In the context of my ‘Self-Portraits’, it was useful to visit the David Bailey ‘Stardust’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery on Sunday. Bailey isn’t a photographer who comes in for much close examination in the realms of academia (so far as I know) but he is a significant creator of images in popular visual culture in the second half of the 20th century – and I have chosen to use his ‘style’ for one of my first self-portraits. There were no great surprises in this extensive presentation of his work; I had seen a TV preview with Bailey himself (who also curated the exhibition), so pretty much knew what to expect. It is, though, interesting to see the ‘documentary’ work that he has done in, for example, India and Papua New Guinea, alongside the celebrity and fashion images, for which he is best known.
The aspect on which I feel most keen to comment is the ‘hanging’ and, in particular, what I can only describe as ‘display walls’. It is the tendency to hang images high on the wall, which I also noted at some the Paris exhibitions last month, that fascinates me. This ‘family wall’, chiefly featuring photographs of his wife, Catherine, is the best example.
THESE IMAGES ARE NOT MEANT TO BE LOOKED AT!
It is physically impossible for anyone to look at most of the photographs on this wall and so the only conclusion is that he does not want us to look at them closely. (I might say, in passing, that the larger prints in some of the other rooms were also well above natural eye-level, for an averagely tall person.) One can only step back, as I did in taking this photograph, and stare at the ‘spectacle of the display’. I am tempted to compare this approach to the barrage of visual images we see every day online and in publications – individual images are ‘devalued’ by the impact of quantity, so that it becomes impossible to actually ‘read’ anything from them. In this case, I would suggest that they neither say anything individually nor as a series. It’s more like something done by an interior designer than an an exhibition of photographs.
In the Sky Arts interview referred to previously, Bailey pays tribute to Catherine, his wife and muse, so, speculating about Bailey’s purpose in presenting them like this, I tend towards the idea that he sees the ‘spectacle’ as a kind of physical and visual tribute, an expression of pride in his family perhaps. The room is specifically titled ‘Catherine Bailey’. However, it is not a style unique to this show. There was evidence of the same approach in both the Cartier-Bresson and Mapplethorpe exhibitions in Paris. And whilst that might lead one to think of it as a modernist trope, glorifying the images display, I then recall that it also happened in the more contemporary context of the Ponte City exhibition at Le Bal. As I say, ‘spectacle’ is the word that keeps coming to mind – impressing with the overall impact rather than homing into either individual images or, say, the narrative of a series.
So, it was particularly interesting to compare the same approach again, next day, at Tate Modern, but in a rather different context.
These are street posters from the Russian Revolution. They are specifically about display and propaganda, of course; about creating an impression rather than passing on information or illustrating something specific. They are also intended to be viewed from afar. So the overall impression of style and colour comes together well in these big, multiple displays, which cover three walls of a single room. I am, I have to say, rather less convinced by the effectiveness of the ‘wall-filling’ approach when used for 40-or-so smallish black & white framed prints on a high wall at the NPG.