Cruel and Tender: the real in the 20th century photograph at Tate Modern

[This article originally appeared in Electric Review, 3 June 2003.]

Every picture tells a story

Tate Modern’s new major exhibition, opening on Thursday, is titled Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth-Century Photograph. Organised in conjunction with the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the exhibition includes work by 23 photographers, mostly American and German, some of them very eminent indeed. It is the first major show at Tate Modern dedicated exclusively to photography — coinciding, incidentally, with Cindy Sherman at the Serpentine and Wolfgang Tilmans at Tate Britain. As its title suggests, it is focused on one particular strand of photography. Its emphasis, according to the catalogue, is on ‘a type of photographic realism that avoids nostalgia, romanticism, or sentimentality in favour of clear-eyed observation’ — what was once known, before irony set in, as Pure Photography.

Let’s not rekindle the ancient and overcrowded debate over photography’s status, or lack thereof, as ‘art’ — a subject on which Roland Barthes, Roger Scruton and Susan Sontag (no, really!) among others have written well, fully and possibly exhaustively. As far as I’m concerned, since the whole concept of ‘art’ seems to me more or less meaningless, it makes no difference whether or not photography is granted leave to remain within what is, to my mind, a wholly imaginary kingdom. What is clear is this: that like other visual representations of the world in which we live, photographs can appear to the viewer as fresh, informative, sad, funny, haunting, useful, beautiful or even, to use that weary mistreated old word, ‘iconic’, while by the same token, of course, photographs can also appear boring, mannered, derivative, smug, arch, pointless, exploitative or simply unpleasant. And this, I suppose, hints at the gulf that for the moment, anyway, separates photos from handmade art — the fact that they are hopelessly linked, by the crude facts of their creation, to the hows and whys of representation itself, no matter how ‘pictorial’ they look and whatever formalist flights from representation their makers may intend.

The hallmark of ‘realist’ photography is that it makes a virtue this necessity, which is why it is always threatening to spill over into other categories which have little to do with ‘art’ and is, ultimately, held back from such definitional slippage only by its context. It is difficult, for instance, to explain the difference between a matter-of-fact photo used to advertise catfood, a newspaper photo of a disaster, a holiday snap of some people on a beach, a CCTV still and, say, a Nan Goldin cibachrome of elegantly grungy junkies, except in noting that one of these can be purchased for sums in the tens of thousands of dollars in smart New York galleries, whereas the others all have to rely on their various types of crude functionality in order to have any appreciable purpose whatsoever. And in each case, the poor innocent subject of the photo, on which the existence of the photo is itself contingent, has nothing to say about what sort of photo it will be — advertising, reportage, holiday souvenir, admissible evidence, or even ‘art’.

So what is one to do in this new exhibition at Tate Modern, standing in front of several hundred realist photos? One strategy would be to concentrate, I suppose, on context — to remember that this is, after all, an art gallery, and thus to concentrate on finding all the qualities that the curators and the catalogue claim to find in these photos, while trying not to see them as any of those other embarrassing, non-art things that photos always can be. Alternatively one could, as Barthes put it in his Camera Lucida, look at them like a savage — liking and disliking (as Barthes did not put it) on a whim, getting bored, following up on hints of political rhetoric or historical resonance, gnawing at the unknowables of intentionality, on the morality of disengagement, on the distancing and objectifying effect of seeing things through the photographic lens. There will, of course, always be some people who will opt for the first strategy if only as a way of validating their all-important non-savage credentials, and others who will do so out of a combination of laziness (‘sorry, what is it I am supposed to be thinking again?’) and fear (‘everyone else seems to be enjoying this — what’s wrong with me?’), and all these people will enjoy Cruel and Tender hugely, not least as much of it is so very hard to like. As for the ‘savages’, though, they may have a tougher time. For alas for the claims the curators of this exhibition make for it, that latter strategy turns out to be a ferociously potent solvent to claims for the ‘realism’ of the work on show here. Pure photography, it seems, is as compromised by illusion and rhetoric as any of the art it pretends to despise.

Impossible loves, invisible cities
Cruel and Tender — the title comes from a re-arrangement of a critic’s judgement on the work of photographer Walker Evans in the 1930s — was co-curated by Emma Dexter, chief curator at Tate Modern and Thomas Weski, until recently chief curator at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. They both come across as passionate exponents of the material they have chosen, not only in terms of its aesthetic appeal but in terms of its documentary, clear-eyed, unsparing realism. Not for them, they seem to say, the slightly precious aestheticism of a Mapplethorpe or the compulsive glamour of an Avedon or the kitsch self-indulgence of a Cindy Sherman — this ‘the real world around us’ as it really looks, stripped bare of idealisation or rhetoric. There is also, it need hardly be said, more than a hint of priggish self-congratulation in the air — the self-congratulation of the illusionless and lucid, surrounded as they are by legions of the myopic and deluded.

So, then — what does ‘the real world around us’ look like? Well, a handful of exceptions apart, it turns out that it is occupied almost exclusively by the poor, ignorant and vulgar, that it is almost invariably hideously ugly, that it has been blighted by capitalism (funny, though, that its subjects are largely places notable for their lack of engagement with actual capitalism) and that it can be redeemed only through reconstitution as ‘art’.

As it turns out, there are some strong family resemblances within the canon of photographic realism. The exhibition plays on these, with the photos arranged with a single photographer per room, and the photographers, according to the catalogue, ‘configured in sympathetic clusters’. The favourite tropes become familiar very quickly. There is, for instance, the mug-shot type of portrait, usually seen framed by a bleached-out, decontextualising background, of a subject who is either very poor, black, a cripple, naff, old and/or ugly — delete as applicable, but the more boxes you can tick, the better, and remember that e.g. pretty cripples, stylish old people and wealthy black people don’t count. This sort of photo is presumably supposed to be made poignant by the contrast between the absolute abject unimportance of the subject and the ‘dignity’ being ‘conferred’ on him or her (‘conferred’, always — never inherent) by the photographer and his methodology. This convention is apparently so ingrained in photography by now that we have long since learned how to unpack its rhetoric and to read its icily patronising message. (And if this sounds harsh, can anyone imagine, say, Tony Blair, Sir Nicholas Serota or Kylie Minogue being photographed in such a fashion?) The minor variant here is the ironic family portrait, although in this case the subjects are allowed to be lower middle class white people, as long as they are neither good looking nor well-dressed. And pace the catalogue, there is nostalgia here, incompletely hidden beyond the veneer of irony — nostalgia for a childhood world in which everyone looked like someone from a 1970s sitcom. It’s a paradox that illustrates the hazards of trying to separate ‘reality’ from its less respectable simulacrae, myth and memory.

A closely related trope is the ugly building ‘documented’ with great seriousness, both inside and outside, with the ‘evidence’ then displayed for the voyeuristic delectation of people who perversely choose — and can afford — to live in attractive buildings. (When postmodernism chases its own tail, though, it sometimes manages to catch it — c.f. the dripping irony in Thomas Ruff’s luscious great big cibochromes, on show at the Whitechapel this spring, of some of Mies van der Rohe’s early domestic architecture.) A third related trope is the banal or vulgar object reproduced in slightly spooky, saturated colour, rather as happens in that crisply realistic genre, the David Lynch film. But here again, content is everything, because while, say, a Rolex watch photographed in such a way would look just a little too much like an advertisement (advertising = capitalism = bad), photographing, say, a pancake at the Trail’s End Restaurant, Kanab, Utah on August 10 1973 (the date is part of the ‘documentation’) is clearly ‘art’ (art = critique = good, even if the resulting artwork probably costs more than the whole Trail’s End Restaurant and its contents — blueberries, maple syrup and all).

Realism is also clearly rather closely constrained in terms of geographical ambit. Having been turned loose on the entire corpus of the potentially ‘realist’ photography of the twentieth century, Cruel and Tender keeps getting stuck in the same few sorts of locations. In the United States, then, there are three types of real place — which is to say, the hell of the poor rural South, the hell of the poor industrialised North, or the hell of sprawling, consumerist, aesthetically moribund, anomie-infested lower middle class suburbia. Needless to say, none of the photographers actually came from any of these places, so can bring to them the realism of perspective that comes, say, from reading a lot of Thornton Wilder and James Agee and John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates and heaven only knows what else. Whereas in Europe, there is really only one sort of place — the blighted landscapes, physical or spiritual, of industrial and urban alienation. These are ‘bleak non-places at the edge of the industrial landscape’, as the catalogue has it. Obviously the word ‘non-places’ could hardly be more revealing, if only in its cavalier non-belief in those very places where the subjects of these photos are born, work, love, live, age and die. ‘Reality’, in these pictures, is indeed another country — sometimes, indeed, one rather far removed from the lives most of us remember.

Thus it is that for the only British photographer represented, Paul Graham, there is nothing but dingy dole offices, because obviously the reality of Britain in the 1980s was simply ‘the degradation that accompanied the high unemployment and harsh economic conditions of the Thatcher era’, according to the catalogue. Was that what the 1980s were like for you? Or was it the case that unemployment actually fell, there was actually a major economic boom and if anything, dole offices actually looked better at the end of it than they had at the beginning? Well, since the catalogue promises us that Graham’s work portrays ‘contemporary Britain in an objective, documentary style’, it is clear, at least, which reality the curators of Cruel and Tender believe, although at the same time they presumably realise that it was the superabundant surplus capital of the 1980s that in fact fueled not only BritArt, but also the spiraling auction prices of art photographs throughout the 1990s. According to the catalogue, Graham is currently bringing his objective, documentary skills to bear on ‘near-painterly graffiti in public toilets’. Somehow I suspect that his realism and mine are doomed never to coincide.

Dirty, not pretty things
It has to be said that some of the work in Cruel and Tender is less banal and tendentious than the last few paragraphs may have implied. But at the same time, all but a tiny handful of works have something faintly unpleasant, exploitative, false — not to say ‘visually tiresome’, although that too would be true — lingering about them. Take, for example, the two Grand Old Men of the show. Early on, one encounters the gelatine silver prints of August Sander, a German photographer whose People of the Twentieth Century project, begun in the 1920s, much exercised the Nazis. In making what he hoped would be a comprehensive record of the society in which he lived, he hoped ‘to see things as they are and not as they should or could be’. As such, he has been immensely influential. In some ways, the resulting works are still very striking. After a two rooms of huge coloured photos where the slightness of the content threatens to collapse under the immense bombast of the presentation, there is something understated and powerful about these small, compact, sepia-coloured images of solemn-looking, upright people. There are interesting faces, strange details of clothing and deportment — all those things, frankly, that make any old photo worth a second glance, especially when compared to the mind-numbing banality of so many present-day photos.

Yet soon the discomfort sets in. It isn’t just in front of those prints with titles like ‘The Cretin’ or ‘The Criminal Type’, either, in which historical hindsight fills one with a sort of squeamishness about the whole programme of categorisation, of the extreme objectification of reducing individuals to types, and where this might lead. I suspect a proponent of this show would, at this point, become very excited about the fact that Sander had been persecuted by the Nazi regime and would seek — and be able to find — a critique or even denunciation where I hear only a proleptic echo. And who knows, perhaps they would be right. But am I the only one who minds that while ‘The Composer’, for instance, is given a name (Paul Hindemith, in fact), as is the Artist and the Poet, once one moves away from Sander’s own social circles, the farmers, blind people and fairground freaks become nameless generalisations? Is there not in this whole project a furiously generalised subjectivity which ought never to be mentioned in the same breath as ‘realism’?

Meanwhile Walker Evans — another majestically influential figure, this time in the American context — produced some strangely similar sensations of admiration coupled with reservations. Walker was born in 1903 into the St Louis, Missouri that also produced T. S. Eliot, and like Eliot went North for his education — first to Philips Andover, and thence to Williams College, after which he fell in with a gang of New York intellectuals. Walker made his reputation while taking part in a New Deal programme, during which he travelled though Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia — in other words, poor mining country and the poor rural South — photographing what he found there, which was more or less exactly what his own background would have led him to find: a terrible tale of Two Nations, one of which bore the marks of all the sorts of impoverishment most likely to galvanise a wealthy, well-educated, idealistic young man with a portable camera.

Evans later denied that the photos he took were meant to be political:

They were not part of the social protest of the time, or intended to be heart-wringing; they were a record of what’s what.

But the processes of photography provide no guarantee that conscious intention and actual effect need ever coincide for very long. I don’t think that Evans set out to patronise his subjects, but in a sense that hardly matters. What he did do, in fact, was to make a certain sort of human misery so hauntingly beautiful that rich New York socialites would want to display it on their walls and the culturally ambitious elsewhere would be able to flick through picture-books admiring it, sipping at their cocktails as they did so, and congratulating themselves on the breadth and genuineness of their social sympathy.

Art, according to conventional opinion these days, is supposed to make the viewer uncomfortable, but the sort of discomfort I felt when looking at a photo of a child’s grave, or of a wretched bare-bones shack, or of a family whose poverty, more than anything else, was being held up for fascinated perusal, was not something I would seek out again, because it made me feel a bit sick about what I was doing. These were, after all, not simply visual images — these were (and perhaps still are — there is no reason to assume that the little boy in one of these pictures, dirty and so poor as to be wearing nothing but a filthy ripped shirt, is not alive today) portraits of real, recognisable people. Passing these images off as art may not have diminished the subjects. Probably it didn’t much matter, which in itself is a statement of the ultimate irrelevance of so much of ‘realist’ photography. Yet in fostering a distancing act of aestheticisation, a moral insensitivity, a habit of thinking that something seen through a camera is really just a two-dimensional, admirable, ultimately disposable image — well, the whole process somehow diminishes the viewer. I suspect that Evans knew none of this, and in fact meant very well. But what may have been shocked ‘realism’ for him became the cyinical mannerism of generations to come.

Evans should not, any more than the rest of us, be blamed for his epigones. Perhaps the most sinister follower in the tradition, however indirectly and unknowingly, is a Russian named Boris Mikhailov. Mikhailov was born in Kharkov in 1938, but presently lives and works in Berlin. His most notorious work is the series called Case Histories, part of which is represented in Cruel and Tender. It does not make wholesome viewing. For Case Histories, Mikhailov took as his subject-matter the many homeless people who live on the outskirts of Kharkov. These are people for whom life is a matter of hand-to-mouth existence. Many of them contend with serious substance-abuse, domestic violence or mental health problems. All have found it particularly difficult to negotiate the enormous economic and social convulsions that have afflicted their region since the demise of the Soviet Union. Mikhailov’s response to this? Basically, he offers these people money to pose for him — which might sound fair enough, except that he asks them to display to him the effects of gross malnutrition, their physical scars or their own genitalia. According to the catalogue, Mikhailov has argued that ‘despite their voyeuristic aspect, these disturbing photographs do not exploit the people they feature, but rather represent them with dignity’. But it is hard to imagine a more disingenuous claim. Someone’s grandmother, crouching in the snow outside her bleak and frost-bitten city, pulling aside her dirty clothes to reveal her all-too-real nakedness just so she can collect enough money for her next drink — where is the dignity there? And why are these images acceptable, whereas presumably similar images of glue-sniffing, disease-ridden twelve-year old boys or girls wouldn’t be? How carefully is the level of permissible, gallery-worthy transgression being gauged here? Mikhailov is not documenting reality — he is making the existing world worse and then profiting nicely off the predictable art world notoriety he has gained. Tate Modern should be ashamed to show this stuff. Certainly, I was ashamed to see it.

Lighten up!
Perhaps, though, I should end on a brighter note. There is a lot in this exhibition that is not so much morally reprehensible as simply mind-numbingly dull. Robert Frank’s much acclaimed ‘Beat Generation’ photos were so completely forgettable that I cannot remember a single one. Others stick in my memory, but for the wrong reasons. Many, like Michael Schmidt’s blurry and ill-composed snaps of his own, not particularly compelling penis, were simply incomprehensible, at least to me — honestly, take my word for it, the real world can actually look a lot better than this! Other artists, such as the fashionable Rineke Dijkstra, were not represented by their best work. Still, there are a few moments of mild entertainment. Andreas Gursky’s shrill attacks on capitalism would be more persuasive were the dissemination of his work not so thoroughly implicated in the very system he denounces. Perhaps more important, though, is the fact that the ‘attacks’ need only to be glanced at the wrong angle for their intense formal beauty to seem celebratory rather than scathingly ironic. In any event, his large, brilliantly-coloured, semi-abstract works often manage to hold the eye, at least briefly. What, though, does this have to do with realism, given not only the extremely stylised nature of his work, but also the fact that he manipulates both his colours and images using digital technology? Meanwhile Thomas Ruff’s over-intellectualised series of dull portraits seems to me to allude inexorably to Gerhard’s Richter’s paintings of photographs of dull portraits — an icy little art-historical joke, admittedly, but any humour here, however bleak, seemed better than nothing. But all in all, photographic realism did not make much of a case for itself, either as ‘art’ or as anything else, either.

There were, however, two exceptions. Gerry Winogrand was an American who was born in 1928 and died in 1984. In Cruel and Tender, he is represented by a series of smallish, crisp, black-and-white images of groups of people — guests at a private view of Frank Stella’s work, say, or people involved in a political campaign — with the focus less on social typology or voyeurism than on particular quirks of human interaction. In some photos, then, the viewer can analyse the false smiles and ill-disguised boredom; in others one sees how the presence of the press can galvanise a gathering. There is social commentary here, no doubt, but because Winogrand is photographing broadly the sort of people amongst whom he lived and worked and entertained himself, the works radiate a sensitivity, a sympathy and a warmth rarely evident elsewhere in the show. Are they great art? Well, no — they are more like old photos from Life or Tatler with the captions stripped away, but they are no worse for that. Snapped quickly, modest in scale, not too ponderous in aspiration, they stood up to continued looking — all right, perhaps no better than any competent journalistic photo would have done, but certainly better than most of the work in Cruel and Tender. It is not that they are ‘real’. Like everyone else in this exhibition, Winogrand had the whole world to choose from, but selected these people, these events, as being worthy of our notice, and in that as much as anything more subtle — the framing, the light, the captions — he was making certain sorts of points, intentional or otherwise. The difference, I guess, is twofold: a substition of observation for voyeurism, and a trading-up from bogus concern to bemused recognition. Well, at very least, it’s better than another shack full of share-croppers being served up on a platter for our formal delectation.

The other exception, strange to say, was the work of Fazal Sheikh, a 38-year old American who photographs refugee communities, most notably in Africa but also in Afghanistan and Brazil. This was photography I very much expected to dislike. Haven’t we had enough of privileged young people making reputations out of sticking cameras into the faces of dying Africans just so the rest of us can feel pleased with ourselves for our unblinking willingness to confront fully the entire horror of famine, civil war and arbitrary violence? Well, obviously not — such images (and such careers) will only go away once we are all so bored and jaded with virtual suffering that it makes no impact whatsoever. Sheikh, however, is after something rather different, and it shows.

His most moving work in this exhibition is A Camel for the Son — a large display of portraits, each one depicting an individual mother and child. All were photographed in a refugee camp in Somalia. Sheikh lived in the camp for weeks before he picked up his camera. Each photo is captioned with the name of its subject. The subjects are allowed to come across as any number of things — weary, serene, wary, uncaring, even beautiful. At one level, the series works because it makes such a direct and unabashed appeal to the Western art-historical tradition of mother-and-child pictures, and all the Christian symbolism associated with them — another refugee mother, another massacre, another cosmology — and because such an appeal makes of these individual portraits a complex and resonant generalisation. But it also works because it does not pretend to be about unvarnished, point-and-shoot ‘realism’. Sheikh is an activist as well as an artist. Rightly, he values detachment less than getting the result he wants — ‘pure photography’ less than saving a few more human lives. Nor does he allow these lives to become mere abstractions. Alongside his images are powerful and ambivalent little stories about the women depicted. Sheikh is telling these stories and framing these portraits — but of course everyone else in the exhibition is doing the same. Sheikh is just that little bit less arch and more honest about what he is doing. I respect him for this.

Sheikh can find formal beauty in the world of refugee camps, but he can also find other sorts of beauty as well as a great deal of violence, injustice and suffering. Now, it must be said that I have never gone hungry; I have never had to travel for hundreds of miles across a desert seeking aid for small children; I have never been raped by the Kenyan guards of a refugee camp who were supposed to be protecting me from the people I was fleeing — in other words, I can’t begin to say whether there was any more or less ‘realism’ in Sheikh’s work than in anything else shown in Cruel and Tender. But that is hardly the point. Sheikh’s photographs engaged me, made me stop and question my response to them — made me look again, and see more, and want to see more still. They did, in other words, most of the things I hope that ‘art’, the stuff that hangs on the walls of galleries, will do for me. But they also did something else, outside of the realm of ‘art’, which was to advance a polemical purpose that is obviously close to their creator’s heart. Unlike Paul Graham’s work, however, in their abundant self-consciousness they did not seem to be making claims to documentary objectivity. Instead, they took advantage of the whole ‘art’ myth to press a real-life issue in a direct manner.

That they did so with a different sort of correlation to actual people, to actual events taking place at actual moments than more obviously handmade art would do, is part and parcel of the ambiguous status of photography. That debate will go on and on. So, I suppose, will the gradual invasion of art galleries by the products of photography and its practitioners. That I came out of Cruel and Tender feeling obscurely depressed, bored and somehow compromised by so much of what I had seen means that I cannot honestly welcome this development with enthusiasm, try though I might. That I regard it with anything other than militant aversion owes everything to Winogrand, Sheikh and the hint of ‘savage’ irreverence that they bring to their pretentious, often delusional, invariably mediated genre.

Cruel and Tender runs at Tate Modern from 5 June – 7 September 2003. Tickets cost £10 (£8 concessions.

Bunny Smedley is ERO’s arts editor. She enjoys taking digital photos of her cats.

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