I was lucky enough to see two powerful, compelling photography exhibitions in London today, that couldn’t be more different in many ways – but I’m going to try to make some connections between them anyway. So here goes – please bear with me.
Photojournalist Sean Smith’s Frontlines in the King’s Place building near King’s Cross and Thomas Struth’s retrospective at the Whitcehapel gallery have, on the face of it, little in common with each other.
Smith’s uncompromising, up-close photographs of a decade of war and conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and across the middle east make for visceral and difficult viewing. There are lots of bloody scenes, many of them shot just moments after people have been badly, horrifically injured – or worse.
Struth on the other hand has been photographing urban architecture, museums, culturally significant landmarks and family groups in Europe, America and Japan for over 30 years. His images are presented as huge, glossy prints, many of them the result of years of planning, thought and consideration, shot on a large-format plate camera.
But they’re both being exhibited in London, in slick, modern art galleries, in the form of large-format expensive-looking prints hung on the wall. And, in very different ways, they each present us with something unseen, views of the world that are difficult to get elsewhere in the mainstream media.
Much of Smith’s work has been produced for the Guardian newspaper over the last ten years or so. It is unapologetically photojournalism of the rawest kind. The exhibition is in the same building that the newspaper occupies.
They are brutal, graphic illustrations of what the effect of Rocket Propelled Grenades or Improvised Explosive Devices really look like. The kind of images that TV news anchors say are ‘scenes too graphic to broadcast’. This is the view of war that we don’t generally get to see. The exhibition is punctuated by signs warning parents that some images may be unsuitable for children. There is no commentary from the photographer, or from the curator. Just a list of captions, brief and to the point. Despite the very intimate, harrowing images of people, only two of them are named, out of some 40 images. They are images that are difficult to look at and difficult to see. I’m sure that some of the images displayed here would not have been printed even in the Guardian itself.
Struth’s work meanwhile is very much art photography, in the sense that it presents scenes of beautifully framed (deliberately composed) cultural heritage sites, museums and technological landscapes that both require and demand contemplation. His work is anti-photojournalism in some senses, it is diametrically opposed. Some of his pictures take him years to make, a result of long periods of research and reflection. Yet he also presents us with images that are difficult to see and that touch on issues that, ultimately, Sean Smith’s work also leads to. Let me explain.
Both exhibitions take the format of large-format glossy prints hung in glossy gallery spaces, although there are differences here too (Some of Smith’s prints are unframed, loosely pinned to the wall, whereas all of Struth’s are super-polished, massive dia-secs, incredibly expensive to produced.
But both also feature one piece of film in addition to the prints. Smith’s is a looped piece of unedited video, shot on a digital SLR camera, showing the chaos and confusion of a search of a house in Baghdad by US troops. There is no narrative, no story, no voice over.
The film in the Struth exhibition by contrast is a kind of extended interview with the photographer. In it he talks of his photographs being ‘about between the moment and what occurred before it’, which seems like photojournalistic language in some senses. But he also talks about wanting to make pictures that question modern technology, that interrogate the complex technology that we take for granted now. He refers to his methods of working (shooting on a plate camera with large format film) as being from an age when technology was about the Eiffel tower and steam-liners – very visible technology that could be clearly seen and relatively easily understood.
So one presents us with a gruesome, unpleasant view of the world that we seldom get to see – the chaos that results out of the attempt to impose order. The other with views of the world that celebrate the chaos that exists within the order once imposed. Smith’s photographs are all about what is in the frame of the viewfinder at the moment the shutter was released; for Struth, his pictures are as much about what isn’t included in the frame. And they both use the medium of the big print to do this.
An old photography tutor of mine once said to me (only slightly in jest), “if you can’t make it good, make it big”. Clearly, Struth has long established his ability to achieve both. And while Smith’s work has its problems and challenges (is the gallery wall really the right place for this kind of imagery, presented in this kind of way?), it is necessary, and both are equally compelling. I urge you to go and see them for yourself. But you’ll have to be quick to see Thomas Struth -it closes at the Whitechapel today, 16 September (it is open until midnight though!)
Sean Smith: Frontlines is on at Kings Place until 30 September.