‘The Body Observed’ at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

Magnum Photos is a photographic co-operative that is owned by its own members, blending photography with journalism and art, and always aiming towards authenticity throughout the photographers’ various storytelling methods. It was founded in 1947, in the wake of the Second World War, by four photographers: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, George Rodger and David ‘Chim’ Seymour. Today, they are recognised as one of the most famous photo agencies worldwide. The Body Observed is a new exhibition by Magnum Photos at the Sainsbury’s Centre of the Visual Arts, featuring over 130 works from the 1930’s to the present. Bodies, young and old, caught in intimate moments or posing for the camera, jumping or floating on water: the Magnum photographers capture it all.

PAR314869 GREECE. Athens. Circa 1936. Young man with laurel over the eyes © Herbert List/Magnum Photos
GREECE. Athens. Circa 1936. Young man with laurel over the eyes © Herbert List/Magnum Photos

The exhibition begins with the works of Herbert List, who was largely influenced by Surrealism as well as notions of sexuality and the unconscious. He explores the homoerotic nude male, and his muses range from ancient sculptures to young men on the beaches of Italy and Greece in the late 1930’s. Exploring the male body in all its capacity- soft and strong, intimate or detached, his works capture spontaneous moments that articulate an array of narratives and experiences of corporeal existence: sometimes, only one aspect of the body is captured at a time- a torso, a hand holding a glass, or a head with laurel covering the eyes.

PAR39240 Spanish painter Salvador DALI. "Dali Atomicus." 1948 © Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos
Spanish painter Salvador DALI. “Dali Atomicus.” 1948 © Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos

A collection of the works of Philippe Halsman is exhibited at the other side of the room. The series depicts various prominent figures playfully jumping, letting go of all of their inhibitions, or holding on to them in a revealing manner. Audrey Hepburn laughs at the camera, a look of surprise in her eyes as she jumps with her arms stretched back, her sandals left standing on the floor as her skirt balloons about her elegant figure; Mark Chagall, who looks as if he could have been walking on air- such is his posture, fixed even while jumping, his face telling another story as he laughs with childlike glee; Phillipe Halsman himself, caught mid-flip on the beach, as if flying in space, his body exhibiting the playfulness with which he approaches his subjects and his art-form.

LON109360 USA. Los Angeles. American actress Joan CRAWFORD. 1959 © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos
USA. Los Angeles. American actress Joan CRAWFORD. 1959 © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

In the same room are the photographs of Swiss-born Werner Bischoff, whose photographs abstract the body in various ways- from shapes and stripes to shadows, the body is aestheticized and depicted with tremendous precision, naked and in black-and-white. Moving on through the hallway the viewer encounters a photo-essay of American actress Joan Crawford by Eve Arnold, as well as the work of Bruce Gilden from a revolutionary project which was launched by Magnum photos and challenged the artist to create their own version of a fashion magazine. There is also an unexpected installation of some pieces belonging to the Sainsbury’s Centre, which are not photographs, but art ranging from marble statues to prints depicting the body.

NN11530563 FRANCE. Paris. November 2, 2017. Agata © Bieke Depoorter/Magnum Photos
FRANCE. Paris. November 2, 2017. Agata © Bieke Depoorter/Magnum Photos

Then, the viewer walks into what is probably the biggest room of the exhibition; standing at the doorway, one has a panoramic view of photography ranging from Susan Meisela’s intimate portraits of women in travelling strip shows touring town fairs across New England, to the depictions of ritual and celebration in Cristina García Rodero’s photographic portfolio of remote areas in Spain. This room also introduces some of the more contemporary photographers in the exhibition. One of my personal favourites is Bieke Depoorter’s astoundingly intimate yet performative photo story of Agata, who Bieke met at a striptease bar while she had been invited by Paris Magnum Live Lab to respond to the city of Paris in 2017. Bieke photographed Agata in Paris, Lebanon and Greece. In some of the photos Agata is relaxed giving herself over to the camera, whereas in others there is a palpable tension between herself and the lens. However, she always retains an air of mystery and melancholy. In one of the photographs from Paris, Agata is in a neon pink swimsuit, standing in a bright pink room. She looks directly at the camera, a piercing, almost shocked yet vulnerable expression on her face, her sleek black hair combed back. Her hands play with the swimsuit where it touches her leg, and on the bed-stand (also painted pink), there is a pink sex toy and a pink lighter. In other pictures, her look is more assertive and self-assured, and she is captured wearing her beige fur coat and her septum nose piercing out in the streets.

Across the room, there can be found a photo-collage by Olivia Arthur exploring notions of gender and sexuality in modern Mumbai. This series investigates the boundaries and crossover between the personal and the public, the private and the political, in all aspects of life and love. There is a picture of Aliya, a transgender woman, who turns her head to the camera, clothed in only jeans and a bra. Her look is pensive, and she wears pearl earrings. There are also two women captured in their home during a very intimate moment, their bodies naked and intertwined. Despite the recent progress being made by the Supreme Court in India which no longer deems homosexual acts a criminal offence, this picture was not allowed to be exhibited in Mumbai.

PAR281318 LITHUANIA. Vilnius. 2004 © Antoine d’Agata/Magnum Photos
LITHUANIA. Vilnius. 2004 © Antoine d’Agata/Magnum Photos

In the final room, nestled amongst the couples captured by Alex Soth, the blurred portraits by Antoine D’Agata, the smooth bodies of Miguel Rio Branco, and the soldiers of Tim Hetherington, there is my absolute favourite series of the exhibition by Alessandra Sanguinetti. Sanguinetti met her two nine-year old muses, Guillermina and Belinda, while she was working on her first book in Buenos Aires. She photographed their development as they progressed from children into adolescence, and finally their transition into womanhood.

There are individual portraits of the two cousins that express each of their personalities, as well as others in which they playfully re-enact biblical scenes- Guillermina as the Madonna holding a plastic doll who acts as baby Jesus, Belinda as a praying angel or Christ, Guillermina holding her as she collapses into her arms. They re-enact the lives of adults: pregnancy, laughing candidly with giant balloons under their skirts and dresses, or a family, both staring sternly into the camera, their dolls covered in blankets, in their arms and in a toy shopping trolley. In another picture they wear swimsuits, their little bodies holding each other as they look out at a black cloud that looms over them. But by far the most exquisite work of the series, and perhaps of the exhibition itself, is a photograph of the two girls floating in a pool of water, holding bouquets of flowers- the young Ophelias of Maipú.

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Melina Spanoudi

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September 2021
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