting of Modern Life’ at the Hayward, in 2007. By 2010 photography shows were, if not commonplace, so frequent as to be almost unremarked upon.
Commercial galleries specialising in photography in London were still relatively few. Michael Hoppen, whose gallery off the King’s Road celebrates its 20th anniversary this December, has prospered; and there are new arrivals, such as Brancolini Grimaldi, which opened in London last year to build on its successes in Florence and Rome. But it has been the inclusion by major commercial art galleries, such as Victoria Miro, Timothy Taylor, White Cube, Gagosian and the recently opened David Zwirner gallery, of photography into their exhibitions that has brought about a significant shift in its fortunes. The west wing of the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens site is now leased to New York’s Pace for its new flagship gallery in London. Its opening show in October juxtaposed the paintings of Mark Rothko with the photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto.
Early this autumn there was a palpable sense in London that photography was on a roll. The season began at the Barbican, with ‘Everything was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s’, a show that brings together works by 12 significant photographers into a series of monographic rooms that skilfully echo the social and political concerns of the times. At Tate Modern, ‘William Klein + Daido Moriyama’ has taken over the temporary exhibition spaces with a huge, overpowering display that links the photographs, paintings and films of the 84-year-old American William Klein to the visceral assault of images from the Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama. At the V&A, a timely show of contemporary photography from the Middle East brings to our attention works by 30 artists, including those from Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Iran. And perhaps most notably, in the context of photography entering the halls of art, at the National Gallery, where photography shows have been very rare, a new exhibition, ‘Seduced by Art’, examines the ways in which photographers, since the earliest works in the mid-19th century, have used the traditions of history painting in the construction of their works. To illustrate the argument, it brings contemporary and historical works of photography by artists including Jeff Wall, Craigie Horsfield, Julia Margaret Cameron, Gustave Le Gray and Ori Gersht into relationships with paintings from the past four centuries within the National Gallery’s collection.
Aware of the pitfalls of this kind of comparative exhibition, its curator, Hope Kingsley, is clear that ‘comparisons between works of art should be more than imitative. This is not a child’s game of “spot the difference”,’ she writes, ‘rather an argument for shared causes and effects, aesthetic decisions at the surface, and philosophical connections beneath.’ It is a show that, nevertheless, still sets up a kind of contest, and one can only hope that exhibitions such as these are part of a natural progression which sees photography take its rightful place in the history of art alongside painting, and valued for its own inherent qualities – which are many.