Rediscovering the Past: Rückblick: Reminiscence in 19th Century Photography, Daniel Blau, London.

Review by Lauren Sperring

In our contemporary society, photography is a medium of the masses. It is taken for granted, a tool perpetually present, tying us to the images we create, as digital media constantly offers us new ways of capturing ourselves, our family and our emotions. Beyond this consumption, photography is a long accepted part of the art world and whilst many of the highly heralded contemporary pieces of the past several years have been centred on the photographic image this widespread acceptance is a recent move. The birth of photography in the early 19th Century gave way to a barrage of scepticism, criticism and anxiety toward this new tool. Ranging from folk tales of stolen souls, to academic criticism of its merits, photography was condemned to the act of scientific cataloguing. Some photographers did just this, making documentation their sole purpose, a constant amongst a sea of daunting technological progression. This turned into an act of looking to history for many, a moment in which to use this new medium to rediscover the easily neglected past.

It is in the heart of Hoxton Square that this renaissance comes to life, appropriately so in the centre of the contemporary vintage revival, East London. Perhaps it is this air of nostalgia that drove Daniel Blau to put forward Rückblick: Reminiscence in 19th Century Photography as their second show since opening just over a month ago. This Hoxton based space is an offshoot of the well established Daniel Blau Gallery in Munich, and is driven by photography. A small, narrow space, the gallery seems ideal for the minimal arrangement of vintage photographs by a variety of photographers; the walls are lined with crumbling architecture, naked bodies, ancient sculpture, and darkened forests. Nothing is off limits, so long as it engages with the all encompassing theme, reminiscence.

This immense scope of material is never daunting, however, and the exhibition adopts the feel of an archive, a catalogue marking the vital points of human history. It could be difficult to understand what an archive of visual material will offer us in this technological age, yet it is apparent that it is the air of vulnerability that makes this collection so engaging. Pieces such as Maxime Du Camp’s Nr 56: Colosse monolithe d’Amenophit II (1850) and Mother and Son (1855) by Jean-Baptiste Frenet capture the fragility of humanity and all of our creation, as both buildings and bodies begin to deteriorate with age. Frenet’s image is particularly noteworthy, the son’s eyes worryingly vacant, his body barely corporeal, fading away before our eyes. It is this vulnerability that has been largely decimated in the modern world, as machines and computers continue to protect us from everyday burden, making this exhibition worthy of attention for just that peculiar feeling of nostalgia towards an aspect of humanity that is slowly falling out of our consciousness.

The truly outstanding moments of this show are found in the details, the small consistencies that draw all the images together to escape notions of cataloguing, documentation, in favour of something creative. One instance of this is the perpetual appearance of the curve. Whether it is the curve of the female body as seen in Etude de nu Allonge (1870) or the curve of architecture, their presence renders the curve a symbol; the enduring symbol of nature, of coincidence, a moment of aesthetic chance that technology has no time for. Beyond the visually pleasing, the curve acts as the last bastion of man’s capabilities, playing on our perceptions in a moment of remembrance. There is no place for the manufactured in this exhibition, and each image wills the viewer to let time slow, to ignore the rush of human traffic outside on the square and to let vulnerability and natural beauty take hold.

On leaving the exhibition, it is easy to wonder if the display of the images was somewhat limiting, or if perhaps the use of nubile female bodies and portraits of wise old men is both expected and stereotypical, disappointing in the knowledge that part of the joy of vintage photographs is the ability to experiment with display and meaning in order to subvert their usual readings. However, this criticism does not impact on the charming quality that this exhibition holds. It does not quite feel like stepping back in time, but it does feel like an ache to rediscover the past.

Rückblick: Reminiscence in 19th Century Photography runs at Daniel Blau, Hoxton until 4 June. Further information can be found on their website

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Etude de nu Allonge 1870
Courtesy the artist and Daniel Blau