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The camera’s self-portrait

The camera’s self-portrait

Photographers have a complicated bond with their cameras. A new show in London puts this relationship in the frame

Photographers have a complicated bond with their cameras. A new show in London puts this relationship in the frame

Simon Willis | August 9th 2016

In 1982, the great Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain wrote to his nephew with some advice on taking pictures. He told him to go out and seek adventure, “like a boat with all sails hoisted”. He told him to edit his pictures ruthlessly, keeping only the very best. But the most important thing, he said, “is to have a camera that you like…you have to be happy with what you are holding in your hands.”

The relationship between photographers and their cameras is the subject of a new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, “The Camera Exposed”. It comprises more than 120 photographs taken between the mid-19th century and today, all with one thing in common: they have cameras in them. It contains many of the most famous names in photography, the notoriety divided between people and machines. There are pictures by Eve Arnold, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Weegee; and there are pictures by Kodak, Leica and Rolleiflex.

On the face of it, this might be a subject for photography buffs: after all, what makes a photographer interesting isn’t their camera but what they did with it. But what emerges from the exhibition is a complicated bond. In one picture, an elderly Paul Strand carries a large box camera in his arms, holding it like an infant jealously guarded. In another Eve Arnold (above) photographs herself in a distorting mirror, her figure and those on the street around her blurred and elongated. It’s a self-portrait that seems to take a wry look at the act of photographing, and how it can record the truth but also bend it out of shape. In fact the show examines not just the relationship between photographers and cameras, but also the guises that cameras have assumed.  

 

A self-defence 
In 1945, Bill Brandt went to a second-hand shop in London and bought a Kodak camera with a wide-angle lens that had once been used by the police at crime scenes. It became his favourite, and he used it take some of his most famous photos, including his nudes and beach scenes, where the human body looks geological and the geology looks human. Here, though, the camera seems less like a means of taking pictures and more like a means of self-defence. Clasping it with bony fingers, Brandt, an intensely private man, raises his sceptical eye above his contraption – or is it his parapet? 

 

A body part 
No picture in the show sums up the advice Larrain gave his nephew as well as this one, taken by Andreas Feininger in 1955. It shows the photojournalist Dennis Stock, holding his Leica III to his face. So happy is he with his camera that it’s as if it has become part of his body, a fusion of man and machine which looks like a robot from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”. So conjoined is the photographer to his camera that he no longer has to point and click, he can just look and blink. 

 

A voyeur’s accessory
The inspiration for this photograph, taken by Judy Dater in 1974, was a painting, “Persephone” by Thomas Hart Benton, which shows the naked goddess being spied on by a leering figure behind a tree, ready to steal her away to the underworld. Here the spy is the photographer Imogen Cunningham, who was 90 when it was shot and is known for her nudes. The camera round her neck, a Rolleiflex, is telling. You don’t bring it to your eye to take a picture, but hang it at chest height and operate it with a hand-held shutter button: your subject doesn’t always know you’re taking their picture. 

 

A weapon 
Richard Avedon was a master of the cool, insightful portrait, his subjects’ faces scrutinised against plain white backgrounds. But in this picture, staged in 1962, he looks at the frenzy of the paparazzi. The wall note at the V&A says he is “mocking” this kind of work, but it looks much darker to me: the strained look on the face of the model and actress Suzy Parker, the wolfish grin of the photographer forcing himself through the car window, the lens pointing at its prey. 

The Camera Exposed The Victoria & Albert Museum, London, until March 5th 2017

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