IT WOULD be easy to miss the fact that one of the major photography exhibitions of the summer is taking place in Kilmarnock. The Dick Institute has secured the only Scottish showing of The Lives of the Great Photographers, from the National Media Museum in Bradford, which includes some of the most famous works from the history of photography.
The Lives of the Great Photographers
The Dick Institute, Kilmarnock
David Peat, Photographer: A Retrospective
Streetlevel Photoworks, Glasgow
Here is a chance to see Henry Fox Talbot’s early portraits, Eadweard Muybridge’s attempts at capturing motion, Dorothea Lange’s iconic image of a migrant mother which has come to typify America in the Depression. Here are Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and Julia Margaret Cameron, a kind of greatest hits of a century of photography, all drawn from the collection of the NMM (formerly the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television).
For the pioneers like Fox Talbot and Daguerre, capturing an image at all was difficult and time-consuming, involving many hours of exposure. If that image was of a solemn Victorian gent sitting still for a long time, or indeed a pineapple in a basket, no matter, the point was to capture it at all. But soon, photographers were going much further: Fox Talbot’s chess players captures both the personalities and the drama of the scene (albeit in a game which doesn’t involve a lot of movement).
In the 19th century, the great debate was about whether photography should be regarded as art. After all, the image was made by a machine rather than the hand of an artist. Some photographers composed their pictures like paintings to prove a point. Others, like Alfred Stieglitz, made a different point by doing the opposite: his poetic studies of street sweepers, or of steerage-class passengers on a liner showed that photography could do something else, it could capture a moment.
As early as 1855, Roger Fenton travelled to photograph the Crimea with a customised merchant’s van converted into a studio. Lewis Hine perched on gantries and hung off scaffolding in baskets to capture his shots of the labourers on the Empire State Building, which are much popularised today. Others, like Edward Steichen, captured the glamour of silent movie stars for magazines such as Vanity Fair.
The hang at Kilmarnock is not strictly chronological, but it gives a rich episodic history of the impulses that have shaped photography: Cartier-Bresson’s gift for capturing street life; Tony Ray-Jones with his own unique take on the observational, capturing the British at the seaside in the late 1960s; Larry Burrows’s pioneering work in photojournalism during the Vietnam war.
Fay Godwin, one of Britain’s great landscape photographers, captured not only beauty but the impact of human activity on the land. Weegee (Arthur Fellig), who chased ambulances in New York in the 1930s and 1940s, is regarded as a forerunner of today’s paparazzi. He also experimented with photomanipulation, shown here in a kaleidoscope-style shot of a gymnast.
Robert Capa’s controversial shot from the Spanish Civil War, Loyalist militiaman at the moment of death, Cerro Muriano 1936, touches on tricky questions of truth and lies. Some claim it was staged, others contend that even if it was it tells an important story. It’s a long way from today’s airbrushed celebrities, but it seems to hint at what is to come.
If this show has a fault, it is in its title. It promises something biographical, yet there is neither time nor space to tell us much about the lives of those behind the camera, or to give more than a taster of their work. We might want to know more about Olive Edis, the first woman commissioned by the Imperial War Museum, who photographed the wrecked fields of Verdun and Ypres, or Lady Clementina Hawarden, whose quiet portraits of Victorian women seem to have powerful subtexts of emotion behind them. But this would require text, not images, a book, not an exhibition.
So there is a brief biography of each photographer, a camera or two, and some fascinating pages from Tony Ray-Jones’ journals. But the focus is on the images, and how could it be otherwise? The show is a powerful and accessible introduction to its theme; if we want to know more, the invitation is to discover it for ourselves.
Meanwhile, the best kept secret in Scottish photography is being celebrated at Streetlevel in Glasgow. David Peat was an award-winning maker of television documentaries whose photography remained virtually unknown until the last three years of his life. He died in April, just as the finishing touches were put to this major retrospective, and its accompanying publication.
The show covers two main bodies of work: the photographs Peat took in the streets of Glasgow in the late 1960s, and a wide-ranging body of international work from the intervening years, taken mainly while on holiday.
The Glasgow work, often featuring children playing among the half-demolished tenements of the Gorbals and Maryhill, stands strongly beside the works of others from the period such as Oscar Marzaroli and Joseph McKenzie. Looking at us from a vanished Glasgow of nearly 50 years ago, the faces engage us powerfully: grubby warriors brandishing sticks in back closes, a boy pushing his fruit and vegetable barrow, the thoughtful face of a teenage girl.
The 21-year-old Peat demonstrates his gift for capturing comic detail – two babies in a back court sitting up in their prams as if engaged in earnest conversation – and for photographing his subjects as though he were invisible, a gift he would also use to tremendous effect in his television work.
His invisibility cloak is stunningly evident in his later work: how could the old man reading his porn magazine in Barcelona not notice David Peat looking over his shoulder? How could the two sour-faced old women in Mallorca looking askance at the tall beauty who walks past them not know they were the subject of his lens?
His eye for the moment merits comparisons to Cartier-Bresson, who was one of his idols. He also has a gift for making a picture hint at a much larger story. The elderly couple walking on a beach in Brittany seem to speak of many years of marriage, and the young couple playing chess on a pavement hint at a stormy relationship: she eyes her opponent provocatively while he looks distractedly at the board.
Peat’s eye was always on the poignant and the humorous: women on the Paris Metro, lost in their thoughts, as they drift past the idealised faces of a Benetton poster; the “God’s safe sex” campaigner (“One man, one woman, one marriage”) snapped in front of the Virgin Megastore.
These are a long way from holiday snaps. This is a remarkable, serious body of work, albeit delivered, very often, with a half-smile. One has to hope that this show acts as a platform to take the photography of David Peat to the wider audience it deserves, nationally and internationally.
• The Lives of the Great Photographers runs until 25 August; David Peat: A Retrospective, until 5 August.