Curated by Martin Parr, Strange and Familiar brought together international photographers who have captured and interpreted the identity of Britain. I’m interested in street photography, have spent years trying to get a handle on it, and knew the exhibition would be useful research for the first two assignments as part of the People and Place module. It’s a hugely relevant exhibition for the topics in People and Place, with portraiture by Rineke Dijkstra, Bruce Gilden, and street photography by Gary Winogrand and Bruce Davidson. There is also a great section in the exhibition with lesser known (at least to me) photographers and their takes on London in the 1950s and 60s London (Sergio Larrain, then Frank Habicht and Gian Butturini). Parr is a well known collector and expert on photobooks and these are also exhibited.
I’m just including my notes here from three of the photographers whose work seems to be really relevant to topics covered in the ‘People Aware’ section of the course. I’ll go back to them for write-ups of later sections of the module, for the sake of a clearer line of sight between research and the exercises and assignments.
The three photographs included from Rineke Dijkstra’s represent the The Buzz Club series (1995). Dijkstra’s images are of teenage clubbers, who posed for her. Dijkstra was interested in the ‘uniform’ of the girls (blonde hair, black clothes) but how they were still completely individual. They’re large scale portraits taken with a 4 x 5 field camera and shot against a white background. This set up and her style means that the viewers focus is on the subjects’ pose, gesture and clothing. The exhibition catalogue (1) refers to the technical camera that Dijkstra uses which captures detail, but slowness is required to use it. ‘This slowness creates an awareness in the sitter of their being photographed’. The work was continued, through video of the teenagers dancing and drinking (again, against a white background) which was paired with footage taken in a Netherlands nightclub, and presented as The Buzz Club, Liverpool, UK/Mystery World, Zaandam, NL (1996-1997). Dijkstra returned to Liverpool in 2008 – 2009 to take portraits of young clubbers at the Krazyhouse club.
Bruce Gilden’s portraits are of ‘underdogs’ of the Black Country, and a continuation of his Face series. They are lit starkly with flash and extremely close, framed so only the head is visible. And the choice of subject, people who look raw and/or have gone through some pretty hard times, means that the viewer focuses on the detail of subjects faces, which is often extreme (heavy lines, thick make up, severe thread veins). They’re unsettling, which is probably the point, although they have been labelled cruel and demeaning in the press. Quoted from the exhibition guide ‘What makes Gilden’s work so compelling is that he renders visible the disenfranchised, photographing the faces we are inclined to look away from’. The work followed a series of UK portraits published as A Complete Examination of Middlesex (a project commissioned by the Archive for Modern Conflict). See sources section below for an article in Vice Magazine (Gilden is a long standing contributor) on this series (2), and an interview with Gilden about the Black Country portraits (3).
The last of the photographers, where the work presented involved subjects being truly aware, was Tina Barney. Barney’s portraits, from her wider The Europeans series, are of the wealthy, staged, and take place in formal settings. While Barney was well networked in America, and her subjects were typically friends or family, for the images presented she relied on introductions. The relationship with her subjects for the Europeans was more of a professional artist, with identity (largely I think with tradition and wealth) communicated through props and settings.
1. Pardo and Parr, 2016, Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers, Munich, Prestel.
2. Vice Magazine, May 18 2015. http://www.vice.com/read/bruce-gilden-complete-examination-of-middlesex
3. StreetShootr.com, May 12 2016. http://www.streetshootr.com/bruce-gilden-kinder-gentler/