Bryan Appleyard

Ways of seeing

In Tate Modern’s new photography show, The Radical Eye, modernism battles it out against realism – and realism wins

‘Radical’ is like ‘creative’, a word that has been enfeebled to the point of meaninglessness. Everybody seems to want to be both, but nobody has any clear idea of what might be involved. In the case of this exhibition, radical could refer either to aesthetic or political themes; neither seems quite right.

Never mind, ’modernist’ has, with the passage of time, become more firmly anchored. We now know it was a movement in the arts that began in about the 1880s and ended in, very roughly, the 1950s or ’60s. It was a period in which art became preoccupied with form as a determinant — rather than the servant — of content.

In the context of photography, the modernist impulse was best summed up by the New York street snapper Garry Winogrand: ‘Photography,’ he said, ‘is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed.’ The form — lens, film, post-processing — produced not a simulacrum of reality, but, rather, an entirely new version.

To talk of modernist photography, therefore, makes sense. When the technology was first created in the 1830s it was immediately identified as a way of faithfully reproducing reality. As this seemed to usurp the art of painting, it tended to drive painters towards less literal methods — hence impressionism, expressionism, surrealism, modernism etc. Even today, David Hockney wages a painted war on the camera’s one-eyed perspective.

So when photography embraced modernism in what the curators of this show call ‘the classic modernist period of the 1920–50s’, it did so with a form of painting envy. Artists with brushes were proving themselves closer to the cutting edge of the contemporary and what had been a new technology was in danger of being outdated.

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