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Proper retrospectives

I’ve been now a couple of days in Helsinki (Finland). A great time with photographers, curators, gallerists, etc., but that’s another story. To stick to something specific, I think this is the first time I have seen a proper retrospective of the work of a living photographer.

Most often, when I see something classed as a ‘retrospective’ in the UK it tends to be a mishmash of the images of a photographer, without much sense, and sometimes just picking the ‘best of’. I’m only exagerating, but I bet that a google search would be revealing to the reader. What I saw at the Raakel Kuukka exhibition at the National Museum of Photography is completely unlike anything I’ve seen in the UK.

First of all, the space is enormous. The main gallery space of the museum must be in the order of hundreds and hundreds of square meters, like a warehouse. It indeed is located in what used to be a very large cable factory. This space is divided in different ways to accomodate each exhibition, and this time it has walls, corridors and so that divide it into maybe twelve or fifteen almost virtual rooms. Every series of work by Kuukka seems to be represented, and in full. There are literally hundreds of photographs in a dozen series, from very large prints from the change of the millennium in a series about Kuukka’s daughter, to traditional 16×20” silver halide prints from the 80′s, and everything in between. There are projections, multiple TV screens pumping short films, dimly lit new prints from Kuukka’s garden. For a naive visitor like me it is hard to conceive that I could be missing any remarkable piece of work. This is just insanely BIG and given time one can get to see the work’s development and the different ideas the author works with.

But where in the UK are the spaces that could give a photographer such a retrospective? Sean O’Hagan just wrote that Chris Steele Perkins is overdue a retrospective. Where is even big enough to hold thirty prints from The Teds,  twenty-odd prints from The Pleasure Principle, twenty big prints from Fuji, fifty or sixty prints each from Africa and Afghanistan, a few dozen more prints from England collected over the years, and a good set of current and early work that didn’t make it into a book?

“Perhaps I became a photographer, because I was so aware of the importance of the past. I also had a tendency to homesickness. Later on, photographing came to be associated with a desire to construct the script of my own life; photography was a way of investigating concepts of identity and I used photographs as a means of communication. I also tried to update rigid, stereotyped images of women and identities.” Raakel Kuukka

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    7 comments to Proper retrospectives

    • Interesting post Joni.

      It makes me think back to Arles. I really felt that there was no way the UK could put on anything like that. The best we can do is Hell On Wye literary festival which I thought was awful.

    • I think the only way to do it is to get a floor or two of the Baltic or the Tate or something. Also, what happens to photography collections and how are they restored? Are they kept in the V&A or does Bradford take them? Or is it pot luck? :o) In Finland the photography museum holds a collection of 3.5 million pieces or so…

    • Does the Finnish museum do anything in particular with the 3.5 million?

      I was in Helsinki for a couple of days in September, and walked over there. Most of the place was given over to this exhibition, which for me epitomized the most boring in “art” (let alone photography), and a smaller exhibition was entirely humdrum. (I know, it’s my fault.) The walk to and from the museum was worth it, though, because of the excellent bookshop, where I bought a couple of books and jotted down the ISBNs of several more.

      The museum does put on exhibitions that are excellent — or anyway that have catalogues that I very much want to buy. So while Finnish photography Art employing photographic media can be as tedious as that anywhere, its photography (Hölttö, Heikkilä,…) is as good as that anywhere.

      The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (“Syabi”) has the space for a proper Steele-Perkins retrospective. And he does spend quite a bit of time in Japan…. But despite exceptions, Syabi tends to go for the tired or modish.

      • Good question … I’ve always wondered about Museum hoarding. It just seems really daft.

      • Hi Microcord

        I was mostly trying to discuss the retrospectives on their own than the choice of who’s work you put up.

        They seem to use their collection quite a bit. Earlier on they had this one: in your face that covers quite a lot of ground. When I’ve been around some of the images in exhibitions seem to be drawn from the collection, and some are also made for them by the museum by creating new prints from old (and sometimes restored) negatives. Currently they have that with some 19th century commercial portraiture where you can see the faded originals and the speculative reproductions of what they would have looked like.

        I think it would be hoarding if other institutions didn’t have access to it and weren’t able to put any of it up :o)

    • Yes, JKaranka, I know that the point was a comparison of exhibition spaces. Sorry for the digression. It’s just that I was struck by the contrast between (a) what [I thought] was best in Finnish photography and (b) the stuff that the museum often chooses to highlight.

      It’s an extraordinary building, and I’d guess that the museum is doing excellent work. Its big book of portraits by Ismo Hölttö — I’d say “giant”, but Hölttö’s own book still dwarfs it — is superbly done yet somehow priced as if it had instead been published by Taschen — it’s worth anybody’s money. (And as for what I fail to appreciate, I don’t have a Masters in Fine Art and this may well explain why my sensibilities are not sufficiently refined for “photographic works, unique paper cut-outs, needle punctures and embroidery. Object assemblages installed between the picture collages by the artist herself create their own narrative” etc etc.)