Magazine article The Spectator

Picture This

Magazine article The Spectator

Picture This

Article excerpt

In the Face of History: European Photographers in the 20th Century Barbican Art Gallery, until 28 January 2007

The title of this absorbing, stylishly laidout exhibition is possibly a misnomer.

Extensive it is, but photo-journalism is largely excluded. Thus, except for Henryk Ross's startling snapshots of a 1940s Polish ghetto and Emmy Andriesse's stark conspectus of famine-ravaged wartime Amsterdam, plus uneven forays into Berlin or late Soviet Russia, the exhibition touches on politics mainly by inference. André Kertész's tame Austro-Hungarian army snaps cannot match dramatic newsreel of key events -- D-Day or Vietnam, Budapest 1956 or the fall of the Ceausescus -- which featured in previous Barbican photographic exhibitions.

Rather, this is a thoughtful, slightly quirky social document, which offers an idiosyncratic sprinkling of more than 20 of the ablest photographers who have, over a century's span, celebrated place by charting urban or rural life in Europe, both East and West.

Expressive portraits of individuals, innocent and knowing alike, feature in their natural habitats -- in bars and clubs, amid rural communities, among humble surroundings reshaped by war and ideology -- resigned to their modest lot, bestriding adversity or revelling in the sheer joy of being.

Certain cameramen's images nicely play off against, or complement, one another.

Thus French pioneer Eugène Atget's ghostly images of turn-of-the-century Paris (which merit a display in their own right) lead into the eerily surreal portraits of the Polish polymath Stanislaw Witkiewicz, and forward to the brilliant, positive images of Robert Doisneau, whose 'The car that melted' (children frolicking athwart wartime Paris wasteland) and 'Josette's Birthday' (twenty-somethings dancing around a vast, looming tenement) are among the most arresting images on show.

'We own the future, ' both of these seem to aver.

The Hungarian Gyula Halász (known as Brassaï) and the Swede Christer Strömholm offer glimpses of another Paris: a netherworld of gay life and transsexuals, some audaciously flaunting their status, others shy, awkward and reserved.

Anders Petersen offers a gleeful revue of life in the bars of Hamburg: cheeky, jocular, homely, touching. …

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