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June 10, 2011 5:15 pm

The wider angle

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‘Port au Prince, Haiti’ (2010) by Emilio Morenatti
 ‘Port au Prince, Haiti’ (2010) by Emilio Morenatti

 
‘Untitled (ABCDE) 1975/1985’ by Cindy Sherman
 ‘Untitled (ABCDE) 1975/1985’ by Cindy Sherman

In a crammed visit to Madrid for the opening of the PhotoEspaña festival, the very first pictures I saw were self-portraits. Cindy Sherman’s Bus Riders, from 1976, are all too rarely shown. But it remains one of the landmark series of the 20th century, more important in my view than the better-known Untitled Film Stills.

In the Bus Riders, modestly sized silver prints, Sherman observed and photographed people of all sorts on public transport, and then set about finding the props and clothing to mimic them in her studio. But there’s no pretence: the cables and the markings on floor and wall clearly show that these are performances not recreations. The whole adds up to a prefiguring of everything that Sherman has done since, a dense prelude to a lifetime of working with identity, self-perception, and the marks of class and caste.

The new curator of the Madrid festival, the distinguished Cuban Gerardo Mosquera, has put together a beguiling core group of exhibitions under the umbrella-title Interfaces, looking at a broad range of attitudes to portraiture. The Sherman pictures in the Bus Riders, for example, are pleasingly grouped with the role-playing of an unknown 19th-century Mexican, Frank Montero.

Mosquera has been daring, as all good festival curators need to be: he has caused to be assembled, at the National Archaeological Museum, a staggering group of Fayum, or mummy, portraits. They are not photographs but charming, lifelike portraits on wood painted by Greek artists in the period of the Roman empire in Egypt, and they have survived only because of the dryness of the climate. Mosquera, following John Berger who wrote about this group, argues that they were precursors of identity photographs, used to identify the mummies of the sitters as they passed from life through to the kingdom of Osiris. Some of them come from the British Museum, but few visitors even from the UK will be familiar with them. They’re a delight for freshness and intrigue (nobody can be quite certain of how they were made or intended to be used) and wholly justify their place in a photo festival.

The big blockbuster is not really a part of the festival, having opened weeks earlier. But showing at the Museo Reina Sofia is Una Luz Dura, Sin Compasión, a thunderous exhibition devoted to worker photographs of the period between the Weimar Republic and the opening of the second world war – roughly 1925-1940 – comprising 1,000 artefacts spread over 20 or more rooms.

 
‘Black Utopic’ (2001) by Liliana Angulo
 ‘Black Utopic’ (2001) by Liliana Angulo

This exciting and rigorous show includes original magazines (inner spreads as well as covers) close by the photographic prints from which they came. Marvellous displays come together, including spreads from the famous (very rare) USSR in Construction, a journal that would not today be natural reading for many but a goldmine of design, photography and typography, even in the export editions on show here. A profusion of Germany’s great AIZ, the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, engenders the idea that maybe it is not so much that a great picture magazine could not hope to survive today as that in their heyday, the editors didn’t really care whether these amazing radical journals would survive or not. Publish, and be damned, indeed.

This is a huge and energising show but among its highlights are a fine series of street photographs from Leipzig circa 1930 by Albert Hennig, a Bauhaus-trained photographer and painter who was later forced to work in East Germany as a construction worker, and Max Alpert’s propaganda story from the huge Soviet industrial complex at Magnetogorsk. It is good to see famous pictures by the Mexican communist Tina Modotti put into the European graphic tradition that they came from, rather than the American modernist one that US histories normally shoe-horn them into.

 
‘El Brujo’ (2004) by Ajo
 ‘El Brujo’ (2004) by Ajo

Many Russian photographers continue their recent rise from obscurity in this show, Arkady Shaikets perhaps first among them. Hungary is included, the civil war in Spain, a French section concentrating on the Popular Front, Holland, Czechoslovakia and more. One could argue about the whirlpool of influences and counter-influences: I doubt there was ever a recognisable leftwing style as such. This imagery derived from a host of elements, including constructivism and the rise of light cameras, the plunging views of Rodchenko or Moholy-Nagy, cheap printing. It brought to life a range of points of view, from documentary to propaganda. One could argue with it, but one couldn’t miss the show.

There is much first-rate contemporary material in Madrid, too. Gerardo Mosquera’s Face Contact, in particular, is a wide-ranging look at many kinds of portraiture. He talks about the curator’s role being to “convoyar” – a word from the Cuban revolution meaning to make sure that lesser-known, more difficult things are eased on to the public by flashier, easier material. He has made a wonderful “sampler” exhibition, in which unknown material is leavened by more familiar. A newish series by Marta Soul called Wellhome, for instance, which portrays successful immigrants in a cool, parody-of-advertising way that asks whether they have fulfilled their dreams or merely adjusted them, is shown opposite an older series by Nancy Burson, in which faces are composites of portraits of people of the same type.

There are a few disappointments but these are outweighed by the good and the very good. I was even delighted by a show on Lartigue, the cheery French chronicler of vanished bourgeois life. Think you know a lot of his pictures already? Try seeing them through a stereoscope viewer, leaping into orderly perspective, in the way they were meant to be seen. Fantastic pictures, brought nicely to life by good curating.

PhotoEspaña runs until July 24

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