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The top 10 photography exhibitions of 2017

2017-12-21 16:27:44  source: [Reprint]  author:   editor: 斫子 Su Yuezhuo

The refugee crisis became a sci-fi dystopia, a handful of dust took us to the moon and back, a Polish pioneer had suggestive fun with hot dogs and love returned to the Left Bank. Our critic picks his 2017 highlights.

10. Natalia LL

Roman Road Gallery at Photo London


Consumer Art by Natalia LL, 1974.

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Consumer Art by Natalia LL, 1974. Photograph: Zby Kordys

This small show of the work of Natalia LL, a neglected early-1970s Polish-born pioneer of feminist avant garde image making, was an unexpected surprise. Text and image combine in works like TAK, an assemblage of images of female lips mouthing the Polish word for yes. In the ironically titled series Consumer Art (1972), models fondle and eat certain foods – bananas, hot dogs – in suggestive ways, parodying the commodified female sexuality portrayed in contemporary pornographic magazines. Playful, provocative and still politically resonant, Natalia LL deserves a bigger show.

9. Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017

Tate Modern, London


Astro Crusto by Wolfgang Tillmans.

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Astro Crusto by Wolfgang Tillmans. Photograph: © Wolfgang Tillmans

Wolfgang Tillmans mixes and merges the everyday and the abstract, presenting the world as it unfolds for his camera in a wilfully haphazard way. His free-roaming gaze, though now familiar, can still surprise. Likewise, his curatorial audacity: vast prints – a car headlight, a nightscape of sea and sky – shared the wall with postcard-size images. Meanwhile portraits, random still lifes and diaristic snapshots somehow combined in a (just about) unified vision that is perfectly in tune with the thrust of our profligate image culture.

8. The Deutsche Börse photography prize shortlist

The Photographers’ Gallery, London


Wilteysha by Dana Lixenberg.

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Wilteysha by Dana Lixenberg – winner of the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. Photograph: Dana Lixenberg

Inevitably, the Deutsche Börse shortlist does not always work as an exhibition, but this year’s four finalists – Sophie Calle, Dana Lixenberg, Awoiska van der Molen and the duo Onorato and Krebs – made for an interesting mix of contrasting styles and approaches. Calle, the seasoned conceptualist, seemed the most likely contender, but Lixenberg’s epic series Imperial Courts, a sustained exercise in long-form documentary portraiture based in a beleaguered housing project in Watts, Los Angeles, was the deserving winner. A project for our turbulent times.

7. Swaps: Photographs from the David Hurn Collection

National Museum of Wales, Cardiff

4.jpgPool designed by Alain Capeilleres in Le Brusc, Provence by Martine Franck - part of the Swaps exhibition.

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Pool designed by Alain Capeilleres in Le Brusc, Provence by Martine Franck - part of the Swaps exhibition. Photograph: Magnum Photos

This year, the veteran Magnum photographer David Hurn donated his collection of 700 prints to the National Museum of Wales. This show, held in the first gallery in the museum dedicated solely to photography, comprises the most striking images by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eve Arnold, Sergio Larrain and Bill Brandt. Like the entire collection, they were were acquired by Hurn swapping his own work with other photographers. A potted history of 20th-century documentary photography and a scattering of clues to Hurn’s formative influences.

6. A Handful of Dust

Whitechapel Gallery, London


Statue (Double Check by Seward Johnson), New York, 11 September 2001 by Jeff Mermelstein.

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Statue (Double Check by Seward Johnson), New York, 11 September 2001 by Jeff Mermelstein.

From the surrealists to the moon landings and on to the 9/11 attacks, A Handful of Dust traced a kind of shadow history of photography through a substance that evokes all manner of ominous suggestion. Curated by David Campany, it ranged from the vernacular (postcards of American dust storms) to the art historical (Man Ray’s Dust Breeding, a photograph of dust-coated glass in Duchamp’s studio). A show of interesting juxtapositions, with dust as the abiding metaphor for time, history, memory – and photography.

5. Giles Duley: I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See

Old Truman Brewery, London


Lamis, five, from Homs, Syria, with her one-year-old brother Jad – a portrait taken in 2016 in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.

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Lamis, five, from Homs, Syria, with her one-year-old brother Jad – a portrait taken in 2016 in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Photograph: Giles Duley

Giles Duley was another photographer who dealt with the refugee crisis in a way that challenged the traditional idea of an exhibition. The powerful prints here were part of a bigger, more ambitious environment in which storytelling, live music, talks, creative collaborations and a nightly “supper gathering” combined to create, as Duley put it, “a space where stories will be shared and action inspired”. With both a writer and artist in residence as well as an ambient soundscape provided by Robert “3D” del Naja from Massive Attack, this was an exhibition as both collective conversation and creative activism.

4. Richard Mosse: Incoming

Barbican Curve Gallery, London

7.jpgA still from Incoming by Richard Mosse.

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A still from Incoming by Richard Mosse. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York and carlier|gebauer, Berlin.

Perhaps the most widely discussed exhibition of the year, Mosse’s vast three-screen video installation was not strictly photography, but addressed all the issues that the medium is freighted with as it negotiates the post-truth world. Shot on a hi-tech military surveillance camera that registers body heat from as far away as 30km, Incoming reimagined the contemporary refugee crisis as a Ballardian dystopian drama populated by spectral figures moving slowly through an alien landscape. Beautifully observed moments of heightened intimacy – a lone figure praying to Mecca amid the tumult around him – provide breathing space in an almost overwhelming audiovisual installation.

3. Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979–2017

Whitechapel Gallery, London


The Emperor 06 by Thomas Ruff, 1982.

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The Emperor 06 by Thomas Ruff, 1982. Photograph: © Thomas Ruff

Though Thomas Ruff’s photography about photography can seem overly cerebral, there was much here to admire, not least Ruff’s quiet sense of mischief. The German appropriates and reworks found photographs from press archives, the internet and even outer space, the results sometimes approaching pure abstraction. For all his experimenting, it is those big, early portraits of his friends that still resonate with their effortless merging of the epic and the intimate.

2. Sohrab Hura: The Lost Head and the Bird

The Nines, Peckham 24, London

9.jpgA still from The Lost Head & The Bird by Sohrab Hura, single channel video, 9:40 minutes.

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A still from The Lost Head & the Bird by Sohrab Hura, single channel video, 9:40 minutes.

The most viscerally exciting installation this year was Sohrab Hura’s two-part video in which a relentless stream of often disturbing images unfolded at a furious pace in a darkened room in Peckham during PhotoLondon. This was India reimagined as a kind of feverish hallucination, the almost subliminal thrust of the imagery disorienting the viewer and leaving a sense of dread and anxiety. Hura is a Magnum nominee, and this work certainly pushes the boundaries of reportage, the real and the fictional blurring into a fractured narrative that is overwhelming, disorienting and utterly unforgettable.

1. Ed van der Elsken: Camera in Love

The Stedelijk, Amsterdam


Increasingly, if you want to see a retrospective devoted to the work of a single photographer, you need to travel outside Britain. This year was no exception with this extraordinary Ed van der Elsken show travelling to Paris, but not London, after it debuted in his hometown, Amsterdam. What we missed out on was a chance to track the relentlessly curious eye of a photographer who moved effortlessly – and mischievously – between documentary, street photography and art.

Beethovenstraat, Amsterdam by Ed van der Elsken, 1967.

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Beethovenstraat, Amsterdam by Ed van der Elsken, 1967. Photograph: © Ed van der Elsken / Collection Ed van der Elsken estate

Best known for his groundbreaking 1954 photobook, Love on the Left Bank, which used real characters from the Parisian demimonde of the time to tell a fictional story, Van der Elsken also captured the energy of his native city in the 1960s, before travelling widely – to Japan, India and Africa.

The curators rightly placed his photobooks at the centre, over 20 publications that range from the vivid global panorama that is Sweet Life to the more intimately observational Amsterdam. Book dummies, contact sheets and drawings punctuated the prints and films. The result was a portrait of Van der Elsken as a brilliantly restless artist, whose energy and optimism underpinned his often intense, illuminating and immersive way of seeing.

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