The End of One Year and the Beginning of Another: Brett Rogers on the Best Photography of 2012

Maxwell R. Hayes, Duk-duk Members, 1964. © Archive of Modern Conflict

Maxwell R. Hayes, Duk-duk Members, 1964. © Archive of Modern Conflict

Just as you were recovering from the onslaught of reviews highlighting the “Best of 2012” and forecasting what to look forward to in 2013, here is my own assessment of what I felt were the most outstanding shows during 2012.

A caveat – it is notoriously difficult to cover everything that deserves to be included in a review of this brevity – and impossible to see the full range of exhibitions not just within the UK, but also abroad, so it is by necessity partial.

Geoffrey Farmer’s Leaves of Grass at dOCUMENTA(13) redefined what 3D photographic collage could mean in his extraordinary installation displayed to dramatic effect in the 32-metre loggia of the Neue Galerie, Kassel. Having decided to work with the full archive of LIFE magazine (1935-85), who would have ever imagined such an amazing creation using 16,000 images. The work addressed such a wide range of concerns: juxtaposing images of celebrity with hard political issues; referencing the history of photography in print; the evolution of photography from grainy monochrome to muted colour; the uneasy coexistence of advertising and editorial and the mass circulation of images in the pre-digital age. One could clearly go on.

Joel Sternfeld’s retrospective at CO Berlin (initiated and organized by Ute Eskilsden at the Folkwang Museum) was a significant milestone in my understanding of the photographer’s work, as it not only returned to early work I had never seen – in which his mastery for colour and detail was already apparent – but ended with recent work which addresses issues of environmental change, for the photographer personally and indeed politically. At his talk in Berlin, Sternfeld spoke for the first time about his childhood and how recent events including Cyclone Sandy, had devastated the seaside area where he grew up in New York.


Robert Frank, Daytona Beach, Florida, 1958 ©Archive of Modern Conflict

Robert Frank, Daytona Beach, Florida, 1958. © Archive of Modern Conflict

The Archive of Modern Conflict’s stand (pictured above) at Paris Photo was without doubt one of the highlights of 2012. Timothy Prus’s ingeniously curated display of works from AMC’s vast repository of images, gave us just a small insight into the diversity and richness of this hidden archive housed in Holland Park, London. Until we get the chance to see more, I would recommend looking at the extraordinary magazines AMC have been producing (now up to issue 3).  A second offsite highlight of Paris Photo 2012 was Body Language, works from the collection of Fotomuseum Winterthur at Centre Culturel Suisse. This intriguing show by an impressive array of European artists, centered around a theme which continues to preoccupy and provoke much powerful work today.

Within a completely different framework, I was especially struck by the Cairo: Open Testimonies show curated by Museum fur Phographie Braunschweig and shown as part of the Berlin Photography Festival in November.  The exhibition brought blogposts and anonymous iPhone images from participants within the Cairo Spring together with Magnum photojournalists as well as Egyptian photographers Lara Baladi and Heba Farid. It was an experimental exhibition in the sense that it did not attempt to represent a finished process, but rather utilize the openness of the current political developments as a formal principle. The project recreated through word and image some of the texture, emotional fervour and tangible danger of this politically fraught period.

Back in London, by far and away the best exhibition to address the visceral power of the photographic image during less recent periods of civil unrest (here focusing on the 1960s and 70s) was Everything was Moving at the Barbican. New names such as Ernest Cole were brought out of obscurity and juxtaposed with well-known figures Eggleston, Polke, Mikhailov and Goldblatt to demonstrate the power of photography to reflect key historical moments, focusing mostly on events from beyond the usual Eurocentric orbit.


©Lucas Foglia, Acorn with Possum Stew, Wildroots Homestead, North Carolina. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Contemporary.

LucasFoglia_Andrew and Taurin Drinking Raw Goat’s Milk, Tennessee, 2009, Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Contemporary

©Lucas Foglia, Andrew and Taurin Drinking Raw Goat’s Milk, Tennessee, 2009. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Contemporary.

The gifted young Yale graduate Lucas Foglia who was showcased at Arles in summer 2012 had a chance to present his acclaimed series A Natural Order at Michael Hoppen Gallery, London later in the year. Michael also celebrated his 20th anniversary with an anniversary show and book Finders Keepers, in which he speaks passionately and frankly about what photography means to him.

James Reid’s eclectic selection of current work by European and American photographers for the summer show There’s Something Happenning Here at Brancolini Grimaldi, London provided a refreshing change to most summer exhibitions and introduced some excellent new names – most notably Jessica Eaton, Rachel Bee Porter and Asger Carlsen.

My post next month will focus on what we can all look forward to this year.

Brett Rogers, Director, The Photographers’ Gallery

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