Anselm Kiefer

Photography in the Beginning

Exhibition review by Mark Durden

Mark Durden visits Anselm Kiefer’s new show at LAM – Lille Métropole Musée d’art modern d’art contemporain et d’art brut, centred on the significance of photography for the German artist’s work. It reminds us that in his hands photographs are never simply a document: predominantly black and white, they are a skin to be marked and scored upon, collaged, contaminated, painted over, covered in clay, scattered with sunflower seeds, scratched, torn; as much a surface as an image.


Anselm Kiefer: Photography in the Beginning at LAM – (Lille Métropole Musée d’art modern d’art contemporain et d’art brut) is the first major show centred on the significance of photography for the German artist’s work. In this intriguing and multi-faceted exhibition, also involving sculptures and paintings, we get a clear sense of his treatment and relation to photography – it is a refreshing use of the medium and somewhat distinct from the dominant narratives of the history of photography (Kiefer refers to photography as his “sainted assistant” and has only partially and rarely presented this important component of his practice before).  

“How can anyone be an artist in the tradition of German art and culture, after Auschwitz?” French art historian Daniel Arasse raised this question in his 2014 book-length study of Kiefer. And while many of the works on show explore myths, traditions and beliefs that go beyond the Holocaust – it is still a question that haunts this exhibition. Swathes of German culture had been tainted by their appropriation during The National Socialist regime and Kiefer’s emergence as an artist saw him confront this tradition, drawing upon quasi-mystical and ritualistic realms to address this contamination, effecting a mad or crazy romanticism, in which the artist’s antics send up Nazism. In the face of cultural consensus in The Federal Republic of Germany or “West Germany” condemning cultural allusions connected with the barbarity of the past, fascism’s image-world, Kiefer’s emergence as an artist, having been born in 1945, was very much as a taboo breaker and transgressor: someone who would not remain quiet.    

What comes across from this show is an odd mixture and clash of values and beliefs. When Kiefer presents himself in photographs, mostly dating from the late 1960s but often reworked in the 2000s, he is an actor, a performer. What these actions signal and signify is fraught with conflict. Mystic? Romantic? Trickster? In fact the show begins with a photograph from the late 1960s, overpainted with gouache, showing the artist wearing a dress and standing on a chair. He is holding a branch with leaves. He seems to be evoking nature’s power of growth, regeneration and healing. He adopts or plays the role of healer after the darkness. This first room is entitled Nigredo, Latin for blackness, a reference to the first step in alchemy, the state of black matter from which the philosopher’s stone is made. But blackness and darkness also take on meaning in terms of Nazism and a history that his art refuses to remain silent on.

This exhibition has a lot of captioning texts, which help orient us in navigating our way through his complex iconography. Or rather an iconography made complex through citations and allusions to literature and culture, which as a viewer can be overwhelming. But materially the art is often blunt and direct, unrefined; a recurring tension or collision in the works. On one hand a raw visceral immediacy and directness of how materials are used and on the other the weight and richness of high cultural allusions.

The photograph is very much a medium for Kiefer, a receptive surface that in its use by the artist is never simply a document. Predominantly black and white, it is a skin to be marked and scored upon, collaged, painted over, covered in clay, scattered with sunflower seeds, scratched, torn; as much a surface as a picture.

The condition of many of his photographs might be described in terms of contamination – stained, mounted on lead, which is sometimes visibly corroding and changing. Lead for Kiefer is an important medium for its alchemical associations. It might also be seen to have a correspondence with photography itself – grey, melancholic and mutable.

Before the first room, a large photo mural shows the artist as photographer, his shadow cast against the emptiness of the Sahara desert, a void marked also by receding tire tracks. The picture might be seen to feed a myth of the lone male artist creator, a romantic portrait in which the world is a blank surface awaiting him to make his mark. But at the same time it is only his shadow, a fleeting and momentary trace of the artist.

In some of his most striking and well-known photographs, Occupations, dating from 1969, Kiefer enacts a comedic reprisal of the legacy of Nazism, in which, sometimes adorned in his father’s military uniform, he adopts the Hitler salute in places in countries formerly invaded by Germany. The romantic implication when this gesture takes place in front of the sea is undermined by a comic shortfall, especially evident in the pages of some of his early artist’s books – on show in vitrines and on a video screen – showing him standing and saluting in a full bathtub in his studio and appearing to “walk on water”. The Nazi salute was, and still is, an illegal act in Germany and one that acknowledges and responds to the silence of the time: “authority competition, superiority… these are facets of me like everyone else. I wanted to find out what I would have done back then.”

The first room is dominated by a large photograph of a young Kiefer lying down and adorned in a crochet dress, but also giving the Nazi salute. Entitled Pour Jean Genet, it draws attention to a writer important to the artist: “I still feel the same fascination for the dichotomy he sustains between light and darkness, flesh and crystal, for his search for the duality between saintliness and abjection”. The photograph was pasted onto lead before undergoing the chemical process of electrolysis. The effect is visually striking, the colours and staining of the photograph and the transformation of lead, all materially reiterate the indeterminacy of the figure of the artist, counteracting militarism by cross dressing.  

Since the end of the 1960s, Kiefer has constantly created unique books from photographs and various materials. Two rooms are given over to the books, in steel vitrines and atop lead tables. Three large-scale books are made available to physically view, one in colour offering a powerful succession of views of tunnelled excavations in his expansive artist’s famed estate in Bajac, France – a fascination with something primary and basic, a stripping back of creation to a raw encounter with matter.

For Kiefer the German landscape is marred by the violent history of the past – a series of photographs of disused railway tracks become tragic in their allusion to the trains to the death camps. In some of the most direct uses of photographs, landscape photographs are covered with barbed wire or surgical instruments, an emphatic insistence on his de-innocenting of the romantic landscape tradition. Photographs of sunflowers could evoke the paintings of Van Gogh but are often pictured black against the light and the photographic surfaces tinted and splotched. Elsewhere in a rarely shown series, Kiefer presents sixteen dioramas, snow-covered forest scenes combined with cut out photographs, many drawn from family photographs. But much as some offer lighter scenes, a wedding couple, children, the darkness of the past lingers and breaks the spell and magic of these little scenes – in one, a figure is hanging from a tree.

Conceived in the wake of the trauma of German history, it is not surprising that we counter ruin after ruin in his use of photographs. The photograph itself is in a state of ruin, or indeterminacy, often stained and corroded. Contamination becomes a good word to describe the state of many of his photographs in light of the abiding themes and concerns of his work. For example, in one striking wall-sized work, a large torn photograph on lead that is corroded, sets up an interplay between the picture’s ruinous state and a photographic composite bringing together the image of a Greek temple and a brickworks in India, a place of primary production and construction set against the relic of Classical western culture, an evocation of two very distinct architectures and worlds.  

In a different room, we encounter a series of works drawn from Jewish mythology and a more troubling association in the evocation of the female figure of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, a demonic force and uncontrollable seductress, often symbolised by her long black hair in the artist’s works. Her name and black hair floats among a haze of ash covering a large-scale painted aerial view of a sprawling city, drawn from photographs of São Paolo. 

Kiefer’s obsessions and themes recur through his photographic imagery – the sunflowers, the sea, the forest, snow covered fields, the railway tracks, as well as the spectacle of ruins and the transformative site of his studios. If there is a shift in his work from the weight of German history, it is an opening out to more cosmic and abstract themes, the focus on creativity in relation to the unfathomable beyond. Photographs of the underground spaces that he had dug into the hill of his French estate represent an unresolvable quest and searching, very much like the experience of his art itself. This is its richness, a sense that we cannot readily frame or contain it. We hazard a guess, blunder around for meanings. And signs and meanings are in abundance in this work, but we are never quite sure how to make sense of them. Things are not fixed but mutable like the state of many of his photographs.

By the end of the show, a large-scaled photograph mounted on lead, shows the back of the artist, standing at the edge of the Rhine looking towards the other shore. It is a reprisal of Caspar David Friedrich’s rückenfigur (“figure from the back”), but the message is different. Despite the picture’s size, the artist’s pose is not about self-aggrandisement, mastery or heroic power. Rather, according to a quote from the artist, it is a stance and position caught up in the idea of borders and being between: “When I speak of borders, I speak of our very essence. […] We are the membrane between the macrocosm and the microcosm, between the inside – what we are – and the outside, what we also are. […] Art itself is a frontier, defined by the notion of limit: it is always on the razor’s edge, on the edge between mimicry and abstraction.”

Keifer’s art is one that is full of tensions and oppositions. In many ways for all the destruction and contaminations in his use of photography, his ceaseless production and creativity is marked by an enduring faith in art and culture. Another work from his Occupations series has been painted over, fifty years later. A palette with little radiant lines around it has been painted upon the image of his chest and dots of paint over black have been added to represent the stars above him. A quote from Kant accents the dichotomy central to the picture – “The starry sky above us and the moral law within us”. In revisiting and reworking this early photograph he spells out a tension and opposition that rebounds throughout the works in the show. The cosmos, something beyond and unfathomable, is set in relation to our own morality – our potential for goodness and creativity which is symbolised by the artist’s palette, but also our potential for evil, the abject sign of fascism in that Sieg Heil gesture. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and LAM – (Lille Métropole Musée d’art modern d’art contemporain et d’art brut) © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer: Photography in the Beginning runs at LAM until 3 March 2024.


Mark Durden is an academic, writer and artist. He is Professor of Photography and the Director of the European Centre for Documentary Research at the University of South Wales. He works collaboratively as part of the artist group Common Culture and, since 2017, with João Leal, has been photographing modernist architecture in Europe.

Images:

1-Anselm Kiefer, Für Martin Heidegger Todtnauberg (For Martin Heidegger Todtnauberg), 2010-2014. Black and white photographs, chalk, charcoal and silver leaf on cardboard; 20 pages (9 double-pages + cover and 4th cover); 103 x 66 x 4 cm © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat

2-Anselm Kiefer, Unfruchtbare Landschaften (Barren Landscapes), 1969. Black and white photography, surgical instruments and graphite on cardboard. Hardcover book, 14 pages; 36 x 25 x 4.5 cm. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat

3-Anselm Kiefer, Der gestirnte Himmel über uns und das moralische Gesetz in uns (The Starry Sky Above Us and the Moral Law Within Us), 1969-2009. Gouache on photographic paper; 58.90 x 83.90 cm. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Atelier Anselm Kiefer

4-Anselm Kiefer, Family Pictures, 2013-2017. Set of 16 display cases, Metal, glass, lead; 385 x 145 x 145 cm © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat

5-Anselm Kiefer, Am Anfang, [In the Beginning], 2008. Oil paint, emulsion, lead and photography on canvas; 380 x 560 cm. Grothe Collection at the Kunsthalle Mannheim, Germany. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat

6-Anselm Kiefer, The Secret Life of Plants, 1998. Photographic reproductions, plants, graphite; 64.50 x 50 cm. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat

7-Anselm Kiefer, Merkaba, 2005. Gouache and lead on black and white photograph; 43.6″ x 45.5″. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Atelier Anselm Kiefer

8-Anselm Kiefer, Sonnenblumen (Sunflowers), 1994-2012. Tinted silver photographic print under glass in a steel frame; 103.5 x 160.5 cm. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat

9-Anselm Kiefer, Der Rhein [The Rhine], 1969-2012, Electrolysis on photographic print mounted on lead, 380 × 1,100 cm. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Georges Poncet

10-Anselm Kiefer, Calmly Unendingly Moves (für J.J.), 2023. Glass, steel, lead photography and mixed media; 385 x 145 x 145 cm. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Georges Poncet

11-Anselm Kiefer, Bergkristall, detail of the Family Pictures installation, 2013-2017. Set of 16 display cases. Metal, glass, lead, wood, plywood, acrylic, emulsion, photography, watercolour on paper and mist technique; 351.5 x 1400 x 100 cm. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Georges Poncet

12- Anselm Kiefer, Am Anfang, [In the Beginning], 2008. Oil paint, emulsion, lead and photography on canvas; 380 x 560 cm. Grothe Collection at the Kunsthalle Mannheim, Germany. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat

13-Anselm Kiefer, Ohne Titel, (Untitled), 1969-2009. Gouache on photograph; 110.5 x 86 cm. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Georges Poncet

14-Anselm Kiefer, Heroische Sinnbilder, [Heroic symbols], 1969-2010, Black and white photographs, gouache, watercolour on paper and graphite on bound cardboard, 10 pages, 60 × 45 × 4 cm. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Atelier Anselm Kiefer

Daido Moriyama

A Retrospective

Exhibition review by Mark Durden

Presented on four floors of The Photographers’ Gallery, London, Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective has been deftly curated by Thyago Nogueira of São Paulo’s Instituto Moreira Salles to offer an anti-modernist, Pop, all over display of pictures that extends the montage aesthetic of print media to the gallery wall, writes Mark Durden.


What does it mean today to show Daido Moriyama at The Photographers’ Gallery? In 2012, in an effective and revealing exhibition, Tate Modern presented Moriyama’s photography and silkscreen print variants, books and magazines alongside films, photography and paintings by William Klein. The pairing was significant, for Klein was an important influence through his grainy, blurry out of focus way of rendering the city in his 1956 book Life is Good and Good for You in New York. Can this new show of Moriyama say anything new? Curated by Thyago Nogueira and accompanied by a substantial new book, Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective has toured via Europe from São Paulo’s Instituto Moreira Salles in 2022. Presented on four floors of The Photographers’ Gallery, photographic images are everywhere, framed in grids, pasted on walls, on video screens, projected and in books and magazines in vitrines. The Tate Modern display of Moriyama was more modernist and restrained in comparison.

Perhaps the curatorial approach at The Photographers’ Gallery is more in keeping with Moriyama’s approach to photography. The often-made point is that Moriyama is a photographer for print-reproduction, that the book is his primary format. This anti-modernist, Pop, all over display of pictures is in keeping with this, extending the montage aesthetic of print media to the gallery wall.

The show begins on the top floor, accessed by a lift, its interior pasted with repeated images of a mascaraed eye, an appropriate cue to the image glut that awaits. Moriyama’s aesthetic or vision is defined in relation to the US, with Andy Warhol as well as Klein big influences. Warhol was encountered aptly through reproductions, by way of the exhibition catalogue of his 1968 Swedish retrospective at Moderna Museet. But his work also needs to be seen in terms of the destruction and defeat of Japan – Moriyama was seven when atomic bombs obliterated Nagasaki and Hiroshima – as well as its occupation by US forces after 1951 and its transformation by American consumer culture.  

The exhibition begins with his 1968 book Japan: A Photo Theater in the form of both a grid of selected photographic images and a video screen presentation of the book. As the text panel highlights, the point is that the book is assembled from photographs recomposed from earlier editorial pictures in magazines, a deliberate break from the sequencing and clarity of the picture essay, treating photographs as “fragments” according to Moriyama. Disjuncture and discordance characterise the pictures, many of them grainy, blurred and taken off-kilter. They detail the collisions of a Japan in transformation, the miraculous and bizarre worlds associated with Kabuki performances and the avant-garde theatre troupe Tenjō Sajiki, mixed in with observations of life on the street: a shaven-headed man on all fours, two upright and smartly dressed young Japanese shoppers, a woman fearful behind her partly opened but chained door, two women in traditional Japanese dress, the big tail fins of an American car. The lopsided photograph of a television screen with the fragmentary cartoon image of female lips and teeth, in its cheery but plastic expression, accords with the general unsettling of human values and expressions in the series. The book closes with a series of human foetuses in formalin, one of which is included in the grid display of pictures: a life still born, an allegory of photography itself.    

The top floor defines what is now his signature aesthetic. The analogue process is evident throughout – grain, blur and deliberate high-contrast. In a feature for Asahi Camera, the oiled flesh of overcrowded beachgoers seems irradiated, pleasure is linked with death. Bleached out figures recur, with light as a destructive force. A series of blow-ups from a traffic poster from National Police agency showing a graphic car crash makes a homage to both Warhol’s Death and Disaster silkscreens (1962-65) as well as Weegee. Another series includes a fuzzy broadcast image of Bill Eppbridge’s well-known photograph of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. The fourth floor closes with his photography for Provoke magazine, his features about sex and commodities in two of its four issues. In a display drawn from his series Eros (1969), a sequence of blurred images of an anonymous naked lone female in a hotel room is framed by an explanatory wall text referring to the issue’s critique of ‘capitalism’s suppression of individual desire through which real feelings were progressively repressed and replaced by the consumption of images.’ Moriyama’s photographs of displays of supermarket products represent a degraded Pop aesthetic – the image deterioration or break-up through reproduction becomes integral to the picturing, a counter to the fetishism of commodities.

The third floor begins with a grid of colour photographs, dating from the late 1960s, and on a facing wall, a colour vinyl print blow-up of one of them. It shows Moriyama behind the camera, reflected in a mirror, which also shows the face of a young Japanese woman, slightly out of focus and looking at the photographer and us. For all the ambiguities set up through the mirror, like Eros, it is an all too familiar dynamic. Women are a constant in his street photography – among the block of colour images is his memorable and often reproduced flash-lit photo of a woman running away from the camera barefoot over rough and sharp-looking debris in a back alley in Shinjuku. The picture makes explicit the predatory menace we are invited to assume is allied with the photographer. Of course, the predatory male photographer was, and still is, part and parcel of street photography: Lee Friedlander ironicised it brilliantly in his 1970 book Self Portrait, whilst Garry Winogrand both indulged and joked with it in his celebratory 1975 book Women are Beautiful.

Amidst the glut of images, one almost loses the radicality of his book Farewell Photography (1972), his goodbye that certainly marked an existential crisis but was never in the end a goodbye. The complete layout from Farewell is presented as a wallpaper installation, in sequence. Not that sequencing makes much difference. On the wall, the pictures are less abrasive than in book form. Whilst the book is lost among other books and magazines in one of the vitrines, the whole book is shown on a video screen in the reading room on the second floor. The wall text includes his remark about how it was made against the ‘naivety to think that you could try and create masterpieces.’ It is of course ironic now that the book is unequivocally a masterpiece. Many of the images are drawn from the growing images he had amassed and accumulated. For Japan: A Photo Theater, he reshuffled pictures to break sense, but here he goes further as the pictures are so degraded – some were printed from negatives picked up from the darkroom floor. There are blanks and voids, grainy fields, solarised images, analogue noise and blur shrouding and obscuring what images remain discernible.

Towards the end of the show, there is a wall-sized blow-up of a photograph of a female mannequin head, adorned with mirrored sunglasses, one lens reflecting a woman from the street and the other the photographer. It is part of a recent work called Pretty Woman, an all-over wall installation of pasted photographic images, both colour and black-and-white, which, according to the captioning text overlaid on the wallpaper of images, ‘offers a garish immersion into urban consumerism through the trope of the female figure, in all its forms.’ The show invites us to see a shift in the work – a clear move from Farewell, which was dominated by disfiguring or the ruination of representation to a photography of the world, the streets of Japan and other cities, beginning in the early 1980s. But with this embrace of what the curator refers to as “the visual lyricism” of street photography, the thematic is the same – the link between commodities and woman in Pretty Woman is a variant from his two series in Provoke, but now played out also using colour and in response to urban spaces choking with images. A generous reading might say there is a critique in the emphasis on vacuity, for example, the mannequin female head. There is a deathliness to photographic reproduction in Farewell and it is also here. Moriyama once referred to the all-over display of photographs as akin to a menu from which the spectator could choose pictures – but we are spoilt by choice. There are too many images. The show began with the re-assembly of photographs as fragments for his first book. It ends with a three-screen projection (with an accompanying soundtrack) from his ongoing magazine Record, which initially ran in 1972-73 and was relaunched in 2006 with more than 50 editions, in turn becoming a regular way of publishing his photography.

This is a very thorough, comprehensive and well-curated show. It does open up new insights into his work and one does get the sense it brings us closer to what, for better words, one might call Moriyama’s vision. In a recent documentary video included in the show, Moriyama refers to how “the world is erotic”. It links with earlier remarks about street photography in a film made for the Tate, where he remarked how “cities are enormous bodies of people’s desires”. For all the understandable buzz and excitement over this blockbuster show, such remarks are troubling when his street photography is so clearly centred on women. Whether the figure of the woman is a trope for consumerism or not, it does not matter. The world has moved on but Moriyama’s art has not. ♦

Images courtesy the artist and The Photographers’ Gallery, London © Daido Moriyama

Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective runs at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, until 11 February 2024.


Mark Durden is an academic, writer and artist. He is Professor of Photography and the Director of the European Centre for Documentary Research at the University of South Wales. He works collaboratively as part of the artist group Common Culture and, since 2017, with João Leal, has been photographing modernist architecture in Europe.

Oliver Frank Chanarin

A Perfect Sentence

Exhibition review by Mark Durden

In response to Oliver Frank Chanarin’s new exhibition at FORMAT23, Mark Durden argues that the artist’s conceptual trick of revealing the printing process is a means of vivifying a conventional photographic portrait practice and chimes with the project’s quirky index of Britishness. 


The photographic portrait is arguably the central genre and tradition of photography. Oliver Frank Chanarin offers a new take on this important and longstanding tradition through an old process in A Perfect Sentence, his exhibition at The Museum of Making, as part of the 11th edition of Derby’s FORMAT International Photography Festival.

Chanarin’s portraits of people in Britain have been drawn from multiple journeys across the country over the last year, commissioned and produced by Forma, in collaboration with an impressive network of partner arts organisations and funders. This show of around 100 colour photographs amounts to about a third of the pictures that make up the total project. It will be followed by further exhibitions as well as a publication from Loose Joints.

August Sander was an initial point of departure, but, as Chanarin acknowledges, “the cool archival approach” soon stopped being helpful. As it evolved, he felt his work was closer to that of Sander’s contemporary Helmar Lerski. An actor and cameraman, Lerski made multiple portraits of his sitters, with a variety of expressions, people drawn from the streets of Berlin — beggars, hawkers, street cleaners, housemaids, porters — but abstracted from their social roles through his aesthetic vision. Chanarin’s portraits are not as manipulated as Lerski’s. But in the theatre and dramaturgy of many of his subjects, one senses the Lerski connection. Chanarin is not so much interested in people’s social role; despite having visited factories, there is little interest in describing labour and working conditions but instead a presentation of British life as bizarre spectacle.

The work sets up a friction between the familiar convention of the photographic portrait and a conceptual strategy that makes visible the process of C-type colour printing. The colour casts, bands of differing exposure, double printing, as well as all the markings and annotations upon many of the prints, affirm and display the darkroom work of making these portrait pictures — the craft and labour and time integral to this now vintage, noxious and disappearing chemical process. In resisting the closure and fixity of the final image, these imperfect images, according to the wall text that accompanies the show, are intended to “allude to the mercurial nature of identity and the subjectivity inherent in image-making.” But great photographic portraits have and will always continue to draw attention to the mercurial nature of identity. I don’t need to see the process of the portrait’s printing production to be made aware of this.

What then does making the printing process visible do? Is the disclosure of the colour printing process intended to revive interest in an old and disappearing process? Chanarin’s turn to the darkroom does seem to chime with the way in which he describes this project. After a successful two decades’ long artistic collaboration, he wanted to return to what drew him to photography in the first place: “encounters with strangers and the beautiful accidental moments that come with getting lost in the world with a camera.”

The visibility of the printing process does make us aware of colour as a filter, as an artificial application. In this respect, it links up with the make-up abundant and excessive on some of the faces he has pictured. There is a certain aesthetic pleasure and joy in the deviation from the straight colour print and it could be seen in keeping with the Photoconceptualists’ dismantling and disclosure of photographic form. At the same time, it could also be seen just as a gimmick, a means of vivifying a conventional photographic portrait practice.      

Drawn to the theatrical, the strange and the unusual, Chanarin’s is a carnivalesque portrait of Britain — encompassing carnival troupes, protestors dressed as chickens, model railway enthusiasts, a volunteer couple at a local zoo with snake and tarantula, the bondage rituals from the Shibari class for a local fetish community and pictures he has made with volunteers of the Casualties Union, people who use make up and acting skills to play the role of casualties for the emergency services and medical profession. The latter portraits introduce a realm of simulation, confuse and unsettle the documentary basis of the project. Chanarin’s interest in performance and dramaturgy in the portrait transaction is evident not just through all those he pictures costumed and made up. It is also there in less adorned subjects: his brief sequence of portraits made in homeless shelters, the calm communique of the man who makes enigmatic gestures and signs with his hands to his photographer (and us) or the woman whose nervous energy means she cannot hold a pose.

For this show, the photographs are all printed the same size (10 x 8 inches) and framed the same way. Their arrangement and sequencing are however playful and break uniformity — pictures are hung in corners, above eye level and, in one, presented as a diagonal drawn out across a long wall. The diagonal line of pictures presents us not with portraits but with photographs of a seemingly random assortment of objects and details drawn from the communities he has been given access to and places visited — a quirky index of Britishness ranging from stacks of buttered white toast to a Rolls Royce plane engine.  

None of the photographs on show have labels or captions. Instead, there are a series of 12 short, condensed stories delivered as a spoken narrative by the photographer and accessed on our mobile phones through a QR code. Chanarin’s poetic, open-ended and suggestive auto-narratives provide an effective alternative to captions and convey often interesting reflections, thoughts, ideas and observations from his travels across the UK, meeting and photographing different people. They are also refreshingly open and honest in their admission of the difficulties and problems of picturing people. After a photography workshop with teenagers and posting a portrait of a student helper on Instagram, he tells us how he had to remove the image and destroy all photographs made with the teenagers because he had broken safeguarding issues.

A happier story is attached to his portrait of three young women in bikinis standing before rocks on a beach, all hands raised shielding their eyes as they look into the sun. When he wrote to them with a copy of the photograph, one of the bathers said how proud and happy she was to have her picture taken, how the picture gave her confidence in her own looks, without make up. Chanarin exhibits two versions of this photograph side by side, one clearly printed and the other with bands of different exposures darkening the picture and the faces of the bathers. In the anecdote about the picture being liked, he does not say which version he sent her, which raises questions about the interest his subjects would have in the prints bearing marks of the process of their production. One picture of a housing estate has the words “bad” written up on it, a commentary that inevitably could also be taken to not just be a remark about the print.

Funding bodies love art with social impact but much art that is “community-driven” or “socially engaged” tends to be over-determined by the worthiness of its cause and message, and often does little more than replay prejudices and assumptions about the communities represented whilst never really overcoming the gulf and distance between the artist and the people that have become their subject. From the long list of credits and acknowledgments given in a wall panel for this exhibition, this project, made in collaboration with no less than eight UK organisations, would appear to have been both well-funded and supported, involving teams and networks of people to make it happen, right down to the designer and graphic artist (two people, not one) of A Perfect Sentence’s identity. Yet while there are reflections on the problems and issues around representing people within his spoken narrative, it is still dominated by a rather conservative and romantic portrait of the lone artist photographer as “wanderer”, losing himself in the strange experiences and encounters opened up by life in regional towns and cities in Britain. The canny conceptual trick of showing us the printing process also nicely matches the project’s overall romantic premise: implying a freedom from rules and templates. It fits with the eccentricities of the folk on show and Chanarin’s left-field vision of Britain. ♦      

All images courtesy of the artist, The Museum of Making and FORMAT International Photography Festival, Derby © Oliver Frank Chanarin. Commissioned and produced by Forma, in collaboration with eight UK organisations. Supported by Arts Council England, Art Fund and Outset Partners.

A Perfect Sentence ran at The Museum of Making, as part of FORMAT International Photography Festival, until 3 September 2023. A Perfect Sentence (Part II) runs at KARST Gallery, Plymouth, until 18 Match 2024.


Mark Durden is a writer, artist and academic. Together with David Campbell and Ian Brown, he works as part of the art group Common Culture. Since 2017, Durden has worked collaboratively with João Leal in photographing modernist European architecture, beginning with Álvaro Siza. He is currently Professor of Photography and Director of the European Centre for Documentary Research at the University of South Wales, Cardiff.

Images:

1-Oliver Frank Chanarin, Marine Academy (Year 10) (2023) © the artist.

2-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with Elaine (2023) © the artist.

3-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with anon (2023) © the artist.

4-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with Untitled (2023) © the artist.

5-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with June (2023) © the artist.

6-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with Mark (2023) © the artist.

7-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with Fay, Maisie and Robyn (2023) © the artist.

8-Oliver Frank Chanarin, Untitled (2023) © the artist.

9-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with Adam (2023) © the artist.

10-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with L Cpl Oliver (2023) © the artist.

11-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with Joshua, anon and Andrew (2023) © the artist.

Vivian Maier

Anthology

Exhibition review by Mark Durden

Vivian Maier, the reclusive photographer who made her living as a nanny, has become a fantasy figure for curators and photographers to imagine and shape as they want, argues Mark Durden in response to Anthology, the recent MK Gallery exhibition in Milton Keynes.


The story of Vivian Maier’s discovery and posthumous fame is fantastic. So much so that the trickster artist Joan Fontcuberta, in one of his recent public talks, mischievously said he had created her and asked an historian in Chicago to create the context for her work. He was joking of course.

The work of this reclusive photographer, who made her living as a nanny, came to light when the contents of a storage space she defaulted on was auctioned off in 2007, a couple of years before her death. She has subsequently become, as Fontcuberta suggests, a Mary Poppins figure whose Aladdin’s cave of photographic treasures feeds our desires and fantasies, which in the case of the exhibition Anthology, at the MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, seem to be centred upon the lost art of street photography.

The Chicago historian John Maloof was one of the buyers of Maier’s possessions and subsequently has been integral to the promotion and celebration of her photographic work – he now owns 90% of her output, over 140,000 images as well as 8mm film and audio recordings. It is from this collection this show is drawn – with over 140 photographs it makes quite a substantial exhibition, but at the same time represents a mere thousandth of the mass of photographs she left behind. With much of the exhibition given over to her black and white square format street pictures of New York and Chicago in the 1950s, she is being hyped as a new addition to an old school. Her black and white pictures are both new, in the sense they have not been seen before, and old in that they mark a past moment that we cannot really have again.

The show runs through the familiar array of street photography type subject matter – both observed and unobserved depictions of the carnival of different folk encountered in urban spaces. The picture of two elderly men crouched in contemplation over a coil of piping on a rainy sidewalk introduces the street photographer’s love of the surreal comedies of seemingly inexplicable witnessed events. The photograph of the still smoking remains of a burnt-out armchair on the sidewalk is of similar ilk, a beautiful mysterious incident. There is also the isolation of significant gestures and details, the tender touch of a couple holding hands, secretly observed from behind. The Rolleiflex camera held at waist height and into which she would look down into its viewfinder, was ideal for such surreptitious glimpses.

Maier can be astute in her picturing of the tensions and contradictions of conflict, as in the photograph entitled Armenian Woman Fighting (1956), which shows a stout older woman standing firm and defiant before a young police officer on the street in New York. The picture concentrates us on an intimacy despite their confrontation through the way his hands can be seen tightly gripping one of hers, as he tries to calm her. And there is a great image of disdain before wealth with a photograph of a woman, adorned and wrapped with two dead mink, the creature’s faces and claws all too visible and making a jarring contrast to her carefully refined self-image.  

Maier was not naïve. She was an avid film goer, both mainstream and avant-garde. A footnote in the recent Thames & Hudson monograph on Vivian Maier refers to how a house manager at a Chicago movie theatre said she even took an interest in Andy Warhol’s films. There is a certain Warholian aspect to her witty play with selfhood in her self-portraits, which are not revelatory but deadpan, blank and affectless. Perhaps one can also see her fascination for news stories and newspapers in relation to Warhol. Amongst the black-and-white street photographs, there is a remarkable and unusual close-up picture of the sides of two stacked newspapers – stuttering repetitions of photo images showing serious looking men in one stack, recurring Snoopy cartoon captions for laughter in the other: HA HA HA HA HA!. As one of her employers has recounted in Maloof’s documentary film about the photographer, Finding Vivian Maier (2013), she became an obsessive hoarder of copies of The New York Times, which she read daily and also photographed.

The opening wall text at the MK Gallery declares that this ‘self-taught artist’ now belongs to the canon of photographers alongside Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt and Garry Winogrand. This is all very well and good, but what really separates her work from those she is compared with, what makes it distinct? The self-portraits begin to signal a break from this street tradition as does her attention and fascination with newspapers, but the show does not make enough of her newspaper photographs and neither does it really emphasise enough the oddity of her self-portraits. The MK Gallery does however register the shift in her work as she started to use the Leica camera and colour film in the 1970s. Here one can find something different and less familiar. Her pictures and picturing are more layered and complex. In a photograph taken in an art museum, she plays upon the subtle interconnections between a smartly dressed woman and two girls and the painted portraits behind them. One child stands apart, rapt in attention, presumably captivated with the strange figure that Maier must have made as she took the picture. In an unusual self-portrait, her shadow and that of another figure is played off against and amongst different images on movie posters, with her shadow overlaying the image of an angel from the film Heaven Can Wait (1978), which is next to the image of an endangered female water skier on a Jaws 2 (1978) poster. And in a display of mirrors etched with the faces of stars, her hatted reflection appears over the face of Marilyn Monroe.

In a few colour photographs, the cropping and cutting of images provides her with a distinctive pictorial strategy. In the close-up of a newspaper, the rack’s Chicago Tribune sign cuts up the face of Nixon as we ponder the absurdity of his headline quote ‘Bombs saved lives’. In her picture of a suited African-American standing before her, she deliberately crops out his head, which draws attention to the way he is holding out a printed copy of The Last Messenger (1979), bearing a portrait of the face of the religious leader Elijah Mohammad.

With the last colour photograph included in the show, dated 1986, Maier has taken her ultimate self-portrait by photographing just her red hat and blue coat spread out on wooden decking. It seems a very knowing image. It beautifully suits what she has now become: a hollow figure to be taken up and reinvented again and again. Fontcuberta’s claim to have created her is then probably not that far from the truth. She is a fiction in that she has become a fantasy figure for curators and photographers to imagine and shape as they want. The problem with the MK Gallery show is a question of how Maier’s work has been filtered. By delimiting her work to more familiar and populist street photography modes, we are in danger of losing all that is weird, rich and complex among the extraordinary mass of images she has left us. ♦

All images courtesy Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York © Vivian Maier.

Vivian Maier: Anthology ran at MK Gallery, Milton Keynes from 11 June – 25 September 2022.

Mark Durden is a writer, artist and academic. Together with David Campbell and Ian Brown, he works as part of the art group Common Culture. Since 2017, Durden has worked collaboratively with João Leal in photographing modernist European architecture, beginning with Álvaro Siza. He is currently Professor of Photography and Director of the European Centre for Documentary Research at the University of South Wales, Cardiff.

Images:

1-Vivian Maier, Self-portrait, New York, 1953 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

2-Vivian Maier, 18 September, 1962 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

3- Vivian Maier, New York, 3 September, 1954 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

4-Vivian Maier, New York, 1954 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

5- Vivian Maier, New York, 1953 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

6- Vivian Maier, New York, 27 July, 1954 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

7-Vivian Maier, New York, 1954 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

8- Vivian Maier, New York, 2 December, 1954 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.