A Handful of Dust: from the Cosmic to the Domestic
The Whitechapel Gallery’s summer exhibition is an intriguing investigation into the influence Man Ray’s photograph from 1920 that became known as Dust Breeding. The image is a classic example of how photography can play with context and be both abstract and figurative. The act of framing or isolating a subject, removing context and creating a new one using the lens as tool to edit the world illustrates how a powerful narrative can be created and conveyed using this photographic characteristic. Man Ray’s image helped to define this new aspect of photographic visual language and the Whitechapel show connects this idea through a wide range of work from the mid 20th century to date.
In fact Man Ray did not want to photograph other artists work, he stated that a document of an artwork was creative cheating; however the offer of a fee was a mighty persuasion to the often impecunious photographer. So as practise for another commission Man Ray headed to friend and co surrealist Marcel Duchamp and his New York studio to photograph the glass sculpture The Bride Striped Bare by Her Bachelors. On arrival he found the piece had been left for some while literally gathering dust. He set the camera up to make a close up using an oblique angle under a single light bulb, opened the shutter and retired to a nearby hostelry for dinner with Duchamp! An hour or so later and this innocent act of recording had produced an image that would describe not just Duchamp’s work but a new language for photography. In an irony overlooked at the time, by photographing and interpreting other artists’ work Man Ray was following Duchamp’s ideology of the Readymade. The image was visually ambiguous; was an aerial photograph, was it a map, was it a close up detail shot of a machine. This was a first example of the use of an ambiguous photograph to create a new reality. Although initial response to the image was limited it was increasingly published in books and magazines over the next decades and thus acquired its iconic status. This exhibition looks at connections and influences that have sprung out of Dust Breeding not just within photography also print, painting and 3D. Historic and contemporary content includes conflict, aerial, forensic, close up, extreme angles and viewpoints, landscape, documentary and scientific photography. The show includes work by Steiglitz, Stichen, Atget, Brassai, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Edgerton, Klien, Jeff Wall, Luc Delahaye, Simon Norfolk, as well as artists Rauschenberg, Richter and Rusha amongst others. Also work from unidentified photographers; sets of 1930s American dust bowl image postcards and especially moving work from the nuclear aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Contemporary inclusion of digitally created moving image of desert sand storms are mesmeric and give an impression of approaching danger. This eclectic show identifies how the visual language of photography developed from the early decades of the 20th century into the all-encompassing means of communicating and personal response that it is today. A recommended thought provoking show that is well curated, it closes on September 3rd.