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The Lives of the Great Photographers, review

Paul Clarke looks at life through a lens at the National Media Museum

Published on May 4th 2011.


The Lives of the Great Photographers, review

THE remorseless rise of digital cameras has made all of us photographers now, but this exhibition of the truly great snappers is a reminder that new technology is no substitute for genuine talent.

The Lives of the Great Photographers is a ram-raid on the Media Museum’s extensive and diverse archive, from the early pioneers who turned photography into an art form to the social realists of the late twentieth century.

The exhibition route follows a rough chronology of the development of the art form itself, starting with early pioneers in the nineteenth century like William Henry Fox Talbot, Alfred Stieglitz and Fay Godwin’s still powerful landscapes.

"The Media Museum has really raised its game recently and this well thought out exhibition featuring some of the most iconic photographs ever taken is exactly the sort of attraction that will keep punters coming through the doors"

Over time, photographers moved away from picture box landscapes and started to capture the reality of the world around them. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s stark image of a Gestapo collaborator being smacked by an irate patriot after the end of World War II took the form to a new level.

For that generation, the newly mechanised slaughter of war provided a backdrop for their work and Robert Capa was the epitome of the new snapper who walked towards the gunfire rather than away. This show features his controversial shot of the ‘death’ of a loyalist solider in the Spanish Civil War. Faked or real? You decide.

The rise of the modern paparazzi is illustrated by the work of New York’s Weegee, who prided himself on being first at the scene of a crime almost before the cops.

It is true that photography often seems to be a lads club but the show finishes with two of the great female photographers. It is a real pleasure to see a print of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother and it's in that rough face we see the misery of the Great Depression in all its horror. In the UK, committed communist Edith Tudor Hart was doing similar work in the hellish slums of London's East End.

The Media Museum has really raised its game recently and this well thought out exhibition featuring some of the most iconic photographs ever taken is exactly the sort of attraction that will keep punters coming through the doors. 

But it's not just a cheap gimmick, as despite the disposable digital worldwe live, in great photography still has the power the challenge the way we think about the world.

The Lives of the Great Photographers is free and runs until 4 September 2011.

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