Looking at the twentieth century

Submitted by Anon on 18 June, 2003 - 6:29

By Rosalind Robson

"Tender cruelty" is how one writer described the work of American photographer Walker Evans. That description is the starting point for the "Cruel and Tender" exhibition now showing at the Tate Modern (until 7 September). The sub-title of the exhibition is "the real in the twentieth century photograph." It is not then an over-view of realism in photography or of twentieth century photography. But it is an exhibition which explores those themes.
Evans' subjects included the lives of poor white share-cropper families in Alabama in the 1930s; their faces, their homes, their furniture. The work is "objective" in style. The composition is detached, it aims to be a faithful recording of what is there - in this case the unmistakable ugliness of abject poverty and how people adapt to such circumstances. But it is also evident with Evans that his heart is not detached. Evans feels tenderness for his subject, there is human warmth and empathy. Evans' intention is obvious - to draw attention to this reality. Such art can be a very powerful catalyst for political change.

Though Evans set out to catalogue a living people, the share-croppers - pinched faces, broken boots, calloused feet - his work transcended its time and place. These became images of the US Depression. Such art can continue to provoke political action today.

The work in this exhibition has been chosen for its shared "objective" style, these are not images of dramatic events, but of mundane things. Some of the pictures, grouped together, may be said to form a narrative but this is not essential.

Not all of the work is as powerful as Evans' in my view. But equally I couldn't see a dud. Not all of the work focuses on social conditions. But all are, broadly speaking, of people and places - there are no natural landscapes - all of it is to do with humanity and the twentieth century world we built. The photos are in fact mainly from Germany and the States.

Beyond that the varied themes are: urban life - street people and buildings; the organisation of capitalism; work life, consumerism, mass production; family life (and alienation within the family); the surface of things.

Discussion about photography often focuses on the question: is it art? The question raises itself naturally in the context of these kinds of ultra-reality images. Is a picture of people milling around in LA, caught by a hidden camera, art? (Philip-Lorca diCorcia, exhibited here, takes that kind of photo). And the question may be, perhaps reasonably, posed by anyone who knows how to use a camera skillfully. They might think, "I can do that". For my money this is better than skilful photograpy: because of the thought behind the choice of subjects, the expertise in the framing and the deliberate combination of images. All of these photographers have an artistic purpose.

I came away from the exhibition with an other-worldly feeling: everything outside the gallery looked a bit sharper and clearer. I had experienced something solid, something good.

Robert Frank

Robert Frank travelled America in 1959 to photograph, basically, what he was interested in. These observations he produced in a book The Americans (said to be the most influential photography book of the last 50 years). Friend to the Beat poets, a 60s' artist, his work is obviously influenced by Walker Evans. The image above and many in the exhibition are of the segregated south of America.

August Sander

Aside from Evans the other major photographer in this exhibition is the German August Sander. Sander was born in 1876 and carried on working until well after the Second World War. Sander's great project which he began in the early 1920s was People of the Twentieth Century. This was a series of portraits that aimed to document contemporary German society. Sander was part of the left-leaning avant-garde artistic movement in Germany, specifically a group called the Cologne progressives. Sander's aim was not overtly political - he wanted to record "things as they are and not as they should be."

Sander appeared to be aiming for archetypes - something that for us, living after the experience of the Nazis - has disturbing connotations. Nonetheless, many of his portraits - this one in particular of the landlord and his wife - have something of the archetype about them.

Sander was persecuted by the Nazis. After the war he added to his great work creating portfolios entitled "the Persecuted" (of the Jews), "Foreign Workers" and "Political Prisoners".

Michael Schmidt

Michael Schmidt's images are of one aspect of post-world war Germany, the divided city of Berlin. Schmidt still lives in, the now united, Berlin. Schmidt's work is quite introspective and personal. A grey, drab and oppressive city is caught on camera with this image of a graffitied swastika. An everyday image in many cities and towns, but it is one he has obviously meditated on, with - at least there is an impression of this - obsessive melancholy.

Boris Mikhailov

Boris Mikhailov is a Ukrainian whose work used to satirise the old USSR. Now he describes the social chaos that has come to the Ukraine. His series Case History (1997-98) focuses on the homeless of Kharkov. Mikhailov has been accused of voyeurism - he pays his subjects to "pose" for him. Perhaps his accusers are not comfortable with these images: they are meant to prick consciences - if there are any such things to be found in the political establishment of the Ukraine. And as if to underline his purpose, Mikhailov has produced 500 such images.

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