Looking back today
‘Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s’ at the Barbican Art Gallery; 13 Sep 2012 – 13 Jan 2013.
Reviewed by Pauline Hadaway | 27 September 2012
From iconic portraits of Dylan, Che and Martin Luther King, to history making shots of civil rights marchers, students on the barricades and draft card burning, many of the images that we think of as defining sixties and seventies radicalism remain part of the visual culture of contemporary political protest. What does it mean that images of mass protest from the streets and public squares of Cairo, Athens and Tunis evoke ‘photographic memories’ of the heady days of sixties protest and seventies militancy? Or that rioters, student protesters and Occupy style clicktivists drape themselves in the iconography of the soixant-huitards? Photo journalism’s claim to authenticity has long been called into question, so why, in a digital age, where mobile camera phones and Instagram potentially turn us all into citizen photographers, should its visual repertoire of clenched fists and burning barricades still evince an aura of belief?
However clichéd the image, perhaps photography has a role to play in preserving and, more importantly, reproducing a language of civic engagement and political struggle. From this perspective our captivation with the visual rhetoric of sixties and seventies protest may express a longing to rekindle passions and revive the spirit of more radical times. In the wake of the Arab Spring and anti-austerity protests, many yearn to place photography back at the centre of political activism. Yet, so long as documentary photography as a ‘call for action’ struggles in the strait jacket of a political culture grown skeptical of authenticity and the possibility of the new, there can be no easy road back to a ‘golden age’ of revolutionary images. Whether in art or politics, in looking backwards, we need to ask ourselves, are we seeking inspiration from the past or simply evading responsibility to confront and remake the world as it is?
Everything was Moving, a new exhibition of sixties and seventies photography at the Barbican Art gallery, raises a timely and thought provoking challenge to contemporary nostalgia for a sixties golden age. Featuring work by twelve photographers, ranging from big names like Bruce Davidson, William Egglestone and David Goldblatt to lesser known innovators such as Raghubir Singh, Sigmar Polke and Ernest Cole, Everything was Moving reminds us that, beyond the iconic image, the sixties and seventies are best remembered as an era of imaginative potential and experimental change.
Back in the day, as TV news rooms and press agencies streamed images of war, protest and civil unrest into millions of homes worldwide, a new generation of photographers was pioneering documentary forms that sought to express more complex, personal perspectives of the world. Often positioned outside mainstream news media, looking beyond the headline or decisive moment, these pioneering photographers sought not merely to raise political consciousness but to advance an aesthetic language for photography itself. Whether exposing the dehumanizing effects of South African apartheid or showing us the commonplace ‘grain of the present’ in America’s mid West, what was truly radical and transformative about this work is its imaginative power to tell the world anew.
Recording the social and moral disintegration of Soviet Russia, Boris Mikhalov’s photographs offer highly personal perspectives, suggesting that as well as a way documenting what is real, photography is a way of realizing oneself as an artist and a human being. In a similar way, Ernest Cole’s photographs not only expose the degrading effects of apartheid South Africa’s Pass Laws, but also open up both the necessity and the imaginative possibility of change. As Ian Jeffery has observed, Cole’s work ‘protests about present crimes in the context of what might have been.’
Offering moral choices not moral certainties, Everything was Moving reminds us that, beyond reportage, much of that era’s greatest work encapsulates its aspiration for novelty and change alongside a spirited celebration of personal and artistic freedom.
Pauline Hadaway is director of the contemporary photography gallery Belfast Exposed.