London city guide

Top five photography galleries

Selected by Tim Clark and Thomas King

As the dust settles on Photo London 2024 and Peckham 24 – the capital’s two key points of reference within the UK photography calendar – we benchmark five leading London galleries and museums who are making a sustained effort to create productive and welcoming spaces for the encounter, use and consideration of photography today.


Tim Clark with Thomas King | City guide | 14 June 2024 | In association with MPB

At a time when the funding climate in the UK is at its least favourable in decades, setting up – let alone sustaining – a gallery dedicated to the art of photography, public or otherwise, is far from straightforward. The sector is currently groaning under the weight of government funding cuts, exorbitant energy bills, messy logistical and bureaucratic ramifications arising from Brexit, the fallout of the pandemic and cost of living crisis; not to mention the constant undermining of the arts in education in favour of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at the hand of the outgoing Tory party, allied with pedalling culture wars and all round anathema.

Yet, despite – and even in spite of – these significant challenges, the UK government’s own estimates show that the creative industries generated £126 billion in gross value added to the economy and employed 2.4 million people in 2022 alone. A global leader clearly, but one that is woefully underfunded, leaving an increasing amount of arts organisations out to dry as they struggle to thrive in one of the world’s most expensive cities. In a parallel universe, the city of Berlin’s culture budget for 2024 is set at €947 million (with a population of 3.56 million) while the entire culture budget for England in 2024 pales in comparison at £458.5 million (with a population of 57 million): two wildly different per capita spends.

Meanwhile, in March this year, opposition party leader Kier Starmer spoke at the Labour Creatives Conference claiming he would “build a new Britain out of the ashes of the failed Tory project” and restore, what he called, the UK’s “diminished” status on the global stage. His top line pledges were as follows: getting art and design courses back on the curriculum, supporting freelancers’ rights, cracking down on ticket touting and improving access to creative apprenticeships. Essentially, promising to ensure creative skills are a necessity, not a luxury. To use the creative industries as a form of soft power. But it will require a detailed arts strategy coupled with fierce and charismatic advocates, and, crucially, increases in funding for the arts to European levels to get the UK’s cultural infrastructure back on sturdier ground. It is nothing short of a miracle, then, to have London gallery and museum spaces fully participating in a civic society at such a high calibre level.

What follows is a rundown of five leading London galleries and museums who are making a sustained effort to create productive and welcoming spaces for the encounter, use and consideration of photography today. It should be noted that there are a handful of medium specific spaces that haven’t been included, but doubtless could be. Among them: the ambitious British Centre for Photography currently looking for a permanent home; Tate, whose new Senior Curator of Photography and International Art, Singaporean Charmaine Toh, is just a few months in post; beloved and sorely missed Seen Fifteen (its founding director Vivienne Gamble now channels her energies towards growing the annual photography festival Peckham 24); Webber Gallery, which has seemingly shifted the emphasis of its exhibitions’ focus to a vast Los Angeles space; not neglecting to mention stalwart dealer Michael Hoppen whose eponymous gallery no longer operates from its multi-floor premises on Jubilee Place, instead opting for a location in Holland Park. Hopefully that goes some way to account for their omissions. There are other bricks and mortar spaces too: Hamiltons, MMX, Atlas, IWM’s Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries, TJ Boutling, Huxley-Parlour, Leica, Photofusion, Albumen, Purdy Hicks, Camera Eye, Augusta Edwards Fine Art and Doyle Wham, all worthy of a mention and giving much cause for celebration.

Autograph

Autograph
Rivington Place, London, EC2A 3BA
+44 020 7729 9200
autograph.org.uk

Every exhibition that Autograph stages is unmissable. The organisation’s remit is to ‘champion the work of artists who use photography and film to highlight questions of race, representation, human rights and social justice’, and it offers opportunity after opportunity to see powerful and vitally important work. Far from jumping on any bandwagon, this mission has long been embedded within the organisation, its practices and via ambitious work. Autograph was established in 1988 to support black photographic practices, and began in a small office in the Bon Marché building in Brixton, when it was known as the Association of Black Photographers (ABP). It applied for charitable status and moved to a permanent home at Rivington Place in Shoreditch in 2007, the first purpose-built space dedicated to the development and presentation of culturally diverse arts in England, decades before museums considered it necessary to start rethinking themselves.

Autograph punches significantly above its weight, and has long been an essential port of call for any photography lover living in or coming through the city, not to mention the impact on the capital’s culture at large. Largely owing to the skill and determination of visionary director Mark Sealy OBE – in post since 1991 – and talented and rigorous curator Bindi Vora, exhibitions at Autograph are born out of a professional methodology that is fundamentally interdisciplinary and grounded in both real-life research and experience. Yet it also moves past cultures of “them and us” to routinely bring to life transgressive and inclusive commissions, projects and publications.

As one of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations (NPO), Autograph saw a 30% uplift increase from £712,880 to £1,012,880 a year to support its work for the period of 2023–2026 (as per the last round of funding decisions announced in 2022). Stuart Hall once served as a chair on the board and Autograph’s unique collection contains works by Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Zanele Muholi, James Barnor, Lina Iris Viktor, Yinka Shonibare, Ingrid Pollard, Joy Gregory, Colin Jones, Phoebe Boswell, Raphael Albert, Ajamu and others.

V&A Photography Centre

V&A Photography Centre
Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL
+44 020 7942 2000
vam.ac.uk/info/photography-centre

Two transformative moments in the recent history of the V&A’s longstanding relationship with photography have been, firstly, the appointment of scholarly curator Duncan Forbes as the inaugural Director of Photography in 2020, who came from the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, and then the launch of The Parasol Foundation in Women Photography Project in 2022, spearheaded by the prodigious Fiona Rogers. Dedicated to supporting women artists though acquisitions, research and education, augmented through a commissioning programme with support from the Parasol Foundation Trust, Rogers’ programme also features an increasingly important prize established to identify, support and champion women artists. It attracted over 1,400 submissions for the 2024 edition produced in partnership with Peckham24.

Prior to this, its vast photography holdings were bolstered when the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) Collection was transferred in 2017, and the collection now runs to over 800,000 photographs that span the 1820s to the present day. Programmes have evolved amidst a backdrop of institutional accountability and inclusivity during the dramatic changes we’ve witnessed in recent years and has embraced dynamic contemporary practices as well as pivoted to account for the medium’s many histories. It’s now the largest space in the UK dedicated to a permanent photography collection, with a total of seven galleries, three rooms of which focus on contemporary international practices with Noémie Goudal and Hoda Afshar commanding ample space, the mighty impressive resource that is The Kusuma Gallery – Photography and the Book, and The Meta Media Gallery – Digital Gallery. Fledging curators: take note of The Curatorial Fellowship in Photography opportunity, supported by The Bern Schwartz Family Foundation, aimed to facilitate in-depth research into under-recognised aspects of the photography collection.

The Photographers’ Gallery

The Photographers’ Gallery 
16-18 Ramillies St, London, W1F 7LW
+44 020 7087 9300
thephotographersgallery.org.uk

While the restrictive nature of its building – a converted, six story former textiles warehouse situated off Oxford Street in the heart of Soho – doesn’t make for an optimum exhibition experience, The Photographers’ Gallery remains an important and well-visited public gallery for photography in London. TPG spaces are tricky given the premises’ vertical orientation and warren-like galleries, but recent exhibitions such as the exemplary Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective, guest curated by Thyago Nogueira of São Paulo’s Instituto Moreira Salles, did well to turn the entire gallery into something coherent.

Founded by the late Sue Davies OBE (1933-2020) in 1971 as the UK’s first public gallery dedicated to photography, TPG has a strong legacy and recently saw is funding maintained at £918,867 per year as one of Arts Council England’s NPOs during the 2022 announcement, the same year it launched its outdoor cultural space, Soho Photography Quarter – a rotating open air programme with much potential. It’s the world-class education and talks offer, programmed and curated by Janice McLaren and Luisa Ulyett, that are among its standout qualities. Workshops and short courses are just some of the events that broaden access and steer conversation. At street and basement level there is an innovative Digital Wall catering for photography’s increased automated and networked lives, a print sales gallery, well-stocked bookshop and much-loved café area providing a condensation point for a range of different publics. TPG’s annual exhibition, The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, an award of £30,000, has also entered a new phase since 2020 to include a broader range of voices as evidenced by the past five winners: Mohamed Bourouissa, Cao Fei, Deana Lawson, Samuel Fosso and Lebohang Kganye.

Former Photoworks director Shoair Mavlian took the helm in 2023, positive news given her curatorial background, NPO experience and canny thought leadership. Of course, it takes a couple of years for a new incumbent to put their stamp on a place like this but TPG is primed to reap the benefits of Mavlian’s ethos – contemporary, generous and diverse – and question what the space can be and who it can be for in order to thrive into the future.

Large Glass Gallery

Large Glass Gallery
392 Caledonian Road, London, N1 1DN
+44 020 7609 9345
largeglass.co.uk

In 2011, former director of Frith Street Gallery, Charlotte Schepke established a contemporary art gallery that leans heavily into photography: the innovative and elegant Large Glass Gallery based near Kings Cross on the edge of central London. Large Glass bills itself as an ‘alternative to the mainstream commercial gallery scene’, a description that is wholly warranted in light of its original and inquisitive approach to exhibition-making. From the inaugural exhibition, a precedent was set: channelling the energy of Marcel Duchamp by way of eclectic presentations of artworks, design pieces and found objects that take inspiration from the father of Conceptual Art, not only nodding to his famed work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923), more commonly known as ‘The Large Glass’, but through embracing experimental juxtapositions.

Playful use of concepts and materials are still to be found and the current “rolling” exhibition is in case in point. Staged in three parts, After Mallarmé is curated by Michael Newman, who is Professor of Art Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. The heady thematic exhibition riffs off the works and legacy of French poet Stéphane Mallarmé to reflect on ideas of spaces, the page, the book, chance, mobility and contingency. Whereas, previously this year, Francesco Neri: Boncellino offered a more classic take via a selection of quiet and meditative, mostly black-and-white portraits of farmers and the farming community in the countryside around Modena in northern Italy, ‘a census of a village’s population’. Large Glass’ represented artists are: Hélène Binet, Guido Guidi, Hendl Helen Mirra, Francesco Neri and Mark Ruwedel.

Flowers Gallery

Flowers Gallery
21 Cork Street, London, W1S 3LZ
+44 020 7439 7766

82 Kingsland Road, London, E2 8DP
+44 020 7920 777
flowersgallery.com

Heavyweight Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky may occupy much of the limelight at Flowers Gallery and their presence at art fairs such as Photo London and Paris Photo (Burtynsky was recently the subject of back-to-back exhibitions at the gallery’s Cork Street space which coincided with Saatchi Gallery’s major 2024 retrospective, BURTYNSKY: EXTRACTION / ABSTRACTION, the largest exhibition ever mounted in Burtynsky’s 40+ year career), but it boasts an impressive roster of photographers built up over years, first by Diana Poole then Chris Littlewood, who established the department which is now run by Lieve Beumer. Among them: Edmund Clark, Boomoon, Shen Wei, Robert Polidori, Julie Cockburn, Gaby Laurent, Tom Lovelace, Simon Roberts, Esther Teichmann, Lorenzo Vitturi, Michael Wolf, Mona Kuhn, Nadav Kander and Lisa Jahovic, all recognised for their engagement with important socio-cultural, political and environmental themes. Aficionados of the medium may hope for further in-depth and major photography exhibitions in due course from the esteemed gallery, but despite Flowers’ deep commitment to photography, it works across a range of media within contemporary art.

Flowers has presented more than 900 exhibitions across global locations, including from New York and Hong Kong outposts, and lists a total of 80 represented artists. Established in 1970 by Angela Flowers (1932–2023), Flowers has long held East End venues, initially in the heart of Hackney with Flowers East on Richmond Road, set up in 1988, before moving to Kingsland Road in Shoreditch in 2002, a 12,000 square foot venue spread over three floors of a 19th century warehouse, arguably London’s most elegant white cube space within which to view photography. ♦

 

 

 

 


Tim Clark is a writer and curator based in London. He is Editor in Chief at
1000 Words, Artistic Director at Fotografia Europea in Reggio Emilia, Italy, and teaches at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University. 

Thomas King is Editorial Intern at 1000 Words and a student on BA (Hons) Culture, Criticism, Curation at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.

Images:

1-Autograph, London. © Kate Elliot

2-Hélène Amouzou: Voyages exhibition at Autograph. 22 September 2023-20 January 2024. Curated by Bindi Vora. © Kate Elliot

3-Wilfred Ukpong: Niger-Delta / Future-Cosmos exhibition at Autograph. 16 February-1 June 2024. Curated by Mark Sealy. © Kate Elliot

4-Gibson Thornley Architects, V&A Photography Centre. Installation view of Untitled (Giant Phoenix), 2022, Noemié Goudal, Photography Now – Gallery 96 © Thomas Adank

5-Gibson Thornley Architects, V&A Photography Centre – Photography and the Book – Gallery 98 © Thomas Adank

6-Gibson Thornley Architects, V&A Photography Centre – Photography Now – Gallery 97 © Thomas Adank

7-The Photographers’ Gallery, London. © Luke Hayes

8>9-Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery. 6 October 2023-11 February 2024. © Kate Elliot

10-Ursula Schulz-Dornburg: Memoryscapes exhibition at Large Glass Gallery. 13 May-1 July 2023. © Stephen White and Co

11-Francesco Neri: Boncellino exhibition at Large Glass Gallery. 19 January–16 March 2024. © Stephen White and Co

12-Guido Guidi: Di sguincio exhibition at Large Glass Gallery. 3 February-11 March 2023. © Stephen White and Co

13-Flowers Gallery, Cork Street. © Antonio Parente

14-Edward Burtynsky, New Works exhibition at Flowers Gallery, Cork Street. 28 February-6 April 2024. © Antonio Parente

Acts of Resistance

Photography, Feminism and the Art of Protest

Exhibition review by Max Houghton

Acts of Resistance, a collaborative exhibition by the South London Gallery and V&A Parasol Foundation for Women in Photography, confronts the systemic brutalisation and circumscription of women’s bodies worldwide — from persecution in Bangladesh, oppression in India to solidarity with Palestinian freedom. As Max Houghton writes, this is not a show for performative activists; it’s really doing the work — the exhibition fosters a reparative gaze, challenging historical narratives of control and subjugation, and calling for greater community involvement and institutional accountability. 


Max Houghton | Exhibition review | 4 Apr 2024

Even before entering Acts of Resistance: Photography, Feminism and the Art of Protest, a curatorial collaboration between South London Gallery and V&A Parasol Foundation for Women in Photography, the content guidance reveals the show’s necessity: ‘Artwork in this exhibition includes references to […] sexual violence, femicide, female genital mutilation, gender and sexuality-based discrimination, genocide and racism.’ This short institutional statement tells us precisely how the world is structured and how the bodies of women+ are circumscribed and brutalised, deliberately and systematically. Stepping in, the first visible work, suspended from the ceiling, takes gentle possession of the viewer, who is immediately enfolded into the plaited hair of young Iranian women. Three larger-than-life prints by Hoda Afshar are responding to Iran’s Women Life Freedom movement with the symbolism of unveiled hair, of the plait’s own revolutionary turn, or pichesh-e-moo, and of the dove’s flight between peace and martyrdom. The death of Mahasa Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police weighs heavily, as does the courage of the women who protest, risking their own lives. My thoughts turn too to the immorality and illegality of the Metropolitan Police on this city’s streets; to the lives and legacies of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, of Sarah Everard, of Chris Kaba; and to what kind of imaging or imagining might bring justice to them.

The first message, then, of the show’s images is that they open a space within which such global ultraviolence can be considered, resisted and perhaps – rarely – extinguished. Two artists whose works are curated close by, Poulomi Basu and Sofia Karim, are committed activists, whose work has given rise to legal change. Basu’s multimedia work and its dissemination contributed to the banning of Chapaudi in Nepal, a practice which sees girls and women banished from society during menstruation; left to inhabit unlit, unsanitary temporary huts, at risk of assault in remote fields.

Karim’s activism was ignited by the political imprisonment and subsequent torture of her uncle, the renowned photojournalist Shahidul Alam, in Bangladesh. Like human rights activist G. N. Saibaba, for whom she has also campaigned through her exquisite drawings and letter exchange, Alam was eventually released. Karim’s work, Turbine Bagh (2020–ongoing), resonates in any setting, though in a night at the museum, it would surely leap off its designated shelf and populate a central artery through the space. Significantly, it is the only work in the show that foregrounds the art of other activists, which Karim has transferred onto samosa packets, conferring an increased sense of sociality and hospitality within these acts of resistance. For this show, whilst works centring women’s experience have been selected, in terms of anti-rape protests in Bangladesh or Muslim girls’ right to wear a hijab in Karnataka, India, Karim’s feminism also insists upon exposing the cruelties of the caste system via a Dalit protest in Una, and the Kerala Sisterhood’s support for Palestinian freedom. From her series Sisters of the Moon (2022), Basu’s futuristic self-portraits pool, siren-like, across the gallery walls, seducing the viewer into uncertain territory, incanting through their worldly knowledge the names of pain. The spectral image of Basu on a bed, uncannily placed at the shore’s edge, alongside water urns, invites questions of refuge, of sanctuary, of survival, and helped raise £5million for WaterAid.

This is not a show for performative activists; it’s really doing the work. Three major London institutions have curated feminist/activist shows in the past year; a welcome and vital taking up of art space by, for and with women+. This outpouring of activist-propelled art, in terms, for example, of the vast scale of Re/Sisters (2023) at the Barbican and Tate’s Women in Revolt! (2024), or the geographical breadth of Acts of Resistance, is indicative of the fact that such shows are long overdue, and we have so much to say. I say this in the year the Royal Academy offered its first ever solo show to a female artist, Marina Abramovic, in its 250-year history.[i]

This show has taken the idea of the “fourth wave” feminism of the last decade as its timeframe, which is at once necessary to fit the available space, ensures intersectional and expansive feminisms – a plurality noted in the show’s subtitle – and yet misses the chance to visually connect these present concerns through time. Such legacies are not, however, absent. The show’s first section, “Body as Battleground”, is essentially a dedication to Barbara Kruger, whose own solo show at the Serpentine took place earlier this year. The legacy of the Saint of Christopher Street gay liberation campaigner and trans activist Marsha P. Johnson is enshrined in Happy Birthday Marsha! (2018) by Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel, which reimagines the night of the 1969 Stonewall uprising, when, yet again, the role of the police as guardians of the most vulnerable is found entirely wanting. The way Johnson inhabited her personal freedom was revolutionary; achingly beautifully rendered in this short film, in what Saidiya Hartman might call a ‘critical fabulation’, in which historical or archival omissions of a life are reconstructed. This work occupies the emotional heart of the show, along with that of Aida Silvestri’s Unsterile Clinic (2015). By any measure, this is an astonishingly visceral work, on a subject no one but no one wants to talk about, yet is transformed by the artist’s loving hands into artworks of such grace, they turn silence into speech. Drawing on her own experience of female genital mutilation, she has been able to work collaboratively with other similarly-affected women to visualise the different forms the procedure has taken, creating models, on display here in a vitrine, which are now used for identification – over 200 million women and girls are affected globally – by the NHS in the UK. The work also takes the form of a single, non-identifying self-portrait, in which the artist wears a wedding dress, embellished with razor blades in place of pearls, and embroidered red thread, flowing beyond the frame. The image pulsates with the injustice of the religious and social construct of virginity and every act of violence it has engendered.

I unite these two specific works in the strongest spirit of the right to self-determination – and its frequent absence – which courses throughout the exhibition. Of the two vital works on the subject of abortion, in this instance, I would have selected Winant’s The Last Safe Abortion (2023) for the light it sheds on the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US, and invited Laia Abril to show her work On Rape (2020–ongoing), or Femicides (2019–ongoing), as another bloody framing for the show as a whole. Yet, as always with her meticulously researched work, Abril’s situating of abortion as a global institutional failure bristles with eloquent rage. The last time I wrote about Nan Goldin’s Memory Lost, the V&A was still funded by Sackler, a position it reversed in 2022; the result of a sustained campaign by Goldin and PAIN, which included a die-in at the museum, indicting the creators of Oxycontin, the highly addictive opioid, for their life-destroying crimes. Goldin’s way of being in the (art) world – she has been called a “harm reductionist”, surely an aspirational epithet – is propelled by honesty, and, I can’t say it too often, by love. The wrong things, she says, are kept secret. They still are, and the shame that encircles such secrecy kills with the same violence as a blade or a gun.

Much of the work in this ground-breaking show pierces such shame with love, and Raphaela Rosella’s work HOMEtruths (2022) explodes with love and care for and with a First Nations community in New South Wales, Australia. This entirely unsentimental, joyful, heart-breaking, polyvocal three-screen film shows the effects of the incarceration of women on them and their families. Part of a wider work, You’ll Know It When You Feel It (2012–ongoing), Rosella’s co-creational approach resists, intervenes in and often completely overturns juridical and bureaucratic representation and replaces it with rich familial bonds in a form of justice, both aesthetic and restorative, which is exceptionally deeply felt.

In terms of the photographic image, these artists are pushing the discipline forward, far from its histories of control and subjugation. In their hands, we encounter sculptural, filmic, archival, collaged and embroidered forms, which make for multi-sensory ways of seeing, decentring the camera’s power; a reparative gaze. Questions for the next shows foregrounding women+, no doubt already in production, include how to understand the gallery as even more of a forum, involving more community groups and building on existing links with brilliant but underfunded and therefore precarious local resources. How can the institutions that fail us, that maim, that kill, be further held publicly accountable via image-led or art-based discussion? How can artists whose practice isn’t defined within the confines of socially engaged practice in and of itself expand the social purpose of their work in a gallery space? And how can the white Western female curatorial approach, expansive and assiduous as it surely is, in terms of Sarah Allen and Fiona Rogers, as well as Alona Pardo and Linsey Young – brava to all – continue to find ways to share its considerable power ever more effectively? Not because it isn’t showing us the most pertinent, mind-expanding, courageous work, not because it isn’t taking great care of the people who make it, but because of what it – and I – just can’t see.♦

All images courtesy South London Gallery

Acts of Resistance: Photography, Feminism and the Art of Protest, with a public programme curated by Lola Olufemi, runs at South London Gallery until 9 June 2024.


Max Houghton is a writer, curator and editor working with the photographic image as it intersects with politics and law. She runs the MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, where she is also co-founder of the research hub Visible Justice. Her writing appears in publications by The Photographers’ Gallery and Barbican Centre, as well press such as Granta, The Eyes, Foam, 1000 Words, British Journal of Photography and Photoworks. She is co-author, with Fiona Rogers, of Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now (Thames and Hudson, 2017) and her latest monograph essay appears in Mary Ellen Mark: Ward 81 Voices (Steidl, 2023). She is undertaking doctoral research into the image and law at University College London and is the 2023 recipient of the Royal Photographic Society award for education. 

References:

[i] I say this in a year when the police force with responsibility for London remains institutionally sexist, racist and homophobic. I say this when two women this week, as every week, will be killed in the UK by the hands of their partner or former partner. I say this on a day when the US abstained from the UN vote for a ceasefire in Gaza, where sexual violence is being frequently reported as a weapon of war.

Images:

1-Hoda Afshar, Untitled #14 from the series In Turn, 2023. © Hoda Afshar. Image courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Meeanjin / Brisbane.

2-Sethembile Msezane, Chapungu – The Day Rhodes Fell, 2015. Photo: Courtesy the artist

3-Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel, Happy Birthday Marsha!, 2018. Courtesy the artists and Chapter NY, New York.

4-Poulomi Basu, from the series Sisters of the Moon, 2022. Courtesy the artist, TJ Boulting and JAPC.

5-Guerrilla Girls, History of Wealth & Power, 2016. © Guerrilla Girls, courtesy guerrillagirls.com

6-Mari Katayama, just one of those things #002, 2021. © Mari Katayama

7-Zanele Muholi, Bester, New York, 2019. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy Yancey Richardson, New York.

8-Sheida Soleimani, Delara, 2015. © Sheida Soleimani. Courtesy Edel Assanti.

Top 10 (+1)

Photobooks of 2021

Selected by Alessandro Merola and Tim Clark

As the year draws to a close, an annual tribute to some of the exceptional photobook releases from 2021 – selected by Editor in Chief, Tim Clark, with words from Assistant Editor, Alessandro Merola.

1. Gilles Peress, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing
Steidl

What Gilles Peress has achieved with Whatever You Say, Say Nothing – unsurprisingly shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2022 – is astonishing, and surely must rank amongst the highest feats in photobook history. In some 2,000 pages, sprawled across two volumes as well as an almanac entitled Annals of the North, the esteemed French photographer embarks on a visual and philosophical exploration of the ethno-nationalist conflict that engulfed Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to 1998. With no beginning, middle or end, Peress’ tale defies the orthodoxies of linear narrative by orchestrating 22 semi-fictional “days”: days that recycle, over and over, the rituals of violence, protest and grieving; days in which the carnage becomes inseparable from the quotidian. That said, whilst Peress exploits photography’s “reality effect” to register the material specifics of the Troubles, it’s in the work’s accumulation that the strife operates synecdochically. For it expresses – like a photographic Finnegans Wake (1939) – what is elsewhere – or, rather, everywhere: the simultaneity of good and evil; the push and pull of power; the helicoidal unravelling of time. That this work speaks to such profound, ineffable ideas is a testament to the potential of the photobook when it finds its upper limits. And, indeed, few could have executed this unison between content, structure and form so flawlessly as Gerhard Steidl has: a book of all books, unlike anything that has come before.

2. Gregory Eddi Jones, Promise Land
Self Publish, Be Happy Editions

With the mounting complexities which define our times requiring increasingly sophisticated modes of storytelling, it is exciting to witness an artist invent something so utterly imaginative that it makes us see the world anew. Promise Land, by Gregory Eddi Jones, is one such example. In this whirling, poetic mashup, Jones riffs off T. S. Eliot’s apocalyptic epic, The Waste Land (1922), of course penned in the wake of the First World War and influenza pandemic. Aligned with Eliotean tactics of appropriation, Jones’ sequences are comprised of stock photographs: consumerist fantasies which, for the artist, not only bespeak the excesses of contemporary culture, but represent photography in its most hollow, debased and regurgitative state. Through a profusion of détournements – cropping, compositing, inverting, inkjet hacking and digital retouching – Jones makes implicit values explicit, inviting readers to re-evaluate the relationship between photography and truth, or sever their ties altogether. Here is a work that is bold, irreverent and oftentimes chilling, not least for the bookending displays of a composer waving his wand before a spell-bound audience; suggestions that there may be as much method as madness in this heap of broken images.

3. Hoda Afshar, Speak The Wind
MACK

From start to close – and vice versa – Hoda Afshar’s Speak The Wind entrances with its eloquent rendition of zār: the wind spirits which, for millennia, have shaped the topography and traditions of the islanders of the Strait of Hormuz, an oil passageway joining the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. They are said to inflict disease, placated only through ritual dialogues conducted with the gusts themselves. Situated somewhere between the sacred and the baleful, Afshar’s incantatory, cinematically-paced photographs do not so much conjure a people but channel their psychic entanglement with place. Punctuating the book are bound pages depicting wind-sculpted mountains; they form pockets that conceal islanders’ drawings and writings describing their experiences of being possessed by zār. Afshar’s dimensional switches cleverly rupture photography’s predispositions for certainties; those which can be clutched, seen. It’s easy to get swept up by these pages, to concede to forces greater than us, yet Afshar also empowers readers like she does her subjects. Setting foot on twinkling black sands, or setting sail through seas as red as blood, we are ultimately met by a crossroads: between reality and fiction; between this world and another.

4. Tarrah Krajnak, El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan
Dais Books

The breakthrough of Tarrah Krajnak has been one of the most significant of the year, and the artist’s nuanced handling of archival material is on full view in this precious book. Borrowing the title and parable blueprint of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), it plays a deep concern with the circumstances surrounding her birth: amidst the terror of Peru’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, Krajnak’s biological mother travelled to Lima to work as a maid; she was raped, and gave birth to Krajnak in 1979, ‘the year of the orphans’. Instead of attempting to resolve these personal and political narratives, Krajnak invents mothers, imagines lineages and initiates what she calls ‘misremembrance’. The asymmetrical sequences pull our attention in fractured ways, moving through re-photographed images from political magazines, oral testimonies of women born in 1979 and the artist’s interactions with projections in which temporalities enmesh like palimpsests. Krajnak’s sharp prose and deliberate mistranslations bestow an added intensity to this book’s reckoning with subjectivity as much as history, all the while collapsing the boundaries between them. With El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan, Krajnak shows that affinity can be innate, even historical, persisting in the psyches of those separated by space and time yet linked by collective knowledge, memory and trauma. Theirs is a storied history, seen through a glass, darkly.

5. Catherine Opie
Phaidon

Boasting lavish printing and impeccable production values, Phaidon’s survey of Catherine Opie’s prodigious output is of the highest order and entirely befitting of one of the great chroniclers of this century. There is much to be praised for the ways in which over 300 photographs, spanning 40 years, have been mapped, not chronologically, but thematically across three chapters: People, Place and Politics. Yet, the lines which delineate them are almost non-existent. One spread pairs a headshot of Pig Pen (Opie’s long-time friend and subject) donning a fake moustache with a photograph of a lesbian couple seated in their backyard with arms interlocked; another the iconic ‘Self-Portrait/Cutting’ (1993) with a literal manifestation of the domestic scene carved-out on Opie’s back. They are juxtapositions that steer us towards the central paradox of Opie’s oeuvre: for all its supposed extremity in staging the queer body as a site of self-actualisation, there is, at its heart, a yearning for the fundamental. Because, whether documenting human, ecological or architectural subjects, she never strays far from home, hence the tome’s modest, perfectly-judged cover, which displays the young artist photographing herself in the mirror alongside potted plants and a wood burning stove. Opie’s work feels vital; it always did.

6. Raymond Meeks, Somersault
MACK

Raymond Meeks’ very beautiful and affecting ode to ­his daughter, Abigail, is a charged companion piece to his much admired aubade, ciprian honey cathedral (2020). Through imperceptible yet tenderly convicted narrative shifts, Meeks unveils the inner-world of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood and leaving home. He coaxes out Abigail’s emotional subtleties in a way perhaps only a parent could; she is alternately timid, whimsical, inquisitive and fearless. However, Meeks honours the guarded mysteries of adolescence, too. Abigail becomes, for her father, a horizon where intimacy and loneliness converge, as mirrored by Meeks’ sublime evocation of the wilderness that envelops their home, delicately tethered by train tracks, telephone wires and wilting daisies. His impossibly lucid visions crackle with longing throughout until we reach the parting words of Abigail herself, who recalls the innocent daydream of her younger self: ‘She wants to climb on a train and go where it takes her.’ The grace of Somersault is to measure distance whilst recognising that few distances are ever fixed.

7. Zora J Murff, True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis)
Aperture

Where Zora J Murff ’s previous book, At No Point in Between (2019), takes as its subject the historically Black neighbourhood of North Omaha, Nebraska, his new book is nation-wide in scope. Beneath the swirling surface of True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis) – currently displayed in exhibition form at Webber Gallery, London – lies a provocative meditation on America: its fragile bonds, elective affinities and colonial legacies. From police brutality and lynching to redlining and economic oppression, violence – fast and slow – runs through the veins of this book, so arresting in its dense web of image types: vernacular photography, newspaper clippings, Internet screenshots, video stills, landscapes, portraiture and more. Murff’s dexterous use of juxtaposition – often contextualising his own photographs alongside found and appropriated material – brings into focus the medium’s complicity in creating and maintaining racial hierarchies through the spectacle, commodification or erasure of Black bodies. This book serves as not only a complicated, oft-impenetrable ‘manual’ for coming to terms with the country’s past and navigating its present, but – true to its title – an autobiographical retelling of the epiphanies of a young Black artist finding his voice. And it’s emphatic.

8. Massao Mascaro, Sub Sole
Chose Commune

Sub Sole ­– a classical, richly-layered piece of narrative work which was recently exhibited in an elegant show curated by Fannie Escoulen at Fondation A Stichting, Brussels – follows after Homer’s The Odyssey (c.750 BC), traversing the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. Its waters have, since time immemorial, been a crucible for voyages: some mythical and heroic; some real and tragic. Against the backdrop of such tense, intersecting contexts, Massao Mascaro furnishes our gaze across relics, architecture and the gestural relations between those who have sought refuge in Europe. These passing impressions are loosely arranged through nine visual poems, each introduced by a literary fragment which rolls along the bottom edges. The clarity of Mascaro’s frames; the lyricism of his sequences; the mesmerising gradations of Mediterranean light: all of them are a function of the casual grandeur of the world he has crafted. Yet, there is also a deeply disturbing cycle to this book, which ultimately feels suspended in time – timeless even – as intimated by the dialless clock that decorates its front cover, or the line from which its title derives: ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes, 1:10).

9. Frida Orupabo
Sternberg Press and Kunsthall Trondheim

Although the subversive strategies of Frida Orupabo are best experienced via her Instagram feed, @nemiepeba, and on the gallery wall, this debut monograph affords a persuasive translation of her work in book form. The opening black pages (preceding incisive essays by Stefanie Hessler, Lola Olufemi and Legacy Russell) showcase Orupabo’s social media images, offering flashes of the artist’s extraordinary online archive – a ‘voluptuous trail of black continuity’, as Arthur Jafa called it – which she uses as a laboratory to make her paper collages. Whilst the inclusion of installation views here attests to the uneasy transitions these physical pieces undergo when they enter the gallery’s white space, it also evinces the manifold ways of seeing Black bodies that Orupabo compels. W. E. B. Du Bois’ notion of ‘double consciousness’ – that is, viewing oneself through the coloniser’s eyes – is undeniable, but so too is bell hooks’ ‘oppositional gaze’. Orupabo’s greatest triumph might be in the transmission of a wholly new consciousness, found in the unforgettable, searing stares of her feminine protagonists. Their pasts are fraught, but, in Orupabo’s curative hands, they embody the spirit of resistance that literally underpins them.

10. Alexis Cordesse, Talashi
Atelier EXB

The catalytic inquiry of Alexis Cordesse’s subtle entry into the vernacular genre is this: how does one evoke a tragedy that is paradoxically made invisible through too many images? The tragedy in question is the Syrian civil war, an ongoing conflict that has displaced over half the country’s population since 2011. Seeking an alternative to the sentimental dramatisations of war all too often circulated by mainstream media, Cordesse performs an act of collective remembrance by collating personal photographs belonging to those living in exile in Turkey, Germany and France; those who entrusted him enough to share the memories they hold dear. These artefacts have, like their owners, survived perilous journeys, for, if they had been seized as pieces of evidence at the borders, they might not have made it – and, indeed, many didn’t. Such is the precarity of Talashi, whose title translates from Arabic to Fragmentation, Erosion or Disappearance. Slowly weaving what ultimately becomes an ever-vanishing tapestry of home, this book quakes with a quiet, mournful energy: a reminder that though all photographs are silent, some are more silent than others.

+1. What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843–1999
10×10 Photobooks

The advent of photobook history – a still relatively new field of study – set in motion the books-on-photobooks. Although doing much to further our understanding of the medium, they have failed to redress the canon’s long-standing male biases. Enter What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843–1999. In the foreword to this important anthology, editors Russet Lederman and Olga Yatskevich stress the issues of access and funding or lack thereof; ergo their necessary expansion of what constitutes a “photobook” via the inclusion of albums, scrapbooks and maquettes. Indeed, marginalised histories are not just a question of gender, but of class and race too, hence the scarcity of, for example, African photobooks as opposed to books-on-Africa. The anthology countervails these factors through its signature turn: an interwoven, parallel timeline that charts publishing, magazine and small press events which might not have realised “photobooks” in the narrow, Western sense, but certainly influenced history. Many of these notations are incomplete, acting more like leads. Of course, one wishes that such a sole dedication to female authors did not have to exist. However, until it doesn’t, it prevails as a critical resource for discovering forgotten parts of photobook history: a history that is longstanding, forever rich yet still being written.♦


Alessandro Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words.

Tim Clark is Editor in Chief at 1000 Words, and a writer, curator and lecturer at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University. He lives and works in London.

Images:

1-Gilles Peress, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing (Steidl, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Steidl.

2-From the chapter ‘The Last Night’ in Gilles Peress, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing (Steidl, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Gilles Peress Studio.

3-‘Betterland’ (2019) from Gregory Eddi Jones, Promise Land (Self Publish, Be Happy Editions, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Self Publish, Be Happy Editions.

4-‘Untitled’ from Hoda Afshar, Speak The Wind (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

­5-‘Dead Ringer/Self-Portrait as Found Photograph (1979 Lima, Peru)’ (2018) from Tarrah Krajnak, El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan (Dais Books, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Dais Books.

6-‘Joanne, Betsy & Olivia, Bayside, New York’ (1998) from Catherine Opie (Phaidon, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Lehmann Maupin, New York/Hong Kong/Seoul/London; Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Naples and Peder Lund, Oslo.

7-‘Untitled’ from Raymond Meeks, Somersault (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

8-‘Stole-On (or, I wanna be a world star)’ (2021) from Zora J. Murff, True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis) (Aperture, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Webber Gallery, London.

9-‘Untitled’ from Massao Mascaro, Sub Sole (Chose Commune, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Chose Commune.

10-‘Untitled’ (2017) from Frida Orupabo (Sternberg Press and Kunsthall Trondheim, 2021). Courtesy the artist, Sternberg Press and Kunsthall Trondheim.

11-‘Untitled’ from Alexis Cordesse, Talashi (Atelier EXB, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Atelier EXB.

12-Spread from Christina Broom and Isabel Marion Seymour, Women’s Social and Political Union Postcards Album (self-published, 1908–14). Courtesy Museum of London.

Hoda Afshar

Speak The Wind

Book review by Taous R. Dahmani

Taous R. Dahmani considers Hoda Afshar’s use of magical realism as a strategy which seeks to redeem documentary photography from its propensity for an Orientalist discourse.


Is photography redeemable? What I mean by that is: is it able to be recovered or saved from its past faults? More specifically, is documentary photography redeemable? As a photo historian, I regularly ask myself these questions, and, as a lens-based artist, Hoda Afshar has been centring these inquiries into her practice – especially since 2014, when she started her series In the exodus, I love you more, which marked her return to the documentary form. Born in Tehran in 1983 and now based in Naarm (Melbourne), Afshar pursues her investigations into the potentialities and limits of the medium with her newest editorial project entitled Speak The Wind, published by MACK. Historically, photography, and particularly documentary photography, has been a powerful imperial language, one of the many colonial tools facilitating, in particular, visual constructions of East/West and South/North dichotomies. In 1978, Edward Saïd wrote that the “Orient” and the “Occident” were man-made, and I would add that they have been perpetuated by man-made photographs in which the Other became a character of a Western narrative.

In her practice, Afshar wishes to “embrace the limitations of photography”, and, by doing so, proposes a tale of dismantlement, decentring and restructuring. It is from the locus of liminality that she takes apart her medium, challenging representation from within. The first and last images that frame Speak The Wind are a colour and a black-and-white photograph of the same wind-carved feature taken from two opposite perspectives. Through this structuring, Afshar seems to suggest that her creative documentary practice is embedded within a flux of change. As Trinh T. Minh-ha wrote: ‘To create is not so much to make something new as to shift’ (1991). Speak The Wind does not offer objects or characters to gaze at, but an articulation of images to consider, an assemblage of enunciations.

Here, Afshar roams several islands in the Strait of Hormuz. Located on the southern coast of Iran, in the Persian Gulf, the islands have been a cornerstone of international trade since Antiquity and is still today a hotbed of geopolitics. Every day, the islands’ inhabitants can watch hundreds of oil tankers passing by and observe their natural resources – such as ochre, iron and copper – being exported. Beyond these economic realities, minerals moulded the islands and shaped their landscapes. In 2015, for her first trip, Afshar arrived as “the Iranian” – the non-insular, the Outsider – and set foot for the first time on the black sand of Hormuz’s beaches, walked on its red soil and witnessed its ochre horizon. Having learned of local shamanic curing practices, Afshar did not expect to experience the magical gusts. During her many trips to the island, not worried about being afflicted by zār ­­­(the local, “harmful wind” believed to cause discomfort or illness), Afshar pursued her creative negotiation and critical engagement with the medium. Little by little, her visits transformed her participant observation into an observing participation. Rather than forging a typology, like an ethnographer might do, the photographer started crafting a topography – as understood by Chela Sandoval as a feminist oppositional consciousness (1956) – tied to the specificity of Hormuz as a contact zone, a multi-layered territory and a crossroads of realities and fictions.

In Speak The Wind, Afshar has conceived the renditions of her practice and journey methodically, and, as such, the book echoes Nancy Fraser’s theory of ‘participatory parity’ (2005): the subjects are not only spoken about but speak themselves. Indeed, the book includes anthropomorphic drawings of the winds made by the islanders and interviews conducted by Afshar about the experience of being possessed by zār. Through this polyphony, the photographer developed an alternative vision, a conscious third eye, to take up Fatimah Tobing Rony’s notion (1995): a hybrid gaze, between heart and brain; a bodily experience generating ‘pensive images’, as considered by Trinh (1991): ‘The image is subversive, not through violence and aggression, but through duration and intensity. The eye that gazes with passion and acuteness is one that induces us vaguely to think – as the object it sees is an object that speaks. The image that speaks and speaks volumes for what it is not supposed to say – the pensive image – is one that does not facilitate consumption and challenges the mainstream.’

Afshar’s ‘pensive images’ are a subversion of the medium’s propensity for an Orientalist discourse, in particular through her choice of addressing “non-rational” elements. Her images work as a transformation of states: from gaseous to solid, from ungraspable winds to tangible photographs. And so, I ask myself, can magical realism – current in literature and in paintings ­– play a role in the development of a truly multicultural and decolonial photographic sensibility? Can Afshar use magical realism’s subversiveness as a strategy to (partly) redeem photography? Can she reconcile the distinction suggested by Martha Rosler when she wrote: ‘photography is something you do; magic is an ineffable something that happens’ (2004). In texts, magical realism serves marginal voices, submerged traditions and stories driven by local knowledge: all three elements are included in Afshar’s book. There are no literary works that are wholly conceived out of magical realism, but rather passages, yet the effect of these moments affects our entire reading. In the same way, the photographer offers moments of pure magic as well as other moments when the images are aware of their own artifice, thus maintaining a flow between fact and fiction. A red cloud in green water. Glittering black sand enabling us to walk on a starlit ground. The red waves of a bleeding sea. The marvellous grows organically out of the ordinary, “abating” Cartesian distinctions. In Ben Okri’s novel The Famished Road (1991), the tales of the adventures of Azaro, the child narrator – who exists between the real and the spirit worlds – says: “The wind of several lives blew into my eyes.” With Speak The Wind, Afshar shares with us a magical gaze dialoguing with unseen winds.♦

Images courtesy the artist and MACK © Hoda Afshar

Taous R. Dahmani is a photography historian, PhD researcher and critic, working between Paris and London. She is interested in the links between photography and politics. She regularly gives talks at Les Rencontres d’Arles, Paris Photo and Tate Modern. She is on the editorial board of MAI:Visual Culture and Feminism and co-editor of The Eyes magazine.