"Performing for the Camera" - Study Visit - Tate Modern, 2 April 2016.

The "Performing for the Camera" exhibition was held at Tate Modern, Bankside, London.

The "Performing for the Camera" exhibition was held at Tate Modern, Bankside, London.

I was lucky to get a place on this study visit as I was actually only on the reserve list until the day before. Fortunately someone had to pull out and I got their spot.

When this study visit was announced I had a look at the video made by Romain Mader, a Swiss photographer who has created a fictional narrative about his Ukrainian girlfriend/wife. It was an intriguing concept and it drew me in to the exhibition; it looked really interesting and I was looking forward to seeing the rest of the exhibition. Unfortunately for me, the exhibition overall was disappointing. 

Performing for the Camera was split into fourteen rooms so it was rather a lot to take in in one visit. After slowly viewing the images in the first three rooms, a fellow student pointed out the number of rooms we still needed to get through so I took a quick stroll through to the end to try and get an overview of what was to come. I realised then that I was not going to be able to spend as much time as I'd have liked in each room and towards the end I had started to rush. 

Each of the rooms displayed all or part of one of the eight themes of the exhibition. The themes were:

  1. Documenting Performance
  2. Staging/Collaboration
  3. Photographic Actions
  4. Performing Icon
  5. Public Relations
  6. Self/Portrait
  7. Performing Real Life

The first room held the introduction which showed work by Yves Klein, Aaron Siskind and Charles Ray. The introduction embodied the overarching concept of the exhibition, that of the photographing of a performance. Each of the three sets of images showed moments of a performance frozen in time; moments which would pass quickly and never be seen again. The photographs froze the performance, which would continue after the shutter had closed, but the still images themselves then became works of art in their own right. In fact all three were meant to be seen as the photograph not the whole performance; they were meant to be frozen moments of time, with the build up and aftermath being unimportant by-products. 

Documenting Performance was a clear theme and consisted of photographers operating 'remotely' to record a performance. There were many images by the duo of Harry Shunk and Janos Kender who were well know as photographers in the art scene in New York and Paris from the late 1950s tot ehearly 1970s. One might describe these images as reportage, where the subjective view of the photographer is what comes through - the performer is not directly involved in what the photographer chooses to capture. The performance would have occurred regardless of whether the photographer was there or not.

In Staging/Collaboration the concept moves on to where the contribution is shared between the performer and the photographer. Again we have a clear theme. In this case, the performance would not have occurred without the photographer, as the photographer is integral to the end result: the production of an image or images of a performance directed wholly or in part by the performer themselves. 

Photographic Actions was a slightly confused section where we saw, for example, the photographing of an artist in the act of painting as 'photographing action'. Photographing action could really mean almost anything and I felt the photographs in this section could either have been omitted or been incorporated into one of the other themes.  

Performing Icons was an interesting section. I liked Samuel Fosso's African Spirits where he dressed up as iconic black figueres - both male and female and created portraits of him so dressed. I do really like Cindy Sherman's work so they were good to see here too. Noticeable now was that the photographer is now also the performer and consequently completely integral to the work.

The Public Relations and Self/Portrait sections didn't really work for me. I felt like they could have been incorporated into another section or could have been left out altogether. Sometimes I feel that curators try to get certain works on show even though they don't really seem to fit into the theme of the exhibition.

Performing Real Life was for me a take on the way photographs are currently taken by many of us, particularly young people. We portray ourselves in a way we want to be seen by others, such as on Facebook, but often mocking ourselves, creating fictional narratives and making ourselves appear different to the way we really are. We all perform for the camera in one way or another.

In summary, I was slightly disappointed with the exhibition - I was expecting more but I'm not quite sure what. I did feel that the themes of 'Performing for the Camera' were often only loosely linked to the photographs on display and that the photographs on display were often more about the subject than about the photography, i.e. more about the performer - and their performance or creation - than about photography. Clearly this is part of the idea but for me it was too much about the performance than the photography. Although some parts were enjoyable and there were some excellent photographs among them, there were many sections which felt padded out with photographs of slightly bizarre art installations. I couldn't help but feel that this exhibition was more of a vehicle for the curator to display his interest in the avant-garde whilst masquerading it as an exhibition of photography. I did rush a little towards the end, and the sheer volume of work on display and the blurred lines between the themes meant it was difficult to keep track of what was going on, so I may well have missed some of the concepts, but nevertheless, having had time to ponder, my overall feeing afterwards was one of disappointment.