From Elton John’s ravishing collection to the early days of Diane Arbus and the beautiful worlds of Paul Strand, here are the 10 best photography shows of 2016.
No 1 Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
British galleries have been moving away from the idea of exhibitions devoted to a single photographer, in favour of elaborate themed shows. As a result, several important shows that have travelled from the US to Europe (such as Garry Winogrand and Robert Adams in Paris, and William Gedney in Madrid) have not reached the UK.
In March, however, the V&A unveiled this intriguingly titled show, a wonderful retrospective of an American master. It was a thoughtful, questioning journey into Strand’s work, from his early landscapes of New Mexico to his modernist New York studies of the 1930s and his later, more political documentary projects.
Strand was a taciturn individual, and approached each undertaking, whether the concrete canyons of 1930s Wall Street or peasant life in 1950s rural Italy, with deep attentiveness and a quiet intensity. His vintage prints, particularly those made in Luzzara and the Outer Hebrides, carry a charge that demands similar engagement from the viewer. They have a presence that renders them art objects rather than simply prints on a wall.
The show moved through his long working life, paying attention to his radical film-making and the politics that underpinned and fuelled much of his work. Ultimately, though, it was a homage to a still relatively undervalued artist. In some ways, then, this was an old-fashioned show in an age of curatorial grandstanding – but all the more powerful and rewarding for that. Read more
No 2 Provoke: Between Protest and Performance (Photography in Japan 1960-75)
Le Bal, Paris
Provoke magazine published just three issues at the end of the 1960s, but the influence of the iconoclastic artistic movement that produced it was later likened to “a time bomb” by the Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. Le Bal’s show recreated the raw energy of that seismic moment: the political and social ferment of the time echoed through every work, in the use of grain and blur and constant movement. A vibrant show that evoked a still resonating moment in postwar Japanese photography.
NO 3 Gregory Halpern
Webber Represents, London
A small but important exhibition for a rising star of American post-documentary, whose vivid images of Los Angeles and its environs sit somewhere between heightened – almost hallucinatory – observation and portraiture, capturing the sense of anxiety that haunts certain David Lynch films. Part of a five-year-long project, ZZYZX, the photographs trace Halpern’s journey west across the deserts of California towards the city and the coast. The result is a California of the mind.
no 4 Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s
The Photographers’ Gallery, London
A timely show, ending in January, that harks back to an era of true radicalism in the arts. Gathering still-resonant works by Martha Rosler, Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman, as well as the brilliantly disturbing Birgit Jürgenssen, and merging photography, performance, film and collage, this show is provocative from start to finish. At a time when protest has been all but replaced by process in an art world mesmerised by the market, this may have you wondering about the startling complacency of today’s so-called avant garde. Open until 29 January.
no 5 Eamonn Doyle: End
Les Rencontres d’Arles, France
The most-talked about show at the Arles photography festival was this radically staged installation, which presented Doyle’s vivid Dublin street portraits in a maze-like room complete with abstract drawings and a suitably ambient electronic soundtrack. Some images towered above the viewer, taking up a whole wall. Others were arranged in grids, others still glimpsed in cracks and gaps in the walls. The effect was overwhelming, with the tilted angles and skewed points of view evoking and heightening the ebb and flow of his native north Dublin. Beckett is an abiding influence, but this seemed altogether Joycean in its intimacy and intensity.
no 6 The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Elton John Collection
Tate Modern, London
Billed as “a once in a lifetime chance to see one of the world’s greatest private collections of photography”, this still-running show is exactly that: more than 150 vintage prints by the likes of Man Ray, Brassaï, Rodchenko and Kertész. Elton, though, has an eye for the overlooked as well as the classic. The highlight for me was the wealth of beautiful prints by such lesser-known artists as George Platt Lynes, Rudolf Koppitz and Ilse Bing. Another surprise is the framing, which forgoes the usual black for gold and silver. Very Elton. Open until 6 May.
no 7 Diane Arbus: In the Beginning
Met Breuer, New York
This revealing show tracked the early years of one of the most controversial photographers of the 20th century, before she began producing the often disturbing images that made her name. Just over 100 photographs, presented on pillars and in near darkness, traced her emerging style, from a beautifully grainy image of a newspaper floating on a New York street, to arresting portraits made in Times Square and Coney Island that show her beginning to break with the idea of detached observation.
no 8 The Image As Question
Michael Hoppen Gallery, London
An exhibition that explored the photograph as proof at a time when the uses of photography in art and on social media directly challenge or subvert that suddenly old-fashioned notion. Michael Hoppen, a passionate believer in photography as an art form, gathered the graphic (Weegee, Metinides) and the chillingly evocative (Simon Norfolk’s haunting study of the stairs at Auschwitz) alongside the functional (shots of men wrestling used by Francis Bacon for his paintings). A challenging but rewarding journey into the mystery of photography.
no 9 Performing for the Camera
Tate Modern, London
The idea behind the title is as old as photography itself, as shown by the elaborate tableaux created by the likes of F Holland Day, who posed himself as Christ. It echoes through the medium, from Victorian self-portraiture to the dawn of the selfie, from the conceptual role-playing of Cindy Sherman to the erotic provocations of Nobuyoshi Araki.
no 10 William Eggleston: Portraits
National Portrait Gallery, London
We know Eggleston as a supreme colourist and master of the everyday, but this show homed in on his often mysterious portraits. It was a small but intriguing new take that benefited from extended captions, in which the normally reticent artist talked about the circumstances behind the photographs. For Eggleston buffs, it was a chance to look anew at iconic images of his family, social circle and often dissolute Memphis friends, including the rock singer Alex Chilton.
Report by Sean O’Hagan for The Guardian