The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography at Tate Modern

Photography is all about seeing through different eyes (well, lenses). But all too often we forget the unlimited possibilities such ‘different eyes’ offer. At a time when selfies and quick snaps populate our lives with hammering persistence, it’s good to be reminded that photography can be, and indeed is, an art form in its own right. And this exhibition shows that it has been so since as early as the beginning of the 20th century.

‘The Radical Eye’ is a selection of photographs from the Sir Elton John Collection. It brings to the viewer unexpected, visionary, and inspiring works, sometimes exhibited here to the wider public for the first time. While pivoting on very broad themes (‘portraits’, ‘objects’, ‘documents’) in an almost didactic way, every section contains true gems, to savour slowly and admire with the right calm. Even though the exhibition features no more than six rooms, the density of the artworks displayed invites the audience to linger in front of them, to allow the uniqueness of each photograph to sink in.

Once given a sample of ‘what photography can do that the eyes cannot’ in the first room, we are then transported into the world of ‘Portraits’, where I had the chance to see many artists’ faces for the first time. Photography was used in the early 1900s to shape the public persona of artists such as Breton, Tanguy, Brancusi, Stravinsky, and Dalì. Dali’s words on portraiture are illuminating: ‘Where is the real? All appearance are deceitful, the visible surface is deceptive’. On the one hand, nothing is more realistic and true to reality than a photograph, but at the same time posing and faking are also inherent to photographic portraits. The way different people choose to be represented, and even inhabit the same space differently, as in Irving Penn’s corner portraits, was an interesting psychological discovery. The ‘confinement’ of the corner where the photos were taken seemed to comfort some people and to oppress others. What emerged clearly was how photography is able to give new insights into the depths of people’s personalities.

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Paul Citroën, ‘Self-Portrait’ (1930)*

*A proto-selfie?

The exhibition then evolves almost naturally into ‘Bodies’, exploring the human shape as a whole and its potential in front of the camera. From mannerist compositions to spontaneous dance moves, the section offered a full range of superb quality material. One wall showed photographs related to the theme of the mask and the uncanny, which turned exquisitely and effortlessly into a series of photographic ‘Experiments’.

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Ilse Bing, ‘Dancer, Willem van Loon, Paris’ (1932)

The ‘Experiments’ section showcases a wide array of edgy photographic techniques, which were discovered or beginning to catch on in the Modernist era. Solarisation, for instance, was accidentally discovered by Man Ray’s assistant, Lee Miller. Things like distortion effects or filters (which incidentally are now enjoying a huge popularity on Snapchat and Instagram) are here at their very dawn, when artists started to play around with them to discover their possibilities.

Remarkably different is the following gallery, dedicated to photographs as ‘Documents’, appealing to “the viewers’ trust in the photograph as an objective visual record”. It was incredible to see how, despite showing essentially the same subject matter (i.e. headshot and busts of people), the photos of this section had a completely different way of capturing reality. As one sees in Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ (1936), these images speak volumes about the condition of all strata of society, as well as giving an insight into their psychology, but it a shockingly authentic way. I was totally absorbed by Lange’s work, and found my eyes lingering now on the two children hiding from the camera, now on the indescribable look of the mother – worried, pensive, determined, desperate, resolute.

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Dorothea Lange, ‘Migrant Mother’ (1936)

The last part of the exhibition resumes more explicitly aesthetic tones, focusing on ‘Objects, Perspectives, Abstractions’. The camera was used to represent still lives, urban scenes, or intricate designs that look more like abstract works. New perspectives adopted varied from worm’s to bird’s eye, making it clear that photography depends immensely on where (and from where) the camera points at. From ‘Shukhov Tower’ (1927) by Aleksandr Rodchenko down to Toni Schneiders’ ‘Rail Spider’ (1950), photographers looked at reality from every possible viewpoint.

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Toni Schneiders, ‘Rail Spider’ (1950)

The transitions from one gallery to the other are fluid, informative, and make a point: objects, faces, places, bodies are all there to display what a powerful media is photography. And not just powerful: in the words of László Moholy-Nagy, photography is ‘brining something entirely new tot the world’.

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