I don’t know what possessed me but, as I was close by, I decided to pop into Tate Modern for a quick visit over the Bank Holiday weekend – there were so many people! Tate always has something new to see and, on this visit, I discovered a five-room photography display, examining the ways in which artists today use cameras to explore the power of the photograph as a documentary medium. The exhibition also celebrates Tate’s new acquisitions.
The subject range is diverse with each room focusing on one artist and one project.
The exhibition opens with Mitch Epstein’s American Power series, the result of five years’ work, in which the artist documents the consequences of energy production. His works capture the relationship between the American landscape and American society, often juxtaposing the two in striking, somewhat unsettling compositions showing homes in the shadow of power plants where people are deprived of clean air and water. Epstein’s work is powerful, forcing the viewer to confront the issues at hand without sugar-coating the topic. The vast scale of the images alludes to the enormity of the problem. Engaging with the tradition of landscape photography, Epstein is working within an artistic heritage to illuminate this political context.
Mitch Epstein, American Power series. Own photograph.
This project began in 2003 when Epstein photographed the ‘erasure’ of Cheshire, Ohio, where American Electric Power bought the town and issued a gag order. As the streets rapidly emptied, Epstein began to comprehend the true cost of energy growth and the consequences of fossil-fuel production on human life and the ecosystem. These images show the flip-side of the American dream – the growth of this American dream shows the dangerous nature of corporate power and consumerist advertising.
Mitch Epstein, Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia, 2004. Own photograph.
The exhibition then moves on to the work of the artist, Luc Delahaye, who made a name for himself through war photojournalism. His work focuses on recent conflicts, looking at Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. This series of work prompts us to question the role of documentary photography and whether it is designed to be exhibited. For me, these works sit more easily on the side of photojournalism rather than as an art form, but Delahaye uses a large-format, single-plate view camera, rather than the small portable type normally utilised in these situations, and takes only one image, rather than the hundreds usually captured by photojournalists. His work certainly mixes art with reportage.
Luc Delahaye, Jenin Refugee Camp, 2002. Own photograph.
Delahaye has won numerous photography awards and accolades in the past for his reportage and ground-breaking work. Are we meant to look at these images in an artistic context or are they meant to be seen in magazines and newspapers? Focusing on human suffering, Delahaye once said ‘Photojournalism is neither photography or journalism…the press is for me just a means for photographing, for material – not for telling the truth.’ He considers himself an artist rather than a photojournalist. The images here, though less horrific than some of his previously exhibited works, are still powerful.
Luc Delahaye, The Palestine Hotel, 2003. Own photograph.
All of the rooms present a striking contrast. The exhibition goes on to look at the work of Akram Zaatari who curates photographs from the archive of Hashem el Madani. These photographs illuminate ordinary people, individuals escaping from everyday life, posing, dressing up and so on. Madani’s studio was a safe haven in a socially conservative society. Zaatari has organised the photographs into categories that reflect the social and political context in which the sitters lived.
Works by Akram Zaatari. Own photograph.
Guy Tillim’s series Congo Demoratic depicts the 2006 presidential election in the Republic of Congo. Although Tillim focuses on moments of tension and/or excitement, he manages to convey great detail showing the range of emotion expressed by all those in the scene. These photographs capture moments of shocking violence, showing the often horrific position of a documentary photographer and the sensationalist nature of this kind of imagery.
Guy Tillim, Protesters calling for a boycott of the elections, central Kinshasa, July 2006. Own photograph.
Finally, we look at the work of acclaimed artist, Boris Mikhailov and his series Red and Dusk. Red shows works taken in his home town, Kharkov, from 1968-75. Arranged in a large installation, Mikhailov has hand-painted red onto the images to show the continual presence of the Soviet Union in his home town. As with all the documentary photographs on display here, his work is uncompromising in its presentation of the vulnerability of those in his town. His Dusk series documents the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s. Using a blue tonality throughout, this time the artist has used colour to symbolise Ukraine’s dusk at the end of the Soviet Union. Mikhailov uses his play with colour to introduce an artistic edge to a
Boris Mikhailov, Red. Own photograph.
Tate is concentrating a lot on photography at the moment. This exhibition is a like a meze plate – there really aren’t enough works by each photographer to get your teeth into. It’s too brief but it whets your appetite. These themes and these artists certainly deserve further exploration and this exhibition only just touches the surface. These photographs are powerful visual documents that profoundly affect viewers.
Photographers are not only able to document social and political issues but also to influence the way in which they are portrayed. New Documentary Forms shows the importance of photography as artform and newsform. Through this medium, we are able to see great art and a record of history. What is photojournalism? What is artistic photography? Is there a difference? In a time when boundaries are blurred, this exhibition shows the haziness and the difficulty surrounding this argument.
Photography: New Documentary Forms is at Tate Modern until 31st March 2012, www.tate.org.uk.