Tate has had mixed fortunes with its exhibitions of documentary photography – Cruel and Tender, the first serious photographic show ever mounted by the museum, in 2003, was compelling; Street and Studio in 2008 was a mess – but this one promises to be in a class of its own. Eric Franck, a dealer and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s brother-in-law, has donated more than 1,000 photographs, doubling Tate’s holdings; from these, nearly 200 classic black-and-white images of mid-20th-century London go on display as the world focuses on the city during next weekend’s Olympics opening.
Chronologically, the photographs span half a century, roughly bookended by a Cartier-Bresson “decisive moment” depicting a grandmother raised aloft, her domed head rhyming with the National Gallery in the background, among an austerity crowd, in “Waiting in Trafalgar Square for the coronation parade of King George Vl, 1937”, and a shot by his wife Martine Franck of children in Union flag top hats among a hippie group in “Parliament Square – Princess Anne’s wedding – waiting for her to pass, 1973”. All the works are by foreign-born photographers, some high-profile names – Irving Penn, Willy Ronis, Walker Evans – but many are by immigrants or visitors from central and eastern Europe who brought a particular avant-garde, brooding sensibility, derived from surrealist influence and the experience of political oppression: fragmented or cropped compositions, unexpected perspectives, high tonal contrasts.
Across the decades they transform the familiar into something rich and arresting: Wolfgang Suschitzky’s stark, linear “King’s Cross, London” (1941) and a marvellously whirling image of riders on a carousel who seem to fly through the air in “Hampstead Heath Fair” (1948); Robert Frank’s stoic banker foregrounded in a city street tapering into mist in “London (Stock Exchange)” (1951); Dorothy Bohm’s incongruous assortment of figures in “Petticoat Lane Market, East End, London” (1960s). Taken together, the works create a potent social history of a diverse, dynamic city, affording multiple viewpoints and scope for individual expressiveness by a range of talented artists.
From Friday to September 16, www.tate.org.uk