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Saatchi captures the confusion of contemporary photography

2017-08-24 18:35:46  source: The Guardian [Reprint]  author: Sean O'Hagan  editor: Lee.W

Out of Focus is a sprawl of styles and strategies ... Lucky Tiger #80 (2009) by Laurel Nakadate. Photograph: Saatchi Gallery, London

I have visited Out of Focus: Photography, the Saatchi Gallery's big contemporary photography show twice now. The second time around, it seemed, if anything, even more of a messy sprawl of styles, strategies and conceptual conceits. The title, Out of Focus, may have been meant ironically, but it takes on a more pointed meaning if you approach the show as a mirror of the fractured world of contemporary practice.

For me, the most coherent thing about the show is William A Ewing's catalogue essay, which begins by stating the obvious – "Photography is a very strange place to be right now, either inside looking out (the producer) or outside looking in (the public)" – then takes us on a humorous journey though the various continents that currently make up "the entire World of Photography": Commercia, Documentaria, Amateuria, Artistica and Artcontemporanea. As Ewing rightly points out, these continents view each other across vast oceans of mutual disdain. Many commercial photographers, for instance, think documentary photographers are hopelessly old-fashioned, while the latter view the former as corporate whores in thrall to the filthy lucre of advertising. Both watch the continent of Amateuria, "a continent so vast it has never been properly mapped, never mind explored", with a mixture of pity and contempt that cannot quite conceal their nervousness.

Conceptual pranksterism ... detail from Culture 3 Sheet 72 (2010) by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. Photograph: Saatchi Gallery, London

Artistica too, the realm of conceptualism and fine art, is currently under threat from the Artcontemporanea arrivistes – artists who use photography having once looked down on it as an inferior form. At the Saatchi Gallery, this "disunited nation" jostles for space, though the majority of the world on display comes from the continents of Artistica and Contemporanea. Mikhael Subotzky is the token documentary photographer, for instance, his large format pictures of the grim small town of Beaufort West in South Africa hanging desolately next to the conceptual pranksterism of Broomberg and Chanarin.

This is as political it gets on planet Saatchi, a rarified place where the main thrust is towards the conceptual. There is a lot of photography about photography: Jennifer West's enlarged strips of film of surfers, all gaudy pinks and blues, point towards both psychedelia and Eadweard Muybridge's photographs of movement. Mat Collishaw's big mosaics, made of ceramic, cement, wood and paint, suggest pixellated computer images. John Stezaker's photographic collages bring new life to old photographs found in film and theatre archives, postcards and catalogues.

Hard painterly studies ... detail from Anonymous, San Francisco, Boulevard 15 (2010) by Katy Grannan. Photograph: Saatchi Gallery, London

There is contemporary portraiture and landscape aplenty, too. In the first big room, there are perhaps too many of Katy Grannan's hard painterly studies of old people caught in unforgiving sunlight on the sidewalks of Los Angeles and San Francisco, just as, upstairs, there are too few – just one, in fact – of Elina Brotherus's stark studies of human alienation. In both instances, the power of the work is undercut. It was good to see Hannah Starkey's mixture of street photography and participatory portraiture again, which seemed quite humble in intent (she finds an intriguing spot then asks passers-by to become part of the picture) in comparison to the work around it.

The most crafted work here is Sohei Nishino's series of city dioramas – New York, Tokyo, Paris – made up of thousands of small photographs combined to create a surreal whole. They are mind-boggling in their obsessiveness and recall those wonderful wrong medieval maps of unexplored territories.

Too much of the work on display is too self-consciously arty or referential, and seems already peculiarly dated. More problematic still, there is simply too much on show to make the whole seem in any way formally unified. This is Saatchiland, though, so that was probably never the point.

Self-consciously arty ... detail from Octopus Portrait (2009) by Yumiko Utsu. Photograph: Saatchi Gallery, London

What we are looking at is a collection parading as an exhibition. It shouts and screams and sometimes whispers for your attention, but you may, like me, find your mind constantly wandering – and wondering at the sheer size and range of it all. It is a glimpse at some of the continents that make up the world of contemporary photography, but the choices often seem random and the staging haphazard. A big mess of a show, then, but one worth seeing – if only to have your confusion about the current state of photography confirmed.

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