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Photo London 2018 at Somerset House
May 18, 2018
May 68 – Paris has become the scene to riots confronting students against the police. The younger generation has taken to the streets asking for emancipation from the authoritarian powers at hands. If today these young revolutionaries are still seen as idols – carrying social, political and liberal changes – it is in part due to the powerful and timeless images captured by photographers such as Gilles Caron in the midst of actions. Opened on Thursday, Photo London marks the anniversary of the events, celebrating photography and the immense breadth it offers – not only as a creative tool, but also as an agent of change.
Images “dont simply record. These images change the way we see the world”, could be the motto of this year’s fair (Michael Benson & Fariba Farshad, founders and Directors of Photo London). Now in its fourth edition, Photo London is “bigger than ever” showcasing a record number of more than 100 of the world’s leading galleries from 18 different countries. Hosted under the historic roof of UK’s biggest creative community Somerset House, this year’s Photo London recognizes more than ever the British capital as a one of the world’s key photography center, and undeniably sets May as the photography month in the year’s cultural calendar.
At the center of this year’s edition is the celebration of photography’s power to alter our perception of the world. A longstanding source of fascination for practitioners and viewers alike, photography continues to this day to blur the boundaries between appearances and reality. Now in its second year, the Discover Section has become an integral part of the fair in its mission to showcase and encourage younger emerging talents. At the center of this year’s Discovery however is the long established Canadian fine art photographer Edward Burtynsky, whose work sets out to address and denounce the disastrous impact of humankind on the planet. Refusing the label of activist, Burtynsky’s practice is predominantly focused on turning the invisible, visible: in this case the effect of oil on our ecosystem. Playing on the plurality of tools photography has to offer, from drone technologies to traditional film photography, in order to achieve a near exact reproduction of nature, the artist’s impressive and immersive large scale images of Italian quarries have the viewer question the dimensionality of the flat surface. But his exploration of reality is best epitomize by his latest work, his first Augmented Reality installation, AR #1, Scrap Engine and Rims, Agbogbloshie Recycling Yards, Accra, Ghana 2017, a virtual experience inviting viewers to interact through the use of an Ipad.
While this year’s Master of Photography explores the virtuosity of photography as a mean to come as close to reality as possible, many of the young and emerging talents showcased in this year’s Discovery, instead play with the medium to offer a more poetic and personal approach to reality. Vasantha Yogananthan (Espace JB) for instance, whose photographic journey A Myth of Two Souls, retraces the Ancient Tale of The Ramayana: one of India’s most influential literary work, transports the viewer into the realm of myths and storytelling. Mixing classic colour and hand painted black and white photographs – the Indian born artist plays with the traditional approach to photography – channeling it as means to escape reality rather than trying to capture it. Fiona Struengmann is another of this year’s Discovery artist, whose work – similarly to Yogananthan, goes beyond the representational image in order to shift the boundaries of photographic practice. Leaving her trace on found photographs taken between 1920 and 1950, the artist draws, reframes and isolates fragments from the past to offer her own narrative. Leaving a physical trace on found images – the German artist plays with the idea of layers – not only by blurring chronological boundaries – but also by raising questions of the materiality of the one dimensional image. Witness to the fragility and ephemerality of memories – her small palimpsests draws the viewer in a conversation between the artist, a fragmented past and the present it lingers in.
Play between past and present, memory and nostalgia – is also at the focus of Lorena Lohr’s work (Cob Gallery) – whose pastel photographs embarks the viewer on dreamy – yet desolated – journey across the Texas-Mexican border of the town of El Paso. Stuck between fantasy and nostalgia, her work calls for a reflection on the creation of cultural mythologies. Indeed the recurring motifs of large road billboards, deserted roads, and scenes taken from the classic diners and motel rooms – evoke those found 30 years prior in the works of Henry Wessel (Galerie Thomas Zander) or William Eggleston (Rose Gallery) – emphasizing once again the power photography has had across the ages to define our collective memory.
Juxtaposing artists from across the world, and the age, Photo London allows for a unique conversation of photography between past and present. Starting with one of photography’s first practitioner Fox Tablot (1800-1877), whose work is being given special focus at this year’s public programme – Photo London is more than ever an occasion to travel across the history of photography and witness the instrumental role it has had shaping today’s visual culture. Zigzagging through our own cultural history with works from the venerated Robert Frank, Richard Avedon, Guy Bourdin but also more contemporary artists such as Andreas Gursky and Vera Lutter – one cannot help but think of the photographer’s own role as restless flaneur. “If photography is a journey,” writes Italian artist Luigi Ghirri, “it is not so in the classic sense suggested by this world; it is rather an itinerary that returns, randomness and improvisation, a zigzag line.” Ghirri has been given special attention recently – with the opening of an important retrospective (the first outside of Italy), curated by James Lingwood at the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, and is further exhibited at Photo London at (Valeria Bella). Setting his lense on the surrounding areas of his local town of Modena, often during offseason periods, his images capture a found poetry in the abandon and isolation of spaces formerly touched by mankind. Coloured plaster walls, deserted carousels, closed-off holiday resorts, his aesthetic still very much resonates today, at an age where Instagram feeds are overloaded with imagery of dusty pastel walls and forgotten road signs. Not only are we seeing a Renaissance in the subject matter but also in the practice – with amateur and commercial artists both returning to developing Kodak and Ilford films, as exemplified by the works of Lorena Lohr (Cob Gallery), Marton Perlaki (Webber Gallery) and Katrien De Blauwer (Filles du Calvaire Galerie).
In an age where digital technologies have saturated our perception of reality turning us into hyper-conscious beings – Photo London is a refreshing reminder of the creative weight the medium still carries. And for us romantic dreamers – we can keep hopeful that some will continue to find in the camera: “a fluid way of encountering that other reality”. (Jerry N. Uelsmann)
Words by Margaux Donnellier
Photo London, at Somerset House, until 20 May 2018