Essay
Thu 11 Jan 2018 - 12.00

A Young Person Recommends... 4 Saints in 3 Acts – A Snapshot of the American Avant-garde

In a corner of Oxford Street there lays a gem: The Photographers’ Gallery. An exhibition emulates the groundbreaking adaptation of the traditional opera Four Saints in Three Acts using an all African-American cast by the great Gertrude Stein in celebration of Picasso’s first exhibition.

Entering the exhibition, original scripts lay across the entrance with the musical score sheets. The main room is separated in half with a partition displaying photographs in the middle. Within the first half the opera comes to life from seeing those who worked on it through to the scenes bringing the gallery to life. In the other half, works from photographers; Lee Miller, Carl Van Vechten, George Platt Lynes and Thérèse Bonney display excitement from the Harlem-based cast members using film. At the very end is an exterior small space projecting 35 black and white stills of the operas scenes with original soundtrack running in the background.

On the exterior wall of a darkened room, 35 stills (photographs from a running scene) are shown displaying the stage and costume details, as well as key moments within the Opera. Photography and film were crucial in documenting the evolution and acceptance of the intersection between race, gender and culture. The beautiful songs in the opera's sets follow these clean projections. In particular, the projection space was more successful in bringing the atmosphere from the opera that ran so long ago. In a scene from Act One, there is an example displaying the intricacy and detail of the cast’s costumes. The clarity of the projector allows the poetic elegance of the still to come through as the relationship of two key figures is captured. As the projection continues, the singing of the cast becomes progressively more lively, ending in a celebration of all the cast together.

In a small pocket, I really enjoyed the ability to be able to write feedback and seeing the appreciation of others coming to the exhibition.

Overall, the exhibition gave me a greater insight into American avant-garde work and to the revolutionary production, which displayed the significance of African-American contributions in the Opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. For a film photographer enthusiast like myself, I would recommend this exhibition because of different use of flash pan photography on set and the portrait photography of the cast is very honest and minimalist, concentrating more on the cast and less on extravagance.

– Alba Imeri