“Life is not about significant details, illuminated by a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are.” – Susan Sontag.[1]


The current exhibition at the Zabludowicz Collection in London brings together the work of photographic artists spanning the last 40 years to trace “how artists have used the camera to blur boundaries between past and present, fact and fiction”.[2] Housed in a striking Grade II listed former Methodist chapel, Paul Luckraft has carefully curated the work of 14 international artists, drawn exclusively from the personal archives of the Zabludowicz Collection. Photography is now a vital component of contemporary art, but as our lives become oversaturated with the photographic image, how do artists go about producing works to engage us when the photograph has become such a ubiquitous presence in modern life? Comprising various photographic forms and styles You Are Looking at Something That Never Occurred draws on connections and points of divergence between artists of different generations.

Upon entering the main hall of the exhibition you are greeted by Untitled Film Still #41 (1979) by the now renowned Cindy Sherman. Fascinated by the female stereotypes that populate cinema, Sherman photographs herself in various settings wearing a variety of wigs, costumes and make-up, producing a range of characters. Her series Untitled Film Stills (1977–80) has become a key touchstone within feminist debates concerning the performance of identity and the male gaze. The delicate black and white print shown within the exhibition pictures the artist, hands-on-hips, surrounding by a fog like haze caused by the lid coming off the film canister during the developing process. Light leaks such as this are often viewed as a virtue of analogue photography, the flaw playing testament to the chemical process.

The work which intrigued me most within the exhibition was that of Sara Cwynar, an artist whose practice incorporates both analogue and digital technology, straddling the border between these two photographic realms. Combing through eBay and Goodwill stores, Cynwar collects discarded objects. She then combines them to form sculptural installations based on found images, which are then in turn photographed. Her artistic process is circular: beginning with a found photograph and ending with a new image. Cynwar is also interested in slowing down the speed with which we consume images; upon seeing her photographs the viewer initially reads them in an instant, but one soon begins to observe the composition of the image – noticing the objects as things you own or to which you can relate.

In addition to her photography, Sara Cynwar is one of the two artists to have a moving image piece included within the exhibition. Soft Film (2016) is shot on 16mm film transferred to digital, and combines footage shot in the artist’s studio with text narrated by a male voice. The film’s narrative is sparked by collected images from 3 sources – studio portraits from the 1930s Harlem Renaissance, amateur snaps of a Kenyan businessman’s visit to a South Korean factory in the 1970s, and pre–9/11 postcards of the World Trade Centre – all of which are dispersed throughout the film. The Zabludowicz Collection explains, in the accompanying text for the exhibition, that Cynwar has a “fascination with how the sexist ‘soft misogyny’ of previous decades returns to us as kitsch and faded textures”,[3] a theme which runs through her film work.

In the back gallery the work of Wolfgang Tillmans occupies much of the space. Rising to fame in the late 1980s and early 90s, Tillmans has become one of the most significant artists of his generation, and is currently enjoying a large solo show at Tate Modern. Known for testing the possibilities of image making and display, he captures details of everyday life in order to reveal their low-key beauty. He has explained “I take pictures, in order to see the world.”[4] Many of his photographic images are displayed clustered across a wall or room to form site specific installations, each of which he views as a single work. Often hanging work unframed with tape, nails, and bulldog clips, his installation techniques have become a recognisable part of his practice, and enhance the vulnerability of photography.

The title of the exhibition You Are Looking at Something That Never Occurred is borrowed from a conversation between Jeff Wall and Lucas Blalock in which they argue for art that is experimental and mysterious.[5] Perfectly exemplifying this mysticism, the show highlights the depth that can be found within a photograph once time is spent with it, urging us to reengage with this medium that has become so overfamiliar.


You Are Looking at Something that Never Occurred is showing at the Zabludowicz Collection until the 9th of July. For more information see here.


[1] Susan Sontag, On Photography, (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1978): 63-64

[2] You are Looking at Something That Never Occurred press release, Zabludowicz Collection 30th March 2017

[3] Ibid.

[4] Wolfgang Tillmans quoted in An Evening with Wolfgang Tillmans (International Center of Photography, 7 October 2010)

[5] “Jeff Wall and Lucas Blalock: A Conversation on Pictures”, Aperture 2013. http://aperture.org/magazine-2013/jeff-wall-and-lucas-blalock-a-conversation-on-pictures/