Photography From The Sixties and Seventies Explored Barbican – Review

Although one could definitely make the case that there is too much work in this show, it is a noble attempt to bring a wide range of important work to the general public.

According to its curator, ‘ Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60’s and 70’s’ is an attempt to explore ‘how photographers intersected with their moment and the world they inhabited during the 1960’s and 1970’s’. Such a vague definition allows for the inclusion of a great deal of images from a broad range of photographers. Although the period is set, the location is not and representatives from all the major continents are present. All are comprehensively over-viewed, but South Africans Ernest Cole and David Goldblatt have particularly thorough selections, as does Bruce Davidson, one of the Americans.

Sprawling, with no particular order apart from the demarcation of different photographers, the show demands time and attention. The standard of the work is outstanding and the presentation well thought out and reverent. As one wanders through, it becomes apparent that this is rather a survey of the intersections of art photography with documentary practice. These are almost all creative interpretations of the socio-political, biographically motivated but reaching out to general audiences. Those included are the documentary ‘Auteurs’, the pre-cursors to the ‘Conceptual Documentary’ of today. Historically this establishes a Photographic canon similar to that in film, in which those perceived to have artistic merit are remembered at the expense of the many important but more technically focused practitioners who also served to lay the foundations of the medium.

In most cases the selection of artists is astute and clear, yet one does wonder if allowances have been made to get some of the more recognisable names involved. When the standard is this high and the focus this tight, what distinguishes is commitment. It takes some strong work to make Eggleston look safe, and Mikhailov a little silly, but that is the impression. There is none of the danger in their work one encounters elsewhere. Sigmar Polke is another who seems to stand out, wonderful though the work on display is. This is a ditty of his, a sideshow in which he played around with some photographs. It lacks the dedication that cows the viewer in the work of others.

First to impress, is the wonder of David Goldblatt. In a kind of mini retrospective, selections form several of his seminal projects documenting the horrors of Apartheid era South Africa. A white man with a conscience, Goldblatt dared to expose the spiritual corruption on which such social segregation was founded. He did so in different ways, all powerful, but perhaps the most effective tactic was to document the entitlement of the white populations, particularly in the images from the ‘In Boksburg’ series. Deeply human portrayals of humans made monsters by an absurd system, they are made vacant, with too much time, too much blindness.

Also documenting Apartheid is Ernest Cole, in his searing ‘House of Bondage’ series . A black man, documenting from the inside so to speak, Cole sought to expose every aspect of the horrid regime. He did so under constant fear of arrest, eventually having to go into exile in America without ever being able to return home and eventually dying in poverty. The work is a blend of wonderful portraiture and scenes documenting the cruel banality of such a twisted system’s implementation. His sad demise only serves to reinforce the incredible sacrifices he made in the name of raising awareness. Were it not so…

Bruce Davidson’s documenting of the civil rights movement in America’s deep south, with all its murderous consequences, makes for extremely powerful work, and confronts the viewer with the cost of making an idea real. To effect change costs lives, pain and suffering on a road filled with doubt and inhuman resistances. Unsung heroes populate Davison’s photographs, quietly putting all on the line.

Grand master of Japanese Photography (for this reviewer all Photography) is Shomei Tomatsu, a man who was both serious and cruelly humorous. Images from his Hiroshima series document the aftermath of the bomb, by focussing on the traces and details, the scars. The American occupation was not just physical for Tomatsu, but cultural as well, aggressively imperialistic and wilfully ignorant. This he documents in his ‘Bubblegum and Chocolate’ series. In ‘Shinjuku’, an underground suburb of Tokyo, Tomatsu celebrates youth in its carnal, angry vibrancy. Fighting back, their spirit still intact, these youth represent the nation’s beating heart not so easily extinguished.

Two others to celebrate specific cultures are Graciela Iturbide and Malick Sidibe. Iturbide’s gracious and elegant portraits of indigenous Mexican tribes act as a nice counterpoint to Sidibe’s life-affirming celebration of youth subculture within Mali’s totalitarian regime.

There are other great work by Larry Burrows, documenting the Vietnam war and Li Zhensheng lensing the Maoist revolutions through stitched panoramas.

If anything this exhibition shows what a serious business Photography can be, a fact easily forgotten in the age of the concept and 24 hour rolling news. As such it demands that there be quantity as well as quality, and though the overarching concept may be oblique, I would argue that the public will welcome a reminder of how important the camera can be. Words: Kerim Aytac © ArtLyst 2012

Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60’s and 70’s @ The Barbican until 13 Jan 2013