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.
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."
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.
[Click on any image in a PHOTOGRID to expand]
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...
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.
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.