EXHIBITIONS / Style over substance: When a charity photo show is mounted by 'Vogue', the issues are not black and white

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THE SAATCHI Gallery's new photography exhibition, 'A Positive View', has a very short run of just a couple of weeks, and inevitably will be better known by its book-cum-catalogue. That's a pity, because the show looks much better on walls than on pages, and anyone who's curious about the nature of photography exhibitions should go to Boundary Road (139 bus from the West End) before the contents come down for a charity auction at Sotheby's on 5 October.

It cannot be easy to fill the wide and high Saatchi spaces with photographs - the floor area is 30,000sq ft - but here is a convincing installation. It was devised by David Sylvester and is, surprisingly, the maestro's first venture into camerawork. As usual, he has made the most of material slightly below the first rank. In many ways Sylvester's display is unorthodox. There's quite a lot of double hanging, prints are jammed together in some places, widely separated in others. You couldn't do the same with paintings, even if they were all in grisaille. Paintings tend to radiate their character: by contrast, photographs are more likely to keep within their own bounds.

Sylvester has played shrewdly on this difference. Not everything works, however. Some photographs have been enlarged for the occasion. One of them is the portrait Bert Stern made of Marilyn Monroe late in her life, in 1962. The enlargement loses the magic Marilyn-ness we find in Eve Arnold's photographs of the star, these always being touchingly small. And sometimes Sylvester has resorted to mediocre loans simply to fill the long walls. Thus we have no fewer than 14 works by Andy Warhol (or an assistant?). None of them is convincing, even within the terms of Warhol's near-to-art operations. I note that their value will not be tested at auction since they have been separated from the charity side of this show.

As Geraldine Norman reported in these pages last week, there are many grey areas in contemporary charity exhibitions. Here, philanthropy appears to be mixed with commercial acumen, as it is sponsored by Vogue and designed to show off the work of the magazine's house photographers. Not being a judge of fashion photography, I merely observe that Vogue's purpose seems increasingly to make all rich women look alike. Or is that what rich women want? Either way, I cannot tell the difference between the supermodels who regularly turn up in this show and think they might as well be called standardmodels.

I like Peter Lavery's Alex, S. of France, 1993. She has no clothes on. In the portrait of the characterful Alex, doubtless well known to Lavery, familial and domestic photography is seen to have more depth than the usual glamour or pornographic shot. The other (female) nudes are not much good, as usual. One might have thought that in our liberated age nude photography should be at its height, but this hasn't happened. Pornography is surely to blame, but so too is the sort of elegant and facile camerawork favoured by Vogue. One gets an initial buzz from their different methods, but neither mode is truthful enough to make art.

In this show's account, contemporary portraiture is also lacking in depth. Frank Horvat's Yorkshire, England, for British Vogue, of 1960, is interesting because it shows a model in clothes she has just modelled, but now with a natural look on her face and surrounded by working-class children who seem never to have encountered anything so wonderful. No later portrait is quite as telling, and slightly dated portraits generally look better than new ones.

Cecil Beaton's image of Gilbert and George wonderfully captures the pair's pose as antiquated chaps who have to pretend to be brothers because they live together. There are other incidental amusements. How curious, for instance, that John Claridge's study of the American trumpeter Chet Baker makes him look so like the roue British politician Alan Clark.

None of the prints is expected to be auctioned for a large sum; the top reserve price is pounds 3,000 and the lowest pounds 300. This is still an exhibition of posh rather than popular photography, lacking both humanity and a genuine aesthetic. Photojournalism generally is under-represented, no doubt because of its association with newspapers rather than magazines, and because photojournalists, like the world in general, and are not too impressed by fashion.

Photographers who are more usually seen in avant-garde art galleries appear more contrived today. I despair of pretentious photography, its knowingness, posed tableaux and crass use of colour. The exception is Cindy Sherman, a strong presence in the exhibition. This is because of her acute eye for American popular culture and because she uniquely combines the talents of an actress with those of a self-portraitist. Andres Serrano's Black Supper parodies a Renaissance Last Supper. It's technically clever but really of no use to anyone - least of all the unfortunates for whom the exhibition is nominally devised, for Serrano's prints are on loan from Charles Saatchi's personal collection. Like so many works in the show, they are not included in the charity auction.

'A Positive View', Saatchi Gallery, 98a Boundary Road, London NW8 (071-624 8299) until 30 Sept.

(Photograph omitted)