What was it that made me travel up to Sheffield and back in a day to see an exhibition? Over eight hours of driving through poor weather conditions to see a group of 12 photographs in one room that are all visible on the internet. There was however, another room that functioned as an installation for here Harry had created a space with family photographs that included various artefacts of his work such as a mug, a jigsaw, a book and so on.
I was fortunate enough to be given a lift by my tutor, Jose Navarro, and his partner Bridget who drove me most of the way so that even with a 5.30 a.m. start, I did not have to put myself under excessive pressure; the weather was poor but we made it to Sheffield in good time and after finding the gallery, Bank Streets Arts, we had a recuperative beverage in a nearby Costa Coffee bar (a company that apparently does pay UK taxes unlike Starbucks that seems to have found a way around them). The coffee bar was situated in the foyer of a Premier Inn and rather liking the scene that presented itself, I decided to take a photograph. No sooner had I done so, a woman who had been sitting behind a desk, appeared and asked me why I was taking photographs. Was I perhaps from the press? It was company policy not to allow media intrusion. We chatted a little about this incident which for me reflected the paranoia that exists about media in general. People object to the action of a lone individual but not to the constant stream of images that are being made of us by CCTV cameras as they are acting for our own safety.
Jose pointed out that this exhibition was by an OCA student who had received one of the highest marks possible at Level 3 and was considered an A+. Harry had worked at something close to his heart which was personal and yet also universal (i.e. the family). The photographic prints are well crafted, technically accomplished, and there has clearly been successful interaction with the sitters. These are a good series of portraits of his “nearest and dearest” and there is a painterly quality to some that have a Vermeer like quality. The photographer has not only produced an exhibition, there is also a book which was the medium presented to the assessors of his work. There is also evidence of photo-therapy as made photographs were presented to those pictured in them who then commented in writing on A4 sheets that were also seen in the exhibition alongside the photographs.
What surprised me about the conversation that followed was that while individual images were scrutinised, there was no general discussion of the project as a whole and it took me a little time to realise, for instance, that these were 12 photographs of people who all shared the same mother (and also one father although this was not immediately evident). In fact, this common denominator was seen with her face on an egg box in a glass in the centre of the room where the prints were on display; the egg box had “Made in Salford” written on it, a reminder of the subtle wit that seems to underpin this body of work.
The third photo which features Graham, an obese middle aged man, is discussed first; it is featured on the card that acts as a guide to this exhibition. A low camera angle has been used here presumably to emphasise this character’s grossness. As with all images in the exhibition, the portrait format is used.
The sixth photograph features Margaret who sits behind her Dyson cleaner; she appears to be fixating on it. Has the Dyson become her fetish? There is a Freudian reading to be made but comments focus on the role of woman as housewife.
I can not help but feel that it is all too easy to jump to conclusions when reading a photograph.
The seventh photograph of Harold is presumably a self portrait by the photographer. Is the lamp visually “growing” out of the subject’s head a prank by the photographer? It is the kind of thing that photographers consider inappropriate.
Photograph number 8 is of a woman posing yet not in a very convincing way; the architectural background is asymmetrical (similar asymmetry is noticeable in the fifth photograph taken inside a caravan). There is an informal feel to all these photographs in spite of their having been arranged. Jose thinks there is a rapport between photographer and subject in most of these photographs except for the ones of younger subjects.
Photograph number 11 is of Antony standing outside a house looking to one side. He is criticised for being different by other students but I can not help but feel he is more a rebellious youth. He is the only one to have treated his A4 paper on which all subjects are encouraged to write a phrase as a horizontal rather than vertical document.
Most of the settings are domestic but not all. The relationships with the backgrounds are relevant.
The last subject is Danielle who is clearly retarded in some way, possibly with Downs syndrome. Her pose looks like something from a classical work of art as she looks up towards the light which looks like it has probably been created by flash owing to a well defined shadow (in fact it was natural light). Has the dark ceiling been burnt in during post-production? There might be questions concerning the photography of a learning deficient individual yet it appears that such people have been used as models by artists in the past.
In my view, although most of the subjects look towards the camera none look directly at it.
One of the strong points of this exhibition is the consistency within the series of images as well as their technical excellence. Although these images might appear banal, they do convey some of the atmosphere of family life. Idea that some photographs are too banal and there is a lack of cohesion!? The prints in the exhibition could have been bigger!
A blog of this event by fellow student Rob Birrel is worth reading. After writing this blog about the exhibition, I emailed the photographer and received the following reply …
Thank you for your views and questions. I read your blog and your questions with interest (it always fascinates me as to what different people read into the imagery – some of which was intended by me as the photographer, but others that were not).
The card/flyer was written by me (but based upon some of the text and discussion that I had had with Elizabeth Underwood who was in charge of the PR for the exhibition), which I got printed myself using a local printing firm in Norfolk. I based the design of the flyer on the many that I have picked up over the years from the likes of The Photographer’s Gallery in London.