Everything was moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s at Barbican Art Gallery, London13 September 2012 - 13 January 2013
I love all art medium but it is always a pleasure to share inforations about a major photography exhibition. This one is particulary interresting because it surveys the medium from an international perspective, and includes renowned photographers from across the globe, all working during two of the most memorable decades of the 20th Century. everything was moving: photography from the 60s and 70s tells a history of photography, through the photography of history. It brings together over 350 works, some rarely seen, others recently discovered and many shown in the UK for the first time.
It features key figures of modern photography including Bruce Davidson, William Eggleston, David Goldblatt, Graciela Iturbide, Boris Mikhailov and Shomei Tomatsu, as well as important practitioners whose lives were cut tragically short such as Ernest Cole and Raghubir Singh. Each contributor has, in different ways, advanced the aesthetic language of photography, as well as engaging with the world they inhabit in a profound and powerful way.
The exhibition is set in one of the defining periods of the modern age – a time that remains an inescapable reference point even today. The world changed dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, shaped by the forces of post-colonialism, and Cold War neo-colonialism. This momentous epoch in history coincided with a golden age in photography: the moment when the medium flowered as a modern art form.
Great auteur photographers emerged around the ‘developed’ and the ‘developing’ world. Many, working increasingly independently from the illustrated press, and freed from the restraints of brief and commission, were able to approach the world on their own terms, and to introduce a new level of complexity to photographic imagery. Others, such as Li Zhensheng (China) and Ernest Cole (South Africa), found themselves living in situations of extreme repression, but devised inspiring strategies to create major works of photography in secrecy and at huge personal risk.
Back in the 1960s, many commentators viewed photography as inferior to painting or sculpture, because it simply recorded, mechanically, what could be seen, and was judged to be concerned primarily with reporting the facts (journalism) or campaigning for change (social documentary). Attitudes changed during this period, and the art museum slowly opened its doors to the medium. Less concerned to change the world, or to merely describe it, a new generation of photographers were driven to understand that world, as well as their place within it.
The exhibition presents a selection of works by the Chinese photographer, Li Zhensheng, some never before revealed in public. An aspiring artist and filmmaker, Li Zhensheng worked throughout the tumultuous decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) for the Heilongjiang Daily, the local newspaper of Harbin in the far North East of China, on the border with Russia. He, like everyone else in the country found himself caught up in the mad spiral of indoctrination and violence that was Mao’s ‘revolution’– at times as a participant, at others as a victim. At great personal risk, Li Zhensheng photographed in secret, and then buried those photographs, some 30,000 negatives, under his mud floor. The material only came fully to light in the West at the end of the 20th century. It is the most complete visual record known of this extraordinary period of human history.
In a very different response to totalitarianism, acclaimed conceptual photographer, Boris Mikhailov lived and worked in Kharkhov at the height of Soviet domination of the Ukraine. Boris Mikhailov developed a distinctive artistic approach, with which to evade the censors and to satirize Soviet occupation, as well as the tenets of socialist realism. The exhibition includes the first UK showing of his very first series, Yesterday’s Sandwich, 1968-1975, a collection of radical, often hilarious montages.
A pioneer of colour, Indian artist Raghubir Singh (1942-1999) was driven to create a photography that was emphatically modern and Indian. He broke abruptly with the colonial tradition of single-point perspective, picturesque, depopulated landscapes – to describe an India which was peopled, frenetic and luminous. His so-called theory of ‘Ganges modernism’ pitted colour and spirituality against the monochromatic angst and alienation of Western figures such as Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. The work of Raghubir Singh has never been thoroughly evaluated in the UK, and this selection includes rarely seen images from the extraordinary archives of the early part of his career.
In stark contrast to Raghubir Singh’s colourful exuberance, an unrelentingly black-and-white aesthetic emerged in Japan, exemplified by the work of Shomei Tomatsu who is widely considered the ‘godfather’ of modern Japenese photography and a major influence on Daido Moriyama. In Shomei Tomatsu’s first-ever British museum showing, life in 1960s and 1970s Japan is evoked in metaphoric, angry, uncompromisingly monochrome pictures. Shomei Tomatsu rails against continuing American military occupation at Okinawa (the base from which Vietnam was being bombed); the growing impact of American capitalism on Japenese culture; and the devastating psychological legacy of Nagasaki.
Where most of Africa was – in theory at least – liberated from colonial domination by the early 1960s, in South Africa, a government – inspired by Nazi Germany and ignored by the West – was starting to build its heinous apartheid regime. Across the Atlantic, in another society dominated by white racism and racial segregation, the Southern states of America saw the stirrings of change as the civil rights movement gathered pace. The struggle for civil rights –from Selma to Soweto, the Amazon to Londonderry – was to define the spirit of the times: as did an increasingly angry global opposition to the neo-colonial war that America was waging in Vietnam.
Johannesburg-based David Goldblatt, is, perhaps more than any other photographer since Eugène Atget, linked inextricably with the country of his birth. Over five decades, David Goldblatt has created arguably one of the most important bodies of documentary photography in the history of the medium. He has forged a complex, contradictory tableau of South Africa’s fractured society, during and after apartheid. For this exhibition, David Goldblatt has personally revisited his major series of the 1960s and 1970s, from On the Mines with Nadine Gordimer, to Some Afrikaners Photographed, and In Boksburg. The selection includes rarely exhibited works.
Long thought lost for ever, an incredible collection of vintage prints by the black South African Ernest Cole (1940-1990) was recently rediscovered and will be shown for the first time in Britain at Barbican Art Gallery. Ernest Cole somehow persuaded the Race Classification Board that he was not ‘black’ but ‘coloured’ (he changed his name from Kole to Cole) and was therefore able to practice as a photographer at a time when many black photographers were persecuted and imprisoned. Ernest Cole’s courage and determination were matched by his artistic talent. He escaped South Africa on 9 May 1966, and in exile in New York was to publish House of Bondage, 1967, an indelible record of what it was to be black under apartheid. Ernest Cole was never able to return home and he died in poverty, his negatives given away, it is believed, in lieu of an unpaid hotel bill.
South Africa ’s extraordinary tradition of realist photography during this period is contrasted with major American contemporaries. Bruce Davidson and William Eggleston are two of the giants of 20th century photography. In many ways, they are diametrically opposed in philosophy and approach, and yet at points in the 1960s they shared subject matter: both were photographing people and places in the contested landscape of the Southern states as the struggle for equality unfolded.
Time of Change, 1961-1965, one of Bruce Davidson’s most powerful series, has never been exhibited in the UK. On May 25, 1961 the 28-year old photographer joined a group of Freedom Riders making a terrifying journey by bus from Montgomery, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi. It was the starting point of a four-year project for Bruce Davidson, in which he captures the mood and the events of the civil rights struggle, in a series of poignant and empathetic pictures. Where Bruce Davidson was interested in the human reality of the south, in contrast, William Eggleston, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, perplexed the critics with his seeming lack of subject matter, lack of composition - and lack of a photographic agenda. Now, he is widely viewed as a brilliant innovator who revolutionized photography with his ‘democratic’, non-hierarchical vision, his ‘shotgun’ aesthetic and his radical use of colour. William Eggleston’s classic pictures of the period – affectless, brooding images of the Deep South, saturated in vivid colour, and shot through with a sense of menace, equally conjure the mood of the time.
Also included: major contributions by Hasselblad-award winners Graciela Iturbide (Mexico) and Malick Sidibé (Mali); a little-seen allegorical work by Sigmar Polke (Germany) ; and a selection of Larry Burrows’ (UK) powerful Vietnam portraits.
Kate Bush, Head of Art Galleries, Barbican Centre, said:
I am delighted to bring together an amazing group of photographers whose striking and powerful images of the 1960s and 1970s make us look at the world again. everything was moving explores a spectrum of different photographic approaches, and asks if, in the early 21st century, we are finally prepared to erase the distinction between art photography and documentary photography.
This exhibition is supported by The Japan Foundation, Institut Français, The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and The Nehru Centre.
Art Gallerie, Barbarican Centre's website: www.barbican.org.uk