I wanted to see The Format Festival at Derby and decided to postpone a visit to India so that I could attend a visit with The Open College of the Arts. I did however, find myself wondering about their choice of photographers to view; there seemed to be much bigger fish such as Ed Burtynsky and Simon Roberts (as it happens there was only about one photograph each by these photographers) to see while the OCA choice was of photographers I had not heard of. It is of course always good to see work that one is not familiar with and hence my interest in the OCA which seems good at nudging one in all directions.
Anyway, I decided to take the train to Derby the day before and see something other than what the OCA wanted us to see and Brian Griffin whose work is showing at The Derby Museum and Art Gallery seemed the obvious choice; he is one of the most high profile photographers at the festival and although I have heard him speak before, I have not seen any of his exhibitions. He has famously denied being an artist.
After a visit to the tourist office in the centre of town, I make my way to the museum and art gallery, an ordinary looking building with a friendly staff. The Brian Griffin exhibition is a short lift ride up to the second floor. The photographs are hung around the room and in the centre is an elongated seat on which is left a comments book – “he makes people look like zombies!” “the guy in the corner of that photo looks out of place!” etc reminders that there are many ways one can respond to photography.
“Still Waters” is the title of Brian Griffin’s document of leading figures from the workplace in Derby. In the making of these images, Griffin drew inspiration from a collection eighteenth century portraits of Derby people held by the museum. Of his craft, Griffin said in 1980 “portrait photography brings two people close together in an intimate relationship, where the photographer takes on the role of the sensitive manipulator“; he is considered to be the most influential British portrait photographer of the last 30 years with an ingenious approach supported by flawless technical ability.
Outside the entrance to the exhibition is a time lapse sequence showing the shoots Griffin made in the various places where he photographed thte “workers”; there is an array of lights as well as reflectors and flashes. However, one wonders exactly what the relationship was between Griffin and his “sitters” since there seems to be little if any engagement between photographer and subject. In fact, the subjects also seem to be separate from each other, stuck in their own worlds unable to relate. This is perhaps the most striking aspect of these images and one questions whether it is contrived or the result of the photographic moment. It is perhaps part of the photographer’s signature, the “disconcerting edge” and “twist of the surreal” that apparently leaves the viewer mesmerised? It is not clear the extent to which those being portrayed are responding to the photographer or just being themselves.
Another body of work grew out of this project and Brian Griffin also displays a group of black and white prints (originals were shot in colour) entitled self-portrait which are a group of still life featuring pairs of objects shaped to represent part of the body. There is a sensitivity here not found in other images and the viewer is allowed a more intimate relationship with the photograph.
In another gallery is a body of work by Andreas Meichsner that wins the Paul Hill Award; it is a rare combination of the “dead pan” seriousness of the German School and humour subtly injected with a kind of clinical skill. The title of the work is TUV which is The German Association for Technical Inspections; it shows various instances of products being tested such as three men standing on the edge of a sofa, another holding an umbrella in front of a wind blowing machine etc There is a sense of the absurd here yet a certain beauty; the viewer is intrigued and possibly disconcerted.
Neither exhibition really inspires me though it is always good to see well produced work. Griffin’s archive will surely prove to be a valuable one and one is struck by the drama inherent in the imagery.
In the evening, I make my way to the Quad where there are a number of exhibitions on display that the OCA is due to visit tomorrow; after a meal, I decide to see Ken Loach‘s film “Spirit of 45” which is about the tremendous wave of optimism that struck the UK after the Second World War. A Labour government was voted in and the National Health Service was started. It was the UK of my mother’s salad days and I wanted to understand a little more about the aspirations of those days and the way the dreams of that time have been shattered by the rise of a consumer lead market place where costing is prominent. The blaming of Margaret Thatcher for all this seems misogynistic though it was the Conservatives who heralded the onset of change while the Socialists are no longer a power to be reckoned with since the Labour Party has abandoned their principles. I slept through much of it yet it did seem a balanced view of Britain since the war.
After a night at The Hallmark Inn near the station in Derby, I woke for breakfast and left the hotel at about 9.30 a.m. to walk the whole way to Derby University’s Markeaton Campus where a few students were already starting to congregate in the cafe there. I sat and had a cup of tea with Cedric Sherwood who is more advanced than myself in OCA studies; I recognised his name from chats on the OCA website. He is at Level 3 and making a body of work about the peculiar side of England and it’s empowering nature. He later wrote this about the visit …
“An enjoyable and informative day and well worth the effort of getting up at 6.00 a.m. although by midday I had had enough and decided to head home. There comes a point, for me, where further viewing is counter-productive. Perhaps it is something to do with age but more likely that I felt that there was too little time for personal reflection after viewing and discussion by the group of any individual photographer’s work.
There is also the tendency to talk a photograph to death. I recognise that the purpose of a study visit is to discuss both the subject matter and how the photographer has achieved the stated aim but is it not possible to just enjoy the image for itself. Speculation is all very well and good but it is just that – speculation. There is a tendency for us all to try and explain everything – to fit the object into our world view – but if there are 16 people in the group there are going to be 16 (and possibly more!) world views. I have very strong views about Moira Lovell’s work (bit unfortunate really because she is my tutor) because of personal experience of the Miners Strike through relatives who worked in the industry and of those who were charged with the difficult task of controlling the more violent elements.The point is not that I think Moira’s view is ‘wrong’ (there is no such thing as a wrong view) but my world view gets in the way of me seeing it through her work.” (For Moira’s work and discussion, scroll down to fifth photo!)
Soon after 11.00 a.m., we sit at a long table and Gareth Dent introduces us to the day; music blares from a live performance nearby but it does not stop us having some kind of conversation. With formalities over, we make our way to a balcony upstairs to start viewing photographs which are hanging from the wall. I am already feeling tired but the conversation that gets going between students and tutors revives my spirits; this is what these study days are really about, stimulating thought and receiving informed views of the photographs on show. The work we are being asked to see is the choice of the tutors and Gareth Dent but neither of the tutors were in agreement about what to see.
The first set of photographs are by RJ Fernandez and called Moving Mountains, a reference perhaps to the Biblical phrase “If you had faith, you could move mountains!”. These images relate to an area of the Philippines where mining has literally eradicated mountains and local, indigenous tribal people have been dispossessed. There is however, little evidence in the images to suggest this and one is left looking at images of which the meaning is not clear. Certainly, industrialisation of the landscape is obvious yet beyond that there is little to go on. It is complex work and the images are attractive such as the diorama giving an aerial view of a dam being built. The photographs themselves are not of high quality and might even have been made by a compact came and yet this itself can be part of the work.
Next in line is a series of photographs from around the world by Louis Quail of people at their desks. Like other of the work in the festival, it does not relate directly to the theme of Factory, yet it is a good example of people in the work place and as a typology, quite fascinating as each person and their individual space is different. One recalls the work of Anna Fox called “Workstations” and wonders about the manner in which these photographs were made; there is no obvious sign of head on flash while the people themselves look unposed. One can look at these images for sometime and still find new interest. Does it have a particular message? Perhaps to emphasise the restrictions of such an environment. The prints are unframed and square, hanging loosely from the wall.
Daniele Cincinpini has produced a series called “10 Minutes” which is apparently the average length of time a worker has for a break, a statistic I find questionable.. The images show different people taking breaks from their work; most sit in a semi-contemplative state, presumably unwinding. OCA tutor Andrew Conroy is drawn to this body of work. Some images contain clocks, a direct reference to time; in the workplace, the time one puts in is often valued more than one’s skills. There is a sense of the pressure of work in these images, of workers who looked phased.
Interestingly, the series of photos that most inspires debate is a series of text based images by Christopher Steel of which those present are equally divided over. The writing all relates to the workplace with messages asking people to leave their food alone; the atmosphere is one of hostility and mistrust between fellow workers with a sense of the working area being subject to control. These very ordinary texts have elaborate and obvious framing perhaps to make up for the fact that these are really documents rather than photographs.
The final series of photographs we look at are by Sandra Hoyn which document child labour in the tannery businesses of Kanpur in India; the title for this body of work is called “Poisonous Business”. The emphasis is on the children, perhaps to draw sympathy from the viewer since what we call child labour is perceived differently in Asia where such children are often getting some kind of an apprenticeship which many other children will not. The theme seems rather hackneyed and the old discussion of how these kind of images have desensitised us to their subject matter is brought up; I refute this view because as Susan Sontag says in her book “Regarding the pain of others“, it is more a matter of such images reminding us of our numbness rather than causing it. What is the real purpose of these images? Will they stop us buying leather? Probably not but they are likely to spread awareness of the situation to others and contribute to awareness of the situation. Of this series, the last image seems the most striking with the face of the boy looking directly in camera; we are aware of him as an individual.
The group leaves this part of Derby University and walks towards the centre of town and into a place called Deda where there are a number of exhibitions on show. I chat with Jose about one concern I have with this festival – that there are no captions to any of the photographs not even titles. It seems to be an unwritten certainly unpublicised rule for the festival. The result is documentary photographs that leave one struggling to find meaning to. This is of course deliberate since photographs hung on gallery walls (or just the walls of corridors as is frequent in this festival) are being presented as art and hence should allow the viewer the freedom to contemplate rather than being directed by a caption that will direct the views gaze in a certain direction. People tend to see different things in a photograph and it would be unfortunate if this was prevented. Jose and I also chat a little about ebooks which I am starting to make.
At Deba, Andrew Conloy introduces us to black and white work by Ken Grant who photographed his area of Liverpool extremely intimately on a physical level, getting really close to his subjects so that often bodies are only partially represented as the centre of action is between them such as in the image of a young girl cuddling a dog who lies on the ground beneath other people. There are echoes of Martin Parr’s The Last Resort here but also of Chris Killipp who also worked in black and white around this time. These photographs are large and graphic and show more empathy than Parr’s work and goes beyond the ideas of the Scouse stereotype.
Downstairs at Deba, we see a group of images by Moira Lovell called We Will Stand that are of former coalminers who have all been photographed at night standing outside their former places of work. They lost their jobs during the 1980’s after the Miner’s Strike (1984-5) that threatened to topple Thatcherism. Some of the photographs are of individuals, most are of groups and while their faces and bodies are illuminated, the backgrounds of such images are black like the coal they once mined; the effect is dramatic and though they might have been photographed standing outside the old collieries they once worked, this might have resulted in a rather hackneyed approach. Someone mentions a similarity with Dutch painting owing to the use of strong shadow. Certainly light plays an important part in these images.
During a lunch break, I make my way to the Silk Mills where the first factory in the world was situated; the its is now a museum space in which there is a small exhibition of Simon Roberts work. Made with a large format camera, his prints are impressive and I am drawn to seeing his work for this reason. There is a photograph from a series called “Let this be a sign” and in keeping with the festival, we are not told where the place is – however, the image shows us some kind of assembly hall in which most of the people are slightly blurred owing to a long exposure. One wonders what is going on here as many present carry cameras and and are using them. The print is literally nailed to the wall!
At the QUAD, where I had been the previous evening, we see work by Caroline McNally which is hung on the wall of a staircase making it a little difficult for us to view it together. This kind of imagery has been described as “forensic landscape” since it shows close ups of bits of the landscape, in this case mysterious looking circular well holes and machinery that accompanies it. The series is called Earth is Room Enough and the text that accompanies the images takes a hardened ecological stance. There is a certain ethereal beauty to these images that look as though they have been cross-processed as cyan and magenta are prominent in them except for one that is just brown. One feels one might be on another planet in these scenes. What is this imagery really trying to say? Might it not be a little gimmicky? A reminder that photographic work can result in different points of view.
There is an interesting series of four urban wildlife prints by Patricia Van De Camp of wild animals in disused factories; we see deer inside these old buildings also a rabbit sitting in a doorway.
Before we leave Quad, Jose discusses three photographs by Tim George. This is conceptual work that is technically excellently photographed and yet the idea of occupational stress of the market place is also well conveyed. It seems appropriate that they are in a narrow corridor making one feel a little hemmed in as one views them.
We walk on to our final destination, The Chocolate Factory. This is a factory that stopped functioning a few years ago and still retains the atmosphere of the factory about it. I first notice work by Janet Delaney who has photographed doormen in Delhi; these images are varied but quite straightforward yet the introduction to the series is puzzling – it talks of how globalised commerce has put the established work force at risk. I do not quite understand this remark and wonder if the photographer or person responsible for captioning the body of work does either; often those in the West are naive about the rarities of the so called Third World and impose their own sense of morality upon it. Jose comments that the people in the images must have a very lonely job. This is perhaps a feature of the workplace that the festival brings out, the hardships that people undergo in their daily jobs.
We are pointed out the work of Chris Coekin who has made a series of posed documentary photographs of people at work using machinery. A reference is drawn with the paintings of Soviet Realists who painted the ideal worker. There is an obvious collaboration between the photographer and the subjects with gives a sense of freedom. The images are well lit and are all printed to the same size and none have frames. A vinyl record player sits to each side and once is invited to play a disc especially made by the artist that adds some appropriate background noise to the photos.
Another general point to observe about this festival of photographic images is the large variety of approaches to the subject of Factory; in my view, some do not meet the brief yet they are still images of the workplace and it is interesting to see the different interpretations.
The last group of images we are asked to look at as a group are by Ian Teh and picture Chinese mineworkers. They are an example of a body of work possessing a certain intention, having a mark of authorship, conveying a message. There is visual cohesion to the 8 photographs present. The images break a lot of compositional rules, a few can be describes as blurred, yet they manage to retain the eye of the viewer. Two of the images that strike me are the more conventional, focused shots – one is of humans working quite small in the frame surrounded by giant machinery and steam while another is of coal workers and their barrows, the scene having an eerie light to it. The more abstract images are also appealing in a more complex way such as the broken mirror on a wall that reflects the clear image of a worker while a human shadow falls nearby. The final three images are portraits of individual workers.
After the group has dispersed, I look at work by Sebastian Liste of life in Brazil. Jose finds this problematic in it’s voyeurism and use of imagery that creates a gap between subject and viewer. There is a photograph of a man penetrating a woman, his body is arched, her legs are splayed … what purpose does this voyeuristic image of a private moment convey to us? There seems to be no message and the image is shallow.
My final visit at this festival is to the Blurb Factory where there are a number of Blurb books on display. I would like to spend more time here but am now starting to feel tired having walked about 4 miles around town and only eaten an apple since breakfast. It is time to catch my train home and reflect on what has been a very interesting festival that I have found stimulating.