In Bath, so off to the Victoria Art Gallery to see their latest exhibition ‘History Through the Lens’, a display of press photographs from the Twentieth and early Twenty- first centuries, some of them very well known images.
It was fascinating to see these images together, even if the cumulative effect is to show that we rarely learn from our mistakes; the number of conflicts represented here is depressing!
The exhibition was mounted by the Incite Project. The central purpose is to recognise that press photography can be an art form and, while they were taken to record the news as it happened, the finished photos have merit as works of art. I remember many of the events from the final third of the last century but many of the images from before that appeared in my school history books!
I was most struck by Stuart Franklin’s image of the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square and the 2010 image of America’s President Obama by Mark Seliger. I had not previously seen the 1969 image by Horst Faas of a Vietnamese wife discovery the body of her dead husband but it was heartbreaking. The other image that meant the most to me was of civil rights protesters being water hosed by an Alabama Fire department- an image by Charles Moore from 1963 that I had not seen before.
CHINA. Beijing. Tien An Men Square. 1989.
I went to London to see the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize exhibition. This is now something of an annual pilgrimage for me. I always make an effort to get to the National Portrait Gallery to see the photographs on display. Each year I select my personal favourite before looking to see which works were awarded prizes by the judges and, for the first time, my choice coincided with the winner of the first prize. Obviously, my choice was based on the fact that I liked it. The judges would have used many more criteria, including technical ones.
‘Thembinkosi Fanwell Ngwenya’ by Claudio Rasano took the honours. Once again, a photograph I admired, like so many in the exhibition, came from a series. In this case from a body of work with the title ‘Similar Uniforms: We Refuse to Compare’. Once again, I would have liked to have seen the others.
This exhibition in London at the V and A’s Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green was a poignant reminder of how good intentions can go wrong. Between 1869 and 1970 about 100,000 British children were sent to countries of the Empire (and later Commonwealth) as part of migration schemes run by religious groups and other charities.
The offer of a better life overseas was an appealing one for some, but the truth is that not all children were given a choice and not all parents knew what had happened to their children. As a result, families that could have been reunited were not and a lot of pain that could have been avoided was not.
Working through the exhibits here, photographs and letters being the most affecting, I was struck by the appeal of the message. Who would not have wanted to give the poorest and most desperate children a better life? The countries of the Empire, particularly Canada and Australia needed people. The combination of needy children and countries in need of a workforce proved too powerful to resist. Governments supported these schemes.
However, as the schemes developed it seemed that protecting organisations became of higher importance than protecting people, as often happens. There is evidence here that church leaders did their best to obstruct parents and children finding out information that would have helped them get back together. Decisions made at the point of highest desperation could have been undone when circumstances improved other than this may have brought the scheme into doubt or, worse, allowed stories of mistreatment to escape.
Behind the scheme were stories of farmers who wanted servants and farm hands, not new family members. Mistreatment of children was rife and the children were powerless in a church run, government backed system.
This was a powerful exhibition. The photographs, always of smiling children looking optimistic about the journey they were about to take, did not match the content of many the letters.
‘On their Own’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In London so I visited the National Portrait Gallery for what is now an annual pilgrimage to the Taylor Wessing Photographic exhibition. There is a lot of fun to be had in deciding which photographs I would have selected as the winners. It is rare that my choices match the actual winners but I have to accept that I am not the expert.
The photo I found the most striking was of a young male dancer waiting for an audition. The intensity of his focus as he prepares is impressive and is captured in this shot which shows him looking down. In taking her photograph moments before the audition, something of the jeopardy of the enterprise is expressed, both for the dancer and the photographer.
The photographer is Sophie Harris- Taylor and, like many of the photographs in this exhibition, the picture is one of a series. I often want to see the rest of the photographs but I understand it would be impractical to display them all.
I went across to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see the exhibition of photographs under the title, ‘Staying Power’. The photographs on show are from black British photographers working between 1950 and 1990. The photos show aspects of the black British experience.
As with all exhibitions, but particularly photographic ones, I was waiting for the images that grabbed my attention away from all others. There were two in this collection that kept me returning to them.
In the first, a young man waits for a train at Westbourne Park Tube Station. There is something in this pose that suggests youthful confidence and an attempt to be comfortable in your own skin, something not always easy to achieve when you are young. The photographer is Charlie Phillips and the image dates back to 1967. Its full title is ‘Westbourne Park Tube Station’.
The second photograph was by the same photographer and was arresting for different reasons. In this a couple stare back. He is black and she is white. This image dates from 1967, too.
The reason for spending so much time in front of this photograph was to reflect on how far we have come. There was a time when such an image would have been shocking. Many people would have been offended at the sight of a black man with a white woman. There is documentary evidence to suggest that they were both (but him especially) were in danger of physical harm for daring to be a couple. Yet, this image today is just beautiful and the stories behind it may now be lost.
Both photographs are provocative in the sense that they posed more questions than provided answers: who were these people?; what happened next?; (in the case of the couple) did they stay together?; where are they now?
Now that the Commonwealth Games- Glasgow 2014 are over, I have been pondering yet again why it is that the British media is so obsessed by soccer when the sporting behaviour on show at events such as this is worth celebrating. It is certainly what role models are made of.
I was so impressed in the London Olympics to see the British Gymnastics team congratulating the Japanese team, despite being beaten into bronze position by them. So, I made a point of watching the gymnasts in the Commonwealth Games and was impressed, but not surprised to see how the sportsmen of the different countries reacted to each other after their performances. There was none of the overblown antics of over paid soccer players. Instead, we saw the team members congratulating each other, even when a particularly good performance ruined their own chances of medal position. This is what we should be televising more often. This is the sporting behaviour we should be encouraging.
Kick soccer into a minority position and sport in Great Britain would be the better for it.
This photograph is an interesting document of a time that I sincerely hope is firmly in the past and not to be revisited. Enoch Powell was a politician that aroused strong feelings. I heard him speak once and was struck by the clarity of his thoughts and the articulate way he put them across. Fortunately, he was on a platform with Tony Benn, a politician I admired greatly, so the debate was of a high standard.
Powell remains famous for the speech that has become known as ‘the rivers of blood’. He made this speech in 1968. Many people in Britain felt he spoke for them when he raised the fears of a country being overrun by people of a different colour. What has always interested me about this speech (and the echoes we hear in UKIP rhetoric) is that it was only concerned with colour and race.. I presume non British were welcome as long as they were white.
What is clear in modern Britain is that more is to gained from a diverse country where people contribute to their communities and uphold the values that make living in any country worthwhile. Weigh that against a country where people feel superior or entitled just because of their skin colour.
This photograph is a reminder that Britain is a more tolerant and better country than it once was. Also, I love the idea of a young black boy taking a leaflet from Enoch Powell’s wife. The photo is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?