Politics and photography: London exhibitions this spring

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What does it mean to see and to be seen in our contemporary moment?

This spring, London is awash with exhibitions that celebrate the diverse possibilities of photography. But rather than simply asking the viewer to appreciate the aesthetics of these images, these four shows actively challenge the notion of a photographic subject, exploring new forms of visual experiences.

In two exhibitions in particular, the political possibility of the photograph is suggested in their troubling of subjects and subject matter. The Barbican hosts Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins, an exhibition in which curators have selected their coterie of photographers through their varying depictions of subcultures, counter-cultures and otherwise marginalised individuals. Each room displays the work of an individual photographer: Larry Clark’s first series Tulsa documents the activities of him and his high school friends as they take dugs, play with guns and have sex; Igor Palmin’s The Enchanted Wanderer contrasts the hippie aesthetic of the 1970s with desert landscapes of Russia; Japanese photographer Daidō Moriyama exposes the hypocrisies of an uptight 1960s Japan through his street photography including portraits of yakuza, prostitutes and performers; Dayanita Singh - whose work is also on display at the Tate Modern in the Blavatnik building - includes a video of her friend and subject Mona Ahmed miming the words to her favourite song. In this wide variety of subjects and subject matter, there is no one way of approaching these images and in its very broadness, the exhibition questions the central tenets of photography: subject, sitter, photographer, the very language with which we might describe more immediately traditional photography, are different here. Moreover, in its disparity, the collection demonstrates the essential unclassifiability of the photograph, and therefore its malleability.

Igor Palmin, Untitled XVI, Stavropol Krai, USSR, 1977. From the series The Enchanted Wanderer, 1977

The Photographer’s Gallery shows Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross Dressers: compiled from the collection of French director and screenwriter Sebastien Lifshitz. Like the Casa Susanna images - collected images from a retreat in the US at which men could dress as women - from the Barbican exhibition, the curators at the Photographers Gallery show materials salvaged from markets and junk shops, containing photographs of unknown people cross-dressing. In showing images from French cabaret performers and nightclubs, as well as from the sets of prisoner of war camps, the exhibition highlights the historical presence of gender play in many different kinds of performance, and that gender is of course a particular kind of performance in which we all partake. There are also many sweet photographs of individuals and groups playing with or transforming their identity in private; one can feel the camaraderie in these groups shots, as people celebrate rather than malign their otherwise suppressed desires. As with Another Kind of Life, these collected images challenge the spectator to consider their own ideas about the photographic subject. By welcoming these images into the gallery, both exhibitions give new space to those who may otherwise be ignored and whose choices in life may be relegated to private preferences; by drawing attention to them, visitors can see that we all have a stake in the politics of day-to-day living.

English prisoners of war in the German camp, Frankfurt. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection

Over at the Hayward Gallery, Andreas Gursky’s work considers the relationship between the individual and the crowd or the singular and the replicatable through his enormous photographs. The well-known German photographer plays with perspective and scale to give man-made settings such as factories and stadiums new peculiar qualities that cast them in a different light. Gursky has described in a piece for The Guardian the moment in which he discovered ‘that pictorial density, that industrial aesthetic’ that has now come to characterise his work: by looking for new kinds of human pattern in accumulation, repetition and uniformity, he exposes the ambiguity of these new forms in which human life has to fit with these strange compositions. Like his contemporary Edward Burtynsky, the unique perspective of the camera allows for highly composed and visually confrontational images, over which the eye travels and searches for meaning.

Andreas Gursky, Tokyo, Stock Exchange 1990

Finally, at Calvert 22, the East-London cultural centre for work and ideas from and about the New East, comes Post-Soviet visions: image and identity in the new Eastern Europe. In this group show, which includes work by filmmaker and photographer David Meskhi, and photographers Ieva Rudsepa and Masha Demianova, a new generation of young artists depict their visions and experiences of post-Soviet life. This show circumvents simple oppositional ideas about East v. West, young v. old and instead explore the in-between; living and working in amongst Communist architecture whilst engaging with the wider world through technology and the internet, this fascinating display suggests there is no homogenous post-Soviet experience.

David Meskhi

In all of these shows, photography becomes a way both to document and alter the transformations of the 20th and 21st centuries. In our contemporary political moment, in which we are becoming more attuned to the politics of language and representation, each of these exhibitions allows viewers to adapt and amend their perspective on ‘seeing’ and ‘being seen.’