Exploring the School of Art Collection – 2016

 

As part of the first year art history module Exploring the School of Art Collections, students have the opportunity to write a small piece for this blog. This year the group focused on our photography collection. Each student had the opportunity to choose from a selection of prints from British, American and Italian photographers active in the mid 20th century. They only had one week to undertake some research before presenting their drafts. They all worked very hard on these projects so please take the time to view their efforts.

Andrea Brighenti – Art History 

Flood Refugees, Forrest City, Arkansas, February 1937, Walker Evans, silver print on Kodak gloss paper

This picture is characterized by a close-up of two hands holding two bowls. The strong contrast between the white plates and the really dark hands is very eye-catching. The particular thing that makes this photo so special is the choice to capture something so simple but at the same time so detailed. The anatomy of the hands explains everything about the two people in the background; we can’t see their faces but we can speculate on their past lives. The hand on the right is a male hand, old and wrinkly. On the left, instead, is a soft and gentle lady’s hand. The image is made of five figures, one male and four females. The four women are dressed with heavy coats and long tights, probably given by the volunteers. The man is dressed with a big, worn-out coat and a pair of heavy trousers.

During the month of February 1937 eleven Arkansas waterways overflowed, inundating or otherwise affecting seventeen adjacent counties and 1.5 million people. According to the American Red Cross (ARC) at the time, this natural calamity shattered all previous natural disaster records. Flood conditions had developed over January and February and the storms also caused changes to weather conditions across the northern hemisphere. Eight counties offered support operations to assist the displaced. Emergency relief consisted of rescue, temporary shelter, food, clothing and urgent medical care. ARC established 75 camps (tent-cities) and 29 field hospitals where patients were administered immunizations against typhoid and diphtheria. The US Army and Volunteers prepared twice-daily meals for the displaced and ran recreation programmes for both adults and children at the camps and centres.

As the title suggest, this is a photograph taken from the refugee camps after the floods of 1937 in Arkansas, USA. In January, Roy Stryker (head of the FSA (Farm Security Administration)) sent Evans to Arkansas and Tennessee to photograph flood refugees. It was short-term work relating to an emergency event, but Evans did manage to make a series of Leica snapshots of African-American farm families. Evans was an American photographer and photojournalist best known for his work for the FSA documenting the effects of the Great Depression. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri but spent his youth in Toledo, Chicago and New York City. He took up photography in 1928 around the time he was living in Ossining, New York. He said that his goal as a photographer was to make pictures that are “literate, authoritative, transcendent”.

After almost eighty years we could easily say that this image may seem like a snapshot of the past, a reality too different from that we experience today. What I see instead though is an image that may have been taken in 2016, it could easily communicate the poverty that is affecting three quarters of the world’s population. However, an image of this type is not a scandal anymore. Our brains are continuously captured by images of this kind, in the newspaper, on television, on social media; but still we are surprised. What we should understand from these images is that we are not progressing, perhaps instead we are declining, and that our ‘surprise’ at natural disasters and poverty today is far too complacent.

Emma Davies – Art History  

Worlds Apart, Penrhiwceiber, 1986, Leslie Price, silver print on Ilfordspeed III semi-matt paper

Madonna in leg warmers and The Breakfast Club, these are thoughts that come to mind when we are asked to remember the 1980s. The modern mind often conjures up images of the popular culture of the decade and ignores the realities of the era. When Leslie Price took this photograph in 1986 he captured the truth of this decade for so much of the Welsh population, as he had been doing throughout the miners strike. In doing so he has helped to preserve the reality of one of the biggest political and industrial events in the last 50 years of British history. This specific photograph was taken in the wake of a mine being shut down in Penrhiwceiber, South Wales. Price captures the effects the 1984-85 mining strike had on real people. With just a sense of a post-industrial landscape and only two figures, Price is able to capture the devastation that effected so many.

The photograph shows a young boy and an older man walking through a derelict landscape. The two figures hold hands. The old man looks into the distant landscape with his back to the camera. The young boy faces the photographer and looks directly into the lens, engaging with the viewer. The landscape in which the figures stand is an abandoned mining site, with an out-of-use pithead in the middle ground. The old man looks towards the pithead with an air of sadness, which the viewer feels although we cannot see the man’s face. He holds onto the young boy with one hand but on his other side leans heavily onto his walking stick; not only does he seem sad but also very tired.

Personally I was very intrigued by this image being drawn to the numerous contrasts within it, not only by the choice to use black and white film, but also by the content. Price manages to capture many aspects of life in only one image and seemingly with very little to work with. Just two figures are depicted but they tell us so much. He shows young and old, engaged and disengaged with the viewer. The desolate surroundings contrast with the young boy who looks almost Cherub-like, the difference between the man-made colliery setting and the natural landscape in the far distance. Every aspect of the image juxtaposes with something immediately next to it and in doing so furthers the relevance of the title of the photograph: Worlds Apart.

Diana Goncharuk – Art History

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White Frame, Carlo Bevilacqua, 1950-70, silver print on Agfa Brovira gloss paper

Carlo Bevilacqua began photography in 1942 as a consequence of his deafness – it became a form of silent communication with the people around him. The poverty and rationing of wartime Italy hampered Bevilacqua’s discovery of photography and even into the 1950’s film, paper, chemicals and equipment were often difficult to access. As a photographer, Bevilacqua was interested in the life of his community with the old and the poor often being the subject of his prints.

In this photograph we witness an early morning on the promenade. There are no heavy tones apart from the bars of the railings. A white ornate chair is strategically placed on wet sand. A silhouette of a lady leaning onto the railings can be seen through the back of the chair. This female figure stands looking into the distance viewing the sea and, further away, mountains emerging through the mist. She is perfectly aligned with the frame of the chair and visually appears trapped between the chair and the barrier of the railings in front of her. She appears inaccessible to us, almost non-existent. We have no direct contact with this mysterious lady in black, her attention is to the water as if she is looking for peace or solitude.

Bevilacqua has given this woman anonymity. Her black silhouette does not allow us to see her face and consequently judge her identity. Anyone could be stood in her place. Anyone of us could stop on our way to look into the distance to search for our meaning, our answers to any questions we have or simply to seek solace in the calmness of the water. The frame of the chair could represent that she has to follow certain rules whilst the railings become a restriction to her sense of freedom. Perhaps Bevilacqua has here captured a sense of the post-war trauma which Italian society faced – the loss of loved ones, food shortages and maybe the need to provide and be loyal to her family is weighing heavily on the woman’s shoulders. Additionally, we could see that even Bevilacqua could perhaps see himself as enclosed in the frame of this chair in the sense that he has limited access to society due to his deafness. But the ‘framing’ of the world through his camera is, for him, liberating.

Alexine Royon – Art History 

Shadows, Carlo Bevilacqua, 1957, silver print on gloss paper

The photograph Shadows was taken by the Italian photographer Carlo Bevilacqua in 1957. It is a silver print on gloss paper measuring 39x 30cm. Carlo Bevilacqua was born in 1900 in a poor region of Italy close to the Yugoslavian border. He spent most of his life in Friuli, a little town of this area. He started photography in 1942, after he became deaf. He became an influential Italian photographer in the 1950s and 1960s and his work was displayed in several countries abroad. He died in 1988.

An old woman is standing in the middle of the photograph, in front of a white wall which is typical of the simple architecture of Friuli. The woman is completely wrapped up in a black blanket that she is holding against her. She is also wearing a black headband; only her face is still visible. She is, like the rest of the photograph, the result of a lights and shadows game. The viewer cannot distinguish the lower half of her body which merges with the shadows at the bottom of the photograph. It is as if she was evaporating. The predominance of black gives a feeling of magic and even a feeling of something diabolical. This impression is reinforced by the frightening, spikey shadow, like keen teeth.

This photograph is a good example of 1950s Italian photography. A lot of photographers from this period wanted to offer works that were closer to human consciousness and which dissociated themselves from the agitation of the post-war period and new obsessions with consumerism. The old woman is portrayed in her daily environment. The photograph seems to act as a sociological statement with all the attention focused on the woman, who does not even seem aware of the presence of the photographer. The representation of an old person is often as a symbol of social wisdom, a life’s knowledge and experience that will before too long disappear. This shot calls the viewer to come back to the essentials of life.

As a 21st century viewer, it is the dynamic aesthetics of the photograph that first attracted me to this image. The contrasts are striking and the black and white still have something magical, a mystery that is less obvious with photographs in colour. It is as if it was giving all the importance to the woman, almost in a theatrical way. In dominating the picture she rightfully gains the attention of the spectator even if she was perhaps unaware she was even being photographed.

Weronika Swiderska – Art History  

Self-portrait, Keith Vaughan, 1939, Silver print on Agfa Brovira paper
Self-portrait, Keith Vaughan, 1939, silver print on Agfa Brovira paper

The year 1939 was full of confusion, changes and uncertainty for Keith Vaughan. His Self-portrait is an attempt to answer the questions troubling the artist. He didn’t know who he was, why the things and people around him were the way they were, he never fitted in anywhere. Self-portraits can play different roles, especially today, as they are very popular but for Vaughan, a man of great sensitivity, they were a way to look deeper inside of himself, also examine his appearance and see what the world can see.

At the moment of taking this picture Vaughan was 27, the age that people usually start figuring theirs lives out and forming serious relationships. In his journals (which he started the same year) he admits that he needs a companion, he craves intimacy, but he still ends up being alone most of the evenings. As a homosexual, his life in 20th century Britain wasn’t easy, but besides the unfavourable political and cultural conditions, he was an introvert and a pessimist. He didn’t connect to others. But that wasn’t what I saw in the picture, at least not at first. What intrigued me was the artist/model’s openness, innocence and a sense of “shy” hope in his eyes and I think that causes a personal connection with the viewer. After a longer observation, the real meaning of this photograph comes forward: the expression of loneliness and a matter of dealing with it. He was an artist in the true meaning of the word, as he said ‘Being an artist implies having an insight and understanding above the average […] It implies choosing a standard of values and accepting the obligation to try to live up to them’. I think that explains why he was so focused on getting to know himself; he wanted to be true not only to his art, but what is more important to himself. Studying his Self-portrait gave him as much of an insight as the writing in his journals.

This picture was part of a handmade album Dick’s Book of Photos dedicated to Vaughan’s younger brother Richard after his tragic passing in 1940 during the Second World War. This book mostly contains photographs of joyful, careless times in Keith Vaughan’s early life, for example: several informal shots taken on a seaside beach, five photographs of ballet performance (ballet was an intrinsic part of the gay subculture in 1930’s London) and a couple of surrealistic art influenced pieces. The one that stands out the most in my opinion is Self-portrait; it isn’t necessarily in the same spirit as the other photographs. The atmosphere of this image is very mysterious. It raises a lot of questions, which author didn’t know the answers to neither. Perhaps it was his way of finding himself in a new world without his brother, in the new circumstances caused by war. Later in 1944 he said about himself ‘I have no intact existence to which I belong other than the circumstances in which I find myself’.

A man alone in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

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