Photo London 2018

On Friday I took the train up to London and visited Somerset House to see the fourth annual Photo London event. With more than 100 galleries exhibiting as well as a number of specially curated shows there were literally thousands of photographs on display – far more than it would be possible for me to absorb in a single visit – so I didn’t even attempt to examine everything closely and just honed in on pictures that particularly attracted my attention.

First to catch my eye were Antony Cairns’s IBM LDN images of nighttime London, inkjet-printed onto tinted IBM computer punchcards, then assembled and mounted on cardboard, which also feature in the Shape of Light exhibition currently running at Tate Modern. Next, and in a completely different style, Evgenia Arbugaeva’s extraordinary, dreamlike images from her Amani series. Like Cristina de Middel, whose work these images reminded me of, Arbugaeva graduated in photojournalism. Her Amani images look for all the world like tableaux of magical imaginary scenes, but they actually document a former malaria research centre in Tanzania.

Juno Calypso’s Subterranean Kitchen, installed in a fittingly kitsch side room complete with reflective metal floor, was my next stop. I also enjoyed two striking modernist-style images from Serge Najjar’s series The Architecture of Light which clearly demonstrate the truth of his motto, “It’s not what you see but how you see it,” and Sebastião Salgado’s Church Gate Station, Bombay (1995), an atmospheric image in which he captured the bustling busyness of the station with a long exposure. I was amused by David Montgomery’s Queen Elizabeth with Corgis (1967) which depicts her as a suburban housewife sitting in front of an electric bar fire, and by Paul Reas’ I Can Help: Hand of Pork (1988), in which a shopper wearing a jumper patterned with dozens of tiny pigs surveys a supermarket meat counter.

It felt like a real privilege to see so many original prints of images by Fox Talbot, Andre Kertesz, August Sander, Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans, to name just a few of the illustrious photographers represented, and I was repeatedly struck by how much more there is to see and appreciate in the photographic prints than is visible in books or on screen. It was exactly like the experience of seeing familiar paintings in the flesh for the first time. I also noticed that many of the most striking black-and-white prints that had particularly strong depth and texture, whether vintage or new, were gelatin silver prints, and this has prompted me to start thinking more about different print methods and technologies.

But I think what will probably stay in my mind most strongly was a two-room installation of works by Edward Burtynsky. As I descended the staircase into the first room, I saw two supersized images that triggered a moment of déjà vu as I thought I was looking at Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze. But these are actually photographs of saw mills, mines, quarries and salt flats – spectacularly large, backlit images with a God’s eye view and a level of detail way beyond anything I’ve seen before. People were spending a really long time in front of them, drilling down further and further into the detail. Then, when you stand back and view them as a whole, they look like paintings – by Klimt, as I mentioned, or by Hundertwasser, Robert Sadler or Roger Hilton. The human-generated scarification of the earth is converted in these images from messy desecration into astonishingly sublime beauty.

Burtynsky produces the images with a digital Hasselblad mounted onto a programmable tripod head and a drone, taking dozens of overlapping exposures which he then merges to create a single seamless image – his 3-metre by 6-metre-plus image of Italy’s Carrara marble quarries is made from 122 exposures, each one 50 megapixels.

All in all, the immense diversity of the work on show was inspiring in and of itself, demonstrating that there really is no limit to how creative it’s possible to be in photography. And anyone who doubts that photography is firmly established as a fine art medium not just in the eyes of photographers but also those of dealers and collectors has clearly not visited shows like these, where price tags are very much in line with other art forms. As an afterthought, I noticed that vernacular photography, which was a strong theme at Paris Photo in 2012, the last major photo fair I attended, was not in evidence at all, at least as far as I could see.

References and resources

A Photo Editor (2011) Edward Burtynsky interview. Available at http://aphotoeditor.com/2011/11/30/edward-burtynsky-interview [accessed 20.05.18]
Arbugaeva, E. (2018) Evgenia Arbugaeva. Available at http://evgeniaarbugaeva.com [accessed 20.05.18]
Boulting, T.J. (2018) What to do with a million years: Juno Calypso. Available at http://www.tjboulting.com/exhibitionspage/506/what-to-do-with-a-million-years [accessed 20.05.18]
Burtynsky, E. (2018) Edward Burtynsky. Available at https://www.edwardburtynsky.com [accessed 20.05.18]
Cairns, A. (2018) Antony Cairns. Available at http://www.antony-cairns.co.uk [accessed 20.05.18]
Salgado, S. (2013) The silent drama of photography. Available at https://www.ted.com/talks/sebastiao_salgado_the_silent_drama_of_photography [accessed 20.05.18]
Spirou, K. (2015) Scaling Architecture: Abstract Geometry Meets Everyday Life in the Photography of Serge Najjar. Available at https://www.yatzer.com/serge-najjar [accessed 20.05.19]
V&A (2018) Photographic processes. Available at https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/photographic-p [accessed 20.05.18]

Antony Cairns: IBM LDN (2017)

Evgenia Arbugaeva: from the series Amani (2015)

Juno Calypso: Subterranean Kitchen (2017)

Serge Najjar: from The Architecture of Light

Edward Burtynsky: Saw Mills #1 and #2, Lagos, Nigeria (2016)