Once again start off at Piccadilly tube station but this time turn away from the main highway and go down a side street to get to Beetles & Huxley which sounds a bit like one of those fake names that marketing people conjure up after extensive focus group research in order to add a subliminal suggestion of established longevity and refinement to the purveyors of shirts, soap or paint or whatever commodity is being rebranded, repackaged and repriced. Having said all that, a quick google confirms that B&H are, in fact, real human people and their gallery, which specialises in photographic works, has been around since the start of this new teenage decade. The current show, entitled Genesis, comprises thirty or so large black and white prints taken as part of a long term documentary project by Sebastiao Salgado, a photographer probably best known for the extraordinary sequence of shots he took to capture the dystopian daily struggles endured by workers toiling in the open cast mines of his native Brazil.
Unlike that suite of images, which sort to reveal the damaging effect that man’s exploitationary endeavours can have on both the natural landscape and local peoples, this new series seeks to celebrate the Edenic glories of various virgin territories dotted around the globe. Fortunately, maybe even surprisingly, there seem to be plenty of such sites to record, albeit that they’re often in rather exotic out-the-way locations. As such, Salgado has been racking up the frequent flyer miles logging journeys from the desert dunes of Namibia to the snowscapes of Alaska, and wearing out his trainers tracking buffalo herds across the plains of Zambia, chasing zebras in Botswana and stalking penguins in Antarctica. All these impressive geographical and biological phenomena are carefully chronicled by Salgado using his signature photographic style that emphasises the contrasting shades of grey held within the silvery shadows and crepuscular chiaroscuro – a technique that adds a touch of elegance to confirm the rarity and preciousness of the many locations visited on his prelapsarian itinerary. The only jarring note to the display comes when he turns his lens to include some exotic portraits of members of the indigenous native populations who inhabit these far flung places, as if they too are somehow part of the spectacular scenery or endangered wildlife, rather than individuals with narratives of their own to tell.
Continuing on the photographic theme I head off down to the Photographers’ Gallery where Pentti Sammallahti and Kristoffer Albrecht have managed to find similar, if slightly more parochial, scenes of unspoiled natural topographies to chart. Their stamping ground is limited to the Orkney and Shetland Isles but again the tale they tell is one of desolate beauty and chilly isolation that I suspect is probably best appreciated when framed and hung on the walls of a nice warm gallery rather than experienced first hand with the wind whistling icy blasts right round the f-stops and up the shutters. By way of a contrast to these carefully considered studies of sites of natural beauty displayed in the basement rooms, the top two floors of the Gallery have been given over to a wildly indulgent stream of consciousness narrative courtesy of Polaroid snaps taken by the famous film director Wim Wenders. Frankly, the seemingly unedited cascade of fleeting images of clouds and cars, bridges and breakfasts, and other assorted randomania look like scrapbook pastings from the diary of an unsuccessful location finder or maybe background shots of a movie that didn’t quite make the final cut. In other words, they’re all a bit less than very interesting. I suppose, to be fair, it could be argued that Wenders’ scattershot technique produces a multiplicity of demotic imagery that aggregates to create some kind of general ambient mood. But the problem, for me at least, is that the atmosphere so evoked is one that veers between the dull boredom of everyday mundanity and that specific form of specialist ennui associated with viewing some of the more rarified works of art house cinematography. And of course, paradoxically, the sense of sensory deprivation increases with the viewing of each additional uninteresting snap until I, too, finally snap, emit one final yawn and decide to give up and move on.
And so it is that I arrive at the Cortesi Gallery where my spirits are quickly revived. The works on display here are collaborative efforts by the photographer Edo Bertoglio, who took the original photographic series of images charting the life of the graffiti artist Jean Michel Basquiat, and Serena Maisto, who has then overlain the images with her special painterly touch-ups. Basquiat seemed to have such a charismatic personality and such a photogenic physiognomy that he managed to radiate a sort of magic glow wherever he went, brightening up even the seedy environs of the New York backstreets where he walked and worked during the early 1980s. And this sense of groovy optimistic expressiveness still shines forth all these years later. I’m not sure that the artistic embellishments really add very much to the charm or energy of Bartoglio’s original pictures but, to her credit, Maisto is subtle enough in the application of her squiggly acrylic flashes and cartoon contourings, that neither are they too much of a distraction. And I suppose the sadly deceased graffitiologist is anyway in no position to complain one way or the other since he started his career with deliberately illicit mark making, went on to appropriate imagery from the entire encyclopaedia of art history and happily engaged in collaborative efforts with his own favourite hero and fan Andy Warhol. So, in a sense, these Bartoglio-Maisto works could be read as a reasonable enough Po-Mo echo or homage to Basquiat and the not so distant past that now seems like a whole world away.
Coincidentally, Warhol crops up playing a minor, sideman role in the next photo show on today’s tour at Hamiltons where a handful of his screenprints of adverts mingle among a more extensive series of photographs by one of the greatest of all American photographers, Irving Penn. These early works catalogue the simple commercial signage that was prevalent on shop fronts and store windows in America during those pre-war years before neon lighting and mass plastification redefined what I suppose might be called the promotional and advertorial arts of the professional shopfitter. As such, Penn catches a precise moment in the sociological history of the cities he visits when the proprietors of small businesses would announce their presence to their potential customers by way of wonderfully naïve drawings illustrating the wares they had to sell whether it was honbnail boots, fresh fish or optical supplies. Evidently a proper signwriter would occasionally be employed to add a written confirmation of the visual message but, just as often, the misspellings and unevenly spaced lettering indicate that the cobbler, fishmonger or optician decided to adopt the DIY self-sufficient approach that had made them entrepreneurs in the first place. But the appeal of these photos rests not just in noting the endearingly innocence and comical clumsiness that is the hallmark of the give-it-a-go amateurs attempting to master a task beyond their capabilities, since all the pictures are framed with the formalistic beauty that was to become Penn’s personal trademark.
As for the last stop on this whistlestop tour of real world analogue photoshoppery, that requires a ride out to London Bridge and a walk in the shadows of the Shard to get to the Art Bermondsey Project Space and the latest in its ongoing series of one-person shows made possible through the generous sponsorship of Olympus, the Japanese camera manufacturers. This time it’s Kirsten Reynolds who gets the chance to fill the upper gallery with her series of landscapes and nightscapes that have been revivified by the addition of ethereal swirls and swooshes of ghostly ectoplasmic extrusions. I kind of think that the sketchy white marks that are layered onto the backgrounds of fields, forests and sandy beaches are probably not, in fact, spirit world emanations but, more likely, the transient tricks of the light that result when a camera with a long exposure time is focused on the terpsichorean twirls of an Isadora Duncan fan with a torch gripped firmly between her teeth. Either that or Reynolds has managed to direct a team of avionic displays from a well-trained troupe of synchronised fireflies. In any case, the results are interesting if not quite yet developed into the full-blown wizardry that this rather neat idea potentially might presage.
Back home at Berman Towers, sprawled on the sofa with the feet up and relaxing after the daily trudge, it’s time to take a final look at yet more photographic imagery, scanning through the latest picture book from Anna Arnone, an old acquaintance first met during the days when I helped run Brixton Art Gallery three or more decades ago. Sound Reasoning is a comprehensive compilation of the interviews and accompanying photographs that Arnone took for magazines like Black Echoes and City Limits documenting the sound systems music scene that was such an important part of Black street culture back in the 1980s. Being more of an old hippy prog-rock fan myself, I admit that my knowledge of this particular area of musical entertainment with all its accompanying histories and mythologies, stars and supporters – not to mention the associated fashion stylings, both sartorial and tonsorial – is somewhat limited. But with her affectionate portraits of Bionic Rhona, Sista Culcha, Lord Sam Soca Wax, the Fatman Posse and all the other amazing cast of characters who played their part in sustaining and developing this amazingly vibrant and energetic enterprise, Arnone has created what must be the definitive record of a particularly powerful subset of British urban social history, as well as confirming her personal reputation for being a photographer of technical accomplishment and empathetic perspicacity.
NB The photos at the start and end of this blog (featuring, respectively, Smiley Culture and Jah Revelationmuzik) are copyright Anna Arnone. Her book is available from [email protected]