Graciela Iturbide, 'Our Lady of the Iguanas', 1979. Juchitan 1979. © Graciela Iturbide. Although it features over 400 works, the Barbican’s exhibition of photography from the 1960s and '70s presents just a dozen practitioners. This approach eschews a comprehensive survey of the medium during these two remarkable decades. Instead, one is granted the time and wall-space to enter the worlds of 12 outstanding artists, all of whom had very different ways of interpreting through a lens the changing circumstances around them.
The choice is international, including three African and three Asian photographers, although only one of the twelve is female: Mexican Graciela Iturbide, whose works include starkly composed shots of her nation’s indigenous people. Other than William Eggleston - the American responsible for ennobling colour photography with his rich dye-transfer prints of ambiguous, seemingly inconsequential subjects - the featured artists are framed by their interest in societal change and, in particular, political upheaval and human rights. Even an experimental series by the conceptually-minded German Sigmar Polke, in which coincidental chemical stains cover shots of a bear fight in Afghanistan, is interpreted as a reflection on geopolitics.
Sigmar Polke, Der Bärenkampf' (The Bear Fight), 1974. Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart. © The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne, DACS 2012. The work of preeminent South African photographer David Goldblatt, which ranges from studies of Afrikaner farmers to series on Soweto and the goldmines of the Witwatersrand, is complemented with images by Ernest Cole, who documented apartheid from the perspective of a black photographer. Boris Mikhailov satirises Ukraine under soviet occupation with by an early series where one transparency is superimposed on another: a group of people merge with a half eaten biscuit held up by fat fingers; a crowd in red cover the background of a lifestyle-style shot of a couple in a field.
Boris Mikhailov, 'Yesterday’s Sandwich/ Superimpositions', Late 1960s – late 1970s. Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin. © Boris Mikhailov, DACS 2012.
London-born photojournalist Larry Burrows is represented by just six works on show, but his large prints of US soldiers in Vietnam and Cambodia have a substantial impact. The photographer had an extensive knowledge of art from the past and the colour and composition of these works have a drama akin to history painting. But my favourite body of work on view was Bruce Davidson’s series ‘Time of Change’ (1961–65), a wonderfully coherent essay on the black civil rights movement in America, full of incident and empathy.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine