One can hardly miss the hundreds of posters around London of the blue swim-capped headshot of ‘Misty’ promoting Alec Soth’s Gathered Leaves exhibition at the SCIENCE MUSEUM in South Kensington. I spent Monday afternoon at this rather unorthodox museum (as far as photography goes) to visit Gathered Leaves and also, adjacent to it on the same floor, Julia Margaret Cameron’s Influence and Intimacy, a tribute to this quintessential English woman photographer, marking the 200th year of her birth.
Two major exhibitions, side by side, with some 150 years of photography practice in between. I could say that these twin shows actually form a full circle in photography, from the invention of the medium, the processes and imaging styles of the early pioneers, to a very creative, storytelling contemporary approach using a modern camera. Both artists essentially documenting what they have seen, who they have met and where they have been through the printed image.
Gathered Leaves is Alec Soth’s first UK exhibition and comprises 4 titles or bodies of work, brought together to create this excellent show – Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and the most recent, Songbook (2014). The exhibition is separated into four distinct galleries, with the Broken Manual photographs having a separate grey backdrop. His images are mainly portraits and still-life studies of the far and out towns he visited in America, some printed very large and are absolutely stunning to see up close. As a documentary photographer, Alec Soth mainly uses allegory to give meaning to his images. In Mississippi and Niagara for example.
I particularly like his solitary portrait studies in Mississippi and Niagara, less so in Broken Manual, which I thought was slightly over staged and contrived, with his subjects, hermits and their lifestyles, their surroundings slightly disjointed. Perhaps the book would make more sense as there are more images to look at.
There are hints of Robert Frank and Stephen Shore in some of these images and as a consummate traveller searching for stories, some apparently made up (Songbook) he has produced these rural Americana imagery with great depth and tenderness.
His sitters are often photographed holding something, doing something and often if they do not appear, then a trace or clue of the them is depicted. The subjects aren’t ordinary people in the true sense of the word but people who in his eyes are worthy to be photographed because of what they do or represent within the sub text of his allegory. They fit in to his stories. They all appear troubled to some extent and I feel that is his narrative.
Given enough time, if I were to have sat down for a long period and absorbed these striking photographs, I could be transported into them, and can only wish that I was with the artist when he took them and jointly observed life then.
About 150 years earlier, Julia Margaret Cameron was making albumen photographs (a laborious process then) with a large cupboard of a camera in sleepy Freshwater on the Isle of Wight.
She was given a camera when she was in her 40s by her daughter and immediately fell in love with the concept of making portraits of noble acquaintances, famous neighbours and personages of the period. She made portraits in a most novel way for her era, often of women, children and men friends dressed fantasy costumes, Arthurian legends and fairytales.
At a time when only men photographers were taken seriously in the trade, she bucked the trend with her influential and modernistic poses.
Julia Margaret Cameron travelled to Ceylon and distant lands making portraits, in particular of the ‘natives’ when most other make photographers chose to take landscapes mainly.
She also printed the images all by herself, with all the challenges of a messy and volatile processes of the colloidon print.
Influence and Intimacy is a truly remarkable exhibition of mainly portrait poses, of friends and family, staged with a degree of stiffness included (mainly because the exposures were several minutes then). The small A4 sized sepia coloured prints contrasts with Soth’s modern, bold, colour photographs in size as well as definition, or the lack of in the former.
However, to compare these small albumen prints to modern photography would be foolish. What I find remarkable about this exhibition is that these intimate portraits were made some century and a half ago and are still preserved and cherished today. As true documents of a bygone era, the faces, features, poses, stares, scowls, frowns, etc of each portrait brings these characters alive, as if they had been taken only yesterday, but instead were photographed at the dawn of photography. Lord Tennyson, Darwin, even portraits of herself remain vividly real.
Both exhibitions run until 28 March 2016.