Terry Grimley reviews a survey of contemporary photography from the V&A collection.
Photography has been the dominant medium of visual communication for more than a century, but for most of that time it has been kept firmly in its place as an art form.
Numerous photographers from Ansel Adams to Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bill Brandt have achieved international renown, but there was always an assumption that they were working in a secondary tradition of visual reportage, a step down from fine art on the Olympic podium.
What has happened in the last 30 years has changed that. Since the Pop Art era of the 1960s photography has gradually been assimilated as a central medium in fine art, blurring the distinction between documentation and artifice. The status of fashion photography as an influence on visual culture has also increased.
Through this period the Victorian & Albert Museum has been actively collecting the work of contemporary photographers and a touring exhibition selected from its collection, now showing at Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery, gives an excellent opportunity to take stock of where photography has come from in the recent past and where it might be going.
The exhibition’s title, Something That I’ll Never Really See, is borrowed from Gavin Turk’s self portrait with closed eyes, where its meaning is self-explanatory. One of the young British artists who emerged in the 1990s, Turk regularly uses his own photographic image in conceptually-inspired works, but isn’t actually a photographer himself.
Other exhibitors come from a diverse range of backgrounds and work in an equally wide variety of ways. Many make use of digital technology, and some exhibits are extremely high-tech, like Michael Light’s giant lunar landscape, one of a series of digital reworkings of NASA’s negatives from the 1972 Apollo mission, which have delivered the sharpest images yet of the surface of the moon.
At the other extreme, German photographer Edgar Lissel uses a pin hole camera to make his equally large-scale image of sculptures in the British Museum, while Susan Derges doesn’t use a camera at all, but places photographic paper on the beach at night to be washed by the sea and record chance imagery. The resulting exhibit, called Shoreline, is described as a “dye destruction print”.
David Hockney, who has dabbled in photography alongside painting over the last 20 years, is represented by an image called Photography is Dead, Long Live Painting. Despite its partisan title, this exploration of visual paradox – a real vase of sunflowers is juxtaposed with a painting of sunflowers, both then being put at the same distance from reality by being photographed – seems actually to suggest that the two media are equals.
Chrystel Lebas’s Abyss I, an extremely low-key image of a forest at twilight, evokes symbolist painting of circa 1900, while the relationship of painting and photography is elaborately explored in Vik Muniz’s Action Photo (after Hans Namuth), in which a famous photograph of Jason Pollock painting is recreated in chocolate syrup and then re-photographed. And Huang Yan paints people’s faces with flowers which have significance in Chinese culture before taking their portraits.
South African photographer Roger Ballen, the most interesting exhibitor at this year’s Hereford Photography Festival, photographs people in cramped and alien environments, but here he is represented by a photograph of a graffiti-marked wall with fragments of wire and other bits and pieces which has a strong graphic quality. It’s a sign of the times that this is the only black-and-white photograph in the show.
However, there is something approaching monochrome in Nick Wright’s red-and-black silhouette of Naomi Campbell, which represents fashion photography alongside Corinne Day’s early photograph of Kate Moss from 1993.
Hannah Starkey and Sarah Jones both set up large and ambiguous group portraits of adolescent girls, in contrasting social settings. Sam Taylor-Wood, probably the best known specialist in the recent tradition of staged photography, is a conspicuous absentee, but prominent American women photographers, Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin, are both here.
Old-fashioned documentary photography also gets a look-in, with Andrew Cross photographing rural freight railways in Georgia (USA) and Germany and Robin Grierson, garage fitter-turned-photographer, documenting steam fairs.
* Something That I’ll Never Really See is at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Jordan Well, Coventry, until January 11 (Mon-Sat 10am-5.30pm, Sun 12 noon-5pm; admission free).