Andrew Lambirth

Candid camera | 28 May 2011

When the photographer Ida Kar (1908–74) was given an exhibition of more than 100 of her works at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1960, history was made.

When the photographer Ida Kar (1908–74) was given an exhibition of more than 100 of her works at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1960, history was made.

When the photographer Ida Kar (1908–74) was given an exhibition of more than 100 of her works at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1960, history was made. She was the first photographer to be given such an honour — a substantial solo show in a public gallery — and the presentation of her photographs was carefully considered. This set a precedent for subsequent photography exhibitions and brought the question of whether photography is art firmly to the forefront of debate.

The person responsible for all this was the dynamic and innovative director of the Whitechapel, Bryan Robertson. Which makes it all the more bizarre that there is no photograph of Robertson in the current celebration of Ida Kar’s magnificent photos at the National Portrait Gallery. She certainly took his portrait, but it is not included here — along with several other significant omissions: the brilliant shot of Craigie Aitchison, for starters, and good photos of Gillian Ayres, Victor Pasmore, William Scott and Roger Hilton, among others.

However questionable the selection, the exhibition does give something of the distinctive flavour of Kar’s vision. An Armenian, she was born in Russia, moved to Egypt in 1921, studied in Paris in the late 1920s, and set up her first photographic studio in Cairo in the late 1930s. In 1944 she met the charismatic Victor Musgrave and came to London, where he started an avant-garde art gallery. Her cosmopolitan background undoubtedly made her responsive to artists from Soho to St Ives, and she developed an ability to capture them in revealing pose or context. (The telling informality of her work would seem to have been an inspiration to Snowdon.)

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