Almost since the time of its invention, photography has gone hand in hand with portraiture.
But in devising a machine that could make pictures in a fraction of the time it took to complete a painting, the inventors of photography also changed what portraiture was all about.
Since the mid-19th century our rulers and the rich have ceased to be the only people whose images are preserved for posterity.
This new exhibition at London’s Tate Modern covers 150 years of photographic portraits, and contains more than 350 photographs – ranging from photobooth strips to contemporary art, police mug shots to high fashion.
Large parts of it are what would usually be called documentary photography. As you would expect with such a big and wide-ranging exhibition, there are plenty of fascinating images on view.
Early champions of the photography industry celebrated this apparently democratic new art form that brought portraiture to the masses. But you only have to look at the photographs in the first room of the exhibition to see that photographic democracy was not all it was cracked up to be.
Carl Durheim’s mid-19th century series “Swiss Vagrants” shows its subjects in poses and settings that echo those seen in formal portraits of the great and good.
But rather than celebrate their subjects, these photographs were used as the basis for “wanted” pictures by the Swiss police.
Being a subject for one of Durheim’s pictures was a very different experience to that of the leading figures of the 19th century capitalist class when they posed for their portraits that are displayed in the same room.
A number of examples of 19th century photographic surveys are included.
These highlight just how obsessed the ruling class was with observing the urban poor – with some surveys serving as an explicitly repressive tool for bringing “order” to society.
Others, like John Thompson’s “Street Life in London”, were shaped by a paternalistic recognition of the poverty and hardship contained within Europe’s growing cities.
Thompson’s subjects are never named, but serve as examples of familiar “types”, categorised according to their trade, and shown going about their business.
The exhibition makes it clear that the themes of work and social class were important to many photographers working in the early 20th century.
The American Lewis Hine used his camera as a campaigning tool, and examples of his photographs of child workers, taken for a campaign by the National Child Labour Committee, are shown here.
Typically, he portrayed his subjects as the “deserving poor”, rather than as potential agents of change in their own right. In this, they have served as a model for much documentary photography to this day.
In the inter-war years, photographers working more consciously as artists would also focus on the theme of class. August Sander produced a vast archive of images, arranged according to social status, intended as an analysis of German society.
Sander allowed his subjects to pose themselves in order to reveal their “character”. His images do not patronise his subjects in the way many others did.
Walker Evans photographed Detroit workers passing the same spot on their way to work for his 1946 series,“Labour Anonymous”.
His subjects are not classified according to profession. Instead he simply presents them as a cross-section of the local working class – all the more interesting as the series was published in the Fortune business magazine.
There are many other remarkable images, including studio portraits by a number of African photographers and Hashem El Madani’s pictures of Palestinian freedom fighters from the early 1970s.
There is also a lot to dislike in this exhibition, however. Andres Serrano’s large-scale colour portraits of homeless people in the New York subway, for example, appear cynical even compared to Durheim’s “Swiss Vagrants”. Serrano turns homelessness into a style.
Some of the later work by big names in contemporary art is instantly forgettable. And, overall the exhibition has been badly organised.
The central theme – the relationship between photographs taken in the studio and those taken on the street – is reduced to meaninglessness by the sheer variety of images on display.
The number of photographers represented (around a hundred) means that each has only a small number of images exhibited. There is virtually no information provided to help viewers understand the different contexts in which the images were produced.
This all contributes to what is at times a frustrating experience. That’s a shame, but don’t let it put you off going.
Street and Studio, a Urban History of Photography is on at London’s Tate Modern until 31 August
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