Everything was Moving: Photography from the 1960s and 1970s, 13.09. 2012 – 13.01. 2013, Barbican Art Gallery London
Locally determined photography
The early photographs of David Goldblatt, an artist who was recognised as relevant in his late career, are simply stunning. They reveal the painful experience and bitter reality of racial suppression in South Africa from late 1950s onwards. These images were not made with the intention of becoming works of art but rather as engaged documents of the extreme socio-political environment, however, they obtained this eminent status for their consistency and time distance that decreases the power of brutality. Time heals, they say. Indeed, nowadays the explicit reality of South African apartheid seems almost surreal. The photographer therefore didn’t seek to present visual aesthetics based on human suffering and didn’t aspire to create concepts based on nostalgia for – the art world did it for him.
Goldblatt is the only one of twelve photographers in the extensive group exhibition with the slightly pretentious title: “Everything was Moving: Photography from 1960s and 1970s”; how could one possibly embrace a period of such huge importance in the expanding medium of photography in a single exhibition? However, the exhibition in the Barbican is much deeper and conceptually accurate then it might sound. Regardless the populist title it is effectively questioning a phenomenon that is still very topical and relevant today: the existence of local traditions within photography, which is otherwise perceived as an utterly universal and global medium. The same concern goes to the unevenly unified world of art where so-called local characteristics are overruled by the “international style” of contemporary art. Both are becoming increasingly significant in the context of irrepressible globalist (western) expansion of political and cultural values. However, the exhibition proves that the provenance of photographs could be expressed in their very substance: with time-specific and site-specific motifs, ambience, colouring and temperament.
Despite the global nature of art and photography most of the selected artists are determined to remain local, who come from geographically, culturally and politically diverse areas in order to cover the entire globe and oppose the dominance of cultural superpowers in the construction of the (art) history. There is the aspiration to embrace the significant events and phenomena that marked the zeitgeist of 1960s and 1970s: civil society struggles in USA, softened repression in USSR, the aftermath of Cultural Revolution in China, (pop) cultural emancipation in Mali or loosening grip of the apartheid in South Africa. However, at the time of the making solutions for those problems seemed far away, irrespective the connotations of these images are still rather positive. Unlike our recent moment in history, marked by dystopian anticipation, and despite the inequity and misery, the 1960s and 1970s were decades of hope. The general mental picture of art making was therefore in accordance with that. These photographers believed they can contribute to the aspired changes.
David Goldblatt, for instance, gives close insight into the everyday reality of South Africa during the dark period of apartheid, where the political situation is inevitably reflected at every step. His view is a view of the privileged, view of an aware and enlightened white citizen who is highly empathetic of the suppressed members of society but neither is he explicitly accusing the suppressors. His photographs are therefore even more telling: they show the bizarreness and absurdity of the situation. In the iconic image ‘Stream of People (Evening Exodus)’ (1959), where “whites” in cars and “blacks” on foot are moving in the opposite directions at the end of the day, shows the ice-cold and out-of-touch relations between the groups. Not even a glance is exchanged. Instead of pitying the plight of the suppressed he examines the mentality of order and discipline of the suppressors. These are his most successful and effective works. The ‘Senior Township Superintendant’ (1973) shows an unwavering middle aged man sitting at his work desk with attributes of power which are proudly reflected in his severe and relentless face. Through obvious referencing of renaissance portraits Goldblatt, with great psychological characterisation, depicts the stark mentality of colonial masters. In another photograph he captures a white teenage girl practicing ballet on the garden of suburban middle class house in order to preserve classic European culture under the scorching African sun. The awkwardness of the scene shows the very essence of the South African society.
His fellow photographer Ernest Cole on the other hand, a “coloured” South African, was facing serious problems, based on his racial “impurity”, in trying to document his immediate surroundings. Tough conditions made his images rough and violent, and more direct in their immediate ideological substance. Simultaneously, in the USA, Bruce Davidson documented the struggles of a newly formed civil society claiming equal rights for all the citizens. He was the chronicler of marches, protests and activities of the African-American Civil Right Movement, lives of ordinary people, the rebellious black community and their white opponents in their attempt to remain status quo. A much more intimate point of view of his immediate surrounding is captured by William Eggleston, persistent archivist of his native Tennessee and the American South, who documented the faces of his fellow citizens and facets of the changing cultural landscape. Like most of these photographers he completely contrasts today’s cliché of the contemporary artist – enlightened world traveller, modern dandy and humanist. His imagery follows rather small changes in everyday life of local communities. Following this idea, the exhibition offers intriguing documents of particular places: Ranghubir Singh showing the divided facets of Indian society, Gracela Iturbide presenting the diversity of Mexican society, focused on indigenous population, and Shomei Tomatsu, dealing with post-war cultural colonisation of Japan. Some of the most outstanding pictures were produced by Malick Sidibé who consistently documented night life in his native Mali during the 1960s and created some amazing records of the western pop culture merging with the local milieu.
The other side of the Iron curtain is depicted in the images of Boris Mikhailov. His early works from the ‘Red Series’ display the undesirable motifs of innocent nudity censored by the rigid government, however, at a turning point when the repression was already losing grip. Like some of his contemporaries he found creative ways of getting around the rules and regulations – as in the case in his early works where he conceals the explicitness of prohibited topics. His double exposure, blurriness and collages – despite generally accepted discourse of greyness of socialism – show joy and happiness of life behind the ideological boundary. Somehow, the images deny the notion of the communist dark ages. Mikhailov’s dark period happened in early 1990s when he documented social and economical decay of the newly independent Ukraine in transition which propelled a number of people into poverty.
The photographs presented consistently follow the concept of storytelling – or even better narrating a history by using (mostly) visual means. Indeed, it is a subjective history of individuals who often put dominant discourses under question in order to make them relative by believing that the history is only a bundle of intimate testimonies. However, there is handful of artists whose works don’t correspond to the concept of immense subjectivity within a certain social and cultural environment. Li Zhengsheng is a photo-journalist who obsessively documented infamous events of the Cultural Revolution in China and its immediate aftermath. As a correspondent of a state controlled newspaper his role was to perpetuate pompous celebrations and rallies in a country completely isolated from the rest of the world. These blown up photographs are precious testifiers of official history, attractive mainly for their curiosity, but they fail to outline different parallel truths. Also highly unusual in this context is the travelling photo diary of Sigmar Polke and painful images of dying American soldiers taken by Paul Burrow on the margins of the Vietnam battlefields.
Although the diversity of presented discourses points out the most significant features of this period they are only personal stories, pieces of the larger puzzle of the general state of mind at the time. The exhibition is thus a great (alternative) historical lesson that – although requiring some prior knowledge – deepens the notion of the situation by visual means. However, though one can easily identify the photographers’ ideological stances, their engaged approaches are not there to agitate. Indeed, the images show several personal histories; accompanied with brief contextualisation they are very telling. Often too, they exceed sole documentary purpose and become multifaceted signifiers of personal and collective memory which (often) trigger the status (aura) of an art work. Some are simply stunning.
by Miha Colner
Miha Colner (1978) is an art historian working as freelance curator, art critic and editor. He is part-time curator at Ljubljana based Photon – Centre for Contemporary Photography and member of a research team DIVA (Digital Video Archive) at SCCA – Ljubljana. He is a contributor or editor for various art & society magazines, newspapers, radio stations and publications. He lives and works between London and Ljubljana.