Clovelly is not an easy village to reach – the steep cobbled streets do not accommodate cars and the inhabitants have decided they prefer the infrastructure as it, supported by donkeys. It is therefore approached by walking down a curving hill which slowly reveals the buildings clinging like barnacles to the sea facing clifftops.
The central path in the village directs straight towards the harbour, although there are many intriguing side passages which might tempt the curious bypasser.
If at the harbour towards evening there may be a lone fisherman still hard at work whilst the others enjoy a reward at a brightly lit pub nearby. The twilight falls from sea to beach and then to land and Clovelly hunkers down for the night.
Portraiture is a sly medium, always suggesting it depicts a simple truth, particularly in photography, but it is as much about what it conceals or obscures as it is about the character it claims to reveal. The Taylor Wessing prize each year at the National Portrait Gallery emphasises this as it highlights how much a winning portrait is down to craft rather than subject or story. On each wall of this small exhibition hang the faces of actors, butchers, children, officials, friends or family without an order of precedence, Instead, it is the startling background colours, the framing of the subject’s face and the photograph’s composition which always catches my eye.
I have found that although I am interested to see who is judged a winner or highly commended I do not always agree. My particular favourite of the exhibition was Yngvild by Tereza Červeňová (shown above) which appears to make the dreams of the Pre-Raphaelites a reality and actually won the John Kobal New Work prize. I was amazed by how much a photograph could echo such a fantastical genre of painting and yet also be a likeness of someone the Červeňová has met at a wedding. It would be interesting to compare this photograph with others of the same person to tell whether the overwhelming Pre-Raphaelite feel is related to the angle and light or whether it could only have been created with that particular sitter.
The exhibition continues until the 21st of February and creates a delightful pause in a London afternoon. You’ll then be able to see the other winners and let me know what you think!
The V&A has recently opened a new exhibition in collaboration with Black Cultural Archives to document the experiences of black Britons over the last 50 years as well as to showcase some of the talented photographers involved. Half of the photographs are displayed at the V&A while the rest are in Brixton, where the Black Cultural Archives, are based and the exhibition is strengthened by this split as there is less pressure to rush past each photograph in order to see everything. I returned to my favourites several times, one of which (right) was by J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere and was part of a selection of traditional Nigerian headties accompanied by different braided hairstyles. The headties were each so carefully structured and almost architectural when photographed in black and white and it was clear that a great deal of thought was involved, as with the intricate hairstyles as well.
Other images focused on the daily lives of black Britons and ranged from impromptu snapshots of beauty pageants to styled scenes. However, I was touched by the series of portraits of people formally posing in their home – these were sent back to relatives abroad to demonstrate how well settled and prosperous the sitter was. One man carefully leans on a TV in his best suit whilst another has a child playing with a telephone. Throughout the exhibition the people looking out of the photographs are ambitious and proud of who they are, despite any hostile or deprived surroundings, and I look forward to learning more about this heritage when I get a chance to visit the exhibition in Brixton.
The V&A exhibition is only short (and free!) and there is plenty of time to visit it as it is open until May 24th. The exhibition in Brixton is open for longer and can be seen until June 30th and I will hopefully write about this soon!
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.
The exhibition is open until February and is an excellent place to realise that although the world can feel small there is unimaginable and amazing variety even within our own human race.
As many reviews have noted the V&A’s current exhibition on Horst P. Horst is a series of master-classes in photography, composition, lighting and style. Horst was a fashion photographer during 1930s to late 1980s whose career spanned across the transition from black and white to colour and saw the rise of professional models. Although his photographs were often used to create Vogue covers many were used for adverts of corsets, nail varnish and holidays. This commercialisation does not mar the beauty of his creativity but instead makes the viewer marvel at his ingenuity.
As Horst became increasingly popular in fashion circles he also became a regular in other sets. A growing interest in Surrealism is evident in his photography, not least in the photograph of Salvador Dalí! There are women covered in lobsters and a whole series of Surrealist still lifes which create a confusion of reference in comparison with the simply lines of his earlier work. They also led Horst to interesting collaboration as Dalí creating the Surrealist ballet costumes, which were never used due to their impracticality, that Horst photographed in such interesting poses.
Horst was heavily influenced by classical aesthetics and often portrayed his models as statuesque whilst also caught in motion. The exhibition also includes examples of the clothes which Horst photographed and these include outfits by Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Jeanne Lanvin. This provides a welcome contrast to the early walls of black and white photographs. It also demonstrates how difficult it must have been to create the look of constant movement that Horst projects throughout his photographs as many of the outfits are carefully structured and stiff.
My one complaint with the exhibition is that it feels unevenly paced. The first room has an overwhelming amount of photos lining the walls and a great deal of information to absorb. As soon as this room is left behind however, the following rooms feel much larger and spacious with the photos evenly spread out. I also felt that the section on Horst’s nature photography felt slightly out of place as there was a reasonable amount of repetition which slowed the momentum of the exhibition down. If it had been placed closer to the Surrealism section this focus could have been explored more interestingly. However, this did not dim my enjoyment a great deal as there remained other aspects to enjoy, in particular Horst’s photos from his travels.
The exhibition recently opened and so will be open until 4 January 2015. Such a range of photographic skill and technique is unlikely to be exhibited so careful again in the near future so there’s definitely a reason for not putting off a visit! This website offers an excellent preview of the V&A’s offering.
Whilst I enjoyed the Matisse exhibition I recently also had a very different, but also enjoyable, exhibition experience. The Dennis Hopper exhibition at the RA includes his photographs of famous friends, playful experimentation and a documentary of the era. Hopper stated that he used photography as a creative outlet which became unnecessary after Easy Rider was made and so the photos stop abruptly since he never carried a camera again.
The titles of the photos are often playful, encouraging you to notice previously overlooked details. They pick out graffiti in a crowded street, advertising in a bull ring and slogans on placards. This continues throughout the large high ceilinged rooms where the photos are displayed densely packed together, creating a sensation of layered experiences. There are hippies and Hell’s Angels alongside Martin Luther King and Andy Warhol, all belonging to the same era and defying clichés.
Through documenting such variety within an American generation Hopper appears to sympathise with all his subjects whilst remaining an outsider.
I’ve never actually watched Easy Rider but the clip which was included in the exhibition (and is also below) has made me want to watch it as soon as possible. The sudden outburst of colour in comparison to the walls of black and white photographs made the scene even more visually outstanding.
The exhibition remains open until 19th October and is well worth a visit by both those who are Dennis Hopper fans and those who have never heard of him before.