News images are the Old Masters of our day

The new exhibition at the National Gallery asks - and answers - an intriguing question: can photography ever compete with the Old Masters?

Share

The mark of a good idea is that you wonder why nobody has thought of it before. The National Gallery, London, is mounting its first ever photography exhibition, “Seduced by Art, photography past and present”. It tackles a subject that could have been examined at any time during the past 100 years – the influence of the Old Masters of painting on the pioneers of photography.

The show also asks an updated version of that question: what do today’s practitioners, who use the medium as an art form, make of these early beginnings? The National Gallery’s method is to pair Old Master paintings with Victorian or contemporary photographs. In making these interesting comparisons, the question is raised, for instance, whether any photograph of high society people at repose in their grand homes or in their grounds can compete with, say, Gainsborough’s “Mr and Mrs Andrews” (1750), who stare out from the painting at us with looks so haughty and scornful that I, for one, would have stammered to have addressed them in case my words were considered to be… well… plebeian. Even Martin Parr, the excellent British documentary photographer and photojournalist, with his shot of a self-possessed couple in their 1990s reception room, cannot get near Gainsborough’s power.

The National Gallery exhibition, however, substantially enhances the reputation of one of the early photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron. She shines in this company. Cameron did not take up photography until 1863, when she was 46. Being socially well-connected, she was able to do a series of portraits of the celebrities of her time – Charles Darwin, Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning, for instance. However, the National Gallery puts her up against great 17th-century painters such as Guido Reni rather than Victorian notables. And when you remember how limited were the technical means at the disposal of Victorian photographers – essentially limited to adjusting the focus to produce hard or soft outlines, bringing out some portions of the image while de-emphasising others – you see how Cameron’s sheer artistry allowed her to hold her own in an unequal battle.

It is extraordinary given the array of sophisticated techniques they now have at their disposal but few of the contemporary photographers in the show do as well. Judging by its prominence, the curators are particularly proud of Maisie Broadhead’s 2010 photograph “Keep them sweet” (above) in which her sister, wearing angel’s wings and a laurel wreath, with two young children, models a pose that deliberately imitates the Louvre’s “Allegory of Wealth” by Simon Vouet (1635). But the comparison is embarrassing. Whereas the Vouet exudes energy, there is only torpor in the Broadhead. And where there is vigorous line in the former, there is but dull arrangement in the latter.

Even more striking is the contest between a Fantin-Latour still life of roses in a vase (1886) and Ori Gersht’s “Blow Up”, 2007. Indeed creating and photographing a mini-explosion seems to have been the only response that Gersht could find to the work of the 19th-century French painter. Gersht says he realised that while a photograph’s literalness can convey visual information quickly and efficiently, a painting communicates slowly and partially.

So he felt driven to speed everything up. First, he took a bouquet of flowers and froze them with liquid nitrogen so that they looked as if they had been killed off by frost. Next, he hid small explosive charges among the flowers. Then he detonated them so that the petals flew into the air as icy shards. Finally, he used a high-speed digital camera to record the explosion. And that is the image that one sees in the National Gallery show.

I don’t wish to be unduly negative about this interesting exhibition. I would be the happy owner of a number of the contemporary works. Among them is a “constructed landscape” by Beate Gütschow, which is really a seamless amalgam of details drawn from a variety of municipal parks, industrial sites and urban scenes with a haunting quality.  

At the top of my list, however, are two big panoramic photographs by the former Newsweek photojournalist Luc Delahaye. The first shows the final stages of a meeting of Opec. Reporters have rushed up to the platform to question the officials running the meeting. They jostle and push, they strain to hear the officials’ comments, they raise their cameras and push forward their microphones, unconsciously forming a series of groups pressed against each other, which the curators describe as a “fluid scene of strikingly Baroque chiaroscuro”. That is as maybe, but it is a wonderful picture.

The second Delahaye is called “US bombing of Taliban Positions, 2001”. You see an empty landscape, scrubland with ditches and, in the distance, a range of hills. There is nothing else. No soldiers or civilians. No planes in the sky. Only plumes and clouds of smoke rising from exploding munitions indicate the presence of war. It is contemporary, it is eloquent and it owes nothing to precedent.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The bustling Accident & Emergency ward at Milton Keynes Hospital  

The NHS needs the courage to adapt and survive

Nigel Edwards
 

Letter from the Sub-Editor: Canada is seen as a peaceful nation, but violent crime isn’t as rare as you might think

Jeffrey Simpson
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?