In Praise of Famous Men

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Review of 'Cruel and Tender', Tate Modern, London

Cruel and Tender focuses on photographers who take up the challenge of representing the complex relationships of modern life. The show takes as its point of reference two photographers of the interwar period, August Sander and Walker Evans.

Sander was a German commercial photographer who, in the 1920s, began to build an archive of portraits that, in total, was to have presented German society in cross-section. His portraits do not pretend to provide insights into the individuality of the subject, but rather each sitter was categorised according to their profession or social status. Yet, for all that, Sander did not impose a stereotyping vision on his subjects. Each of his sitters was allowed the space to present themselves as they wanted and, for Sander, the overall description of society would emerge out of the collection and comparison of these hundreds of gestures, expressions and surrounding details. Sander's project was effectively ended after Hitler came to power - his collection was too inclusive for Nazi racial theory.

Walker Evans saw Sander's work as a model for the future of photography, and in his own photographs of America during the Depression of the 1930s we again see this patient attention to detail and commitment to the calm description of the world. In the mid-1930s Evans produced photographs for the Farm Security Administration, a body set up under the government's New Deal, with the purpose of documenting the effects of the Depression on the tenant farmers and sharecroppers of the Southern states. Around the same time Evans collaborated with the writer James Agee on the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an extended study of the lives of three farming families in Alabama. Evans's images from these projects combine portraits, street scenes and architectural studies, along with interior details of the families' homes, to build up a multi-faceted view of the depression in the South.

Both Sander and Evans rejected the view that a single dramatic image could possibly express the complexity of the world it depicts. Instead they produced collections of images in which quiet observation amasses a wealth of social detail. Both photographers are well represented in this show, which would be worth seeing just for these images.

From these two historical precedents, the exhibition moves on, tracing the themes raised by their work as they are developed by a number of photographers (24 in all), mainly contemporary.

Robert Frank's The Americans, first published in 1959, was slated by the establishment because of its dark vision of the American Dream. Frank took a road trip across the US, photographing what he saw. His images often focus on facial expressions (the subjects usually caught unawares), and are about people's experience of an unequal and racially divided society.

In the 1970s Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams concentrated on the shaping of our environment by new industries. Baltz's 51 images of the monotonous and repetitive architecture of America's new industrial parks are presented as a huge minimalist grid. Adams, on the other hand, takes us on a trip through new construction in Denver - wasteland, building sites, trailer parks and shopping malls - in a commentary on the destruction of nature and degradation of human experience.

Since the 1960s Bernd and Hilla Becher have applied Sander's commitment to categorisation, not to the portrait, but to industrial forms. Their apparently dull images of grain silos, blast furnaces and water towers are categorised and grouped, forcing us to home in on details of construction. Though humans are never present in the photographs, human presence is emphasised through foregrounding the conscious activity of design. The Bechers' attention to detail has been continued, in different ways, by their students Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff and Andreas Gursky. Struth's massive colour image Shibuya Crossing reflects on the relationship between humans and the urban environment. Standing back from the picture, the humans appear as an undifferentiated mass, dwarfed by the buildings around them, but step up close and countless social interactions are revealed. Gursky produces similarly scaled images of the monotonous spaces of capitalism. He focuses on the structures that bind us, but in removing the chance occurrence from his images (often digitally manipulated), he seems to discount any possibility of upsetting those structures.

Struth and Ruff also work with portraits, as do many others in the exhibition. In the 1990s Fazal Sheikh used a traditional portrait style to produce beautiful images of the Somali women housed in Kenyan refugee camps as a result of the civil war. Here people normally represented as victims or statistics are for once treated with dignity and respect.

This is a huge and fascinating exhibition, including work by many of the major figures in contemporary photographic art, and a rare opportunity to see the work of some of the most important photographers of the early 20th century.