From the RWA
Despite having walked past it many times, I'd never actually been into the Royal West of England Academy – billed as "Bristol's first art gallery" – until this week. I was finally tempted inside by an exhibition, "Inquisitive Eyes: Slade Painters in Edwardian Wessex, 1900 - 1914". It is a curious show, largely made up of those small, low-key, quasi-Impressionistic oil landscapes that you'd probably walk past in most large galleries on the way to see something more striking. However, the subject matter being "Wessex" – which is to say Dorset, in the main, and Swanage in particular – the show was of great potential interest to me, as this was the location of many of our family holidays in the early 1960s. Although there is an obvious difference between our bucket-and-spade adventures on the beach and the tweedy Edwardian forays of the New English Art Club into a Purbeck landscape still innocent of slot-machine arcades and caravan sites.
However, the exhibition turned out to be in a side gallery extremely dimly-lit for conservation reasons and, as a consequence, rather hard to see. This is never a good thing in an art exhibition, especially when so many of the paintings are sombre, sketchy exercises in a limited, muddy palette. That, combined with a surprisingly large contingent of visitors for a show nearing its close, meant that I spent less time in there than I had intended. But to get to it you had to pass through the main gallery, which is an astounding open space, more like a gym than a gallery, brilliantly lit with daylight from overhead, and populated with another show, "Imagined Landscapes", which I found much more interesting. In more ways than one.
I've already said my piece about contemporary landscape photography (Bye, Bye Landscape Photography, Dear) and nothing in this group show of more general contemporary artistic approaches to the landscape changed my mind on that score. Of the works I found most compelling, several had set out from a photographic starting-point, or included actual photographic images – I really liked a couple of tiny works by Paul Fieldsend-Danks, and a collaboration between artist Will Maclean and poet John Burnside resulting in a set of ten paired prints and poems, A Catechism of the Laws of Storms – but the straight photographic work on display struck me as dull and, ultimately, rather unsatisfying. I found myself in the position of the sort of person who says, yes, very nice, but it's just a photograph, isn't it? Which, to say the least, felt a bit weird.
In the RWA
On the RWA
Now, I've known the work of photographer Jem Southam for a long time, ever since 1992, when – pushing my son in his baby-buggy around Reading town centre while my partner was giving an Open University tutorial there – I came across a copy of The Red River in a bookshop. A few years later I had the good fortune to do a Duckspool workshop with him, just at the point he was moving away from a hand-held medium-format camera (the extraordinary Plaubel Makina) to a more static large-format view camera, and producing the brilliant series of cliff rockfalls, river-mouths and dew-ponds that brought him to much deserved wider attention. We've stayed in touch, intermittently, and I consider myself a fan. So, it was with pleasure I spotted four Southam prints on the wall.
It turned out they were from the "Pond at Upton Pyne" series. Now, I should say I don't consider this series among his finest work, especially compared with the similar but, to my eyes, vastly superior series known as "The Painter's Pool". There's something peculiar about the composition and especially the colour balance in all the prints and reproductions of "Upton Pyne" I've seen, and they simply don't work for me. These prints in particular were very large indeed, each one roughly four feet or so across, and hung in a two-by-two grid. You can't help but get close – too close – to such large pictures and the inherent weaknesses of photography, particularly colour analogue photography, are then staring you in the face.
Chief among these are what I think of as a lack of "fractalness" evident in over-enlarged photographic mark-making. A good drawing or painting is fascinating all the way down to the smallest twitch of a pencil-point or dab of a brush-stroke. I would have loved to have got really up-close and personal with some of the pencil portraits in the "Inquisitive Eyes" exhibition, or taken a couple of the paintings off the wall and examined them more closely in broad daylight, ideally out on the terrace with a cup of coffee. But, with any photograph, there is a point beyond which enlargement simply diminishes the image by blurring and exposing the incoherence of its inherent "grain". Even a large-format negative is not best served by enlarging it to four or more feet across. Frankly, it's an approach best reserved for hotel lobbies, restaurants, and travel agencies with a blank wall to enliven. On the contrary, if you want to be hit in the eye by the sheer magic of photography, absolutely nothing can beat an 8" x 10" contact print from an 8" x 10" negative. And I have yet to see a purely photographic image from any size of negative or digital file that has been enlarged beyond, say, a modest 12" x 16" that gained anything from the extra size that it did not lose in the "tautness" of the image-quality and in particular that unique illusion of intimate presence that good photography endows.
I suppose these may simply be the reflections of someone who has – temporarily – fallen somewhat out of love with the medium. Or perhaps I don't love photography for the same qualities its mainstream admirers see in it. A case of it's not you, photography, it's me... But to find myself in the presence of work by one of my most admired artists and thinking, "yes, very nice, but it's just a photograph, isn't it?" was both disappointing and disturbing.
Although I will admit to feeling a compensating rush of cockiness, pleasurably close to hubris: This work is as good as it gets, I thought, and yet I don't feel humbled by it, as I might before an old master drawing or the Rembrandt self-portraits I saw in Amsterdam last year ... Perhaps I really am bloody good at this photography lark! What a shame so few people seem to have realised it so far!
Though I calmed down when I realised I'd been walking around all morning with the Fuji's exposure compensation dial accidentally set to minus two stops... Doh! Luckily, like Jeeves, the camera seems to know what I want better than I do.
Beside the RWA