Saturday, 10 April 2010

dreaming in colour

When I visit historically themed exhibitions of photography I often find myself giving only a cursory glance to the recent colour works. These are often gigantic C-type images mounted directly onto the wall with plenty of surrounding space. Even at this date I find that so much of this work feels ‘empty’. So much of it tends to illustration or at least it seems that the social documentary hasn’t had time to harden into the shape of art. In many cases it resists ‘art’ even though its size and location (in an art gallery) make this seem like a form of hypocrisy. There’s often a sense similar to that evoked by many of the early colour movies: that the abstract potentiality of the medium has been sacrificed to the drive for naturalism (even the extremes of natural colour become commonplace after a while). Last week I visited a show that more or less turned these expectations of mine upside down. ‘Three Dreams’, at the Whitechapel Gallery had advertised itself as an exhibition covering a century and a half of photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. However it wasn’t chronologically arranged; instead the gallery walls featured five thematic groupings with some overlaps between them (the portrait, the performance, the family, the street, and the body politic). Within these groupings the older photographs worked not as early stages in the development of the art but as indicators of continual concerns. The majority of the work dated from the mid-twentieth century on and a good deal of this work was in colour. A number of earlier pieces as well as some of the later ones were hand-tinted. This was not done as part of a quest for greater verisimilitude; instead it tended to enhance the ceremonial or artificial nature of the image (a wedding perhaps, or a figment of the imagination). The photographs are ‘painted’ much as the transvestites and transsexuals and the movie stars who feature in some of these photographs are ‘painted’. Many of the works were indeed documentary (like Tanveer Shahzad's image of demonstrating lawyers held at bay by water cannon) yet this didn’t preclude them from the realm of art: they sat comfortably serving both ends. [The above images are by Ram Rahman, Raghubir Singh, Tanveer Shahzad, Pamela Singh, and Dinesh Khanna]

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