I recently visited the National Museum, Cardiff, Wales where a season of photography is being held. This consists of three exhibitions by four photographers across a major part of the museum. A grand and traditional museum, with high ceilings, marble staircases and large salon rooms in which to exhibit work, opened to the public in 1927. The photographers being exhibited were the German photographers August Sander, Bernd and Hilla Becher and the English photographer Martin Parr.
The exhibitions predominantly comprise loaned photographs, a number of which have never been exhibited before, and all of which are being displayed for the first time in Wales. They are also part of the museum’s continued commitment to photography since Magnum photographer David Hurn donated approximately 1,500 of his own photographs and 700 from his private collection in 2017. Hurn is based in South Wales, just outside Cardiff, and made the donation on the basis that the museum would open a permanent photography gallery, which was completed in 2017 and has been staging bi-annual exhibitions, drawing on work from the museum’s collection.
I have my personal views concerning the work exhibited but opinions are subjective and I will keep mine personal at this point as it was how the work was shown that had the biggest impact on me. This is not a review of the work exhibited but instead a reflection on how it is exhibited.
I have written and spoken about August Sander’s work for many years but rarely had the opportunity to view that work as exhibited prints. The presentation in the Artist Rooms of the museum presents over eighty prints drawn from Sander’s monumental project People of the Twentieth Century, which classifies individuals and groups of people according to profession and social class. The exhibition is drawn from a major collection of over 170 modern prints, produced from the original plates by August Sander’s grandson, Gerd Sander. It’s a comprehensive representation of Sander’s work and contains many of his most recognisable images.
Each print is just larger than A4 in height, well-printed with a sense of the original prints in tone and softness of form whilst recognisably remaining modern prints. They are mounted on an ivory card that allows the print to stand just proud of its backing material. A generous mount that doesn’t dominate the print but allows just enough space to isolate each image from the brilliant white gallery wall and slim beech wood frame.
The size of print and frame encourages you to step close to the image; it draws you into the photograph and asks you to explore detail and nuance. All around the gallery space people were no more than a foot or so away from the protective glass in the frame discussing different elements they had noticed in the deceptively simple portraits.
Every portrait was identified by a caption beneath the frame at a height and in a font size that my seven-year old daughter could read easily allowing further engagement with the work from an audience outside of the traditional photographic community.
In affect this is a traditionally presented photography exhibition of an important established body of work. It works on every level. Well-framed and hung prints, with just enough information to provide context to the creation of the work and the reasons behind the curation.
A few steps up from the Artist Rooms led us to a mezzanine space where glass boxes featured drawings, prints and magazines featuring the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Alongside this was a computer screen showing a documentary on their work created in Wales. So far so good and again a form of context presentation we are all familiar with.
Moving on from this space into the cavernous rooms where 225 of the Becher’s photographers are being presented, the exhibition titled Industrial Visions takes shape in both form and content. If you are not aware of the Becher’s work here are some facts.
For over 50 years the Becher’s collaborated on a project to document industrial structures across Europe and the USA. Their photographic inventory included winding towers, blast furnaces, cooling towers, gasometers, grain elevators, water towers and lime kilns. In 1965 the Becher’s made their first visit to Wales and returned in 1966 after receiving a British Council Fellowship. On the second visit they explored the south Wales valleys and made an extensive series of photographs, many of which are included in this exhibition, the last exhibition Hilla Becher curated before her death in 2015.
The Becher’s work was often created on the basis of multiples. This exhibition is constructed from these multiples and features muted graphic prints, with skies often blown out to white as dark and mid-greys emphasise the graphic nature of the subjects documented. Mid-tones are often soft but deep, like ghostly watercolours framing the industrial buildings as sculptural heroes within the landscape. These prints are large, approximately A3 in size and framed in white wood frames with no mount, and then constructed into grids 8ft x 8ft in wall coverage, with minimal space between each frame.
The rooms this work is shown in are impressive, as are the multiple image constructions but where the presentation of the Sander’s prints encourage the viewer to step forward, the presentation of the Becher’s achieved the opposite affect. The work felt poster like, graphic wallpaper for a minimalist interior. Visually impactful and impressive but lacking nuance and connection. The rooms were also empty, we were the only visitors.
It may be just a short walk across the building from the Sander room to the Martin Parr exhibition Martin Parr in Wales but the presentation of Parr’s work speaks more of how photography exhibitions are exhibited today than either the Becher’s or Sander’s.
Martin Parr is one of the most prolific photographers working today, and it is almost impossible to keep up with his output of exhibitions, books and initiatives. Based in Bristol, England just a short distance from Wales, Parr has regularly visited the country and documented its people, this exhibition brings together, images that explore different aspects of Welsh life and culture, from male voice choirs and national sports to food, festivals and the seaside.
I have seen a number of exhibitions at Parr’s Bristol HQ, the Martin Parr Foundation, some traditionally framed others featuring pinned to the wall prints. I have also seen many photography exhibitions recently where the traditional white gallery wall has been replaced by a flat mid to dark grey.
Framing is an expensive choice for the photographer looking to show their work. Glass frames are heavy and fragile, they require a solid wall on which to hang them from and careful transportation. As a response to this reality and the ubiquity of the reasonably priced large digital print more and more exhibitions and photographers are shunning the traditional framed image and presenting their prints simply pinned to a wall.
Martin Parr in Wales features both the grey wall and the pinned prints that vary in size from A3 to A1 and bigger. Each is held to the wall with multiple steel pins surrounding the edge of the prints. I presume that these are magnetic to protect the prints and that magnetic paint has been used to cover the walls, but this is an assumption not a fact!
There is a haphazard nature to how the prints are positioned almost as if the curator was responding to the ‘poster-like’ physicality of the informal pinned prints. Posters pinned to a wall rather than an exhibition within a museum. Perhaps this is appropriate to some subject matter. Certainly in this case Parr’s super bright and garish close-up images of junk food seem perfect for such an approach, but the early black and white images on the opposite wall do not benefit.
It is rare to see three exhibitions of work by such well-respected and established photographers within one museum that demonstrate so clearly the different options available to photographers today when it comes to showing their work.
Of course budget plays a major role in any choice when it comes to staging an exhibition, as does the venue and subject matter of the work being created and shown. All of these decisions are dictated by the photographer or curator but perhaps it is just as important to adopt an empathetic approach to exhibiting work, for the exhibitor to place themselves in the shoes of the visitor, the audience. To consider how you want your work to be engaged with and perceived as well as seen. The choice is yours.
Lead image: Snowdonia, Wales, 1989 ©Martin Parr, Magnum Photos.
August Sander and Bernd and Hilla Becher: Industrial Visions is on show at the National Museum Cardiff until 01 March 2020. Martin Parr in Wales is on show until 04 May 2020.
© Grant Scott 2019
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.