PhotoLondon held its inaugural exhibition in the wonderful setting of Somerset House this weekend. Most people visit ParisPhoto in November for this experience, but it’s been decided to hold a summer alternative here.  I was looking forward to it, and of course there were lots of great photographs to see, that was to be expected.

However, my overall feeling was one of disappointment, not so much with the images, but the feel of the entire thing. To start with, the entrance fee of £20, plus £8 for most individual talks/events was an irritation, combined with the high cost of snacks/lunches at Somerset House.  So no extra talks for me then, or food.  Okay, you could stay there from 12 noon until after 6pm, but still it was costly – typical of London I suppose, and maybe naïve of me to expect anything else.  It was hot inside, so we went to a pub outside for a break, a much better and cheaper idea.  There were too many staff/interns on duty and too many photo repetitions, I saw some images in more than one gallery, possibly slightly different versions.

Many of the small rooms were too crowded with viewers and photographs.  Apologies became normal as we bumped into and tried to pass each other, and not spend too long in front of an image.  Some of the smaller galleries were cluttered with art dealers replete with dashing patterned shirts and bow ties and their acolytes.  Alongside them the clutter of tables, chairs and iPads charging in available sockets at skirting board level around the gallery floors like mini installations.  It was a commercial enterprise of the highest order, but probably not possible to do any other way.  Maybe I’m too used to visiting national galleries where that commercial aspect is absent.  Maybe I should embrace the fact that London is considered an international centre for the sale of photography now.  It’s not that I object to photography being sold, it was the atmosphere and claustrophobic feeling I disliked.

The significant thing about the displays was who owned and ran the galleries, and this is what appeared in the exhibition guide.  It reminded me of why I rarely visit commercial galleries, that feeling of being watched eagerly for any interest, always anxious to answer my unasked questions, (I feel the same about most shopping experiences), or simply feeling that I’m too poor to belong there!  I did indeed feel out of place in the smaller galleries.

I wondered who attended these events.  The artists/photographers, impoverished students?  A few perhaps, but the vast majority were well-heeled rich people ‘collecting’ photography, and a good helping of London middle-class trendsetters.  Amongst the tourists, the predominant language seemed to be French.  Alas, who did I expect to see?

The labelling of images was an annoyance.  Top line, the gallery, followed by photographer and largely unimportant information about what kind of paper it was printed on.  Nothing about how the image was achieved, and little about what it all meant.  Often the tiny labels (I’d forgotten my reading glasses) appeared in a cluster at the end of a line of photographs, and it was too disruptive to read them and move back to look at the image in question again.  Works by many, including Nigel Shafran and Lorenzo Vitturi might have benefitted from some explanation.  For my friend, not a photographer, Vitturi represented junior school cut and paste with PVA glue.  I too feel that many conceptual works require some explanation.  Photography shouldn’t be part of a private club to be appreciated only by those ‘in the know’, there is a duty to inform.

As always, a significant number of photographs were interesting and appealing on the basis of age, not necessarily technical or creative skill.  The unrepeatable images of a bygone age are intriguing.  The very best came at the end, in the bowels of the building in the ‘What Lies Beneath’ display.  This was an exhibition from the archive of the Victoria and Albert Museum.  William Strudwick’s photographs circa 1865 were reminiscent of Eugène Atget’s images of Paris, they were fascinating.  Again, I would have liked more information with each image, I knew some were around Lambeth, which I know quite well, but I was having difficulty with identification.  This display was specifically chosen because most of it had previously been unseen by the public, and it was by far the most interesting.

‘Genesis’ by Sebastiäo Salgado was amazing, regardless of what people think of his motivations in documentary photography.  My friend was suitably impressed.  Surely this is what it’s all about, the ability to be able to motivate a wider audience other than rich collectors?  Well, maybe not, buying is what it is all about in the end, and this may be particularly true for the likes of Salgado. Perhaps I should just be less cynical, but I didn’t feel that this exhibition did much to enhance photography as an art form, how very old fashioned of me.  For my part, I will go back to London’s wonderful national galleries for my fix, especially as the Tate conglomerate has now decided to embrace photography for the future.

Meanwhile, I became distracted examining other parts of Somerset House, mainly the level below ground.






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