Tate Modern’s new exhibition of street scenes holds a mirror to its audience, says Adrian Searle. And with a story on every corner, the world feels full
Wednesday May 21, 2008
Portraiture is the key to Tate Modern’s new photography exhibition, Street & Studio. The show’s subject, over and above the medium and conventions of photography, is really ourselves, in a multitude of guises.
Grace Kelly jumps in the air for Philippe Halsman’s camera in 1955. Weegee jumped, and so did Marilyn, and now they’re suspended forever. David Bailey throws himself to the floor to photograph Veruschka, while Bert Stern nabs them both in an arty 1960s image. Last year South African photographer Pieter Hugo shot Nigerian Abdullahi Mohammed beneath an elevated section of highway in Lagos. Abdullahi holds a muzzled hyena on a chain. The moment is full of power and danger. Caught on camera, a well-groomed lawyer on the corner of West 41st Street totes his laundry and eyes Joel Sternfeld warily in 1988. The world feels full.
From beginning to end of this compendious and not altogether successful show, like a kind of insistent background din, is the roar of the city. You can hear it above the silence of the images themselves – in the clatter of a Paris street in the rain by Alfred Stieglitz, in the footsteps of commuters heading for work in Paul Strand’s 1915 Wall Street, in the drunken shouts and murmurs of Boris Mikhailov’s alcoholics. The exhibition calls itself an urban history of photography, and it takes us from mid-19th century Paris and London to present-day Shanghai and Mexico City. In many respects, it covers familiar territory: histories of photography are 10 a penny. Some of the work here just feels unnecessary.
The city, after all, is where the people are. It’s where the business is, where photographers have mostly earned their living, some taking street life as their subject, others in the studio, with their controlled lighting and fanciful backdrops. But the street is a studio, too. And there’s traffic all day up and down the stairs to the studio.
With its chance encounters, its collisions of class and circumstance, the street has provided inspiration for the photographer, the artist and the writer since at least the 19th century. One of the first images in this show is an 1863 portrait of Charles Baudelaire, who stares out from the beautiful tonal gradations of his formal photographic portrait with an uncontainable look, and as though he’d like to climb out of the picture – probably to borrow some money. In his famous essay, The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire identified the quintessential, heroic figure of 19th-century urban life: the flâneur, “the impassioned observer”, who feels “at home in the waves of the crowd, in movement, in the fugitive and the infinite”. This attitude worked for Brassaï on his long nocturnal walks, and for Henri Cartier-Bresson, ever alert for his decisive moments in Paris, Mexico and Seville. Catalan photographer Joan Colom’s marvelously atmospheric nocturnal images capture the prostitutes, drunks and sleaze of Barcelona’s El Raval neighbourhood in Franco’s Spain. Colom just had to walk to the corner and look; the world is always there.
At the turn of the 20th-century, Louis Vert photographed a set of images, the Small Tradespeople and Vagrants of Paris – rag pickers, glaziers, tinsmiths. In the 1870s, John Thomson compiled image after image of picaresque Londoners – “the Dramatic Shoe-Black, ‘Caney’ the Clown, and the Temperance Sweep”. All conform to the malodorous music-hall type: folkloric they may have seemed, but what they really were was desperately poor.
For his project People of the 20th Century, August Sander later itemised the organist, the war veteran, the washerwomen and the worker’s gaunt children. There are people struggling with panniers, bowed by immense loads, people just off the bus, people pretending to be other people, people trying to be themselves (the last being the trickiest of all to pull off).
Juergen Teller in Go-Sees (1998-1999) photographed prospective models sent by their agents to come calling at his door. He shot them framed in his west London doorway, caught between anonymity and potential fame, looking apprehensive, disarmed and disconcerted. They are types to the same degree as Friedrich Seidenstücker’s burly workmen. In fact, it is impossible to avoid the feeling that one is looking at people acting out roles for the camera just as much as they are being themselves. When Teller has photographed me, he has rattled and goaded me into behaving in extreme and theatrical ways, and it was through this that a sort of photographic candour emerged.
For all the stagey artificiality of his photographs of debutantes, society beauties and grande dames, Cecil Beaton managed to coax something wonderful from the likes of Wanda Baillie-Hamilton and Lady Bridget Poulett as they posed in a world of tin-foil, cardboard, balloons and cellophane. There was no Photoshop, no Botox: glamour couldn’t be airbrushed in. Today, we question the voracity of the images we see, but photographs have always been calculated, manufactured in some way. Their light is engineered, their tones and surface qualities a matter of choice.
“The ubiquity of image-making has created the visual equivalent of white noise,” Michael Bracewell writes in the exhibition catalogue. But we are accustomed to seeing through this perpetual blizzard of static. What we find there is the ghost in the machine: ourselves. Here we are then, in all our vainglory, posed, rehearsed, interrupted, caught off guard, spied on, framed and captured, the willing and unwilling participants in this game of images. At one extreme, we have the playacting of Cecil Beaton or Robert Mapplethorpe, with his man in a rubber suit and restrictive breathing apparatus. At the other, the corpse on the pavement, leaking blood into the gutter, in Mexican Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s 1934 Striking Worker, Assassinated. It’s hard not to think, looking at this supine and bloody corpse, not to think of Eduard Manet’s dead matador.
In 1946 Lee Miller photographed the Fascist ex-Prime Minister of Hungary, László Bárdossy, as he faced the firing squad in Budapest. He stands below us in a courtyard against the sandbags. It occurred to me that he is maintaining his dignity, not daring to break down or plead for mercy, precisely because he knows he is being photographed. He’s being shot for posterity, after all.
Everyone likes looking at photographs and almost everyone collects them in one way or another. Most of us enjoy taking them and appearing in them. Photographs are personal as well as public. Often, they tell us things we know but ignore. In 2000, Wolfgang Tillmans insinuated his camera between the colliding bodies on crowded London Underground trains. The images are a wealth of accidental, fragmentary intimacies. Strap-hangers’ armpits fill the frame, bulging cloth and a cleavage, bits of bodies and attitudes of studied indifference. The best of these images defamiliarise the world for us, making it more mysterious rather than explaining it.
Something strange happens in a 1928 view of the street by Umbo (Otto Umbehr). The camera looks straight down from a balcony. People pass by below, casting long afternoon shadows on the street. The shadows appear more real and substantial than the figures they belong to, as if they have lives of their own, and might slip away from their owners at any second. Setting up an image like this in the studio could produce only something ersatz and artificial. Umbo found it on the street, lit by sunlight. It is a haunting image, one that makes us feel insubstantial. If only the rest of the show was this good.
Street & Studio is at Tate Modern, London SE1, tomorrow until August 31. Details: 020-7887 8888.