I’ve just spent an enjoyable week at the Courtauld Gallery Summer School, following, along with a small group of other students, a programme devised and taught by Tim Satterthwaite, Living Cities: The photography of Urban Life in Europe and America, 1920-1989. Modernism to street photography; art photography to social documentary. Fascinating stuff – and centrally placed, Robert Frank’s 1958 book, The Americans.
Not least for its fine and freewheeling introduction by Jack Kerouac, The Americans has long been one of my favourite books of photographs, three of the images – Ranch Market, Hollywood: Nanny. Charleston, South Carolina & Crosses at the Site of a Road Accident. U.S. 91, Idaho – the subject of a short sequence of pieces which appeared in my 1998 Smith/Doorstop collection, Bluer Than This.
Here’s one …
Nanny. Charleston, South Carolina.
They don’t want me to hold this child. All them righteous brothers with the anger and their shades. Sisters, too. Wave placards in my face and shout and spit and sound their horns. One of them come right up to me, sanding here with this precious boy in my arms, and says, “Sister, can’t you see that’s the Devil’s child?” Well, I ain’t his sister, nor about to be, ain’t got no sister ‘cept Merilee, and she passed on having her third. No, if there’s anything I am, it’s this child’s mother, near as can be, doing everything for him his own mother don’t do. ‘Sides, you just have to look in this sweet baby’s face to know he ain’t no Devil. See that sweet little angel mouth, way that skin shine so white and flawless like a doll’s; and his eyes, how they stare out at you, never looking away, not blinking, like they already owned the world.
There are two contrasting and equally enthralling photographic exhibitions in London right now: Saul Leiter: Retrospective at The Photographers’ Gallery (until April 3rd) and Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth in the Media Space at the Science Museum (until March 28th).
Leiter’s work, his colour work especially, is so clearly that of someone who is also a painter: his interest is in colour, texture, form. Individuals glimpsed, frequently in mirrors, through glass misted with condensation, through mist or snow, are little more than points of focus. Leiter cares little, in his images at least, in who they are, where they have come from or are going to.
These photographs live by their beauty: too many seen at once (a danger the current show does not fall into) would be, perhaps, too rich.
Alec Soth’s work, as displayed in the airier galleries of the Science Museum’s Media Space, has more variety, partly because of his decision to work as much in black and white and in colour, but more specifically due to the fact that he works on distinct projects –as he says on his web site, I like to take pictures and I make books. So, for Broken Manual, he tracked down and photographed people who had chosen to live in isolation within the United States, both the people and their environment; and in Looking for Love, he matched images to numerous actual love letters (most often letters of rejection) that he had solicited.
Some of Soth’s photographs have a formal beauty that makes you want to stop and gaze irrespective of their context, but it is the context – and the chance t0 do so that this rare show provides – that makes his work both individual and outstanding.
I’ve been lucky enough to have seen both of these shows more than once and feel lucky to have done so: to take on for a moment, the argument arising from the decision to remove thousands of images from the Royal Photographic Society’s collection currently held at the National Media Museum in Bradford and transfer them to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, wouldn’t it be great if it were possible for these two exhibitions to travel beyond the capital to Bradford, or Manchester, or Nottingham, or, indeed, anywhere north of the Watford Gap?
If things seem to have been a little slow, blog-wise, of late, put it down to a dislocated finger and strapped-up hand. Normal service will, hopefully, be resumed shortly. But in the meantime, please enjoy these images from a recent trip to North Yorkshire – all photographs courtesy of Molly Ernestine Boiling.
More of Molly’s photographs from our visit to Monk’s House …