Cruel + Tender

https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/cruel-tender

I found it difficult to engage with the exercise here but only for completely practical reasons; the links to the interviews with Rineke Dijkstra and Fazal Sheikh are no longer freely available. I have managed to get to earlier versions of the interview web pages through archive.org, but since these rely on Flash player to work, are also unavailable. So my thoughts here are based on the Cruel + Tender Teacher’s pack, and other interviews with the two artists.

Since the subject of this exercise is in reference to the gallery space, any interpretation of these photographers’ works cannot answer the specific question; I have not seen this exhibition and can only respond based on images viewed online or in books.

Rineke Dijkstra retrospective – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSAmkX26cdw

Fazal Sheikh discusses ‘Common Ground’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHUF0a7H9Wk

Both are primarily portrait photographers, and both adopt a similar approach to their subjects. They employ simple backgrounds with little or no contextualising detail. Dijkstra photographs mainly in colour, and her portraits of adolescents by the sea, new mothers, and bullfighters, all show her subjects in ways that almost force one to focus exclusively on the subject. These people may not be naked (although some are), but the effect on the viewer (well me anyway) is as if they were completely naked. My eye is always drawn to the subject’s face first, but then I notice the other details in the way they stand, how they are photographed as if they had just stopped in the middle of something else.

Fazal Sheikh’s ‘A Camel for the Son’ is in B&W, but with the emphasis totally on the individual as a human being. In the same was as Dijkstra his photographs allow one to engage with the subject in a way that almost removes the photographer from the equation. His use of B&W does suggest more of an artistic intervention than Dijkstra, but the focus is still solely on the individual being photographed.

The introduction to the exhibition says it was intended to show an ‘oscillation between engagement and estrangement’ in the works displayed. It would be hard to find this oscillation in an individual photographer’s work, but Dijkstra’s images in particular manages do have a distinct air of distance, but at the same time depicting her subjects in a manner that confronts the viewer with an open and seemingly honest portrait.

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