Malick Sidibé, 'A Yé-yé posing', 1963.
Boris Mikhailov, Plate No. 48, 'Yesterday’s Sandwich', late 60s-late 70s.
‘Everything Was Moving – Photography from the 60s and 70s’. When we saw the main visual of the exhibition, which shows a stylish young boy with a cigarette in his hand, wearing bell-bottom trousers, a shirt with patterns and round sunglasses – a real concentrate of retro coolness – we didn’t expect the photographs to be as deeply linked as they are to history. We mean, History with a capital H: each one of the twelve photographers delivered a very concrete impression of crucial political events and social movements that happened at a certain time, in a certain space.
Geography is the element that organises the images: from the lower level, where we are in South Africa and the Americas, we travel upstairs to USSR, Asia and West Africa. It seems that the first part of the exhibition is more about links and continuity, as we have the opportunity to go directly from one space to another. Ernest Cole, David Goldblatt, Bruce Davidson and William Eggleston, and finally Graciela Iturbide’s works are notably dealing with representations of colonialism, apartheid, racism and segregation.
In the upper level, we discover eight independent spaces – by which should we begin? With Boris Mikhailov, Shomei Tomatsu, Larry Burrows, Li Zhensheng, Malick Sidibé, Raghubir Singh and Sigmar Polke, we explore very different worlds. We go from the reportage photographs by Larry Burrows which document the Vietnam war in a striking realistic way to the very creative vision of Boris Mikhailov, who ‘lost his job as a mechanical engineer after the KGB found pictures of his naked wife’. Here’s an interesting excerpt from ‘Yesterday’s Sandwich’ – that’s how he entitled his very first series of images, also called ‘Superimpositions’:
‘I like to tell people about my conversation with Serguei Morozov, a well-known official of the period, whose job it was to censor photographs. The minute he saw the ‘Sandwich’ images, he exclaimed ‘Oh no! It’s horrendous!’ I replied that the horrendous also has its place in art. Morozov was silent for a moment, then he declared: ‘This stuff will be exhibited over my dead body!’ In fact, ‘Sandwich’ was never shown officially during the Soviet regime.‘
If we had to remember just one thing about this exhibition, it would be the way Mikhailov handled though his camera the notions of the ugly, the beautiful and the kitsch in such a restricted and conventional time, when it was only possible to show positive and harmonious things, which would convey the idea of a pleasant, perfect life.
‘Everything Was Moving’: we understood and deeply felt both meanings of this title, applied to ‘personal landscape’ photographs. For a brief moment, we were the privileged witnesses of decisive instants that impacted a city, a country or the whole world forever. Even when you know what happened, photographs are still magical in a way: they have the power to create almost an intimate space between the subjects of an image, the photographer and the viewer. We took a plunge into something we wouldn’t normally have had the chance to seize in such a realistic and sometimes artistic way.
‘Everything Was Moving’, Barbican Centre, London, until January 13.