Cruel + Tender
The real in the twentieth century photograph
Tate Modern: Exhibition
5 June – 7 September 2003

‘Tender cruelty’ is how the writer Lincoln Kirstein described the work of American photographer Walker Evans in the 1930s. Evans’s images were spare and factual, but his interest in the subject matter was always evident. Evans, along with German photographer August Sander, provides the historical axes for this exhibition, which explores the realist tradition within twentieth-century photography. The photographers chosen are united by this sense of ‘tender cruelty’, an oscillation between engagement and estrangement in their work. The result is a type of photographic realism that avoids nostalgia, romanticism, or sentimentality in favour of clear-eyed observation.

Besides sharing a realist style, the photographers in Cruel and Tender take a similar approach to their subject matter, however diverse its nature. Rather than the dramatised scenarios of some types of photo-journalism, the tendency in Cruel and Tender is towards the quiet documentation of overlooked aspects of our world, whether architecture, objects, places or people. In the words of Philip-Lorca diCorcia, it is an ambition to record ‘that which was never really hidden, but rarely is noticed.’

Rather than being arranged chronologically, the exhibition begins and ends with living photographers, while encouraging interconnections between the historical and the contemporary. Works are grouped into sympathetic clusters, allowing comparisons and juxtapositions. Some of the themes linking these bodies of work are explored on this site, under artists.

Though photography has been included in a number of previous exhibitions at Tate, and regularly features in its Collections displays, this is the first major exhibition dedicated purely to the medium. As such, it signals Tate’s acknowledgement that photography is a key component of contemporary visual culture and now regularly features in the programme of the museum.

An exhibition by Tate Modern, London and Museum Ludwig, Koln, curated by Emma Dexter and Thomas Weski