Seeing is believing: documentary photography from Francis Bacon to 9/11

Seeing is believing: documentary photography from Francis Bacon to 9/11

A human crib sheet, Bacons model wrestlers, and crime scenes real and imagined a new show at the Michael Hoppen gallery examines documentary photography in all its complexity

There is a quiet power to Simon Norfolks black-and-white study of what looks like an ordinary staircase in a nondescript house. What strikes you first in this photograph which features in a new exhibition called ? The Image as Question is how the light plays on each polished surface: the gleaming handrail and pristine skirting board, the gloss-painted wall. It is then you notice that the surface of each stair is not straight but gently curving, worn by the footsteps of those who have walked down them over the years.

The French thinker Roland Barthes identified what he called the punctum: the crucial, often accidental, detail of a photograph that reveals something deeper. The curve of the worn stairs is not an accidental detail in Norfolks photograph, but the crucial element in the composition that, as Barthes put it, rises from the scene with a force that makes it suddenly seem like a new photograph. Those who walked down these stairs, leaving the imprint of their vast numbers, were heading towards their deaths in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. It is a photograph that evokes horror in the most subtle and affecting way.

September 11th, New York, NY 2001 by Melanie Einzig. Photograph: Melanie Einzig. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery

Part of the fascination with all photography is that the medium is firmly grounded in the documentary tradition, Michael Hoppen notes in his introduction to the show. It has been used as a record of crime scenes, zoological specimens, lunar and space exploration, phrenology, fashion and importantly, art and science. It has been used as proof of simple things such as family holidays and equally of atrocities taking place on the global stage. Any contemporary artist using photography has to accept the evidential language embedded in the medium.

That last sentence perhaps provides the subtext to the exhibition, which concerns the threatened position of documentary photography in an age of digital profligacy. Photographs are now so ubiquitous and, when shared on social media, often so unmoored from their context as to seem drained of meaning. The images here, Hoppen insists, have a shared gravitas, a weightiness that emanates from their documentary function.

That is certainly true of Norfolks image of the stairs at Auschwitz, but its power also comes from its formal and compositional poetry: the fall of the light, the geometry of curves, horizontals and verticals, the perspective that, as Norfolk has noted, echoes that of an earlier image: Sea of Steps, a staircase in Wells Cathedral made to appear almost celestial by Frederick Evans in 1903. It is not so much a photograph as evidence, then, rather an evocation of the immeasurable human suffering that took place on this ordinary-looking site.

The exhibition roams far and wide, from photography as research material for painters to images made by microscopic and telescopic cameras to the inevitable grisly crime scene shots by accomplished ambulance chasers such as Arthur Weegee Fellig and his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Metinides. It is an intriguing show enlivened by the fact that the stories behind the photographs which all come from Hoppens extensive personal collection are often as interesting as the images themselves.

Enlarged contact sheet of two men wrestling, New York, from the studio of Francis Bacon, circa 1975. Photograph: Michael Hoppen Gallery

A relatively understated, but characteristically voyeuristic, photograph by Metinides taken in Mexico City in 1958 shows a blood-splattered cluster of personal items love letters and a golden purse. The caption reads: After being stood up at the altar, a bride returns to the church in the Condesa neighbourhood and shoots herself in the head. Here, evidence rubs up against a noir aesthetic learned from classic Hollywood B-movies.

In sharp contrast, Melanie Einzigs September 11th, New York, NY 2001 is an arresting image of how daily life goes on even amid the most cataclysmic events. It shows a UPS deliveryman going about his business in Manhattan on 9/11 while the twin towers of the World Trade Centre burn in the background.

An enlarged contact sheet of two men wrestling in swimming trunks and caps, originally taken by Francis Bacon in New York in 1975, nestled for years in a bin bag in the attic of a Mr Robertson from Surrey, who turned out to be the artists electrician. (Other bin bags given to him for safekeeping included personal diaries, cashed cheques, letters and holidays snaps.) The photographs highlighted in red were used by Bacon as models for painting particular body parts in motion. They echo another exhibit, a 17-frame series of a nude man walking by Etienne Jules-Marey, whose motion studies preceded those of the better-known Eadweard Muybridge.

Likewise, a recent image by Takashi Arai composed of multiple daguerreotypes of a stopped wristwatch employs a printing process first used in 1839, but also refers to Shomei Tomatus monochrome photograph of a watch face fractured in the instant the atomic bomb devastated Nagasaki. It seems to me the most postmodern moment here.

A young woman with cheat notes on her thighs, in a photograph titled Cribs, taken at the faculty of journalism of Moscow State University, 1984. Photograph: Valery Khristoforov/Michael Hoppen Gallery

Guy Bourdins crime scene photograph possesses all the forensic power of the real thing bloodstains on the pavement, a chalk outline of a female victim beneath unforgiving street lights but is a fabrication constructed for a 70s fashion advertising shoot for Charles Jourdan shoes. A more subtle subversion of a fashion editorial is Richard Avedons 10-page picture story Mike Nichols Suzy Parker Rock Europe, published in Harpers Bazaar in September 1962, in collaboration with the magazines visionary art director, Marvin Israel. Here, using clothes from that seasons fashion collections, they created a fictional famous couple in a grainy narrative comprised of paparazzi-style photographs. The images are a pastiche of the snatched photographs of the romance between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, which then mesmerised the press and the public. So convincing was it that many readers mistook it for actual reportage.

The most mischievous single image here is Valerie Khristoforovs portrait of an anonymous young girl on a street with her dress raised to reveal a condensed scrawl of notes that had been written on her thighs before she took the entrance exam to a journalism course in Moscow State University. Khristoforov happened upon the girl in a park as she was writing on her legs seated under trees near the statue of Mikhail Lomonosov, the greatest Russian scientist, who gave the name to the University. She agreed to have her legs photographed under two conditions: that he take the picture after the examination and that she remain anonymous. He agreed and waited for an hour and a half for her to return. She passed the exam and was never found out.

? The Image as Question is at the Michael Hoppen Gallery, London, until 26 November.

This article was amended on 28 September 2016 to correct the spelling of Etienne Jules-Mareys name, from Jules-Marley as an earlier version said.

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Here's the best action and adventure sports photography of 2016

Here’s the best action and adventure sports photography of 2016

The winners of the Red Bull Illume Sports Photography Contest were announced this week, and they include some stunning perspectives of action and adventure sports.

Photographer Lorenz Holder won top prize for his colorful image of BMX Pro Rider Senad Grosic.

“In my photos, I like to show the viewers the beauty of the environment where athletes perform. I think a great location is one of the key elements for a great action picture, Holder said.

In the image (embedded below) Holder was able to capture the mirrored scene on the water surface as the full color-spectrum of the autumn leaves acts as a frame for the image.

Category: Masterpiece Athlete: Senad Grosic Location: Gablenz, Germany

Image: Lorenz Holder/Red Bull Illume

The winning images represent the best from the world of action and adventure sports photography. The contest, celebrating its 10-year anniversary, attracted photographers from 120 countries who submitted 34,624 images.

The winning photographers images will be unveiled in Wrigley Square in Chicago as the first stop of the Red Bull Illume Exhibit Tour a nighttime photo exhibition where the photos will be illuminated on 2x2m lightboxes. The Wrigley Square exhibit is free and open to the public every night until Oct. 9.

Following the two-week exhibition in Chicago, Red Bull Illume will travel to its next world tour stop Toronto, Canada. The exhibition will be open to the public at Torontos Union Station from Nov. 18-27.

Category: Playground Athlete: Conny Mirbach Location: Riem, Germany

Image: Lorenz Holder/RED BULL ILLUME

Category: Enhance Athletes: Arthur Longo, Gjermund Braaten and Ludwig Biltoft Location: Kitzsteinhorn, Austria

Image: Markus Rohrbacher/RED BULL ILLUME

Category: Playground Athlete: Senad Grosic Location: Senftenberg, Germany

Image: Lorenz Holder/RED BULL ILLUME

Category: New Creativity Athlete: Cedric Romanens Location: Laax, Switzerland

Image: Lorenz Holder/RED BULL ILLUME

Category: Spirit Athlete: Pete Takeda Location: Hildale, Utah

Image: Greg Mionske/RED BULL ILLUME

Category: Enhance Athlete: Jonathan Paredes Location: Copenhagen, Denmark

Image: Dean Treml/RED BULL ILLUME

Category: Sequence Athletes: Miroslav Krejci, Jan Rudzinskyj, Stanislav Cejka and Jan Tvrdik Location: Jaromer, Czech Republic

Image: Daniel Vojtech/RED BULL ILLUME

Category: Wings Athlete: Jamie Smith Location: Cape Town, South Africa

Image: Micky Wiswedel /RED BULL ILLUME

Category: New Creativity Athlete: Aaron Chase Location: Brooklyn, New York

Image: Ale Di Lullo/RED BULL ILLUME

Category: Mobile Location: Hakuba, Japan

Image: Vegard Aasen/RED BULL ILLUME

Category: Masterpiece Athlete: Max Horn Location: Murnauer Moos, Germany

Image: Lorenz Holder/RED BULL ILLUME

Category: New Creativity Athlete: Rahel Schelb Location: Iceland

Image: Tim Kemple/RED BULL ILLUME

Category: Lifestyle Athlete: Ken MacDonald Location: Choum, Mauritania

Image: Jody MacDonald/RED BULL ILLUME

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15+ Pics That Show Photography Is The Biggest Lie Ever

15+ Pics That Show Photography Is The Biggest Lie Ever

The internet is full of beautiful and amazing photographs, but do you ever stop and wonder just what went into that perfect shot? I’m not just talking about the digital manipulation side of the process, although there’s certainly plenty of that involved. No, I’m talking about the physical hard work combined with the often super-creative approaches that photographers employ in order to ensure that their final shot is the very best it can be.

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Take a look at these behind-the-scenes pictures to see what we mean. Compiled by Bored Panda, they’re sure to give the budding photographer some fresh ideas while giving the rest of us an enlightening glimpse into the reality that hides behind many a perfect picture.

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Louder than a bomb: 40 years of hip-hop photography in pictures

Louder than a bomb: 40 years of hip-hop photography in pictures

A new photography book, Hip-Hop Raised Me, chronicles the rise of rap as it spilled from the US to the world featuring the likes of Eminem, Notorious BIG and Lauryn Hill

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