'Out of Focus' is the first survey exhibition of photography that the Saatchi Gallery has presented since 'I Am a Camera' (2001), a show that was well-received by critics but caused distracting headlines for its presentation of pictures by Tierney Gearon featuring her two young children in the nude (public complaints caused the police to visit the gallery).
While 'I Am a Camera' included a selection of international artists who were established names at the time, such as Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman and Hiroshi Sugimoto, the photographers on show in London from today, in general, are younger practitioners with a lower profile.
The exceptions are American photo-essayist Mitch Eptsein and British conceptualist John Stezaker, the recent subject of a solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery. Out of the two artists, it is the Londoner whose practice seems to sum up the decidedly Surrealist spirit of much of the work on view.
Stezaker splices together found photographs sourced from vintage books, magazines and postcards. A large number of artists in the show also seize upon such collage techniques, often juxtaposing disparate images for uncanny effect. Tokyo-born Yumiko Utsu produces the Dalí-esque Octopus Portrait (2009): an old painted portrait of a lady in her finery has the head of its subject replaced by the pearl-coloured sea-creature. New Yorker Michele Abeles’s photographs collage sections of a naked male body with coloured Plexigas, scraps of paper and domestic objects.
Americans Sara Vanderbeek, Daniel Gordon and Matt Lipps create and then photograph strange sculptural assemblages, collapsing these three-dimensional collages into two dimensions. The darkroom experimentation of Surrealists like Man Ray are updated by compatriots Jennifer West and Mariah Robertson. Robertson then prints her psychedelic imagery on an entire roll of glossy paper and then merges photography and sculpture by unravelling it down the wall and across a section of the gallery floor.
Charles Saatchi’s present taste is decidedly for ‘art photography’ rather than photo-journalism, which is only really represented in the work of Eptsein and South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky. Artist duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin work with documentary images, but instead of producing their own they appropriate them from archives, using chance to select areas of photographs to reproduce. Less experimental forms of the medium, such as nature and sports photography, can be seen from Friday at the Sony World Photography Awards show at Somerset House.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine