In Berlin, Conrads brings together works by Stephen Shore, Boris Mikhailov, Thomas Struth, Beat Streuli, Rosemary Laing and Anastasia Samoylova. Through the prism of urban planning, this selection confronts photographic practices and points of view to offer different readings of the contemporary world.
In the 1970s, Stephen Shore was one of the forerunners of color, one of the first to hit the road to tell the story of the United States through his famously modest gaze. The result is hundreds of images compiled in Uncommon Places, constituting today the beating heart of his work, itself largely the founder of contemporary photography. Corners of quasi-desert towns are elbow to elbow with the roads where Cadillacs, Plymouths and other Dodges jostle. The exhibition reveals unpublished shots captured by the young Shore between 1973 and 1978, ignored places to which he always breathes the same singular spatial depth. From Texas to Ohio via New Mexico, a new urban way of life is appearing and inaugurating a new era, that of capitalism, driven by advertising, which delicately intrudes into the urban landscape, and the financial interest which s seizes consciences. In these compositions by the American photographer, silence floods and embraces a daylight that alternately plays with these facades and these colorful advertising posters. The immaculate sky that can fade at any time, as in this photograph taken in Montana, then resounds like the subtle threat that weighs on the times to come.
A few decades later, on the other side of the globe, the world is rocking. Boris Mikhailov’s photos document the repercussions of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the brutality with which the global paradigm shift took place in Ukraine. The juxtaposition of his fundamental series for social photography – Salt Lake and Case History – appears to bear witness to this transition. Salt Lake is located on the eve of the breakup of the USSR, in Sloviansk, near the hometown of Mikhailov’s father. The women and men who bathe in this salty lake, which lends it healing properties, are unaware that the factory in the background discharges its wastewater into it. These monochrome images then take a completely different turn and appear as the social satire of a time lulled by innocence and already inaugurating fertile ground for injustice. Injustice and misery are what Case History embodies, ten years later. In this landmark series, the Ukrainian photographer sheds light on those left behind by the failure of communism in his native village of Kharkov, at the end of the 1990s. Among the hundreds of images with a thick anthropological content, the gallery presents moving double portraits of these people who have sunk overnight into poverty, abandoned by the social system, abandoned to the streets. Raw images that poetically describe the terrible living conditions of the post-communist era in Ukraine; Mikhailov immortalizes everything and everyone: those infused with alcohol, children left to their own devices and who have not smoked their first cigarette, bodies battered by poverty… Shocking and tragic, the committed approach of the Ukrainian artist appears as the bitter aftertaste of the victory of the West.
A view of Shanghai captured by German photographer Thomas Struth in 1999 also joins the selection. Cities are the central theme of this figure from the Düsseldorf school, who captures his urban subjects with the same meticulousness. The man who started out in black and white later translates his curiosity towards cultures shaped by ideologies into color. And this is what brought him to China, where he stayed four times with a study group between the 90s and 2000s. Its streets, its museums, its inhabitants… Struth retraces the steps of the History of this country and the forces that are forging it in the present. A symmetrical urban landscape of Shanghai teeming with details: the lines of cables and scaffolding become entangled, the signs suddenly seem to come out of the walls, motorists, two-wheelers and pedestrians move in opposite directions… Despite this, Struth manages to make these details the reading elements of a complex image.
Back to the West at the dawn of the 2000s with a print by Swiss artist Beat Streuli, from his 8th Avenue / 35th Street series produced in the United States in 2002, which testifies to a consistency in his way of photographing . This large format is modeled on the dimensions of the advertisements that flood the cities. The challenge sought is to reverse the relationship between advertising and the passers-by for whom it is intended to highlight the power of the essential character of these images plastered in our cities and the danger they can entail. The photograph appears as the instantaneous realization of our gaze and this woman who stands out from the blurry crowd, the effect of her focusing. Streuli, by observing passers-by interacting with the urban space, restores an identity to those whom society makes invisible.
In 2010, Australian photographer Rosemary Laing produced a powerful series called Leaks aimed at raising awareness of the threat of suburban development in Australia. To do this, Lang herself builds her images engaged in reality with the same approach: she plants upside down – literally – in a pastoral setting still untouched by human hands, the wooden framework typical of traditional Australian houses. The multiple artist, who does not perform any retouching work, only takes eight unique takes of each of his installations, reflecting extraordinary patience and precision. The result are images that hold architectural strength in themselves, thanks in particular to a fine mastery of the codes of photography and a statement that particularly resonates at a time when this threat to rural areas is a global concern.
Finally, the works of Anastasia Samoylova, taken from a larger and ongoing work carried out in the metropolises of the West and the East, explore the relationship between the photographic image and the urban space. Clichés that look like collages that reveal to what extent the omnipresence of advertising makes walls the supports of capitalist propaganda. The image on a large tarpaulin of a couple entwined in a huge swimming pool to announce the construction of the Normandy Shores is instantly shattered by the sight of the construction worker: Samoylova thinks of her compositions in trompe l’oeil to oppose a vision fantasized from society to the disappointments of everyday city life. With her intensely aesthetic photographs, the Russian-born artist born in 1984 seems to be following in the footsteps of her predecessors to, in turn, recount the major concerns and the macabre cogs of her century.
Noémie de Bellaigue
Urbanism at the Galerie Conrads, until May 20, 2023.