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Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s

By Isabel Stevens

Li Zhensheng, Several hundred thousand Red Guards attend a “Learning and Applying Mao Zedong Thought” rally in Red Guard Square (formerly People’s Stadium). Harbin, Heilongjiang province, September 13, 1966

The Barbican’s ambitious survey of photography from the 1960s and ’70s offered up a dual portrait of the times. On one hand, it was an exhibition about history, charting the seismic shifts occurring all over the world in those decades. Its itinerary took in Apartheid-era South Africa, the American civil rights movement, post-colonial Mali, the Vietnam war, China in the grip of the Cultural Revolution, and more, exploring the myriad ways such events could be captured through a lens. Compare Li Zhensheng’s records of Maoist China in the early ’60s—spectacular, stitched-together panoramas of epic rallies—with Ernest Cole’s tender but damning sketches of township life under Apartheid for an example of two photographers both recording vital, chilling moments furtively, under oppressive regimes, and at the same point in history but in utterly contrasting styles.

On the other hand, the exhibition delved deeper into the medium’s own history, including figures such as William Eggleston, Boris Mikhailov, Shomei Tomatsu, and even the Pop artist Sigmar Polke, who were all trying to wrestle photography away from documentary and the “decisive moment” during these years by experimenting formally and conceptually. This gave a largely successful insight into photography’s splintering form and status at that time. Tomatsu’s conjuring of the horror of Nagasaki from only a bizarre, enigmatic shot of a melted bottle, and Eggleston’s infamous Los Alamos series, in particular, bring a welcome sense of ambiguity and the unreal, although these aesthetic experimenters do feel outnumbered at times. The mindset that dominates throughout is definitely a documentary one—the photograph as evidence, or, as in many cases here, as protest song.

Boris Mikhailov, Yesterday’s Sandwich / Superimpositions, late 1960s–late 1970s. Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin © Boris Mikhailov, DACS 2012

With so many historical excavations, the exhibition occasionally felt too expansive, but such a refreshing, revisionist stance on photography’s Western-oriented history threw up novel, intriguing cross-global juxtapositions and moments of unexpected simultaneity. (Remarkably, of the twelve photographers included in the exhibition, Western figures were in the minority—there were even more African than American photographers on show.)

Oppositions came into play where violence is concerned. Although Larry Burrows’s close-up testimonials of soldiers’ suffering never slide into glorification, Polke’s grainy glimpses of animal fights in Afghanistan make them seem even more monumental, more in awe of warfare. Differing attitudes towards America’s infiltration of foreign cultures was also evident. Whereas Malick Sidibé’s portrait of burgeoning Bamako youth culture high on James Brown welcomes it, Tomatsu remains wary, capturing fragmented views of postwar Japan on the fringes of American military bases.

Four unlikely companions came together here: Raghubir Singh with his rebellion against the monochrome colonial view of India; Eggleston and his dye-transfer transformation of the American South; Burrows and his dramatic action tableaux, which brought the hues of Vietnam’s mud and blood alive on the pages of Life; and Mikhailov and his surreal “sandwiches,” darkroom concoctions which deliberately abuse the techniques of Soviet social realist montage—all are linked by their bold rejection of black and white at a time when color wasn’t allowed in photography’s vocabulary.

Above: Raghubir Singh, Below the Howrah bridge a Marwari bride and groom after rites by the Ganges, 1968 © 2012 Succession Raghubir Singh. Below: Bruce Davidson, Black Americans, New York City. From the series ‘New York (Life)’ From New York, 1961-65 © Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

Unexpected connections surfaced elsewhere. Stylistically, there’s not much common ground between Graciela Iturbide’s lyrical portraits of Mexico’s indigenous peoples (sadly a little squeezed here) and Bruce Davidson’s first-hand account of the civil rights movement, but their methodology binds them: both photographers were roaming outside their comfort zones, daring to choose intimacy over detachment. Davidson’s troubled landscapes also infect Eggleston’s survey of the same terrain only a few years later, highlighting the sense of unease lingering in Eggleston’s peculiar, off-kilter snapshots of empty diners and motels.

The show’s most powerful instance of synchronicity was also its most harrowing, and was plucked from another segregated landscape. Ernest Cole and David Goldblatt both prowled the streets of Johannesburg—the latter able to wander and photograph where he pleased, the former forced to record Apartheid’s stark and cruel divisions illicitly, only able to work as a photographer after somehow convincing the authorities he was “colored” and not “black.” Yet they were both drawn to the same subjects—in particular, that anomalous, caring relationship between black nannies and white children. Goldblatt pictures a young boy standing, his hand resting on his seated nanny’s shoulder in a quiet moment of affection, but the boy’s unsettling, paternalistic pose also doesn’t go unnoticed. Cole meanwhile meets the gaze of a boy as he twists away from the faceless nanny who tightly grips his hand. Small, subtle gestures they may be, but they’re devastating in their condemnation of a society that would make such a loving relationship so fleeting. Indeed, lesser-known agitators such as Cole and Li are the show’s heroes, providing some of the most shocking images. Both were snapping furtively, Cole concealing his camera in a paper bag, Li his negatives under floorboards. Cole’s fate was impoverished exile; while at the height of the cultural revolution, Li spent two years in a labor camp.

Ernest Cole, Handcuffed blacks were arrested for being in white area illegally, from House of Bondageca. 1960–1966. The Ernest Cole Family Trust, Courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation, Gothenburg, Sweden

This was an ambitious marathon of an exhibition—one that pressed “pause” at a tumultuous time in history, offering myriad glimpses into different societies all over the world, drawing together a truly global selection of photography’s pioneers and protesters who are rarely exhibited side by side.

Isabel Stevens works at the film magazine Sight & Sound and writes on photography and film for a variety of publications, including Source and The Wire.