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From Print Edition Web Exclusive: Letter from London

Wandering through Belgrade in late June, I had little hope of actually finding the two contemporary photography shows I had spied listings for. While the city has a discernible order, my flimsy tourist map with Latin spelling held little resemblance to the ubiquitous Cyrillic street signs around me. Thus, it was with surprise and delight that, while searching out a restaurant three hours prior to departure, I came across a sign for the photographs of Tijana Pakić. The show filled a bright gallery connected to a centre housing a café, a bookshop, internet terminals, and notice boards littered with postings for international music, art, and cultural connections. The images are similarly diverse—people, buildings, still lifes—yet while the centre reaches out to pull the rest of the world closer, Pakić’s photographs are intensely focused on the local.
The pictures are uniformly framed and evenly hung at eye-level. Pakić’s tendency to capture people in their homes—in the lamplight smoking a cigarette, around a crowded table, lying on the floor—sets the tone for a repertoire based on the people and places she knows. Titles such as “Isidora,” “Lunch,” or “Night View from My Window” enhance the sense of a truthful representation of her quotidian world, yet this rote presentation does not belie the intimacy inherent in the collection. Her's is not a distanced, insouciant snap of her surroundings, but rather a thoughtful, poetic contemplation. At their best, as in “Miljana,” the images assume a sort of tragic beauty. Here, a blond 20-something year old with a rough hewed haircut and layered jackets is caught text messaging. She is illuminated by the yellow glow of streetlights and set against cold and dingy concrete, graffitied walls lit in the background. At their worst, the pictures feel sentimental and contrived. In “Isidora 2,” a small girl stands at the crossroads of two wide sidewalks. Her head is down, she is alone, and the checker-block of concrete and grubby shrubs and grass tell us to feel cold, depressed, and unsure. Bereft of the suggestive ambiance present in other images, it is empty and unconvincing.

I came to see Pakić’s photographs on a trip away from London where this summer, museum exhibition equals photography exhibition. Wolfgang Tillmans has his first retrospective at the Tate Britain where the show is grouped thematically and hung in his trademark style of irregularly sized images in clustered groupings. Large areas of blank white walls mix with densely packed corners and solitary 4 by 6 inch shots of Tillmans’s friends and their lives. Occasionally the placement feels forced, but for the most part the rhythmic hanging nurtures a palpable beat that courses through the show. It culminates in a large-scale video installation “Lights (Body)” (2000-2), the subject of which is a spot-light moving in tempo to the heavy bass of a dance club mix. While the context makes the work feel a bit prescriptive (as in, these photographs are about capturing the light and movement of the everyday), the presence of sound throughout the galleries enlivens the two-dimensional images. Certainly, Tillmans’s work defines an aesthetic of the 1990s and the homogeneity of styles and subjects shows a remarkably decisive sureness that is reflected in their consistently high quality.

In the East End, Philip-Lorca diCorcia is at Whitechapel where “Two Hours”, a 1999 series of Cuban streets shots taken from a secretly positioned camera in Havana, are shown next to the 20-year ongoing project, A Storybook Life. In this, diCorcia’s images—posed and not—invite narration of evolving personal dramas. Uniformly framed, evenly hung, and identically sized, they move like a linear slide show around the room. If Tillmans’s message is that anything is worth photographing, diCorcia, much like a good short-story writer, proves that anything can be made into a potential drama. Likewise, in West London, the grand-dame of staged drama herself holds sway in a pared down retrospective at the Serpentine. The doors to Cindy Sherman’s exhibition open onto her new phosphorescent, digitally manipulated Clown series from 2003. While some are just plain boring, two capture the creepy, psychedelic terror of the circus, and catapult the viewer into a place where Sherman all but disappears.

The exhibitions are a cacophonous bunch, an exciting reminder of the diversity and breadth of the photographic vision. They are also, Gurskys aside, a testament to the human desire to see ourselves and our worlds reproduced on a personal scale. The last few years have witnessed a swell in images that are overblown in size, surgically rendered, and powerfully distant. Moreover, such antiseptic touch, while cool and rarefied, has become increasingly ubiquitous and interchangeable, and I am pressed to tell the difference between Candida Höfer (whose interiors currently occupy the German Pavilion in Venice) and her Germanic (of origin and influence) compatriots. What Pakić’s emerging work speaks to, like much currently on display in London, is the desire for personal, idiosyncratic images. And this is a welcome return.


Katie Stone


The Brooklyn Rail


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