Liberty, equality, photography

Images from Portugal and the Falkland Islands reflect two different cultural heritages.
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The Independent Culture
Perhaps we don't celebrate photography enough. I mean its mere existence. Perhaps we don't really appreciate what a wide-ranging, creative, liberating force possession of a camera gives. Not only does a camera allow the highly gifted to express themselves in strong and subtle ways, it also empowers those who have few other outlets for their artistic feelings. Two current exhibitions in London remind us to celebrate this fact.

A big exhibition of Portuguese photographers on view at the Royal National Theatre is a show of 10 highly gifted people, some of whom are only young, at the start of their careers. Most of them are unknown in this country but some of them are the equals of Europe's best.

A much less ambitious but still attractive show put on by the Falklands Islands Government for a month at their office in London shows the importance of the camera in a remote place with a tiny population and precious few opportunities for artistic endeavour.

Professor Jorge Calado of the Technical University of Lisbon says, in his introduction to the catalogue, that his country has been in a state of permanent agony since its defeat by the Moors in the 16th century. It is no surprise, therefore, to find that the Portuguese show is full of strong, dignified, often sombre images, most of them in black-and-white - "images which are blacker than those found elsewhere," writes Prof Calado.

Margarida Dias finds great beauty in the images of fish and fishermen of Peniche; Carlos Guarita, London-born of Portuguese immigrant parents, chronicles the half-pagan festivals of Portugal's poorest regions; Pedro Baptista and Henrique Seruca show the life of Lisbon's Moorish quarter; Lusa Ferreira manipulates wavering Polaroid images of the port of Lisbon. All 10 exhibitors are photographers of consequence.

The British public owes a debt of gratitude to Portugal 600, the arts charity which has promoted the show, for bringing it to London, especially at a time when a xenophobic element over here is hard at work denying the very nature, the European essence, of this country.

For its part, despite occasional touches of the chocolate box, the Falklands show, principally of the work of amateur photographers, presents a generally strong set of images of a hard and unforgiving South Atlantic habitat.

Both shows come out of the very soil of their respective countries of origin. The Portuguese exhibition is as Portuguese as Canaletto was Venetian; the one from the Falklands is as attached to the islands as JS Cotman was to East Anglia. So deep is the national feeling contained in these exhibitions that I am forced to disagree with Amanda Hopkinson, responsible for the beautifully curated Portuguese show. In her preface to the catalogue she claims, "There is no such thing as representative photography, still less nationally representative photography."

There is nothing to prevent sober Portugal spawning a show-business photographer of genius or the rustic Falkland Islands generating a photographer capable of recording the world of Parisian haute couture. But if these exhibitions are not "representative photography" of a high order, I'm a Dutchman.

n Portuguese photographers at the Royal National Theatre, London SE1 (0171-928 2033) to 20 Apr; Falklands photographs at Falkland Islands Government Office, London SW1 (0171-222 2542), tomorrow to 29 March