Schweppes Photographic Portrait Prize 2004
National Portrait Gallery, St. Martin’s Place until 20 February
Stories from Russia: The David King Collection
Photographers’ Gallery, 5 Great Newport Street until 27 February
Stories from Russia: Melanie Manchot
Photographers’ Gallery, 8 Great Newport Street until 27 February
THESE THREE exhibitions are within walking distance of each other in the centre of London. They are all free and, when seen together, offer a fascinating insight into the potential uses and abuses of photography. The exhibitions consist of photographs of people but each use different approaches to their subjects, which leave different impressions. After seeing them, you don’t just remember certain photographs or details, you also wonder how and why they were made and shown.
The 2004 Schweppes Portrait Prize shows a wide mix of portraits. The criteria for selection is not clear. You’ve probably taken similar pictures of people you know. Everyone is unfamiliar.
The only people I recognise in the portraits are Tony Blair and a small image of Joseph Stalin within a photo of a young girl looking out of a window. Nearly all the photos have someone looking directly at the camera lens. They knew they were being photographed and have allowed this to happen.
A few of the photos show people who are not looking at the lens. Here it’s difficult to know whether they have agreed to be photographed. Even though the lives of these people may not be dissimilar to our own, they will always be unfamiliar.
The Stories From Russia exhibition shows how revolutionaries and critics of Stalin’s counter-revolution in 1930s Russia were eradicated—physically and pictorially. It consists of eight portraits and next to each, the same portrait crudely blacked-out with a brush by the one-time revolutionary designer, Aleksander Rodchenko (see Socialist Worker, 22 January).
The images come from a book called The Commissar Vanishes compiled by the designer, photographer and Soviet historian, David King. They graphically illustrate the lengths to which Stalin went to rewrite history and extinguish any memory of these people and what they represented. King has managed to reclaim an historical identity for the people pictured, but you leave this exhibition angry, knowing they were murdered.
The last exhibition of 12 photographs by Melanie Manchot raised my spirits. Here we have modern residents of Moscow in group portraits. According to the panels at the gallery, “Manchot set up her camera at public sites and invited passers-by to join the photographic shoot and become part of a spontaneous group.”
They stare at the camera and confront you. Given that all forms of protest are restricted in public spaces in central Moscow, they stand defiantly as in a kind of demonstration. For this brief moment these people declare their identity. They are alive and determined. They have a history and a future.