Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Strange Bedfellows

Do opposites attract? Or are they like chalk and cheese? And can things be the same but different? With Strange Bedfellows, just about every combination seems possible.

On one wall are the contrasts. Sebastian Rich’s “Homeless child Somalia” is paired with Nino Gehrig’s “Cooking 2008”. One child bordering on starvation, the other proudly displaying a cake made from a mountain of sugary sweets.

And George Kavanagh’s diver plunging perfectly into a pool hangs uneasily alongside Rich’s shot of a U.S. marine letting a hooded and restrained Iraqi prisoner of war drink from a jerry-can.

Food and water. Two essentials of life common to everyone. The haves and the have-nots. One of the great divides in the world. The problem is that the way the images are put together feels clichéd. Not so much strange bedfellows as obvious contrasts that are predictably poles apart.

While one side of the gallery explores suffering, the other could be seen as being more about sexuality. Here, Sue Golden’s curation of work from the London Photographic Association and Gallery 1839 is much more deft.

Now you start to see the bedfellows. Couplings that look like they are suited rather than being forced together to make a point. And the strangeness is more subtle.

Julie Cook’s “A.J. Men of Sapphire” could be a classic gay icon in his shorts and chaps. While Sukey Parnell’s “Johnny in Tu-tu” is equally fit and rippling, he looks somehow less sure of himself, perhaps bordering on shy of his physique.

Ginger Liu’s study of Fever Blister in her kitchen is beautifully brassy burlesque. Ilya van Marle’s “Dolly Twins 2008” is also deliciously domestic but considerably more coy. Now your eye is caught by the wigs and the iron and the almost matching girdles.

So one half of the exhibition is chalk and cheese. The other is same but different. But do all these oppositions attract? Not entirely, but there’s no denying that the strangeness does have some appeal.

Strange Bedfellows part 2 can be seen at The Assembly Rooms, 8 Silver Place, Soho, London W1F 0JU. The exhibition is open 10am-5pm Monday to Friday, November 3 to 19.

Julie Cook's "A.J. Men of Sapphire" and Sukey Parnell's "Johnny in Tu-tu" at The Assembly Rooms

Julie Cook’s “A.J. Men of Sapphire” and Sukey Parnell’s “Johnny in Tu-tu” at The Assembly Rooms

Pick and mix

I seem to be developing a bit of a sideline reviewing photography exhibitions. Here’s the latest one, written for

If you are in London this weekend and have an hour or two to spare then Jigsaw, a show by photography graduates from the University of the Creative Arts, is worth a quick look.

The exhibition is billed as representing “the finished puzzle of photography, people and individual pieces”. It’s certainly a puzzle, but more like a jigsaw where you are given of lots of random pieces in a box with no real clue as to what the finished item should look like.

Given the number of people being displayed that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Perhaps “Pick and Mix” would have been a better working title because providing you don’t expect the parts to make a coherent whole and you are prepared to dip in and out of varying styles then you should be able to find something to interest you.

On an individual level, the work is hugely varied. The only real complaint is that some if it feels a little too experimental. Either the concept is interesting but the execution doesn’t quite come off, or the technique is there but the idea seems a little lacking. Work in progress rather than the finished article perhaps?

But the show does have some undoubted stars. “Are You Looking For Business” by Richard Fleming is an excellent piece of reportage. He’s done an excellent job in recording the sex workers in his town and the pictures ooze with the feel the meaner streets of Medway.

At the other end of the spectrum, Jenne-Rose Gardiner’s “Genetic Instability” is light-hearted but an equally fine example of social documentary. Her uncle and grandfather strike a series of comic poses. The photos are deftly composed and without any suggestion of the subjects being self-conscious about what they were doing.

“Architectonic” by Steven Pocock is also worth more than a passing glance. He’s resisted the temptation to portray tower blocks and housing estates as grim and gritty places. The way they are printed makes his pictures feel cool and light, bordering on graphic art.

Jigsaw can be seen at the Rag Factory, 16 Heneage Street, London E1 5LJ. The exhibition is open from noon until 6pm, Friday June 11 to Sunday June 13.

Last chance to see: Irving Penn Portraits

If you are at loose end in London this weekend it’s your last chance to see “Irving Penn Portraits” at the National Portrait Gallery. Although formal portraiture isn’t something I do, I’ve always thought that you can often learn by studying the way other photographers work. Here’s the review I wrote for

“We don’t call them shoots here. We don’t shoot people, it’s really a love affair”

Irving Penn’s approach was a million miles removed from that of the machine-gun approach of the modern-day paparazzi. But, as a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery shows, he was undoubtedly a master craftsman who loved photographing his subjects rather than a chaser after Z-list “celebrities”.

Penn started work at American Vogue in 1943 and when he rose to prominence soon after the Second World War, the Hollywood studio system was only just coming to an end. But rather than kow-tow to the people he photographed he was determined to take pictures his way.

Eschewing the styles favoured by the other leading photographers of the period, he wedged his subjects in a corner or placed them on a grimy old rug. Their reaction to this novel approach is often visible in their poses and expressions. One sitter had the temerity to object and refuse to pose until the studio was cleaned. Penn had no hesitation in sending them packing.

His publishers sent him to Europe and, with the benefit of natural light in his studio in Paris, this was the point from which Penn really flourished. By the end of the 1950s, he had been named one of world’s 10 greatest photographers in an international survey carried out by Popular Photography.

It wasn’t only the great and the good that passed before his camera. While a list of the people he photographed reads like a Who’s Who of the 20th century, Penn was also an astute observer of street workers in his “Small Trades” series.

Before turning to photography because he didn’t think he was good enough as an artist, Penn had studied drawing, painting and design. Possibly as a result, his sense of composition was impeccable. Both in group shots and in photos of individuals everything seems perfectly placed without being forced.

Irving Penn portraits, National Portrait Gallery

Irving Penn portraits, National Portrait Gallery

Perhaps this was because Penn was also skilled at still life (his first ever Vogue cover) and so understood how all the elements should be arranged to make the whole. Or perhaps it was because he had an instinctive eye and empathy with his subjects. The result is images that are simple and stripped down without ever quite feeling stark, even though the detail of every pore or wrinkle is often crystal clear.

Magdalene Keaney, the NPG’s associate curator of photographs, spent more than two years selecting and assembling the prints, some of which have never been exhibited before. The two things that stood out for her during her research were that Penn understood and could read a face like the words on a page, and that he often seemed to be exploring what was the least that could constitute a portrait.

Some critics have suggested that Penn wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Swinging Sixties, as another generation of photographers emerged. But as you study the work he produced over more than half a century there is a sense of a constant development and refinement rather than any huge leaps of style. The Grateful Dead and Nicole Kidman were photographed with just as much aplomb as Igor Stravinsky and the Duchess of Windsor.

And while other people were out partying Penn, ever the perfectionist, was hard at work in the darkroom, reviving and refining an old platinum and palladium process that would allow him to print his work with even greater depth of detail.

Interviewed by American Photo, Penn said: “I have always stood in the awe of the camera. I recognize it for the instrument it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel.” This exhibition is both lyrical and an incisive depiction of Penn and his work, and should be a must-see not only for photographers and lovers of portraiture but also as an insight into recent social history.

Irving Penn Portraits is organised by the National Portrait Gallery, London in collaboration with the Irving Penn Studio, with support from Bank of America Merrill Lynch. It runs until June 6 and will then transfer to Rome.