Lee Friedlander/ Mario Giacomelli/ Nan Goldin/ Post-Modernism
Sep 2011, London
(Timothy Taylor Gallery)
The Timothy Taylor Gallery is currently paying tribute to one of the greats from that generation of US photographers which includes Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Joel Meyerowitz and Stephen Shore. All light on articulating any social, political or conceptual message - an antagonistic position in itself in those times - and yet in explaining little they were busy revealing something profoundly important, providing us with revelations about themselves and America.
In some ways Lee Friedlander's rows of modestly sized B&W prints are hardly inspiring by contemporary standards of curating. There is a monotony in the use of the same size white mounts and glazed white frames and unlike shows where rooms are occupied by just one or two seriously large colour investments, (photographs comparable in size to large canvases), there are a lot of pictures on display here, 33 early works and over a hundred from his recent road trips. (A podcast with his musician son Erik gives an insight into the early journeys, family loaded up into the car.)
(© Lee Friedlander)
Back in 1964 Harper's Bazaar had commissioned Friedlander to shoot promos of glossy new model Ford and Buicks for its similarly glossy pages - they had previously used pop-artist Warhol for an earlier editorial. But they pulled the plug on Friedlander when they discovered the products had been reduced to incidental motifs amidst what was becoming his trademark crisis of visual feedback - this was product placement of a pathological kind. A similar fate would later befall Cindy Sherman with her 1981 'Centrefolds' for Artforum magazine - a commission that was similarly mistrusted and never made it into print - but both series can be regarded as seminal in the career of each. The resulting 33 images of Friedlander's 'The New Cars 1964', unseen in the fifty years since their rejection, are both radical and joyfully exuberant. Witty, compositionally challenging ('Hey, anyone can do that') they are some of Friedlander's very best work. The late 'America by Car' works in contrast are long after his switch from the 35mm 3:2 rectangle to a square medium format (still refusing to work in colour) and are mature, robust. With every precariously overloaded shot framed from within plasticky and claustrophobic interiors of hire-cars, they still make compelling sense out of the disconnected and inconsequential masses of surface information that in one sense serves to define us.
(© Mario Giacometti)
The late Mario Giacometti's chiaroscuro italian landscape works from the 1950's showing at The Atlas gallery, aspire to maintain a similar integrity of description but within a far more overt sensibility for abstraction. Through the flattening effect of long focal length lenses and high contrast printing they exist as both accurate depictions of actual fields, real trees and convincing expanses of sky, while at the same time being sublimely realised two-dimensional surfaces fully worked with scratchy blocks of light and shade.
(© Nan Goldin)
Nan Goldin shows some recent pieces at the Sprovieri, upstairs at 23 Heddon Street. 'Fireleap' lacks any continuity (of ideas or look) between images, which isn't a killer issue (it's often a safe identifier, though that there is a need being felt to delineate between 'artist' over 'photographer') but her personality imposes itself in subtle ways. While the works are mostly slight and not an advance on her earlier achievements one image in particular is extraordinary nonetheless - girl in a white dress - which is far stranger than its bright light, child subject and warm palette would at first suggest.
(© Clare Strand)
The V&A have dimmed the lights in Gallery 38 in order to protect their valuable photographic investments on display as part of their re-assessment of postmodernism. It may be a precautionary measure too late as some of the images on display are in very poor condition already - the Cindy Sherman colour print from the early 1980's being particularly disappointing - you'd see a far better copy of it in a book. The Jeff Wall from the same period hung next to it is looking a little more healthy but can only have another ten OK years life left in it before it really starts to succumb to the deficiencies in those colour print processes of that time. It may be the low light levels but certainly the ideas that were once daringly obtuse or strategic - now look a bit lost. But back then, with their peculiar new look and smart self-awareness, re-inventing the use of photography in art, they were absolutely crucial in blowing open the doors of art institutions which had historically shown little or no regard for the medium. So while many of these images may have lost their own personal battle with their dyes showing dodgy colour shifts and losing intelligibility of detail they will be reproduced and written about in art theory books for a long time to come - and can rightly claim to have helped photography, in all its forms, to go on to a preeminence that would have seemed impossible when any of these artists were starting out. And to someone who has been photographing as long as Lee Friedlander this must seem astounding.