Ideas Series: Cruel and Tender

Frances Morris, Senior Curator at Tate Modern; Charlotte Cotton, Curator of Photographs at the V&A; David Chandler and Art Historian David Mellor discuss the Tate Modern’s first major photography exhibition and it’s wider effect on the perception of photography in British museum culture.

DM David Mellor, DC David Chandler, FM Frances Morris, CC Charlotte Cotton

FM It’s worth beginning from an institutional background – although Cruel and Tender is a stand-alone show, an any-time any-place exhibition, it also emerged from a particular context of a new national museum of contemporary art without a history of showing historical photography.  I think the background to the show is the whole issue of photography in relation to Tate, which was sort of on the back burner during the build up to Tate Modern.  The older Tate had such a small amount of space available to it that any wider issues, any ideas that looked beyond what was in the collection were secondary to the urgency of getting more out and being able to re-examine and think about what is in the collection. So, of course, the happening of Tate Modern presented the first opportunity for a while to think about things that had not been seen, had not been collected. And it was the first opportunity in a long time to see a broad swathe of the twentieth century national collection and one of the things that that collection embraced was a representation of photography in a way that had never been done before. In collaboration with the V&A, a group of works from the 20s and 30s were shown in relation to the still life suite – Objectivity – and elsewhere throughout the displays there were interjections of photography from various time-frames both contemporary work and earlier work. [ms-protect-content id=”8224, 8225″]So I think there was an attempt to situate the collection- which had been very narrowly defined within the fine art context- within a broader context of visual culture and that was done through photography. It is tricky but I suppose politically the institutional argument for this kind of show is that it is a pretty radical act to undertake, to embark, on a programme of photography. If you get it wrong you have trouble on your hands, but if you can demonstrate with your first show you are taking history seriously, that you are responding to a degree to received opinion and a kind of canon then you can be seen to be doing this in a sensitive way.  There has never been a debate about whether Tate should or should not do photography shows. It was more a question of whatever we do first is going to be perceived as a manifesto show, it will be read as taking a stance. We also felt that the first show should not be of a monographic nature. That it would overload an artist, it would even overload six artists over two years to be shown as selected for their centrality to the Tate’s project. So at its inception the idea was to make a group show of some kind, and I think those of us that work at the Tate felt that one of the responsibilities, one of the driving factors behind embracing photography, was the responsibility of national museum to contemporary artists, to give them some kind of representation of the history of their own media.

DC Interesting point there.  One of my thoughts about the exhibition was how contemporary is it?  Does it reflect what is in the ascendant or is current. I think it is impossible in a sense with a show like this to be absolutely precise but there is a sense in which it does cap what has been going on for years. I think you could look back to an exhibition like James Lingwood and Jean Francois Chevrier’s show from the early 90s, Another Objectivity, which actually looked at an area of contemporary photography – and this is simplified for the sake of the discussion – that was more descriptive, less metaphoric, less staged. It included Robert Adams and Thomas Struth, who are in the current show, and also the Bechers. So there was a very similar link between what was seen as emerging contemporary work and historical precedents for that work. In a sense, for me, Cruel and Tender could be seen as an extension of those ideas.

FM Yes, there is a contemporary perspective being traced back in time through the 20th century. And it’s a show that very much frames a number of bodies of work in the institution already.

DM This is actually part of an acknowledgement of something that has already become fairly well embedded

FM It’s a museum show

CC And in that sense I think it works incredibly well because it’s a very logical stance for Tate to take. There is an expectation that when you do your first, unexpectedly large, photography show you would be cherry picking – undeniably brilliant work – through the history of the 20th century. But putting it within an historical framework that says you need to look at this again. And the way in which the exhibition is built, is put together, enables a beautiful dialogue, an unexpected set of dialogues to emerge between the rooms.

DM I was interested in this because the way the dialogues- which composed a kind of narrative- ended. I got an impression that Mikhailov, Arbus and Martin Parr formed a kind of closure…

FM No, I think you’re right, Parr is pretty much the end.

DM Just getting down to a bit of detail here, I thought that was interesting because there was this sense of gravitas and stasis which ran all the way through the exhibition; a particularly German neo-classical feel that ran all the way through. But, given this framework, when you come to Mikhailov there was a disjunction, a profound shock, because his photographs are in many ways the most expressionist and pictorialist works of all. Then, with Parr, you have closure around a sort of trash culture, with a certain kind of nihilism and this was a particular kind of sting in the tail.

CC My observation of visitors going round was that it did act as a sting, almost a slap. Some people stopped in the doorway and didn’t go through the Parr room because it’s so distinctly different to anything else in the exhibition.  Obviously the work is about consumption to a certain degree and there is actually very little in the exhibition that deals with that apart from Gursky in a very sleek way. Also Parr’s work has all of the elements which suggest a much more workaday style of photography but in a very unstylish way. If I’d had to add another word to the title of the exhibition it would be ‘stylishly’; it’s ‘stylishly cruel and tender’ because there’s a strong sense of people being very restrained in what they’re doing. Yet Martin’s work is not restrained and it’s associated with editorial and with advertising and we have actually been nicely shielded from this jobbing function within the exhibition as a whole.

FM One of the things I wondered about with the Martin Parr section of the exhibition is that he might have been better served in this context by an earlier body of work, like The Last Resort for instance, so I was slightly surprised …

DM But that would have normalised him; that would have enrolled him into this curatorial programme of severe good taste.  Following on from Mikhailov and his spectacular abjectiveness, I thought Parr’s room was extraordinarily interesting because it felt like the narratives that had been held in check now suddenly burst out in this gross carnival way…it was a slap, a fearsome antidote.

DC What I thought particularly with Mikhailov but also with Parr, too, was that the change registered there was also a kind of link to another dominant strand of photography over the last 20 years – a highly subjective photography which, say, Nan Goldin would be the prime representative of.  In photographic terms the photographic image is highly volatile, dynamic, colourful, assertive in the way that a lot of the works in this exhibition are deliberately non-assertive, and I think that was quite an interesting moment to come across. Here was all this graphic stillness, simplicity, an economy…and then suddenly there was this sense of a volatile, combustible image going on which for me suggested a range of works that weren’t in the show.  The show is well contained and Parr was the slap it needed. That sting brought to mind another quality of work which could form some other sort of show.

CC But you still have something that I would call ambiguity about Mikhailov and Arbus that fits in very well with everything else in the exhibition. It’s part of the overall dialogue, and there’s space which you, as the viewer, can feel comfortable with in the context of Tate Modern, space to deal with that ambiguity. But Martin Parr in the context of that body of work is a statement with a full stop at the end, which for me brings it close to commercial image making rather than the use of vernacular and popular photography by artists as a jumping off point. Common Sense is the work in the exhibition that triggers a different photographic frame of reference.

FM Do you mean because that dialogue within the work isn’t there.

CC It isn’t there.

DC I think – just in passing – that Michael Schmidt is perhaps also one of those who tests the confines of the show because his work does sort of encompass kinds of extremes in a conscious way.  He tries to unsettle us with a radical shift in approach from image to image…

FM He’s also the only artist that deals with the self in a direct way; they are the only self-portraits in the show.

DM I welcomed the subjectivity. I must say it was one of those points of resistance within this beautiful model of static naturalism in stasis, which the show offered. And that’s why Martin Parr also interests me because his pictures are very refractory to a certain seamlessness. For example, I was glad Schmidt was included; it’s as if one was seeing, for a moment, a rejected alternative within German art or conceptualism: a certain subjectivity, a certain roughness, an acknowledgment of that alternative culture. Because there is a prime organisational rationale here, a certain American/German curatorial consensus around naturalism.

FM The two key nodal points in the show are American and German; so, if you like, it springs from those centres.  What is interesting is that the German side, coming out of Sander, then gets going much later than the American side. So it seems to be about the American vernacular, what is strong and distinctive about American photography, and then it’s about what is strong and forceful about German photography.  And so they are not really parallel paths – it’s not an international show. It’s more the case of two interlocking perspectives from an American and German point of view and I think that reflects one of the curator’s interests and expertise.

CC One of the things which links America and Germany is the fact that they are the two most powerful market-places for fine art photography. You really have to search to find a history of the century in this exhibition.

FM In terms of subject matter it does contain a history of the 20th century and it seems to tell a story of industrial decline and suburban spread.

DC I think there is this tendency for that reading because there is a type of anthropological overview in the content, but I think it’s also to do with what kind of photography has been favoured, what kind of photography has been validated by institutions and what kind of photography can be made into art, in art museums. I think the German ascendancy – from the Bechers and their pupils – has been so dominant. You’ve only got to look at student work over the last ten years.

CC I think it’s dominant because students are deciding to take careers as fine art photographers, so of course this is privileged because fine art photography is privileged.

DC There’s a sense that the look of that work, the highly descriptive, distanced view, what David has called ‘naturalism in stasis’; this objectivity, for want of a better word. It’s the kind of photography that can be engaged with at all sorts of levels and it is irrefutably photographic.  It’s got a value that is almost incontestable and when you make it into something larger, when you actually increase the scale of it, it has a very imposing kind of quality, it carries all those banal facts. I think that if you look at photography in institutions and what has been influential, there is a sense in which people have felt comfortable with that kind of photography because it gets beyond certain issues of interpretation, of value, which have been questioned and challenged.

DM It is that classical assuredness.  It has a fine manner to it. But there were less stabilised modes of visual representation which were also accommodated in the exhibition. For instance, I saw the Winogrand show at least ten years ago at the Hayward, but his caricatural sense has never been so obvious to me.

FM Almost the only moment of humour in the exhibition.

CC Though I felt he would have been better represented with the ‘Women are Beautiful’ series, because, apart from Parr, he is the only truly promiscuous photographer in the exhibition.  Winogrand looks humorous and witty but he could have been played as more as a pariah than he is, and that capacity of twentieth century photography explored in more depth.

DM Satire often goes with a kind of puritan disgust.  We got that Winogrand rather than the lascivious Winogrand. I was just thinking about the reckoning of the body which runs through this exhibition, which has a certain kind of North European ascetic account of the body, and it did make me think over and over again about some of those modernist art historical distinctions – which  people are sometimes rightly suspicious of – to do with ideas about northern visualities.

DC The body is present throughout but I think you start making this distinction between the figure and the body.

FM Well it’s a very static body and also the landscapes are rarely inhabited so you get this kind of separation or this distillation where the body isn’t seen as a kind of phenomenological thing that occupies space.  It’s very removed from context.

DM There’s also a minimalisation of interiority or expressiveness.

CC Yes, it’s interesting that if you go through in the right order, the very first room – Thomas Ruff – suggests that you question if you can read anything into a face. Then, later, you’ve got Nicholas Nixon who is holding on to that kind of humanist notion that you can read everything in a face, that you can work out which one Nicholas was married to.

DM I keep coming back to an intuition that, overall, this exhibition was a kind of German fantasy, both about American culture and it’s own culture.

DC It reminded me of people like Wim Wenders, with their romanticised view of American culture, where, in a sense, they adopt American culture for Germany and I think there is definitely something of that going on.

DM But German culture – West German culture, anyway – by virtue of American occupation, was by and large Americanised from 1945 and a lot of German cinema deals with that and tries to renegotiate that again in the ’70s and ’80s.

DC Maybe we should talk a bit more about what the Tate does now.

CC What ‘Cruel and Tender’ means to the Tate

FM In the first instance ‘Cruel and Tender’ means that photography is now embedded in the programme of temporary exhibitions but there is a wider perspective which is about photography and how it now becomes manifest in many different ways, exhibitions, collections of space, education programme, commissioning etc.  It has a democratic quality and dialogue with other fine art media.  The problems are not in writing a manifesto statement, the problems are to do with how you move forward. Actually we have been slowly accumulating a body of work since the 1970s and I think we have a collection of 400 photographs now and some of them are really important works of art.  I personally feel very strongly that we should begin to compliment that body of work not just with more contemporary work but push the boundaries beyond the orthodoxies that we currently represent to represent a wider viewpoint, and I think we should go back in time.

We’ve got a very nice reciprocal relationship with the V&A at the moment where we both talk about what we’re going to buy. We try not to buy the same thing and we lend to each other without all the protocols and hassles normally involved in lending from other museums. So there’s a close dialogue and what I would like to try and do over the next few years is to conceptualise the nation’s collection for all national museums. It doesn’t make any sense at all for us to duplicate what is held by others.  But at the same time as not duplicating each collection has in turn a coherence to it. So it’s finding a way of operating between not duplicating and yet being coherent. That, and the fact that there’s no way, beginning now, you could ever hope to be encyclopaedic. I think if we become part of this bigger pool, this bigger relationship, what is distinctive is that Tate is able to show photography in the context of fine art and there aren’t any other institutions in the UK that can do that. The V&A has a very different context and Bradford has a very different context, and so in a way we can just add to the readings, the frameworks and the dialogues that those same materials can have.

DM Because I was wondering, what makes those distinctive differences between institutions and sites…

FM The differences are their collections

DM I’m just trying to get a flavour, you know, for what the differences might be. I think Frances has mentioned that Tate is very much bound up with a particular moment, between photography and modernist late modernist art practice, and you have described processes over the last few years where you have collected systematically around that interdependency with a particular kind of painting, visual art. That seems very important. With the V&A it’s more difficult, you have to do an archaeology through its collection, finding photographs which were intended as documentary or as teaching aids, the abjets for young Victorian young designers at the beginning of the twentieth century. Then it moved when Mark Haworth Booth made these remarkable initiatives through the ’70s and ’80s and began to look in a very tactical and mobile way at what photographs could be acquired within the market. And, as a result, you have a very rich and dense set of things now which are very different to the Tate, and I think this sense of complimentarity is crucial.  There is nobody from Bradford (The National Museum of Photography, Film and Television) here but there is one thing that seems to me absolutely vital is that Bradford, as the third term in this dynamic, has the area of commercial and vernacular and certain kinds of documentary photography which perhaps wouldn’t have a place in the V&A. To make any account of the broadness of photography you need all three, you need at least those three terms. I am sure I’m missing out others.

FM We talk about the work not necessarily having a place in the V&A but actually it might sometimes. Over the last year we’ve had a display from the V&A’s holdings of fashion photography, a very unexpected type of photography to have in Tate’s holdings. It certainly wouldn’t be on your list of the top three areas to collect, but we were at that time doing a display of paintings and actually exploring the nature of the fashionable portrait, the commissioned portrait in the twentieth century. So in a way we were drawing together a group of works we have never shown before and shedding a kind of different perspective on them. The fashion photography display worked incredibly well in that context. By bringing in things that are unexpected, and don’t necessarily form part of the kind of organic whole, you can extend the readings or the potential interpretation of what you already have.

DM So, I have another question. Over the last few years the V&A has showcased certain photographers, contemporary photographers, who in a sense have not yet been fully sanctioned or legitimised elsewhere, who might belong to various oblique formations. I’m thinking, too, of the way in which, in the mid-1970s, John Szarkowski did go out on a limb at MOMA, New York, and showed these kind of vulgar characters who were using colour. You see what I mean, when an institution with particular prestige takes on that role of breaking people. Is this a conscious part of the V&A’s approach? And do you think Tate could do that?

CC I think that the way that I do shows at the V&A is very different in as much as I think the experience of going into the V&A is not one where you go in expecting to see fine art. It means that you can engage with the broad church that is photography in different ways.

DM I never know.  The V&A has remodelled itself in the 1980s and 90s around the idea of material culture and by and large it looks pretty honorific and formidable and fine arts to me.  I know they are goblets and not paintings but a certain sanction does come with these things.

CC I don’t say that there isn’t an institutional sanction that goes on but I do think it is of a different nature. At the V&A you have made that choice when you come through the doors to look a little longer at something.  I don’t know whether you have made up your mind whether this is fine art or not. I don’t actually think that for most visitors that is really the dialogue that’s going on in their heads; it might be for curators but I think it’s about seeing beautiful things, seeing things that are worth looking at.

DM That’s what made the V&A the right and probably the only surface for photography in the ’70s, this bastard identity that it could be there with all these other peculiar things like metalworking. Tate is in a different position.

FM Yes, Tate is in a very different position.  In a way I think it is very regretful that when the Tate was established all those years ago photography wasn’t part of the brief. I think it’s a real tragedy that there wasn’t a single vision commitment. Nobody said, ‘hang on we should be doing something about this, they’re doing it in the States’. The only way you can approach photography, unless you want to ghettoise it in a department of photography – which I think would be very dangerous and a sad thing to do – is to see it through this framework of fine art practice and other media. Maybe that’s a weakness but I think it’s also a great strength, it’s a strength of limitation because it does set parameters around what you could do at any one time. It suggests a way forward over time, to begin building up a collection that tries to extend from what it already is rather than trying to run something completely alongside it. American collections are very different, they are departments of photography, and although you can see a great deal of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York you can rarely see it in dialogue with anything else.

DM Moving on again. I was thinking about photojournalism in relation to the work in Cruel and Tender. You know, photographs like the Diane Arbus of the couple on their recliners in Westchester County. So many pictures like this appeared first in the pages of magazines, and it’s something that your boss, Charlotte, from long ago at the V&A, Roy Strong, had real problems with.

FM You mean in relation to art?

DM Yes, photography as an art-form. He found he was making contradictory statements about the art of photography and that this wasn’t in any way bound up with it being reproduced primarily for the press. And yet there on the walls were these Brandts, McCullins and Beatons…

CC I noticed that in the language of Cruel and Tender’s gallery guide. The narratives for, I think, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus start, ‘once they used to work in the commercial world and then…’

DM Because of course Arbus really only opted out in the last year or two of her life. But, essentially, she was always part of that world.

CC One of the unwritten stories I believe of Cruel and Tender is the relationship of the work to commissioning and a sense of the commercial.

FM It’s interesting that one of the early curatorial discussions about the show actually framed it within a slightly different dialogue, which was between documentary and documentary style. Actually the show folds in both and doesn’t really address that as an issue.  I think it’s a really difficult issue to address. I know Tate, in its history, has been involved in these discussions about art and functionality and it’s not a path I want to go down.

DM But it is a path that I think the V&A has had very fruitful relationships with in terms of current practice, in terms of your fashion show a few years ago.

FM I think it’s something the V&A has embraced and which it is, in a way, uniquely placed to do.

CC It is, and I think that it’s very difficult to keep hold of the idea of authorship and the monographic and also deal with the issue of the production of photography, with who is involved and the mediation of it, the contextualisation, creating meaning and all of those things. But I think that in the terms of the V&A’s collection there are really interesting dialogues you can have. At the moment at the V&A you have four different curatorial approaches to photography: you have photography in the British galleries, so mixed in with everything, there is ‘Art Deco’, the new photography gallery – which is a very traditional, archival study, chronology based approach – and there’s Guy Bourdin, which on the one hand is monographic so it plays to the crowd, but on the other introduces ideas about commissioning; what someone might do in their own time, in a time before you were an artist or a fashion photographer, in a time when you could be either but not both at the same time. I think these possibilities arise from working in an institution that is built around this kind of confused pluralism.

FM It is confused, it’s in the nature of the practice that it is confused and that’s the one thing about photography isn’t it.

DC Frances, are you able to say anything about the immediate agenda for photography at Tate.

FM By the time this goes to press we may be in a position to announce two monographic shows, one is historical and one is contemporary and we are just beginning to get excited about them. It’s interesting that people are just starting to bubble around saying ‘oh my God we’ve started this and we’ve now got to follow it through’. How that might then unfold throughout the programme over a number of years is interesting. I think that once you do something like this you do raise expectations and there has to be a follow-through.

DM This must bring about all kinds of institutional tensions in terms of expertise.

FM Yes it does

DM Whereas lots of people know about St Ives or Henry Moore

FM The thing is because we don’t have an in-house collection there is very little body of expertise or really committed interest.  There is amateurish interest and a level of expertise around contemporary practice of a particular kind but there isn’t anybody who has that real overview, and anything I have said in relation to the collection is still so much a matter for speculation and debate and planning. One of the next steps would be to see how we can enhance the expertise so that we can carry forward those kind of discussions with a degree of knowledge behind them. What’s interesting in an institution like Tate when you begin to move into a new area, you just realise how bereft of experience you are.  We all go to openings at art galleries, we all go to major exhibitions and fairs, but we don’t as a general rule visit the specialist photography galleries, we don’t go to Arles, so there is a whole hinterland of networking contacts, friendships, that we need to start thinking about.  It’s very exciting.

DC And as you say there is a need to integrate that, you don’t want to set up the situation where that becomes a separate thing. You want some representation of photography that is integrated broadly into discussions and into the whole voice of the institution.

FM Hopefully, over the next decades you are talking about the emergence of a new hybrid.[/ms-protect-content]

Published in Photoworks, Issue 1, 2003
Commissioned by Photoworks

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