London a century after the 'new vision'

My first visit to London in almost two years opened new horizons for me.

The Radical Eye (Sir Elton John's collection of modernist photography) at Tate Modern and a big Paul Nash retrospective at Tate Britain provided the impetus for the visit. Although I knew many of the modernist photos from my books, seeing them on the wall was really stimulating. In January I had taught a class on André Kertész and in February Man Ray will be our subject. Revisiting their inspiration has made me reconsider my approach to photography. My leisurely walks through London gave me a chance to think over the difference they had made - while looking for new perspectives to put ideas into practice.

Paul Nash's paintings engage me less than his ideas and writings. As a child I came across his war paintings in my encyclopaedias. In 1940 one of his late paintings, Monster Field, was sent to Durban art gallery, where I would have seen it during my regular Saturday morning visits. I have only recently learned of his fascination with two clumps of trees, the Wittenham Clumps, relevant to my long-term preoccupation with a clump of trees, the Billing, local to Leeds.

Paul Nash, Monster Field, Durban Art Gallery

Kertész, Man Ray, Paul Nash... what links them is Surrealism, which was also a huge inspiration for Walter Benjamin. "Surrealism"...? Its influence is so pervasive it is hard to get any kind of perspective. I have been re-considering the surreal and its contribution to the new ways of seeing that spread during the first half of the 20th century.

In 1936 Nash wrote an essay for Country Life entitled "Swanage or Seaside Surrealism", in which he described the town as having something "of a dream image where things are so often incongruous and slightly frightening in their relation to time or place."

A really interesting exhibition of the Taylor-Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize

I was surprised that this year's Taylor-Wessing photographic portrait prize exhibition was so different, so much improved. Gone were the red-haired subjects and weird animals. Many of the clichés to which we have grown accustomed were swept away.The new emphasis on social documentary meant the portraits were much more arresting and challenging. But a new kind of 'grouping' seems to have occurred (around old age, and Africa, especially South Africa).

And no visit to London would be complete without a least a short walk through the halls of the National Gallery.

Is the collection of people on the walls more surreal than those walking the halls? National Gallery, London.

[Click on any image in a PHOTOGRID to expand]

The surreal has been 'normalised' by our tourist rituals. Especially in the gift shop.
Uncanny geometries: our wonderful museums and galleries offer many strange, enclosed spaces.
Turning his face away from photography, Man Ray nevertheless extended its powers
Photos by André Kertész, supreme master of modernism

The genius of André Kertész was recognized by Sir Elton John. There were many, many fine examples of his photos in the exhibition of his collection, The Radical Eye, at Tate Modern. I was struck by their simplicity. When I took my leisurely stroll through London on Sunday, I felt as if I was walking in his company and I took a relaxed, wide-eyed approach to capturing some of the grandeur and brilliance of London.

Also in The Radical Eye exhibition were many examples of Man Ray's mysterious and powerful portraits. When I took a quick (half hour) walk through the National Gallery I took particular notice of some of the many portraits. I think Man Ray was very good at learning from the Old Masters...

Nearly all tricks of great portraitists like Man Ray were worked out long ago by the Old Masters.

Look at those masterful poses, those fierce gazes. And notice, too, the use of objects, letters, books, to imply a bigger story. Ah, classical poses.

A bit of the old London uncanny, on Tottenham Court Road

Moving through London I made my activity with a camera obvious. It allowed me to be more careful about framing, making sure that I captured more of the environment. Often my subjects remained oblivious of me and my camera. But it also meant that often people are captured looking directly at the camera.

Tottenham Court Road, down to Trafalgar Square
Tottenham Court Road. Keeping it clean.
London was a good place to practice a slower, more obvious and deliberate style of street photography.
That's a LOT of wheels, of various kinds.

The lass in pink above, passes by in the photo below. Past the pink (or purple) table.

Keeping the streets looking good.

Above and below: when you find a good spot - especially one with decent light - it pays to show yourself and hold your ground. It can be useful to smile at anyone else occupying spaces or places nearby.

Designated photographer: this lass was part of a family group of about eight.
When is a phone not a phone?
In London in 2017 it is quite hard to find someone not on their phone.
Paying proper attention to geometry at a really busy intersection.
Paying more attention to setting makes ones subjects seem like characters in a film.
Twenty-first century elegance.
How healthy can it be, trundling through the London smog?
The red shoes on the reader.
Everyone's a photographer now.
Somehow we no longer see such encounters as strange, or surreal.
No need to have read Freud, to understand the symbolism.
The most colourful coat I spotted outside the National Gallery.
A glimpse into Chinatown, just off Tottenham Court Road
Wandering down Shaftesbury Avenue, in the sunlight, down to Tottenham Court Road
Sunday evening, homeward bound, on King's Cross Station

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