Every year the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize opens countless windows into lives across the globe at the National Portrait Gallery. The prize is open to all photographers and can be of anyone, famous or not, that the photographer believes should be noticed and recorded. This leads to the faces of politicians, grandmothers, teachers, children and soldiers all staring out into the same gallery space.
This profusion of human faces makes it almost impossible to compare one image against another. Some photographers simply present human life, with its joyous highs and miserable lows, through focused portraits of individual faces for the viewer to aesthetically appreciate whilst others use their subject as an explanation of a wider context. An Afghan girl holding a skateboard suggests a great deal more than an interesting hobby and the soldier standing in rubble is only a small image of a larger picture. This range of motivations behind the portraits inevitably leads to the question of what a portrait should aim to achieve. Is capturing the essence of your subject the most important goal or should there be more material information about their surroundings for the viewer to contextualise? Interestingly the judges chose photographs from both categories to award prizes to with the aesthetically pleasing Konrad Lars Hastings Titlow by David Titlow being given first place. In this image the composition of the light and the almost Old Master depiction of the subjects elevates the photograph above the status of a casual family snapshot.
If Charles Dickens had been alive in the 21st century I think he is unlikely to have been a novelist but would have been entranced by the possibilities of the screen. The meandering plots of his hefty novels transform easily into TV miniseries and each episode can use the cliffhangers which Dickens tantalised his audiences with. Dombey and Son, published between 1846 and 1848, is no exception to this and its lengthy overarching plots would be worthy of an HBO drama. The story begins in Dickens’ conventional bildungsroman style, as the eponymous son, Paul, is born and struggles through the first years of his life under the weight of his father’s expectations. However, it soon becomes clear that the story cannot remain solely Paul Dombey’s as Dickens includes increasing detailed accounts of the lives of those who surround the little boy. Florence Dombey, Mr Dombey’s elder child, might be ignored by her father but the reader watches her every disappointment and how her young hopes struggle on.
As with all of Dickens’ novels Dombey and Son is awash with eccentric characters and unlikely friendships. Nevertheless no matter how ridiculous an individual might seem the reader quickly comes to know, understand and sympathise with them as Dickens demonstrates that similar worries are experienced throughout social classes and across England.Throughout this cast of characters there are very few who are portrayed as irredeemably evil since there is always an understandable motivation or foible. Mr Dombey’s concern regarding his rank and the standing of his house is not so very different from the boasting of a proud mother or a young man’s nervous entry into the adult world. It is only Mr Carker, the right hand man of Dombey’s business, who becomes even harder to like as aspects of his personality and past are revealed to the reader throughout the novel. In this character I was reminded strongly of Uriah Heep of David Copperfield and I wonder if Charles Dickens had a particular reason for such a strong dislike of stewards and managers.
Although I felt that the book took a while to engage me due to the apparent lack of plot direction this later grew to be a strength. It was completely impossible to predict whether the narrative would twist or forgotten characters would rear their heads again. I’ve struggled to summarise what happens throughout the book as it is so concerned with social situations and conversations that ultimately there is rarely great action scenes. Instead there is shock as Mr Dombey’s fate is decided by a manipulative beggar woman and despair as social pressures force a range of characters to act against their will. They are trapped in their gilded world and it soon becomes apparent that money can be worth very little when love, whether familial or spousal, is not present.
These contemporary illustrations for Dombey and Son perfectly capture the scenes and characters they depict. I was reminded of forgotten moments and characters were exactly how I had imagined them. The characters seem so wrapped up in their worries, and in Mr Dombey’s case self importance, that is difficult to believe that this is a drawing rather than a snapshot of real people living their real lives.
Dombey and Son might not be the best Dickens book to read first as there is less obvious momentum to the storyline to help keep you glued to the 900+ pages but it contains some of my favourite Dickensian characters. As a small example of such favourites; Miss Tox, a lonely spinister, unexpectedly grows in the reader’s estimation throughout the novel as changes from a cruel, small-minded sidekick to someone with ambitious, and unreachable dreams of her own. Captain Cuttle initially seems a ridiculous figure of fun but he clearly cares deeply for the younger characters as they face the everyday dangers of life. The pride of Edith Granger made her both tragic and fascinating as I felt the anger over her powerless position still resonate today. Of course, I also cannot finish this post without mentioning Diogenes the dog who acts exactly like a dog should and clearly enjoys being Florence Dombey’s pampered and beloved mongrel.
As the opening credits of Ida began I realised I had almost unrealistically high expectations for this film. I had seen posters littered with hyperbolic praise and adorned with awards from across Europe and watched the breathtaking trailer several times. I suddenly worried whether it was possible for the film to sustain so many preconceived hopes. However, it soon became apparent that Paweł Pawlikowski has focused on the small details of Ida’s story allowing the larger subjects of the film to remain undamaged by a heavy hand. This lightness of narrative makes Ida both a completely absorbing and painful film to watch.
The eponymous Ida, Agata Trzebuchowska, is an orphan novice nun who is about to take her vows in rural Poland during the Soviet rule of the 1960s. Although she has already agreed to spend her life in the stark nunnery her Mother Superior insists she must meet her remaining family, an aunt, before she makes an irreversable commitment. Ida reluctantly makes her way to the city where she discovers from this aunt, Wanda Gruz played by Agata Kulesza, that she is Jewish. Her complete faith in a Christian god is then faced with an identity crisis as she realises she knows nothing about this new culture and family which have laid a claim on her. Pawlikowski also demonstrates throughout the film that it is not only traditional Jewish culture that continues their separation but the overwhelming and inescapable grief the recent generations have faced following the loss of so many communities in the Holocaust. Ida is drawn into this shared emotion as she travels with Wanda to discover her parents’ fate and understand why she was left at the nunnery for so many years.
Although this quest to reveal Ida’s past might sound unremittingly bleak the film does also raise questions about how lives should be lived. As Ida begins to experience the full possibilities that the world has to offer, ranging from beautiful clothes to the social interaction offered by a bustling city and the suggestion of a male friend, it seems as if she has closed herself off from the world before even understanding it. The audience sees this strange new world through her eyes, as even a traffic jam appears exotic in comparison to the barren, snowy lands surrounding her previous home.
Ida was a film that I think will stay with me and in my thoughts for a long time. While many people wished they could forget the terrible things which war brought with it to Poland it is clear that this would always remain impossible without an acknowledgement of the wounds that lay across the surface of society.
Unfortunately Ida appears to have finished its run in cinemas but I think it is worth buying the DVD of this film as the clear and simple visuals will not bore with rewatching.
Due to the recent ‘Late Tuesday’ event at RIBA I was able to at last go to their exhibition on Edwin Smith since they kept their doors open until 10pm. There was a great buzz in the beautiful Art Deco building and it provided the perfect setting for showcasing Edwin Smith’s work. Edwin Smith’s photography career began with some work for Vogue but it was once he was commissioned to do a set of architectural photography that his strengths really became apparent. Throughout the exhibition it is clear that not only did Smith love the simplicity in the stark lines of a building he also enjoyed celebrating curiously English aspects of the scenes he encountered.
The ability to give a building life by juxtaposing small figures against the architectural landscape means that Smith’s photography continues to surprise even when it appears to be most familiar. I was interested to learn that Smith had used colour photography in the past but felt that it diminished the images as well as taking away his autonomy as a photographer since the prints had to be developed in a laboratory. In fact, having seen some of his colour prints which do survive, I felt that the addition of colour to his composition made even the simplest image almost overwhelming to look at.
The exhibition was well laid out, although it is only in one room, and I expect it was busier than normal when I visited due to the ‘Late Tuesday’ event. I definitely left with my interest piqued and only wished that I could see a greater selection of the thousands of Edwin Smith images which RIBA currently holds in its archives. It seems a shame that although he was famous throughout his lifetime he has rapidly been forgotten. His informal documentation of a range of life and culture has clearly been influential on a newer generation of photographers and the photographs still seem fresh and relevant today. I hope that this new exhibition at RIBA brings Smith’s name out of the shadows once more.
The exhibition is free to all and is worth making a detour for! If you get a chance it is also definitely worth having a look around RIBA which has an exquisite Art Deco staircase as well as other interesting events on and Edwin Smith prints hanging throughout the building.