Subtitled Masterpieces from the Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla collection, this exhibition at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne presents a quite amazing history of photography. Names include Bérénice Abbott, Eugène Atget, Robert Adams, Walker Evans, Vik Muniz, Man Ray and Lee Friedlander, however contemporary artists such as Alec Soth are also represented.
The theme is simple in concept, but intriguing and well organised: the beauty of the line, in all its forms. The Musée’s website provides the following introduction:
“Throughout history, photographers have always oscillated between two extremes: the mimetic illusion of reality and the enhancement of the esthetic qualities of the image. Whether it be ‘instantaneous lines’, according to the expression of Henri Cartier-Bresson, rational lines inspired from New Topographics, or the diversity of the curved lines of the human body, the line structures and sometimes reinvents the real – to the point of abstraction”.
Straight Line …
The first section which the visitor comes across is titled the Straight Line. At first thought, this seems logical enough, but then it occurs that straight lines don’t occur in nature – they are the mark of the human being and his/her impact on the world. Following is an excerpt from the introduction to this section of the exhibition:
“Perfectly vertical and parallel lines draw the attention of many photographers whose aim is to document reality … In the 1930s, it enabled Margaret Bourke-White to glorify the technological feat that a bridge represents; in 2004, Edward Burtynsky used it from a much more critical perspective in exploring the contemporary exploitation of territories”.
In this section, straight lines predominate with architecture of one sort or another being the main theme. People are occasionally present, but usually as supporting characters or even being incidental. The book (Musée de l’Elysée, 2018) which accompanies the exhibition quotes from Olivier Lugnon (2001) that “the perception of of an absolutely straight, frontal line is characteristic of the ‘documentary style’ that some photographers adopted to give a neutral, objective look the the image, while concealing the artificiality and subjectivity that this structure necessarily imposes”.
While it’s plain that straight lines play a part, it’s also clear that things are rarely “pure” – that reality is messy and even imposing. The book states that “whether straight or curved, lines make up only a fraction of a photograph’s formal spectrum, in which framing, point of view, light and shadow play a no-less-important role”.
As an example, the image by Burtynsky is approximately 2m high by 1.5m wide and is placed in a central place in one of the smaller rooms but which is visible from the main exhibition room. This allows the image to be seen from quite a distance. Seen from afar, the image with its repeating lines feels strongly like a tunnel and is very eye-catching. The lines of the bamboo scaffolding are visible, however due to the strong contrast between the subject and the sky the dominant effect is produced by the strong converging lines of the tops of the buildings suggesting almost a cathedral.
Likewise, at first glance the image by Robert Adams looks like an interplay of lines and strong shadow-shapes, but there is a strongly lit, curved path which leads us to the door which is in shadow. Lastly, there is the crucial shadow figure placed vertically half-way and horizontally just to the left of centre. The overall effect is of straight documentary, however the human element is vital and could almost be seen as a portrait of suburban (wo)man.
… and straight Lines
The second section could instead be titled “not so straight lines”. At this point, nature and real life starts to play a more important role. The introduction to this section states “photographers who have sought to capture instantaneous moments of life have not necessarily submitted to the discipline of such perfectly straight, parallel lines … the composition is no less studied and mannered, but the line’s rectitude softens. In the works of Lisette Model, Larry Clark, Nan Golden and Henri Cartier-Bresson, vertical lines structure the composition without necessarily being centered or parallel with the frame”.
In the image from Julie Blackmon there is an interesting interplay between the straight lines of what appears to be a grand house suggesting formalism and structure contrasted with the detritus of three children, one of whom looks out of the frame at who knows what. There is humour here – the little boy has his fingers in his ears while his sister plays the violin. The smaller sister looks on, in the background, with an anxious expression on her face. The image nicely blends straight lines with the not-so-straight approach demanded by small children.
The simply beautiful1 image from Michael Kenna shows a sharply focused delicate frond in the foreground with soft branches or tree trunks in the background. A classic, almost meditative image from a master which demonstrates the almost-but-not-quite straight lines of nature.
This section contains work which relates to the two previous sections, but with clearly a more abstract approach which makes us question what we are looking at. The introduction points out that “some artists have deliberately sought to mask reality, so as to emphasise the visual power of the image. Aaaron Siskind, Alison Rossiter, Ray K. Metzker and Harry Callahan each found a way of photographing the world while showing us only abstract lines”.
The image by Alex Soth presents a white wall, at a slight angle, positioned in the middle of the frame. The wall is topped with embedded shards of glass, making a very difficult barrier to climb. What is impossible to tell is whether we, the viewers, are looking out or looking in. Are we enclosed or is the wall keeping us out? The wall implies not only a physical barrier, but at the same time a duality of meaning.
Without doubt, the section on curves is the largest, taking up the entire top floor of an already large exhibition.
The introduction to this section of the exhibition states that “in the 1920s … freeing themselves from the painting-imitations that the pictorialists had been producing, they [i.e. photographers of the time] attempted to prove that it could be a fully-fledged art form. In front of their lenses, the curves offered by nature by flowers and the human body became a means of demonstrating that photography was very much equal [to] drawing”.
I’m not completely positive that the “lines” theme worked – it seemed a little forced at times. What can’t be denied is that this selection from the Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla collection presents us with sublime pieces by masters from the early years of photography to recent times. The use of lines, to some degree or another, is an inescapable part of photography, but the exhibition does well to highlight these boundaries that we otherwise might take for granted.
The Beauty of Lines continues at the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland until May 6 2018.
Lugnon, Olivier (2001) Le Style Documentaire. D’August Sander à Walker Evens, 1920-1945. Macula:Paris
Musée de l’Elysée (2018). The Beauty of Lines: The Gilman and Gonzalez-Falla Collection. Scheidegger & Spiess: Lausanne
- Sincere apologies to those to whom the ‘B’ word gives offense. I promise to keep it to an absolute minimum from now on.