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July 28 2012

Another London: International Photographers Capture City Life 1930-80 – review

Tate Britain, London

Another London is a show of black-and-white photographs of the host city that can only have been conceived with Olympic visitors in mind. This is a tourist guide to London at its most familiar and nostalgic. It is Big Ben and the Tower of London, bobbies and red buses, pearly kings, cockney sparrows, roll out the barrel and change the guard, all viewed through a haze of smog so unvarying that it makes even the work of such disparate artists as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bill Brandt look speciously similar.

The photographs all come from the collection of Cartier-Bresson's brother-in-law, Eric Franck, who has given more than a thousand pictures to Tate, doubling its holdings. Some of these are classics, including Irving Penn's turbaned cleaning ladies with their battered buckets and their shining resolve, and Lartigue's portrait of his wife, Bibi, walking towards the camera as the street shears away behind her looking remarkably like 19th-century Paris.

Other images are by less well-known names, such as the Viennese photographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, who clambered up the dome of St Paul's to photograph the bombed-out streets, or Leonard Freed who memorialised the Hassidic communities of north London in the 70s. But all the works are by international photographers, looking in from the outside, which may be why so many of these scenes turn out to be proverbial: tea at a Lyons Corner House, City gents in bowler hats, street urchins playing in the East End terraces and that most unchanging of events, the changing of the guard.

Sometimes, the image has a distinctive sensibility, especially among the photographers of central and eastern Europe with their dramatic tonal contrasts and their fragmented compositions. Suschitzky took a bewildering photograph of figures on a merry-go-round hurtling into white space that fills one with excitable dread.

But one senses that some of these photographers had arrived in search of the Blitz spirit, the class system and the stiff upper lip and couldn't resist the sight of a cockle-seller or a schoolboy in a top hat. They photographed the general more than the particular: the fishmongers at Billingsgate, the Norland nannies forging across Hyde Park with their Silver Cross prams, the working-class orators of Speakers' Corner, preferably with a British bulldog in sight.

Black-and-white photography, of course, has the look of documentary truth; the historic record. It is apt to depict the present as if it were already the past. But even so, there are startling anachronisms here. Victorian Londoners as late as the 1920s and Eliza Doolittle, as it seems, still selling flowers in her long black clothes in the 1930s.

For me, the most remarkable photograph in this show is by Robert Frank: a sharp perspective of a London terrace in dank gloom, a motionless street cleaner framed in the window of a waiting hearse. A child darts past, her little body captured in midair, as if running away from death, or perhaps from this dark and narrow life.

It is never a sunny day in these photographs. Nor does London look like the immense and scattered metropolis it is. This is partly to do with the fact that some of these photographers were on assignment photographing the coronation of George VI, or VE Day, or the wedding of Princess Anne. Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square appear over and over again.

But perhaps London was not an easy subject for foreigners during these decades: visibility was frequently poor in the fog and smog, the geography was too diffuse, maybe the society was too hard to crack. Bill Brandt stands before a Bethnal Green doorstep to take his photograph, Eve Arnold manages to get in among the drying stockings of a steamy shared bathroom. But there is scarcely an interior shot anywhere in this exhibition.

And in the end, colour takes over in a Cultural Olympiad kind of way – the colours of a mixed-race, multi-cultural, international, all-welcoming London. This is as much a cliche of 20th-century photography of the capital as the Queen Mother visiting East End housewives during the Blitz. Individual images may be strong – it could hardly be otherwise given the calibre of the artists – but in general this is a safe and conservative show. Another London it certainly isn't. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 24 2011

Behind the scenes at the V&A museum

Video: Take an exclusive tour of the new Photographs gallery, where images by Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus are on display

February 22 2010

Strike a pose

Irving Penn shot everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Picasso. So how did his photographs manage to make his subjects look so ordinary? Sean O'Hagan is fascinated by the National Portrait Gallery's new retrospective

"In portrait photography there is something more profound we seek inside a person, while being painfully aware that a limitation of our medium is that the inside is recordable only so far as it is apparent on the outside".

Irving Penn understood the limits of photographic portraiture, which is one of the key reasons why he was so brilliant at it. At the National Portrait Gallery, in a beautifully arranged show called simply Portraits, one can trace the trajectory of a style that is as instantly recognisable as any in photography. The elements of that style are familiar now, but were radical when Penn began photographing the great and the good in the mid 1940s: the starkness of the setting, the low-key lighting, the subtle choreography of pose and gesture that both hints at the interior life of the subject. Penn's studio was empty of everything but the basics, and almost downbeat in its ambience: grey walls, grey fabric for the backdrop, a grey floor that he seldom swept (so much so that one sitter objected, and left without being photographed). The setting must surely have disconcerted those more suited to ostentation and comfort, just as Penn's legendary charm – a kind of polite matter-of-factness – helped reassure them that all was well.

Penn's portraits often manage to be both austere and playful. Alfred Hitchcock, sitting in profile on a mound of grey carpet, looks both plump enough to burst out of his suit and absurdly dainty. Truman Capote, like many of Penn's sitters, looks like he has been backed into a corner by the camera, and seems to be shrinking even further into the folds of his overcoat. Capote is kneeling on a chair and the ragged edge of the plasterboard wall he leans against runs the entire length of the photograph. Penn's portrait of Cecil Beaton, one of many fellow photographers who sat for him, is ornate to the point of surreal, drawing one's gaze away from the subject to the nude in the background, then the large, ungainly camera. Penn's portraits are almost postmodern in the way in which they draw attention to the artifice that informs them. His studio was, in one way, the great leveller.

In the 1950s, based for a time in Paris, Penn photographed tradespeople in their working garb in between fashion shoots for Vogue. That series, Small Trades, recently exhibited at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, is the perfect counterpoint to the current London show. Both speak volumes about the trust Penn instilled in his subjects, and how that trust underpinned the collaborative process that is nearly always necessary for a successful portrait.

As both a portraitist and a jobbing fashion photographer, Penn was prolific. In 1948, he completed more than 100 studio sittings in between several extended editorials for Vogue. Around this time, his portraits begin to change, both through necessity and his own need for creative reinvention. As he travelled in Europe, he started to use daylight more, describing it in sensual terms as "the most delicious of several kinds of light". The settings remained simple, more often than not an available wall, but the props disappeared altogether and slowly the subject began to fill the frame.

His head-and-shoulders shot of Alberto Giacometti, taken in 1950, is a pivotal one, even though the tone remains austere to the point of ascetic. As the decade progressed, though, Penn began to home in on the face alone – its landscape of lines, creases and shadows. Picasso, inscrutable as always, directs one beady eye back at the lens from beneath a felt hat as if daring Penn to come any closer. Saul Bellow responds to the camera's proximity with a look that is both quizzical and relaxed, his chin resting on his hand. One's gaze is drawn to the telling details: the wisps of thinning hair that fall over Bellow's furrowed forehead; the tufts of hair on his fingers, the parched lower lip. How much, though, are we really seeing of him? The answer might be, just enough to suggest the interior life that even a portraitist as brilliant as Penn can only hint at.

More intriguingly, how much are we seeing of Irving Penn? He is present here too in every gesture and pose, in every shadow and texture, in the revealing glance of light against skin. It is worth remembering that Penn was a brilliant technician, constantly experimenting not just with form, but with the chemical process of printing. His early silver gelatin prints are both darker and starker. They match the austerity of his vision. In the 60s he shifted to the older method of platinum printing and began using handmade paper. His vision softened and deepened. The images, once almost painterly, now revealed more detail, from the weave of suit fabric to the arrangement of hair on a raised eyebrow.

Penn once said that "sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is the one they would like to show to the world … Every often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe." But what strikes me most about Penn's portraits is, in fact, how little they reveal of the elusive inner life that lies behind the facade. As a fashion photographer, he learned how to choreograph a shoot; as a portraitist, he was a brilliant choreographer of individuals. Even his tradespeople are posed and poised, made to fulfil – or complete – Penn's vision of them. He bestows on them a kind of heightened ordinariness. Likewise, the great and the good are somehow democratised by his camera, by the inspired functionality of the settings in which he places them, one by one, as if he is somehow already thinking of the exhibition that will one day result. More than anything, it is the quiet cumulative power of these portraits that stays with you, the sense of an artistic signature, an imprint that is as rich in its import as it is minimal in its style.

Now see this

Lens Culture is one of the best online photography magazines around, with essays, audio interviews, short films and analysis of images and image-makers from around the globe. Recent highlights have included an illuminating short interview with the South African photographer, Roger Ballen, and a spotlight on The Buddha Project, wherein people send in images of Buddhas they have bought, found, made or spotted in "laundromats, store windows, barbershops, farmers markets, souvenir stands …" 836 Buddhas and counting, so far … © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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