The Sniff of the Real. By Peter Carpenter

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    Sony World Photography Awards for 2012.

    The photography festival, World Photo, London, includes a stunning showcase of images from the Sony World Photography Awards for 2012; one far corner is devoted to an ‘intimate’ exhibition of the work of William Klein, awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award on 26 April.  Klein, now eighty-three, started as a painter, trained under Fernand Léger in Paris in the 1950s, and by chance, when taking snaps of painted murals, found a new direction in developing his own abstract designs. In 1957 he met Fellini. His work shocked many critics – ‘too grainy, contrasted and blurred’ – and his book of the same year on New York (full title Life is Good and Good for You in New York. Trance. Witness. Revels.) was slammed thus: ‘you make it look like a crazy slum’. He was a radical: the NY he portrayed was one of fragments and incoherence in terms of ‘narrative’; the urban imagery as exuberant as it was bizarre and ‘off limits’. It is as important a book as Robert Frank’s The Americans from 1958 and in very different ways, Bill Brandt’s Camera in London from 1948. I greatly admire Klein’s work and love the stories behind its development. First, there is the element of chance meetings and re-routings; second, the dogged adherence to a vision of ‘truth’, with the art devoting itself to rendering a reality behind the schmaltz and the surfaces; a questing for what the poet Thom Gunn termed ‘The sniff of the real’.

    Time and again this exhibition reminds us that all great art is dependent to some extent upon chance; the transient beauties and horrors of the natural world and the human condition are hard to capture, and the materials of art are necessarily elements which stand free of the artist’s will. It is rather like Ezra Pound’s view of stone-cutting: the stone is something of the world that gets into the work of art, something the artist can chip away at but cannot in the end wholly subdue. I am on the lookout for that in all great art. It is there in Jackson Pollock, for example: the paint is allowed to do what a fluid material will do; there is an element of chance; the artist is not wholly in command. In the most lasting work of a photographer there is such a tension. This brings something beyond the wonders enabled by the latest camera technology. It is there in Klein’s work and that of many others here. Try to catch his swishing, scuzzy, vibrant image of Ali in Kinshasha, or the poignant, massive, unsentimental family group in The Holy Family on Bike from 1959.

    Klein’s work also reminds us of the informing principles of an eye trained in composition and form. He remarks upon the enduring influence of abstract art – ‘geometrical shapes, circles and thick stripes’ – on all his work. Klein’s story, the meetings with Léger and Fellini, reminds us of the ‘neighbourliness’ of art. Many visitors to the WPO exhibition are likely to walk into Somerset House past an exhibition with the title: Mondrian // Nicholson: In Parallel. They might stop to consider these artists at work in neighbouring Hampstead studios in 1938: influences, confluence and divergences. Then visitors move on to an exhibition where one cannot help but make such comparisons between neighbours on the walls. One thing is put next to another, before considering in detail the juxtapositions within any given image – ‘Always thinking compositionally,’ as Klein puts it. This exhibition has been curated and assembled with necessary swiftness, but with tremendous care and thought.

    So, it is a sharp, tender shock to catch a glimpse of the work of the Spanish photographer, David Airob, from the queues at the entrance. It is taken from the series White Niemeyer; its subject is the new Cultural Centre Niemeyer in Avilés, Spain, the latest work by the Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer. White dominates the three buildings; figures peer in; Airob captures them cut across the lines and curves of the buildings. I am still thinking of Ben Nicholson’s White Relief and its subdued romanticism. Airob’s genius is to allow the humanity of the figures through simple contrast and colour. There is wit and joyfulness through the relief of figures against the white planes – and surrealism. We enter a new world.

    White Niemeyer
    White Niemeyer Copyright: David Airob, Spain, Professional Shortlist, Architecture, Sony World Photography Awards 2012

    Turn back on yourself from here and you take in work by Mitch Dobrowner from a series named Storms, depicting tornadoes and electric storms. Dobrowner was awarded this year’s ‘Iris d’Or’ and you can see just why. This is work in the epic mode. His words on the process regarding the series reflect that element of chance, and humility in the face of powers greater than those of art or indeed any human activity; the respect and the ‘unknowingness’ of it all:

    Words are inadequate to describe the experience of photographing this immense power and beauty. And the most exciting part is with each trip I really don’t know what to expect. But today I see these storms as living, breathing things. They are born when the conditions are right; they gain strength as they grow; they fight against their environment to stay alive; they change form as they age; and eventually they die. They take on so many different aspects, personalities and faces. My only hope is that my images can do justice to these amazing phenomena of nature.

    Of one particular image, Cell-Lightning, he says:

    In July 2009, on my second day out shooting, my guide and I tracked a severe weather system for nine hours from its formation outside of Sturgis, S.D., through Badlands National Park and into Valentine, Neb. We eventually stopped in a field outside of Valentine and stood in awe of the towering super-cell. It was building with intake wind gusts of over sixty miles per hour and I felt like we were standing next to a sixty-five thousand foot high vacuum cleaner. Its formation had an ominous presence and power that I had never witnessed or experienced. I remember turning to someone standing next to me and saying in the howling wind, ‘What the f***! You have to be kidding me’. It was then that I knew that what had only counted as an experiment in photography would become a project.

    Faced by this image I had a rapid associative hit: Burke on the Sublime, Turner… The image maintains that ‘What the f***! You have to be kidding me’ quality for the viewer: at once gob-smackingly out of control and tamed by the art – a miracle of rare design. The composition, most importantly the proportion (around ten parts skyscape to one part land), the lack of any human intrusion, the abiding stillness of the land, the caught movement and power of the storm: all these qualities evoke the ‘awe’ that Dobrowner felt. Dobrowner’s humility in the face of his subject matter allows an equivalent electric charge for the viewer. Black and white, tonally handled so that the cloudscape takes on the appearance of a human torso – we want to, and are allowed to, populate the ripples with faces, muscle, our own broken narratives. And he does it again and again. Put this next to the recent John Martin exhibition and we celebrate the camera.

    Cell-Lightning
    Cell-Lightning Copyright: Mitch Dobrowner, USA, Professional Finalist, Landscape, Sony World Photography Awards 2012

    There are many other images in the exhibition that make the viewer face up to the devastating power of natural forces. And also its lyricism. The latter is often rendered by rhythm, and high definition in colour for emphasis, as with Krzysztof Browko’s immaculate, fauve-bright, luminous ‘Baltic Summer’

    Baltic Summer
    Baltic Summer Copyright: Krzysztof Browko, Poland, Travel, Open Winner, Sony World Photography Awards 2012

    Or by the forces of composition, the tensions in the play of line. In another instance, curved and straight lines and the geometrical fascination of what is held in a puddle. A simple puddle.  Shaped a bit like the United Kingdom ? Tellingly captured, cropped, framed. ( An image for every front page in the time of our wettest of droughts.) Tobias Martin Hughes, a young photographer gives the image this brief gloss to Reflection in Copenhagen: ‘After a torrential downpour in Copenhagen, the sun decided to come out and this image appeared at my feet.’

    Reflection in Copenhagen. Copyright: Tobias Martin Hughes, United Kingdom, Shortlist, Tate Collectives, Youth, Sony World Photography Awards 2012

    Again, I like the element of randomness (‘the sun decided to come out’) and the sudden revelation (‘this image appeared at my feet’). And there are so many other images that endure in the memory through rhythm or impact of lighting and contrast.

    This might be contrasted to an image that reminded me of an empty conceit or pun from a metaphysical poem that exhausts itself and one’s interest in it upon a second reading. Tobias Bräuning’s Dancing Queen is just a bit too contrived, the title an element of self-satisfaction. The genius seems to be in the process rather than in the imagination applied to the resultant shapes. This is the photographer’s account:

    This is a collision of multiple coloured waterdrops. The first drop falls into the water, then the green splash comes up, colliding with a yellow drop. Some milliseconds later, the red drop arrives and also collides. Finally, a blue drop is arriving, captured shortly before touching the splash. The colours and shapes are original, no manipulation. Only removed a few splashes and adjusted saturation and brightness, removed a slight edge of the glass bowl.

    Reflection in Copenhagen
    Reflection in Copenhagen

    We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us – and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle or amaze with itself, but with its subject.

    Keats’ letter to John Hamilton Reynolds (3 February 1818) was at the back of my mind when I looked at the work of Peter Franck, the German photographer who was the Professional Winner in the ‘Fashion’ category.

    Table Series
    Table Series Copyright: Peter Franck, Germany, Professional Winner, Fashion, Sony World Photography Awards 2012

    Franck is taking photographs with a brief, a commission, for a client, but there was something over-calculated in his work, nothing left to chance. He comments thus:

    Clothes and body are cut; the background merges with the foreground. Therein lies, so as in the narrative and humorous character, the tenor of the work. Elements from comics, film and art history and everyday life situations collide. Where just a real woman seemed to lie, the ground turns to be the pure colour space, the girl under the table is reminiscent of Botticelli’s Venus, Batman bride. Tattoos look like clothes and a dress becomes an ornamental pattern. Tables change into a painting surface. Humour plays a big role, humour and the freedom to tell absurd stories. Everything is composition and photography is the transformer to call up associations and stories set in motion in the mind of the beholder. Everything is subordinated to this composition.

    There is certainly humour in this image and others (it is termed ‘zany’ by the photographer) but it turns itself into something mannered upon repetition, perhaps too clever for its own good. Franck is too much in control; the equations are too neat for this viewer. Collage, cut ups: have we not been there before more tellingly? We are presented with immaculate surfaces – a move away from chance, the grubbiness of Klein’s ‘sniff of the real’. ‘Discordia concors’ maybe, but with the life of it all squeezed out.

    There is no doubt that Irina Werning might be accused of the same thing in her series Back to the Future. However, this is redeemed by the power and simple appeal of her narrative, and, as was the case with many other photographic series, the laying down, side by side, of two images for inspection. These are parallel lines. Her impulse is described by her thus:

    I love old photos. I admit being a nosey photographer. As soon as I step into someone else’s house, I start sniffing for them. Most of us are fascinated by their retro look but to me, it’s imagining how people would feel and look like if they were to re-enact them today… One day, I decided to actually do this. So, with my camera, I started inviting people to go back to their future.

    First, it is a great idea; second, the subject choices are superb; most tellingly the image of the boy picking away at the Berlin Wall and the adult figure chipping away at thin air. The bike with all its ghostly signifiers spinning away in a blur to the right in the background is a wonderful touch – touching and wonderful.

    My favourite image of all in the exhibition, aside from the William Kleins and Mitch Dobrowners, was The Last Hero by Kolyaskin Sergey. It is black and white. The old war hero goes to pay his respects and in every element of the photograph respect is paid to him. It is the power of line: the way in which the eye is drawn into the cracked concrete; the headless watchers, the single figure angled in pain up the steps; the flowering of medals; the stark place of light and shadow; the clenching fist in the foreground; the khaki mottle; the steps. It is a shot about power. There is no preaching here, only deference in the face of vast forces – and respect for the viewer. They are things which enter into one’s soul, and do not startle or amaze with themselves, but with their subjects.

    This is a ‘must’ in London’s cultural diary – so get to this important and stunning exhibition before the close of play on 20 May.

    ©Peter Carpenter, 2 May 2012

    Peter Carpenter is a poet, critic and essayist. His next book is Just Like That: New and Selected Poems, due from Smith/Doorstop in autumn 2012. His favourite photographers include Boris Mikhailov, Edwin Smith, August Sander and Bill Brandt.