Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s

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© 2012 Succession Raghubir Singh 'Pilgrim and Ambassador Car' (1977) by Raghubir Singh

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

As a title, it sounds vague, but also disturbing: after all, if everything was moving, which way was a poor photographer to look? There is no simple answer to that, and the Barbican doesn't try for one. Its exhibition of 1960s and 1970s photography is as inclusive as that famous hippy gathering of tribes in 1967, the Human Be-in, embracing as it does 12 photographers hailing from Japan, Russia, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, Germany and Mali, as well as America. They photograph their homelands, except when they don't: Larry Burrows was a British photojournalist in wartime Vietnam, while Sigmar Polke's eerie, deliberately damaged photographs were taken in Afghanistan. But then, of course, a hippy be-in wasn't quite as inclusive as it first appeared, and here, too, if we paw through the passports, we find a predominantly leftist world-view that decries colonisation and dictatorship (or, in the case of apartheid, both at once).

David Goldblatt may reject any labelling as a political photographer, but nobody looking at his photographs of South Africa's mining country could believe that apartheid was beneficial – and that's before you reach Ernest Cole's furtively captured images of police swooping on young blacks for ID checks, or a white man striking a begging black child, or tsotsis (black gangsters) mugging a white on payday. Another image shows a railway station at rush hour: a thicket of black workers with, in the foreground, a few floating whites waiting, presumably, for the 'European Only' part of the train.

And so it goes, round the world, except when it doesn't. Shomei Tomatsu looks at American colonisation in post-war Japan; Boris Mikhailov uses double exposure to stick two fingers up at the prescriptive Soviet regime; Li Zhensheng's extraordinary images, furtively taken, long hidden, often as tiny as stamps (he was, in fact, a stamp collector) display the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, Mao's murderous purge, and his 'composite panoramics' give a real sense of the tyranny of the obedient majority.

But – wait a minute. Raghubir Singh's beautiful colour-saturated pictures don't seem to have much to do with the British legacy in India. And Malick Sidibé is positively joyous about the cultural colonisation of Mali, with his images of an elegantly curved yé-yé boy (the name, from a pop song chorus, is itself an import) or female James Brown fans.

There's certainly movement here, although it's hard to see where that leaves the increasingly confused viewer. After all, if William Eggleston – formalist, colourist, teller of beautiful, plotless stories – can be included, then who can't? Is he here as a photographer of the racially divided American South, like New Yorker Bruce Davidson? Or as someone who rearranges his problematic homeland into sheerly lovely imagery, prioritising colour over black and white in every sense?

If the exhibition had stuck to different facets of the civil rights movement, then Eggleston's Delta Kream café stop juxtaposed with Davidson's images of Freedom riders braving redneck wrath, or Goldblatt or Cole's pictures, would make simple sense. If it were focusing on style, then Mikhailov's experimentalism (lost as the nuances are to anyone who doesn't get anti-Soviet in-jokes) and Polke's chemically altered depictions of Afghans setting dogs on a bear in the Hindu Kush, would make intriguing comparisons to the lushness of Eggleston's iconic images or the sensuality of Singh's India.

But in photography, usually, more is less; for oppressed majorities, more is meaningless. No matter how many great works the curators pack in here – and they are displaying many extraordinary photographs – they can't make the title premise true. Everything wasn't moving in the 1960s and '70s: some things were and others weren't, and in neither case was the touchpoint at the start of the decade.

One thing, however, really was in flux then: photography itself, which is also what the exhibition is highlighting. Eggleston was making it acceptable to take art photographs in colour; Davidson was bringing a fierce emotional engagement to American politics. Cole was South Africa's first black freelance photographer (if, admittedly, only by lying to the authorities); Graciela Iturbide was padding into the desert to document the indigenous populations (although some of her work feels included more for geographical or gender reasons than anything else).

The counterculture was never as inclusive as it liked to claim, and nor is this show: in fact arguably it's self-regarding in every sense and as keen on self-aggrandisement as any vested interest. But then, photography's endless preoccupation is inevitably, understandably, photography: where to look and how. In that sense, nothing ever moves.



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