Pieter Hugo at the Tate Modern

#32. Spend another day in London. I made my way across the city to the Tate Modern in Southwark in search of Pieter Hugo. I had seen mention somewhere online that his work was on show there. Pieter Hugo’s series The Hyena & Other Men made me a fan. I had published his photographs in Sunday Times Lifestyle a few years ago and am still captivated by the portraits of debt-collectors in Nigeria who travel the country with a hyena in tow.

I took a bus from Oxford Circus and a cab from Vauxhall to Southwark on some friendly but misguided advice from a bus conductor. It felt like hours later and many pounds to get there. There was no sign of Pieter Hugo. So I bought a ticket for Street & Studio: An Urban History of Photography.

Using more than 350 photographs from around the world the exhibition charts the history of portraiture through the two key worlds in which photographers operate.

It is interesting to think about how street photography could only evolve once camera designers had developed the technology that would allow for an image to be created at the click of a button. Until that happened and photographers no longer needed to lug around heavy equipment and an assistant, and endure the long exposure time, there was no real street photography. Everything had to be posed to be captured.

The oldest street photograph on display was of three chimney sweeps in Paris taken by Charles Negre in the late 1800s (actually a carefully choreographed scene pre- the introduction of fast gelatine plates).

As photography developed so did the interest in the lives of others — and in capturing streetlife. Photography became a social statement, a form of protest, commentary rather than just a way of capturing still lives. Andres Serrano captured the portraits of the homeless and the indigent in New York’s subways, while Richard Avedon photographed the Chicago Seven — activists against the Vietnam war who were accused of starting a violent demonstration at the Democratic Party’s national convention. David Goldblatt’s photo of Eloff Street in the 1950’s reveals a cosmoplitan city showing black and white South Africans mixed on the street. Looking at the photo it is difficult to believe it was taken in the early years of Apartheid, and it acts to disprove the Nationalist Party’s logic (or rather the lack of it).

Cameras got smaller and photographers were able to capture images without the subject knowing, producing some amazing and unexpected results. Faster clicks also introduced the world to the paparazzi. There is a great photo of Mick Jagger with Jerry Hall giving celebrity snapper Ron Gallela the finger.

The exhibition is fascinating for its range of photographers — and subject matter — from Tokyo to France, New York to Bamako, including Diane Arbus, Cecil Beaton, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Malick Sidibe, Samuel Fosso, and finally, Pieter Hugo. Just one image from the Hyena men series, but it was still worth the trip.

It’s a world in a few hundred photographs stretching across continents. I left the gallery and walked into the sunshine (London’s first “real summer day” — and no I don’t feel bad about yesterday’s post because today it is raining) thinking about how globally connected we are with the world. Around me were hundreds of people leaving the gallery, speaking more languages than I could ever identify. I got advice on how to get to Hampstead from a Southwark Tube Station employee. After a long conversation about tubes and buses and how I landed at the gallery in the first place she asked “Are South African?”. I said yes, and she excitely told me she was from Swaziland.

Sometimes there’s comfort in knowing the world is small.

*A note from my assistant: Think Nikon, Canon, Olympus. Who manufactures the most cameras in the world today?


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