Everything Was Moving is the title of the latest photographic exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London. The exhibition documents two decades; the 60’s and 70’s through the lenses of twelve influential photographers and each one shows us a window through which we can view those turbulent times.
Why those two decades? The exhibition guide tells us “the 60’s and 70’s are the most identifiable decades in modern history”. The 60’s and 70’s had everything going for them, the Beatles, the miniskirt, but the biggest changes of all, again as the exhibition guide points out were “post-colonialism and the cold war”. These themes run throughout the exhibition and it’s this turbulence or movement that the exhibition follows within countries from around the world.
The contributing photographers are a stellar mix and include; David Goldblatt, Ernest Cole, Bruce Davidson, William Eggleston, Graciela Iturbide, Boris Mikhailov, Shomei Tomatsu, Larry Burrows, Li Zhensheng, Malick Sibide, Raghubir Singh and Sigmar Polke.
The exhibition is certainly on a large scale and is located on two levels, the work beautifully arranged with separate spaces for each contributor. It’s so large, that rather than write a little about each one, I’ve selected a few of the photographers whose work I think best reflects the title, or is worthy of a mention.
In South Africa and America, both then dominated by racism and segregation, subtle changes were beginning to take place. In Vietnam the war against communism, East versus West developed into a battle of neo-colonial power. In other countries around the world, social and political changes were also evolving. It's against these shifting backdrops that each photographer has tried to capture the ground breaking events, or just document the mundane day to day lives of the ordinary person who lived through them. What the viewer sees here through the lenses of these men and women is documentary evidence of the travails and turmoil of the ordinary person trying to create a change for better.
The American photographer, Bruce Davidson, shows the travails and movement only too well. Davidson joined Magnum in 1959 and had already documented a number of stories before shooting the very beginnings of the civil rights movement.In a series of lovely black and white images, taken on the move whilst on a ‘Freedom Ride’. This was a perilous journey made through the southern states of America and his images show groups and individuals obviously hostile to the impending changes. The white onlookers protected by the police, the National Guard, trying to protect the erosion of the status quo. Its chilling stuff to look back on, but thankfully, Davidson’s stunning images will never let us forget the supreme sacrifices made by individual men and women to achieve what must have seemed an impossible goal at that time.
It’s interesting that the work of both Ernest Cole and David Goldblatt are almost a mirror image of Davidson’s and document a black underclass. The work of Ernest Cole, a black South African himself, describes life under the brutality of the apartheid regime. Although self taught, some of his images are beautifully composed. Two images in particular, one showing a middle aged white woman seated gracefully on a park bench marked ‘Europeans only’, stencilled neatly in white paint epitomises the conflict to perfection. The other image is more chilling and shows a close up of handcuffed hands, two men arrested for being in an area exclusive to whites.
David Goldblatt, a white South African, shows work that depicts the grim day to day life of black miners in a series of beautiful black and white images. One particular image that I wont forget, is that of three white men, each seated on a white horse, shot front on and close up, the men looking down at the camera. It’s a striking composition that totally conveys the underlying sense of brutality and white supremacy of the apartheid regime.
Larry Burrows documented the worst of the Vietnam War for Life magazine, living, eating and sleeping with front line troops. Through his lens, he captured moments of intense stress, grief and compassion shown here in a series of very large, arresting, colour images and believe me, once you’ve seen them you wont forget them. His images of individual soldiers somehow manage to capture an incredible sense of stillness and serenity, soldiers who have seen and done terrible things. Sadly Burrows was killed before the war ended when the helicopter he was travelling in got shot down. In fact, there were three other photojournalist’s killed in the same crash. For us, the legacy of his work will always be a lasting tribute to the photographer’s skill, courage and dedication.
The work of Tennessee born William Eggleston has always been a mystery to me; I just don’t 'get' him in the same way my wife doesn’t get John Coltrane! I’ve read many reviews of his work and critics seem careful in their appraisal of him. The exhibition guide says that he, “perplexed critics at the time with his seeming lack of subject matter; lack of a photographic or political agenda and the casual, snapshot qualities of his images”. The guide then goes on to say that, “he is now widely viewed as a brilliant innovator who revolutionised photography with use of color and his ‘war on the obvious’”.
Two conflicting descriptions of the same man and the same work, which is the right one? I don’t know. The work on show is a mixture of large individual color portraits; all of white people, all untitled and a further series of his trade mark abstract images of cars, buildings and fragments. There are probably a great many advocates of the great man out there, and I don’t want to offend any of you, so please come and view the work for yourselves and be the judge of it.
Graciela Itubide the Mexican born photographer, whose work I’ve followed since the early eighties has documented the lives of the indigenous peoples of Latin America. Her work is incredibly beautiful and has a very spiritual feel to it. Influenced by Cartier-Bresson and Koudelka, her wonderful black and white compositions of women shot individually or against the vast backdrops of deserts are all visually stunning.