PHOTOGRAPHS / The great, and great unknown: Of 15 million or so photographs in the Hulton Deutsch collection, 500 were chosen to represent 'All Human Life'. Andrew Palmer marvels

If you will call an exhibition 'All Human Life', you can expect some raised eyebrows. All human life? Really? All that, and it fits into the Barbican too? Well, bless my soul, this curator must have some pretty high-falutin' opinions.

'All Human Life', an exhibition of images taken from the celebrated Hulton Deutsch collection, is in fact only a small part of a much larger being. Statistically, it would represent no more than the tip of a toenail - 500 images from a total body of more than 15 million.

In that sense alone, the curatorial task required someone superhuman. It would probably be mortally impossible to view everything in the Hulton Deutsch collection, and even if you could, you would then be faced with the equally arduous task of drawing up workable rules for selection. It is as if you have the world's gene pool at your disposal, and then have to decide what to create. With so many images by so many photographic dignitaries, the scenarios could be as different as a mosquito and a sea cow.

A show about anything from Parisian cafes to circus performers, politicians, dogs, or even, say, labour relations in the inter-War period, would all be possibilities. One could equally have homed in on the collection's star practitioners, or renowned images. One could have selected material to illustrate the evolutionary relationship between camera format and image. Or material demonstrating the acquisitional acumen of Deutsch and his predecessor, Hulton. And if one must deal with life, anything from Life is Sweet to Life's Not would be a feasible creation.

But let's be frank: no divine overseer would be so tediously premeditated. Neither, thankfully, is the art critic Bruce Bernard, who curated the exhibition with the help of Sue Percival. For him, creating 'All Human Life' was a walk in the park: 'It's so simple - it's just a matter of picking out all the pictures that you think are conceivably interesting enough to get on the wall. Then you look at them again and throw three-quarters of them away.'

So there you have it - survival of the fittest. 'You can't impose categories on this random collection,' he goes on sagely. 'The way it has come together is a matter of chance - you find a good image and then it's a natural process of finding the companions.'

The exhibition is, in fact, divided up into categories but, in keeping with the ethos of the show, they are relatively undeterministic and not particularly logical. Before the Flood and Brave New World refer, as much as anything else, to the age of the works on show (late 19th and early 20th century), while classifications such as Growing up, Work, Women are pragmatic to the point of redundancy.

But for all the happy-go-lucky approach, one has to suspect Bernard of being slightly disingenuous. Rarely can the extensive space of the Barbican art gallery have seen an exhibition of photographs that is so effortlessly tight.

Bernard and Percival have spent an entire year rooting through the archives of the Hulton Deutsch warehouses in west London, but even taking into account this labour-intensive occupation, the show leaves little doubt that between them there exists a mercurial talent for spotting images of excellence. It would be fatuous to try and describe the whole range of human experience that is on display here. If it is not all human life, it is none the less a testament to the camera's rapacious aspiration to appropriate all. Yet here each human experience becomes also a photographic experience - some on account of their composition or the way they hint at the decisive moment; others on account of a glorious coalescence of behaviour and light; others still, for their insight into how photographs communicate political ideas (the camera has, after all, been responsible for some of the 20th century's most effective propagandist images). Whatever the reason, each is what Percival describes as the 'one brilliant image which you might find among 50 duds'.

As much as anything else, this show is a tribute to the unsung heroes of the metier. As one would expect from the world's largest picture library, there are a great many familiar images and names. But in among the likes of Julia Margaret Cameron, Werner Bischof, Cecil Beaton, Andre Kertez, Bill Brandt and Man Ray, there are just as many unknowns.

'That's a famous photographer,' says Bernard, commencing an offhand trot around one room, 'so's that, that we don't know, dunno who did that, dunno who did that, that's from Sasha studio - one of the gems of the collection . . .' and so he continues. The effect of hanging the photographs with no special emphasis on the auteur, though, inevitably begs the question why it is that some images become part of our collective imagination while others are left to accrue dust in the archive. For time after time the lesser knowns, not to mention the not knowns, prove to be an equal match for the heavyweights.

James Burke's Group of characteristic beggars, for example, bears all the classic hallmarks of an Edward Curtis - a supremely staged, formal portrait of four vagrants in Afghanistan, replete with a 19th-century taste for comparative physiognomy. Au Revoir, a shot by an unknown photographer of a soldier kissing a woman at Victoria station in 1914, is every bit as moving as Robert Doisneau's more celebrated kiss outside the Hotel de Ville. White Death, again photographer unknown, which shows a corpse half buried in the ghostly fallout of war debris, could easily slip unnoticed into the portfolios of say McCullin or Capra.

Unique moments of banality and intrigue, ecstasy and despair crop up time and again - many of them could, had circumstances been different, ended up as pictorial icons of their times, postcard material, to be reproduced again and again.

Almost all the photographers represented here were professionals working for the popular press - in the main, for that much missed observational magazine Picture Post. Few would have been working with any notion of art and the gallery wall. In many instances, it is time that has been the making of the image. While they may have been exceptional in the first place, they have earned interest in the vaults.

Starving brides, for example, shot during the last of many public fasts undertaken up North during the 1930s, is a beautifully executed shot that captures the apathetic gaze of undernourished women as they lie in their glass coffins. Today, little is known about this bizarre ritual, which seems more appropriate to the banks of the Ganges than Blackpool pier. A picture of an everyday happening has, with the passage of time, become invested with added drama and mystery.

'It would be intolerable if photography did not allow us to distance ourselves from its subject matter, even when pleasant,' Bernard writes in an introduction to the exhibition. Time, of course, extends this 'tolerable' distance. As the ochre signs of ageing come to the fore and the image begins to be subsumed by its own internal chemistry, the subject becomes progressively more muted and abstracted, its association with real-life events less blatant. Even a handful of photographs that depict Hitler and his troops, for instance, once evoking feelings of outrage and contempt, may now, retrospectively, be admired for their graphic structure and their potent, eerie symmetry.

This is perhaps one of the reasons why the exhibition has about it a feel-good air despite the inclusion of many images depicting life at the deep end. It may also partially explain why 'All Human Life' ends, somewhat abruptly, with the 1950s. There are, after all, plenty of images in the extensive archives of the Hulton Deutsch collection which were taken after 1960. Could it be that none of them were exceptional enough to warrant an airing? Unlikely. The viewer is more probably witnessing the intervening hand of that benevolent curator.

'All Human Life' is at Barbican Centre, london EC2 13 Jan-24 Apr

(Photographs omitted)

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