With a bit of twisting, the old joke can be appropriated for Dublin: What’s the best thing coming out of Dublin? The frequent planes to London. Well, that’d be putting it a bit too harshly – I really like this place, parochial though it is. But I have to concede that its proximity to London is one of its most enticing features. Well, it has became so, ever since I discovered a) how cheap and easy it is to get from here to London and b) what London really has to offer for photographers (and any other species of tourists).
The first time I went over for a mini-trip was in February 2011 with my fabulous group of gorgeous college friends, with the express purpose of looking at the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize in the NPG and the exhibition on camera-less photography in the V&A, Shadow Catchers, and ever since I have made a point of going every year. I saw Paul Graham in the Whitechapel Gallery and a history of London Street Photography in the Museum of London in June 2011. Last December I caught Patrick Demarchelier in the NPG and a brilliant exhibition in the NG called Seduced by Art on the influence of art on photography. This time ’round I happened on an exhibition by chance that turned out to be hugely inspiring and great fun to look at, Miles Aldridge – I only want you to love me.
What I had actually printed out in advance as a reminder to see, took a backseat against Aldridge. And yet it was well worth making the trip off-Oxford Street. Not only because I had never been down London’s most famous shopping mile, but because I finally managed to find the Photographers’ Gallery, located in Ramillies Street, just off Oxford Street. What initially drew me there was an exhibition of John Hinde photographs – those tacky holiday postcards that used to be on sale everywhere in the British Isles, Ireland included. I remember those images very well from my first visit to this island. The exhibition in the Photographers’ Gallery turned out to be disappointing in the sense that only a handful of images were on show. Nicely blown-up with a postcard original beside it, they were hung in the print archive in the basement of the Gallery. Not that easy to look at, and frankly not enough images. An amusing insight, however, in what constituted a postcard image in times long gone: Typical recreational scenes, including an idyllic beach spoilt by caravans; a busy park with a magnificent fountain, obscured by the revellers; the view of a beautiful cove, egg-shaped 1960s car banged right in front of it. The trademark use of primary colours on details in the images – often manipulated in post-production – was made visible in the contrast of the original colour print and the subsequent postcard edition. Rumour has it that Hinde (and his legion of photographers) always carried a few red-blossom potted plants in the boot of their cars. A hilarious trip back down memory lane – well, before my time even (and I have increasingly less occasion to use that phrase, so there).
Artistically and theoretically more exciting was the main exhibition currently on display in the Photographers’ Gallery. Mass Observation is not just the title of the exhibition but the name of an artistic project started in the mid-1930s in Britain. This is not just a project in documentary photography, but a socio-historical experiment. The founders of the movement stipulated to record every day life in the project. Not only did they take photos of all manner of human life, but also record and categorize human activity in word and relic. In the day and age of data protection and privacy control this kind of thing would not be possible anymore: following unsuspecting members of the public around as they went about their business, jotting down all they did in a notebook. Worthy of a local history museum, the participants amassed material that gives a glimpse of the recreational activities of people in Britain from the 1930s through to the present.
In a way, the photography displayed here was incidental, often not deliberate in its framing etc., sometimes more so – depending on the expertise of the photographer, I suppose. It is a bit of a mingle-mangle of bits and pieces. Quirky. The context is simply the recording of details – but where this all is going, I am not sure.
My meh-attitude to the exhibition probably has to do with the fact that I did not have enough time to engage properly with the concept and the displays. I was en-route to a meeting and flew through the exhibition in half an hour. Not enough time to peruse the displays. It is worth seeing – as a larger project, but not as a photography exhibition, in my opinion. It is an early example of multi-media art. Or a late example of da-da? If I had had more time, I am sure I could’ve given it the due it deserves. I will say, however, that it is worth a visit.
The conclusion has to be that a London visit on photography business needs good planning – and lots of time. Possibly also alone-time – I always get slightly flustered when I am perusing photo exhibitions with non-photography friends. Just because I imagine that they do not want to spend as much time as me poring over prints, examining lighting and gauging the overall experience. Alternatively, get together a group of photo-enthusiasts. It’s high time I did that again.
The Photographers Gallery