PHOTOGRAPHY / The image problem: Andrew Palmer on the identity crises revealed in 'Discrete Images, A Positive View' and Jo Spence's 'Collaborations'

It comes as something of a surprise in this era of thoroughly mixed media to encounter an exhibition called 'Discrete Images: Artists' Photographs'. Is this a retro attempt to resurrect the long-rested debate on whether photography is, or is not, art? This is a show, says the title, which has photographs by artists rather than by photographers; step inside and see the difference.

The narrative preoccupations of the nine artists are unrelated - though, for the most part, not unphotographic. Bernard Frize, for example, has taken a couple of pictures of clouds; Roni Horn has shot some Icelandic scenes; Rosmarie Trockel has taken, among other things, a picture of a monkey; Isa Genzken has photographed X-rays of her own skull. All traditionally photogenic stuff, but stuff which betrays an uninspiring finality.

Stylistically, the show is more cohesive: in matters of exposure, contrast, focus and tonal range, the works are loose. But it would be a nave curator who did not recognise that self-proclaimed 'photographers' now routinely tamper with the very same parameters, subverting the same so-called norm. And this formal fluidity does not make them any the more interesting.

The two exceptions are the contributions from Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter - which are most notable for not being photographs at all. Polke, for example, has merely exchanged canvas for photographic paper, brush for a torch and paints for photo-sensitive chemicals. He has not used a camera, there has been no appropriation from the outside world - he has merely dabbled with abstract strokes of light on photosensitive paper. The results are strange, jerky abstractions, full of tension. The chemicals seem to have an agenda of their own, and the artist's struggle to manipulate them reminds us just how crude the raw ingredients of photography are.

Richter continues his long-running dialogue with photography by obscuring a holiday snap with oils. Depending how you look at them, such snaps are either so standardised and ubiquitous as to be meaningless, effectively offering the painter a blank canvas, or, conversely, something so personal that they need, for privacy's sake, to be disguised by a thick molasses of paint. The paint serves as a warning to the viewer that the picture beneath is of value only to its creator.

But the four images (or anti-images) by Polke and Richter hardly amount to a debate. As for the rest, if they do have a message it is discreet rather than discrete. The question remains as to whether the generic term 'artist' warrants a collation of their work. The answer? Probably not.

The problem confronting any exhibition which assembles work under some unifying banner - whether it be artists or the family ('Who's Looking at the Family?'), or indeed life itself ('All Human Life') - is that the viewer goes in expecting to learn something about that banner, and somehow anticipates that the show itself will ultimately be greater than the sum of its parts.

Often the contrary is true, and this is perhaps particularly true on the contemporary photography circuit. 'A Positive View', which has just finished a run at the Saatchi Gallery, was an example of how such exhibitions, far from being holistic, can negatively implode. It wasn't so much that the images brought together for the exhibition - mainly fashion shots and portraits of the rich and famous - were bad. As you would expect, with 200 photographs by 150 known photographers, there was no shortage of quality. Nor is it that the values embraced in the high church of fashion are often so unpalatable. It isn't even that one wants to protest against the fashion industry's relentless claims to being innovative and culturally responsive, when the evidence clearly says otherwise.

It is rather that, thrown together en masse, the well-groomed, banal images demeaned the more provocative ones. The juxtapositions are too tart to digest. Koo Stark's A Right Tit, for example, is a near neighbour to Serrano's Last Supper; David Sim's picture of Linda Evangelista's now institutionalised pout takes up where Cindy Sherman's B-movie stills series leaves off; Terence Donovan's glance down Cindy Crawford's cleavage nestles against a Hockney collage. Since the works by Hockney, Serrano and Sherman were not for sale, one can only conclude that they were brought in to provide an erudite gloss over the vacuity of much of the Vogue-sponsored material. The result is that we are inclined to assess these works in the context of the rest - our confidence in the self-conscious, self-referential status of these works as 'art' is critically shaken. Thus Cindy Sherman's B-movie stills are whizzed past as fast as the monozygotic Evangelistas - misread as yet more glam shots destined for the coffee tables of the monied few.

It is refreshing, therefore, to see Jo Spence's 'Collaborations' at the Royal Festival Hall. The exhibition needs no generic justification, and stands boldly alone. This is a set of self-portraits (though she credits other people for having actually released the shutter) - Jo Spence in the bath with binoculars; Spence as a cultural sniper (wearing a mask and firing a catapault); Spence as charwoman (scarf, broom and fag hanging out of her mouth); Spence as a baby (with bonnet and dummy). But these self-portraits are anything but conventionally narcissistic. There's nothing of, say, Duane Michals or Jeff Koons in them. Indeed, she portrays herself in an ugly, unsoftened light. Nor is she, by dressing up, trying to mask her own identity as Cindy Sherman did. Rather, Spence's works are the product of a genuine period of reflection and introspection.

The inspiration for the pictures was her imminent death: diagnosed as having terminal breast cancer, she abandoned taking pictures of the outside world and turned the lens on herself. 'I began', she wrote, 'to use the camera to explore connections between myself, my identity, my body, history and memory. I was beginning to inhabit my own history and hidden parts of myself. I took and used photographs to help me ask questions rather than reiterate what I thought I knew already.' She called this process photo-therapy. Spence had a theory that re-enactment could lead to resolution and release. If she could come to terms with her identity she would stand a chance of coming to terms with her own mortality.

Whether this photo-therapy was effective we do not know. We do not know, for example, whether the distress that she had felt during her life about not belonging to a tangible class had been alleviated by her dressing up as her working-class mother. Or whether photographing her breast with her own name imprinted upon it helped her cope with the pain of a mastectomy operation.

What is effective, though, is the way in which these pictures hammer home the lot of the mortal. The viewer is put in the uncomfortable position of voyeur to one person's brutally honest, angry and frightened attempt to come to terms with the senselessness of her fate. Her attempt to take control of her situation makes her impotence the more transparent.

'Discrete Images: Artists' Photographs', Frith Street Gallery (071-494 1550) until 4 Nov. 'Collaborations', Royal Festival Hall (071-921 0600), to 16 Oct

(Photographs omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Kristin Scott Thomas outside the Royal Opera House before the ceremony (Getty)
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor