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Nat Finkelstein: Reproducing History?

HELEN NIANIAS: Soft-focus shots of Edie Sedgwick, carefully posed portraits of Andy Warhol, pictures from the first ever Velvet Underground gigs. Have we seen this all before? Undoubtably, yes. And this is where Nat Finkelstein's photography finds its greatest strengths and its most crushing weaknesses. 

Having had his work described as 'iconic', Finkelstein, son of a New York cab driver, has created some truly recognisable images from the most recognisable decade in living memory. In the process, 'iconic' has become shorthand for 'cliched', but not necessarily in a bad way; his work is the familiar stories parents and grandparents tell their kids about what they got up to in the sixties. These are stories heard dozens of times, stories that are told because 'it's a classic' or 'it was the sixties' - not because they're particularly interesting, but because there's something comforting about hearing them time and time again.

The anecdotal aspect of the show is reinforced by quotations that served to caption the exhibition. Short quotes from the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Finkelstein himself serve to almost undermine the photographs they are attached to. Rather than the actual photograph taking precedence, it is the story, the celebrity that is prioritised. While some of the quotes add context and colour to the starkly humourless Factory days, the onus is taken off Finkelstein's strong images and placed back on what Andy did or what Nico said. 

Indeed, it's unfortunate that names are dropped so liberally, and that Finkelstein's subjects are so famous. What could have been interesting photo documentation, with less eye-wateringly famous subjects, looks suspiciously like toadying to the big name players of the New York art scene of the sixties. The names and faces we all know so well are here; Bob Dylan, Edie Segwick, Nico, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones.  Without anything particularly alternative or transgressive on show, it is difficult to buy the idea of 'the death of pop and the birth of punk' that Finkelstein witnessed, as the show almost becomes a 'best of' of the 1960s. He even shot the backstage photographs of the 2006 Sienna Miller film 'Factory Girl'. There's nothing unique, nothing untold, nothing 'counter-culture' or 'punk' about this. It all feels rather establishment.

Finkelstein's pictures of anti-war protests and small-town America stand in contrast with what is described as his 'self-obsessed, fame-hungry Factory subjects'. The anonymous subjects he hones in on are deeply personal, and tenderly handled snapshots. The affection and care in his work is evident; using his trademark soft-focus style, Finkelstein captures the strange optimism and energy of a protest, and the tender atmosphere at Elvis Presley's grave. Merely metres from pictures of Dylan, Warhol et al, it's impossible to reconcile the dualism of Finkelstein's retrospective. 

Finkelstein famously said, 'the photographer is the producer of history', but in the context of this exhibition, this seems a total lie. Finkelstein did not so much produce history, as re-produce it. 

Nat Finkelstein: From One Extreme to the Other 20 Jan - 14 Feb 2010 at Idea Generation Gallery, Shoreditch


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