|Written by Max Houghton|
|02 Dec 2010|
Over the course of three very different photo exhibitions in Paris, each revealed its discrete purpose…
Paris Photo, its habitat the plush halls of the Carrousel de Louvre, is slightly sniffily referred to as ‘just a trade show’ and to be sure its purpose is to sell. A late afternoon visit to a packed Musée d’Art Moderne to view a major retrospective of Larry Clark’s oeuvre seemed to exist in order to be admired, in the way of monolithic exhibitions everywhere, perhaps. 'Anonymes', the inaugural exhibition at Le Bal, the new documentary space at Place de Clichy, offered a third possibility for the photophile: to think.
It’s neither necessary nor accurate to be dismissive of Paris Photo. It’s like a very high-end zoo, where interested parties can look, perhaps even touch, but there is no possibility of taking home the cute one with the big eyes that stares at you beseechingly. Exquisite old Atgets, graceful Sarah Moons, perennially relevant Bill Brandts are the big cats here, while the monkey chatter of the arrivistes competes for the same longevity.
That the work can be inelegantly, even unintelligibly, hung is a valid criticism, but that’s if you go there expecting to walk into MOMA. The only obvious clue to the fact that the show had been curated to a theme – Photography in Central Europe – Living With and Beyond History – came courtesy of Oliver Wood, of WoodFinch books. His collection of Czech books from the early 1920s onwards was a revelation; suddenly Koudelka’s visual heritage unfolded in front of my eyes. Holding a perfect copy of The Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness by Zdenek Tmej was a highlight of the whole trip. Tmej was 22 when, as an unmarried Czech citizen, he was ordered to serve at the Nazi forced labour camp in Breslau, unloading mail trains. His job allowed him to order photographic equipment, even setting up a dark room there, as he documented the passing of time there, its occupants eating, sleeping, visiting the brothel next door. It’s a remarkable book, and, despite its hefty price tag, latter days fans can look forward to acquiring an Errata facsimile edition of the original text in the new year.
The Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness by Zdenek Tmej
Errata Editions, like Schiltz, Schaden and many more were exhibiting at OffPrint, at Espace Kiron across town. Jane Hilton was doing a stalwart job in her cowboy hat signing copies of Dead Eagle Trail, its subjects out of place but never out of time in Paris. Talk was that Offprint was so successful that it was sucking visitors from Paris Photo at the Carrousel du Louvre, and while it’s true that the former was packed to the point of perspiration, it was such a different atmosphere – studenty and informal – that the two exhibitions could not be usefully compared.
Also incomparable, in another sense, was 'Anonymes', curated by Diane Dufour and David Campany, at the city’s first dedicated documentary space, Le Bal, which opened in September. The first floor of the exhibition revealed the most interesting curatorial decisions I’ve seen (I was going to say… since the sensual, enigmatic interplay of photographs selected by Christian Caujolle for a show at Arles earlier this year… but that would be a comparison, so I’ll just add the pay-off: for a long, long time).
Anoymes at La Bal
At Le Bal, one wall was in its entirety a Jeff Wall photograph: Men Waiting. It’s a staged, cinematographic image, black and white, based on a real-life experience, when Wall noticed groups of migrant workers hanging around on the edge of a Vancouver street, waiting to be picked up and taken to perform their underpaid, illegal and possibly dangerous task somewhere out of town. The scale of it is vast; and it should really be too big for the room, but somehow it does not dominate the space. Instead it communicates silently with the Lewis Baltz series of faceless industrial buildings on a perpendicular wall. The homogenisation of architecture in the post-war period in Southern California left Baltz wondering what kind of people could possibly inhabit such spaces – alienation from labour had reached its apogee in his eyes. What is so successful here is how the grid format employed for the Baltz hang changes the observer’s relation to the Walker Evans images of subway passengers and of workers in Detroit, displayed in their original magazine formats, and then, turning to the far wall, in a work called Necrology by Standish Lawder, how a screen passing up the faces of Pan Am commuters to their destination of Grand Central Station (as though it were a kind of heaven) adds another layer of contemplation. In terms of narrative, the piece de resistance is the Chauncey Hare sequence. It seems almost implausible that Hare could have been present in these extraordinary ordinary scenes. How could he capture the image of the man asleep in the corner, a huge Christmas tree in the foreground? What was he doing in the house with the couple sitting together quite formally on the sofa, and, more to the point, to whom does that freefloating arm belong? None of these questions are answered and nor should they be, but together, and, even more so than in the book reviewed here by Ken Grant for 8 Magazine, they create a vivid document of quiet but insistent protest, no placards needed, at the heavy spiritual price paid by those in corporate employ.
The Walker Evans photo essays alone are worthy of hours of consideration. The greatest photographer of the first half of the twentieth century can write as well as he can photograph, with equal profundity and grace. Labour Anonymous, published in Fortune, was evidently pivotal to the curation of this show, and indeed Campany devotes the bulk of his accompanying essay in the Steidl catalogue to Evans and the printed page. The faces are unforgettable, and the text succeeds in subverting the expected message with a great deal of subtlety. Evans refers to the subway passengers he photographs as ‘the jury’, managing in a phrase to confer a sense of dignity, equality and power that was – is – rarely recognised elsewhere. Campany is publishing a book on Evans and the printed page next summer. I hope the texts will be reproduced in full.
The opening room of 'Anonymes' was alone worth the Eurostar fare, but the rest of the show offered a few surprises, too. Ariana Arcara and Luca Santese have worked with an archive of found photographs from a crumbling Detroit, framed them in crude hardwood, and titled it Detroit: Self Portrait. Stark. The hang comprises not just photographs but chilling letters, presumably found at crime scenes. Seeing promises of death and vengeance written in child-like scripts is unsettling, the more so than blood and guts and death images. Absorbing and revealing though this work undoubtedly is, its inclusion wasn’t as suggestive to the theme as the powerful exchanges and resonances going on upstairs. The anonymity that linked it to this exhibition is that of the photographer(s); the deaths framed in these damaged images are excruciatingly personal. Once again, though, a curatorial decision offers another resonance: on the next wall hangs the surgically precise Search of Premises, another Jeff Wall image. Rarely has a pair of trainers looked more in need of someone to wear them, their personlessness rendering them a kind of unsolved, unsolvable riddle.
Ariana Arcara and Luca Santese
The Anthony Hernandez photographs, as well as the Bruce Gilden Magnum in Motion piece on Detroit, served to consolidate the ideas embedded in the work already mentioned and the relationships between them. They certainly ‘fitted’, in terms of aesthetic restraint and subject matter, but the familiar tropes of the American road and of ruined cities respectively, would fit into a hundred other photography exhibitions with equal ease.
The most pleasing images, in an eye-candy kind of way, in this part of the exhibition were also the most machine-like. In A New American Picture, Doug Rickard photographed exquisitely coloured screen grabs by setting up a tripod in front of his computer monitor to capture moments from Google Street View. The photographic legacy that informs his choices is what makes this contemporary archive so compelling. When I later discover that Rickard is the man behind American Suburb X, I see how it is that he is so well placed to tell a story of contemporary America, as well as a story of contemporary technology, nimbly transcending the dull technological determinism category.
A very relevant inclusion comes in the shape of the slowest film in the world (I exaggerate): Lunch Break, an installation by Sharon Lockhart. It’s not work we see in – slow – motion, but the bit inbetween, the bit where the worker is permitted to eat their own food, use a mug with their own name on it, think their own thoughts. The scale of the factory used to make this film, a shipbuilding arm of the defense industry in Maine with 6,000 employees, along with the scale of the Wall on the wall upstairs, creates a sense of a incomprehensible vastness that will always be insurmountable to the individual.
Back in snowy England, I continue to be inspired by 'Anonymes' – and alarmed by its ongoing political relevance – and also by the existence of an exhibition space entirely devoted to ‘the document’ in its many forms. That Dufour has urged this project on from conception to actualité is a great achievement, even in Paris, where such matters are treated very seriously. It will be interesting to see how they follow this show…
I confess. I made a mistake for my final exhibition visit. André Kertesz was the obvious choice (fantastic, I heard), so I plumped for Larry Clark at the Musée d’Art Moderne. After reacquainting my eye with his early photographs from amphetamine-fuelled Tulsa, it was evident that his work had not since inhabited an original place. Clark seemed a man in search of a return to early brilliance, never found. I can only imagine the conversations that took place around his recent portraits of young Hispanic men, in relation to where to position their penises for the photograph. The brouhaha over the age restrictions imposed on the show resulted in a particularly French cachet around the show. Liberation published a Clark image of un homme d’un erection on their front cover. I didn’t find it transgressive at all. In fact, in the way the exhibition was curated to ‘sell’ Clark as a leading voice in contemporary art photography, I found it unchallenging. I preferred his mother’s pictures (also included as an entrée to the show) of dogs dressed as schoolchildren. I will turn to Clark’s fellow Americans for a suitable phrase: go figure (and then go back to Le Bal for further edification and sheer visual pleasure).
Paris Photo was on from 17-20 November 2010
Anonymes is on at La Bal in Paris until 19 December 2010
Larry Clark, Kiss the Past Hello, is on at Musée d'Art Moderne until 2 January 2011