A concentration on the appearance of ordinary things characterises much of the work in Cruel and Tender. This observation of the often unnoticed details of daily life, whether in the photographer’s immediate environment, or further afield, and the elevation of these details to a quasi-symbolic status, runs as a thread throughout the exhibition.
William Eggleston uses high colour to induce the feeling that we are discovering the homespun scenarios he pictures for the first time. Such unlikely subjects as the inside of an oven, or a jacket on a peg, become newly evocative under the camera’s intense scrutiny. Eggleston’s milieu is America’s Deep South.
For Michael Schmidt, it is his hometown of Berlin. Schmidt’s acute observation extends from the architecture of the city and its divided history, to his own body, which he ruthlessly dissects in a series of claustrophobic self-portraits.
The example of Walker Evans, who toured America in the 1930s in his extensive study of its communities, became an influential model for a later style of road photography. Evans’s mundane subject matter, seen afresh through the isolating frame of the lens, helped to create a language that came to define the American experience.
Robert Frank continues in this tradition. His own epic drive across America, photographing the people and places he encountered, produced a book of images that were seen as shocking at the time, capturing the, until then, little recorded racial tensions of the 1950s.
Stephen Shore’s snapshot-style pictures of his own road-trips in the 1970s demonstrate the power of cumulative imagery, each tiny detail - a dirty carpet, a congealed egg, a cramped motel-room - adding to a view of ordinary America as a vast terrain of banalities.