Two inspiring photography exhibitions in London recently: Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at The Photographers’ Gallery, and Guido Guidi: Per Strada at Large Glass.
Vishniac is best known for having created one of the most widely recognised and reproduced photographic records of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars. This exhibition features iconic works from his career spanning the 1920s to the late 1970s. Vishniac’s work reflects the influence of European modernism using sharp angles and dramatic use of light and shade to inform his subject matter. Raised in Moscow, he immigrated to Berlin in 1920 following the Bolshevik Revolution.
Many of his images document Berlin changing from an open, intellectual society to one where militarism and fascism were closing in. In 1935, he was commissioned to photograph impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe to support relief efforts.
The accompanying briefs help to put the work in context, and this exhibition is endlessly thought-provoking and poignant.
Lost world … a boy amid the rubble of Berlin. Photograph: Roman Vishniac
In 1955, Edward Steichen described the importance of Vishniac’s work. ”[He]…gives a last- minute look at the human beings he photographed just before the fury of Nazi brutality exterminated them. The resulting photographs are among photography’s finest documents of a time and place.”
For Guido Guidi, contemplating begins with avoiding clichés, rather than composing. After various early experiments with black-and-white photography at the end of the 1960s, he began using colour negatives in a large-format camera. The exhibition at Large Glass Gallery features 27 prints to coincide with the publication ‘Per Strada’.
The road runs from Milan to Rimini, via Bologna, through Guido Guidi’s home city Cesena. It is also the road that Guidi has travelled along since he was fifteen and is the thread that joins the 285 photographs, taken between 1980 and 1994, illustrated in the three-volume book.
Guidi closely observes ordinary things and in between, liminal spaces on and around the via Emilia.
“It is a way of bowing down before things. And that is the religious aspect, a respect for things, for the blade of grass and wanting to give back by means of a precise photograph, where the execution of the detail is perfect, absolute, with no grain. The photograph must be absolute, transparent and cannot be corrected and reviewed later. As Didi-Huberman says, for the ancient painters of the 1400s, the act of imitagere or copying nature was in itself an act of devotion. Not necessarily mastery or technical virtuosity but an act of devotion towards things, the “things which are nothing” as Pasolini says.” – Guido Guidi
This still life of a bowl of cherries sitting on a copy of the newspaper La Repubblica was particularly striking: the cherries have long ago rotted away; the events in the paper are long out of date.
Ronta, 1984, by Guido Guidi.
There is something zen-like and refreshing in the way each shot is carefully set up and unedited. It brings to mind John Cage’s ‘Silence 4.33’, that reduces music to nothing in order to focus on the surrounding noises.
Sometimes, you will catch a glimpse of the photographer himself in the shot, or the edge of the lens itself. For him, this is part of the process, drawing attention to the fact that a photograph is a frame, not the whole world.
Guidi is opposed to the the idea of the “decisive moment” made popular by Henri Cartier-Bresson. According to Guidi: “All moments are decisive – and none.” His work is not about the decisive moment but the “provisional moment” – the idea that this moment is one of a procession of many.
Teatro Bonci, Cesena, 1984, by Guido Guidi.
“All photographs are monuments. If you photograph this cup on the table, for example, it gives it importance. And over time, photographs become more and more like monuments.”