Documentary photography on show

Phil Coomes
Picture editor

image copyrightRaghubir Singh
image captionRaghubir Singh, Pilgrim and Ambassador, Prayag, Uttar Pradesh, 1977

It could be argued the photography came of age in the swinging 60s. The men and women behind the cameras became household names and amateur photographers enjoyed access to affordable high quality cameras and film.

This photographic prosperity progressed into the next decade as photographers pushed the boundaries and began to explore new methods of working, and news photographers were able to document a world re-shaping itself at the height of the Cold War.

A new exhibition at the Barbican in London, Everything was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s explores the shifting political and social landscape of that time through the work of a number of photographers.

The exhibition is a must see for anyone remotely interested in documentary photography with large bodies of work from photographers like Bruce Davidson, David Goldblatt, Li Zhensheng, Ernest Cole and Raghubir Singh.

image copyrightDavid Goldblatt
image captionDavid Goldblatt, Saturday morning at the Hypermarket: Semi-final of the Miss Lovely Legs competition, 1979-1980 (Courtesy of the photographer and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg)

Many of these photographer worked alone, some in secrecy, on projects exploring society through complex imagery. "It's a show about photography's unique relationship to the world, to real events and real experience," says Kate Bush, Head of Art Galleries at the Barbican.

The work on show spans the globe and some will be familiar to anyone who has an interest in the medium, but there are also those which are in the UK for the first time and some which have only recently been discovered.

This is documentary photography in the raw, and you just can't beat it. Strong stories from moments of upheaval, taken by photographers with a view and a voice and the skill to ensure that aesthetics remained core. Every frame resonates with a desire for change. Sure, photography may not alter the world but it can kick-start a new way of seeing.

As Bruce Davidson notes: "I'm not trying to tell a story as such, but to work around a subject intuitively, exploring different vantage points, looking for its emotional truth. If I am looking for a story at all, it's in my relationship to a subject."

Beyond the politics on show there is the sheer beauty of the prints to behold, especially those of William Eggleston and Larry Burrows whose prints from Vietnam are what Kodachrome was made for.

Physics may tell us that photography should simply be a record of what can be seen, yet these artists show that it can be so much more when in the right hands, often revealing that which cannot be seen. Of course sometime it can also simply be art, though the lines may blur with time.

image copyrightBoris Mikhailov
image captionBoris Mikhailov, Yesterday's Sandwich/Superimpositions, Late 1960s - 70s (Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin © Boris Mikhailov, DACS 2012)
image copyrightBruce Davidson
image captionBruce Davidson, Black Americans, New York City. From the series New York (Life), 1961-65. (© Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos)
image copyrightGraciela Iturbide
image captionGraciela Iturbide, Angel Woman, Sonora Desert, 1979
image copyrightMalick Sidibé
image captionMalick Sidibe, A Ye-ye posing,1963 (© Malick Sidibé. Courtesy Fifty One Fine Art Photography, Antwerp)
image copyrightShomei Tomatsu
image captionShomei Tomatsu, Coca-cola, Tokyo, 1969 (Courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery and Nagoya City Art Museum)
image copyrightErnest Cole
image captionErnest Cole, Pensive tribesmen, newly recruited to mine labour, awaiting processing and assignment. From House of Bondage, 1960-1966. (© The Ernest Cole Family Trust, Courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation, Gothenburg, Sweden)
image copyrightLarry Burrows
image captionLarry Burrows, Khe Sanh, April 1968 (© 2002 Larry Burrows Collection)
image copyrightLi Zhensheng
image captionLi Zhensheng, Several hundred thousand Red Guards attend a "Learning and Applying Mao Zedong Thought" rally in Red Guard Square (formerly People's Stadium), Harbin, Heilongjiang province, 13 September 1966 (© Li Zhensheng. Courtesy Contact Press Images)

Everything was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s can be seen at the Barbican until 13 January 2013.