Monday, May 26, 2008

Art in the age of steam

This post is a little late coming. A week ago I visited the exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. I went along largely because I heard that they had some prints by O Winston Lock in the exhibition and expected that the photography element would be quite restricted and indeed that the entire exhibition might not be so good. How wrong can you be the exhibition was in fact one of the better shows I have seen this year with a variety of photographic images included not to mention the quality of the remaining artworks. I had thought that the exhibition might be about the general industrial revolution but I suppose I ought to have guessed from the title, it is about the railways.

The exhibition opens with some video showing various Turners which were apparently to fragile or valuable to transport but on entering the first room you are confronted with photography from the various earliest days of the medium. There is a sumptuous albumen print dating from 1860 by Auguste Hippolyte Collard showing a newly built roundhouse for 32 locomotives and loaned to the exhibition from the L.A. Getty. (reproduced above) Having recently become fascinated by contact printing and having a long-standing interest in alternative processes I was amazed at the detail and the tonal range in that print. It is even more amazing bearing in mind that it is now 150 years old.

The roll call of photographers goes on to include Kertesz, Bill Brandt, Stieglitz & the O Winston Locks I had planned to see.

A special treat were the early American railway photographers. I wrote about these in my dissertation but had done so on the strength of images in books and on the internet. One man who had fascinated me was Carlton Watkins who in 1867 had photographed the westward passage of the railways using a 20 x 24 wet collodion camera. Two of his contact prints are in the exhibition and they are of amazing quality. There are also prints by William H Jackson and Samuel Bourne.

The O Winston Lock was the famous Hotshot Eastbound 1956 which shows a couple in an open top car at a drive-in with the locomotive steaming past on a viaduct. The image is well known and the quality of the print outstanding. Less well-known and something I had not anticipated from my reading about him was an action sequence presumably taken on a plate camera showing the uncoupling of two moving locomotives. The sequence consists of a series of six images taken in rapid succession from a moving train.

Aside from the photography the exhibition is worth a visit for some of the other art on show. There is a series of posters including Futurist and communist posters and some Art Deco French railway posters. There are also a number of Impressionist canvases including Monet, Manet and Degas and also some American works including two by Edward Hopper.

All in all it is an excellent exhibition I had expected to spend perhaps half an hour there but in the end I was there when the gallery closed having spent some two hours inside and not even looked at the permanent collection. Obviously as City of Culture Liverpool is able to attract some of the best works this year.

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