High culture, low culture
To the Getty Center on Thursday for a calming afternoon away from it all. The gentle funicular that runs from the car park up the hill, alongside the serpentine 405, always reminds me of the trip across the lake at Disney World. The places couldn’t be very much more different, but in each case the short journey has the effect of both senses of transportation, an airlock between the real world and something a bit more fantastical. The Getty is every bit the shining castle on the hill.
I loved the current exhibition of the photographs of Roger Fenton. There’s something entirely other-worldly about early photography. We’re so unused to seeing photographic representations of so long ago that the collision of the immediacy of the medium and the distance of time creates its own little vertigo. Fenton’s work is mostly quite artless – at least, exactly the same compositions in a modern setting would seem artless. The captions alongside the images tried to argue for the photographer’s skill, but seemed to be protesting a bit too much; at that time, the medium was so new that it was two parts science to one part curious toy. Fenton’s images of the Crimean War struck me as the most impressive: huge vistas of tented soldiery; the juxtaposition of a modern military discipline and a romantically primitive logistics; the famous image of the valley of the shadow of death, empty save for a layer of spent cannonballs. And then, in contrast, Fenton’s cheesily studio-faked images of Muslim culture. He was just working out what the hell photography was capable of.
And then a wander around a small exhibition of images of violence from mediaeval manuscripts. One in particular, a stunningly-preserved image in blues and greens, set on a still-gaudy gold-leaf background, obviously the star attraction within its hefty volume, brought to mind the gold-coloured stickers which would sometimes appear in the Panini football albums I’d collect when I was a kid. The gold ones were always high-status; they’d be used for images of the trophies, say, or for team insignia. High culture, low culture, same techniques. See, I really have no class.