Arles – 10 – Gilbert Garcin

Gilbert Garcin - exhibition space

Gilbert Garcin – exhibition space

My favourite exhibition, it made me laugh as well as intrigue me, was that of Gilbert Garcin. He creates photo-montages working with traditional black and white materials (film, chemically processed prints, cut-outs etc) rather than Photoshop and delivers witty surrealistic viewpoints. References are made to Jacques Tati’s “Monsieur Hulot” and Alfred Hitchcock yet his work for me recalls that of Rene Magritte (Garcin has been called his spiritual son) with the smartly dressed gentleman (a self-portrait of Garcin) that appears in every image.

Here is a definition of surrealism by a founder of the movement, Andre Breton, who writes “”Psychic automatismin its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” One can see this approach behind his work.

visitor to Gilbert Garcin exhibition

visitor to Gilbert Garcin exhibition

Of Garcin, Barbara Oudiz writes … “75 year-old Gilbert Garcin’s photographs and method are outrageously unique, and the story behind his career no less extraordinary. Mr. Everybody does raise, nonetheless, a number of universal questions about the meaning of human existence – or the lack thereof. By placing himself, via the character he embodies, in absurd or inextricable situations – labyrinths, concentric circles, deserts, or struggling with boulders, like a modern-day Sisyphus – he invites us to ponder such philosophical quandaries as time, solitude and the weight of existence.”

Captioning is important in Garcin’s work and often helps to underline the humour. For instance, in one image entitled “Master of the world” he stands on what might be part of a globe holding onto pieces of string while assuming a defiant gesture. There is an aspect of the absurd here as in much of Garcin’s work which he refers to as “small histories”.

His photographs are carefully constructed with a clever use of perspective as he montages different images together to make one surrealistic picture. He is commenting on life from a largely existential viewpoint characterized by a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Of his work, the catalogue states … “His work casts its spell because Gilbert Garcin shows us obvious things that concern us all: life passing by, the fleeting nature of time, the tenacity required to continue Hence, he recalls in images, along with the help of evocative titles, that it is preferable to ‘do one’s best’ and to ‘know one’s limits’, because, deep down, all we’re doing is ‘replaying old familiar tunes’, those of Sisyphus and Atlas.

There are photographs of him performing Sisyphusian tasks, impossible mock heroic gestures. One image that actually refers to Sisyphus, shows Garcin pushing a giant stone up a hill; it is titled “One must imagine Sisphus to have been a happy man.” Garcin uses a number of such classical images.

Perhaps my favourite image is that of a flowering seed head under which Garcin stands looking down on an individual seed head that has fallen; there is no clear-cut meaning to this image yet it is full of poetry, humour and existential discourse. The title is “When the wind will come!”

visitors to the Gilbert Garcin exhibition

visitors to the Gilbert Garcin exhibition

One image called Nocturne made in 2004 makes reference to Paul Klee; there is not only an artistic effect in this picture as the couple sit together in the moonlight, there is the characteristic underlying humour and wry observation. Although we see Garcin here honoring an artist, there are also images such as “The dangers of images”(1999) in which large white balls threaten to fall onto viewers of art.

The Peacock” is a self-depreciatory image in which Garcin stands holding up a large number of portraits of himself; this seems to be concerned with pride.

Although humour helps us to bear these depictions of the human dilemma, some photographs are more directly serious; in “The Accused” Garcin seems to be facing a firing squad although all those pointing at him are Garcin himself.

Another image that makes me laugh is “True Notoriety” in which Garcin has modeled himself into a bust on a mantelpiece. As well as the individual psyche being explored, Garcin explores human relationships; one image in which he seems to be mirroring the fraughtness that underlies many marriages is “The Union” (2001) is a classic example. Here a couple are holding each other up – if one lets go (as eventually they surely must) then the other will fall.

There is much humour here yet the longer one looks, the more one sees that it is not just for a laugh that Garcin constructs these images but for more philosophical purposes in which the real is being addressed.

Sue and Rob, fellow OCA students, looking at Gilbert Garcin photographs

Sue and Rob, fellow OCA students, looking at Gilbert Garcin photographs

I visit this exhibition for a second time with the OCA and wonder what they think. Gareth, OCA CEO, while admitting to being tired finds they do nothing much for him. A student, Rob TM aka Birrel feels that the images do not need to be exhibited and would do just as well in a book. For me it a welcome relief from the seriousness that often seems to surround photography.

A final image to consider is “At the Museum”; looking at looking, another surrealist motif.

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Arles – 9 – Viviane Sassen

entrance to the exhibition

entrance to the exhibition

I get to see the work of Viviane Sassen on the morning of my last full day in Arles. Fashion is not something that interests me very much since my choice of clothes and other objects tends to be more functionally orientated and much that is fashionable is not only expensive but not built to last.

With Viviane Sassen, I do not see clothes that greatly appeal (they are almost entirely for women) yet most of the photography seems centred around the female models and the various positions and forms their bodies might assume. What is striking about Sassen is her consistent innovativeness so much so that nothing seems to be repeated.

display at the exhibition

display at the exhibition

Writer and curator, Charlotte Cotton calls her a “Bright Star” suggesting she is one of those rare photographers who stands out in the world of fashion (she does not say who others might be yet surely Guy Bourdin might be considered one!?).  For Cotton, “Every image … is an exercise in photographic experimentation. It feels as if each aspect of a picture and its subjects is consciously put out of (conventional) kilter …

What are her images really about? Sex? Beauty? I think probably sex but they are beautiful in the way they are presented.

One technique she uses is by printing onto Cotton Rag paper with Ultrachrome inks, giving what is probably a black and white image a light red light. This is evident in one image from the Kutt series and entitled *4/2003

Viviane Sassen, a Dutch woman, is considered to be an artist having won the Prix de Rome in 2007; she is also recognized as an award-winning fashion photographer. Her approach can be considered surrealist. Often the bodies she features assume warped dimensions in which there is a sense of the mysterious often of an obvious nature since some of her group photos reveal bodies entangled in which the limbs seem not to be owned by anyone in particular.

table display of Sassen's notes and drawings

table display of Sassen’s notes and drawings

Sassen like Bourdin, makes notes before a shooting session – drawings help her to realize her ideas; these are seen in a table top display.

One large room in the exhibition is devoted to projected work. There is a TV sized screen showing a gyrating body as stills of the brightly dressed model jerks past (see end of this review). On a larger screen, there is a succession of photographs, examples of her work, some of which appear in the exhibition as physical objects.

self-portrait in the exhibition

self-portrait in the exhibition

If Sassen’s work is about sex, there is no clear cut form that it takes. Sex here assumes different kinds of form as something hidden if not forbidden; it is the body that is important not the sexual act which is not directly represented. There is a strong sense of colour and form.

In one projected photograph, the model looks wistfully upwards while playing on a recorder; in another a woman lies on a plank of wood with a yellow square around her neck, a scene that implies crucifixion. Another image shows a woman assuming four heads, two of which are joined while another shows a woman lying down with a mass of fruit between her legs. All this is quite striking but may leave one with an uncomfortable feeling possibly with a sense of sexual deviancy. These are not pornographic images yet neither are they obviously erotic.

If I am honest, I do not really know what to make of this work although what Nanda van den Berg says seems appropriate …. “Viviane is not working with an idea of obvious beauty …She could be working with the most beautiful model, but she is thinking of this model not as a human beauty, but more as a texture, a volume. She makes a new form of beauty with it.

The following are photos from a video exhibit …

still from video

still from video

still from video

still from video

still from video

still from video

still from video

still from video

still from video

still from video

Arles – 8 – straight portraiture and more

Stephanie and Eileen looking at Arabian portraiture

Stephanie and Eileen looking at Arabian portraiture

Our third visit as the OCA group takes us to see two exhibitions of Arabic studio portraiture. These come not just from another place, Cairo in Egypt and Beirut in Lebanon, but from another time. Such studios no longer exist to such an extent as modern technology has brought the photo-booth where instant identification photographs can be made; in fact, the OCA group come across one of these booths in the Parc des Ateliers which creates a great amount of enjoyment.

A photo booth - a modern approach to straught portraiture here being subverted by fellow students

The photo booth – a modern approach to straight portraiture here being subverted by fellow students

In both sets of photographs, those from Studio Fouad in Beirut and Van-Leo in Cairo, that were made between 1945 and 1975, the prints have been hand coloured; one sees painting and photography working together, hand in hand, rather than vying for supremacy and authority.

a display of portraits

a display of portraits

The characters in these portraits are largely unknown yet have interesting faces and demeanours while their clothing too is something to be admired. There is beauty in the presentation yet of a stifled kind since the subjects are posing, assuming faces that will mark them down for eternity. Interestingly, they are largely Muslim yet they remain unveiled for these are the well to do who are aware of the wider world even if they are not familiar with it.

Stanislav and Jesse Alexander in discussion

Stanislav and Jesse Alexander in discussion

For the cultural historian, there are rich findings here and the photographs are well made so the information contained within them is clear and accessible.

entrance to the Eric Kessels exhibition

entrance to the Eric Kessels exhibition

We make a short walk to the Place de la Republique to see work by Eric Kessels who has a couple of exhibitions on show, the first called “24 hours” being an installation of a mass on photographic prints all of which have been uploaded onto the Flickr website within the space of 24 hours. There are said to be about 400,000 photos but it is obvious that the pile we see is not all photos since there must be some construction to keep the almost vertical pile in place; this suspicion is confirmed by staff at the exhibition. The installation is a stark reminder of the way our world is being super-saturated with imagery; to photograph this installation and to add to the many images already present in the world is to achieve next to nothing since here one is struck by the materiality of this immense pile while in a printed image it occupies no significant space. The installation can be seen by a viewpoint at ground level and another upstairs from where one can look down on the sprawling mass of prints.

24 hours of photos

24 hours of photos

In the same building, there is another more extensive presentation by Kessels, this time of photographic albums. One is reminded of the previous exhibition in which family portraits look out at one but here, the portraits are grouped, they have found a home in albums made by their owners. These are poignant documents yet seldom made these days although digital equivalents are available.

a pile of old photo albums - poignant reminder of a largely bygone age

a pile of old photo albums – poignant reminder of a largely bygone age

A lot of these images have not been well made lacking in focus, blurred at the edges, stained, scratched, marked in some other way, unintentional double exposures, creased, predictably and often poorly composed, sentimental in nature and yet intriguing cultural artifacts.

family photographs blown up big - a defiant act in the growing disregard of family albums

family photographs blown up big – a defiant act in the growing disregard of family albums

There are large photographs revealing family albums that have been blown up in size; they assume different forms. Some family photos have been morphed into carpets! This exhibition is a nostalgic view of the family album and the importance of photography to the family as a whole; it contrasts with contemporary photography that has abandoned such objects for online collections and modes of communication.

There was a discussion about the family album at Arles, available from the Rencontres d’Arles website in French.

Arles – 7 – Guy Bourdin

The OCA group meets in the foyer of The Open College of the Arts where Gareth Dent gives an introduction to the 2 day visit; some have had to walk out of town and over the bridge to be present but it is not too far. The walk back in town to the Espace Van Gogh does not take much time yet we are forced to wait outside for longer since there is some difficulty in procuring the tickets.

Stephanie Dhubert

Stephanie Dhubert

As we do so, I photograph a fellow student, the charming Stephanie D’Hubert, a Frenchwoman who lives in Chicago. Her blog on Bourdin is worth reading and she has commented on this blog (see comments at the end).

OCA group - tutor Sharon Boothroyd left, Catherine, Brian Cooney, a little of Rob TM and Gareth Dent OCA CEO

OCA group – tutor Sharon Boothroyd left, Catherine, Brian Cooney, a little of Rob TM and Gareth Dent OCA CEO

The first exhibition we, The Open College of the Arts, see as a group is by the late Guy Bourdin, a French fashion photographer about whom I know next to nothing other than the name. The exhibition is a body of work curated from the Guy Bourdin archive. Bourdin was a French fashion photographer who lived and worked inParis during the second half of the twentieth century.Fashion as a form of photography does not exert much interest on me but any exhibition of well-made photographs is worth seeing. The photographs here are nicely crafted showing a good range of tones, pleasing compositions that often defy convention; many are small in size and being seen for the first time as they are drawn from the archive of Guy Bourdin.

a movie showing Bourdin's work with music from the time

a movie showing Bourdin’s work with music from the time

Bourdin did a lot of work for Paris Vogue often working in black and white, the medium of the day, although later work was made using colour materials; this is visible in a slide presentation called A Message for You at the end of the exhibition space where music from the time is also played helping to recreate the atmosphere of the era of which the photographs were also an important part. The video A Message for You is taken from a previous publication of Bourdin’s work that has recently been reprinted in one volume.

His concerns were artistic rather than conforming to established techniques of portraiture. He is considered one of the “most daring and intriguing artists of 20’th century visual culture with a painter’s eye, he was capable of creating fascinating images in terms of story telling, compositions and colours, which explore the realms between the absurd and the sublime.” Bourdin sketched the lay out for many of his works drawing pictures and making notes; many of the compositions are highly imaginative.

writing from Guy Bourdin

writing from Guy Bourdin

Jesse Alexander talks to Miriam @ Guy Bourdin

Jesse Alexander talks to Miriam @ Guy Bourdin

A device that he used on many occasions was to insert a photograph into the making of another photograph; this approach could have different effects and often created contrasts of one kind or another. Violence does reoccur in Bourdin’s imagery yet it is not direct rather implied; one images shows a model attached to what might be a cross while “blood” flows from her nipples.

Many of the photographs are seductive. Yet, as is the way in fashion photography, the glamorisation of physical beauty, here almost entirely feminine, is in a sense a negation of feminine beauty. In a movie that plays repeatedly, we see a young and beautiful woman responding to the camera rather than posing; her expressions are not so much her own it seems but reactions to the male gaze. At the time this short film was made, the male gaze went almost unquestioned as critical deconstruction of images was seldom questioned.

students photographing the Guy Bourdin exhibition

students photographing the Guy Bourdin exhibition

This show has not been exhibited with the photographer’s co-operation since Bourdin has passed away rather it is a curated selection of work from an archive; this influences our understanding of Bourdin’s oeuvre. A 21’st century critical mind presiding over 20’th century work.

students discussing the "cow" photograph

OCA students discussing the “cow” photograph

There is a long discussion over one photograph “Chapeau-Choc” from Vogue in 1955 of a model wearing a hat while in the background one can see a line of veal heads, young cows slaughtered for the tender quality of their meat; the associations between the two can be read in many ways as the OCA group demonstrate. Anna Goodchild is the first to get the debate moving and start a stream of associations. Woman as sacred cow or just cow, the idea that fashion photography is a kind of cattle market for women. There is the myth of beauty and the beast implied here as well as the association between woman and death, a male reoccupation perhaps. The fact that the cow heads are veal (i.e. young) and the woman is also young creates more associations while my own idea that woman is insulted by being called a cow (“a stupid old moo!” in the fictional TV character of Alf Garnett) does not gain wide acceptance perhaps because of it’s derogatory nature. Another association focuses on the idea that the tongues of the veal that stick out are somehow teasing the woman.

There were lots of comments from OCA students; one however was wrong … the suggestion that the blow up was made by the archivist is wrong …. this was the cropped photo made by Bourdin. The full frame photo is included as a point of interest.

What to say of Guy Bourdin. He has been linked to many others including the surrealist Man Ray. here are a few quotes from “Extending the Gaze” by Gilles de Bure …

The black and white of the images softens the violence of the shock … closer to poetic realism in the French style than to surrealism … almost a way of stripping down the image to the point of removing its effect on the senses, but not its sense … great conceptual and formal engagement with the magazine as his sole artistic medium … highly stylised enactments of graphic violence … the figurative nature of his work … certainly outside the usual mould of fashion photographers … refusal to let his career overshadow his work … impossible to sum up.”

Arles – 2 – Wolfgang Tillmans – New World

O’Hagan writes of Tillmans  ” the colour tones are often dramatic and the world they reflect sometimes seems to have emerged, glossy, metallic and unreal …” while the large sized prints have “incredible sharpness … making the image look hyper-real and yet painterly.” For him it seems, this is THE exhibition at Arles this year.

The website states that Tillmans ” asks himself whether the world can be seen ‘anew’ in an era characterised by a deluge of media images, and whether a sense of the whole can be formed.

view of Tilmans exhibition space

view of Tilmans exhibition space

I order the catalogue of this exhibition beforehand! On the inside of the cover is a layout of thumbnails of the photos in the book which not only contains Tillmans photos yet is also arranged by him.  This collection of photos at the beginning give the idea that this book is about some kind of journey and the images are from around the world. Although there are no page numbers, these thumbnail photos allow one to refer to the images.

What is this body of work about other than a general view of the contemporary world? Fortunately, there is an interview with Tillmans at the beginning that helps to clarify one’s understanding. It is unoriginal to quote yet Tillmans is very good at explaining his work … he references a previous photo book from 1928 by Renger-Patzsch called “The World is Beautiful” yet Tilmans book does not seem so beautiful as it mirrors much of the banality of contemporary life although Renger-Patzsch was also being realist rather than romantic but in a modernist rather than a postmodernist way; the parallels between the two bodies of work are interesting. Another book that influenced Tilmans was Visible World which was also presented as an installation. It is good to know some context for Tillmans work.

Tillmans talks of a fragmented view of the world but that it is “all a matter of the gaze, of an open, anxiety-free gaze.” This work is more objective than previous introspective work and less concerned “with art-immanent questions“. Talking about the need for good quality but super quality equipment, he says “It is important to me that my medium delivers high-quality results without it settling into a world of “special effects”. Speaking of digital photography he discusses the way it presents the world in high definition, higher than film did although film corresponded more with the detail one actually sees. Tillmans comments “I find it extremely difficult to generate photographs in an already over depicted world using precisely these new technologies.” Nice to know I am not the only one that feels this way and that greater minds are similarly flummoxed.

Tillmans does not retouch his photographs; he says, “I believe in the magic of the picture’s creation process at the moment the photograph is taken.”

Of his travels he writes …”This was no touristy round-trip that forces the so-called foreign into familiar interpretative patterns, but rather the attempt to have a genuinely new experience.” The term “new” here relates to the title of the exhibition, New World.

Tillmans comes out with significant remarks such as … “Pictures are always the transcription of an experiencing of the world. Ideally, they pose the question of there possibly being another way to experience the world. It’s not the world contained in the picture; the picture is a translationA representational picture does no more and no less than form reality before our eyes. Even if this is fundamentally a platitude, it should always be kept in mind.”

another view of the Tilmans exhibition

another view of the Tilmans exhibition

Tilmans approach to astronomy is not merely philosophical, he is aware of the scientific advances being made. This is reflected in his photographs of night skies (one feels many must be from aircraft windows) about which he is characteristically precise, discussing the difficulties of photographing night skies in which stars move and exposures are necessarily long; there is also the problem of noise that can be indecipherable from stars.

The interviewer asks, “What exactly does it mean to produce pictures in this over-depicted and over-represented world, and to make physical and mental journeys?” Tillmans still has “faith in the picture” and is ready to put himself “in situations”; “Everything is predefined on the internet. On the other hand, in the real world the possibility of a surprise is always immanent.”

When something interests me, or when I have thought about it long enough, I always find the right moment to photograph it … “ another insightful remark into the nature of photographic practice by Tillmans.

car headlights in Arles

car headlights in Arles

He describes his fascination with car headlights; images of these also appear in the book. They are seen as light sculptures and shark-eyes, aggressively designed beyond their functional needs. Tillmans likes to photograph technology, the ever changing contemporary world.

A representational picture does no more and no less than form reality before our eyes. Even if this is fundamentally a platitude, it should always be kept in mind.”

display from the Tilmans exhibition

display from the Tilmans exhibition

However, as Tillmans gets going with his idea that “Life is astronomical”, the title of this interview, I am less willing to fall in line with his thinking. He still comes out with nuggets of insight “ … ”Save the Planet!” just isn’t so because we are the planet … “ Tillmans seems to be grasping for some sense of reality and yet it is the very grasping that prevents him.

I”m aware that one can easily succumb to ethnological temptations and glorify the exotic as such. But these photographs are also reactions to my own experiences.” This strikes me as an interesting comment on travel photography. Here is another valid comment … “ … observing people and sometimes photographing them without their knowledge is acceptable when done with the kind of emphatic gaze just mentioned. Of course, each person has to decide this for himself.”

Tillmans is opposed to “an ideological understanding of knowledge and truth.” Not surprisingly therefore, he has left religion out of this body of work.

Tillmans approach to astronomy is not merely philosophical, he is aware of the scientific advances being made. This is reflected in his photographs of night skies (one feels many must be from aircraft windows) about which he is characteristically precise, discussing the difficulties of photographing night skies in which stars move and exposures are necessarily long; there is also the problem of noise that can be indecipherable from stars.

more discussion among visitors - the Toucan image can be seen top left

more discussion among visitors – the Toucan image can be seen top left

When I finally get to see the exhibition on the second day of my visit to Arles, it is a bit of an anti-climax though the prints are impressively large except for some smaller prints. There are just photographs on the walls with captions to one side that inform one of the place and date the photograph was made; they are not framed and held onto the walls by small clips. Although this work does not seem as seminal as that I saw a few years ago at the Serpentine Gallery in London, it is a good mirror of the contemporary world, at least one that I can relate to. Tilmans comes from an art background and took the art world by storm when he won The Turner Prize in the 1990’s.

There are a number of his “claddings” in the show; these are large prints of colour with some texture and marks; on entry to the exhibition, one sees a light blue to grey image of this kind. There is also a car headlight while in another photograph, a young man is seen working in a shop in Jeddah, surrounded by an array of commonplace objects such as Lipton Tea.

The large size of the prints has immediate impact, conveying their meaning more easily than those seen in the catalogue. The photographs are seldom attractive yet imply narratives.

Subjects include astronomy (a number of photographs show the stars at night), a busy Indian street with the many goings on it includes, a view down someone’s mouth showing saliva dripping off the tonsils, close-ups of food, views of urban areas, interiors, an abandoned looking captive Toucan and Ethiopia, a country I have visited a couple of times and am intrigued by.

visitors in front of an Ethiopian market scene

visitors in front of an Ethiopian market scene

This exhibition is a reminder of the way the world looks different when photographed and placed in an exhibition space; there seems to be a certain appeal in looking at it in this way as there is in seeing photographs in a book yet in a book, images are forced to fit into the page while in an exhibition, the space is less limited and images can be more freely juxtaposed.

This is not a very demanding exhibition to look at; the images speak to one without need of explanation. Yet their meanings are not always obvious and benefit from some consideration; the car headlights come in different manifestations of both colour and black and white with only an indication of colour.

Called new work, it is new in the sense that it is new work by Wolfgang Tillmans that has not been seen before yet more importantly, it also seeks to discover the new.

Arles – 5 – John Davies

The British photographer John Davies is another one the BJP overlook yet I can not help be attracted to this fine black and white photography in which composition is reaffirmed by technical control. Sean O’Hagan of The Guardian also likes this work, writing of “ … his northern English city centres, where the brutalism of urban modernity impacts with the leftover architecture of the industrial revolution. Though I’ve seen his image  Westgate, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 2001 many times, it never ceases to startle. It’s as if a modern office block has fallen from the skies between the beautiful municipal buildings from another gentler age.

What I like about John Davies is not just his fascinating attention to detail but his use of tone which is characteristically expansive; there are greys here not just black and white. At one point, I asked Gareth Dent (the OCA CEO) if he considered craft important in photography. He replied that it depends on the photographer and his work; with John Davies I consider craft to be important because he is making fine art prints. I would like to have seen this kind of depth in Sugimoto’s work!

Of his work, John Davies says … “These photographs are a selection from a variety of projects in both France and England made between 1980-2009. In these images I attempt to create a narrative to tell visual stories about social and political process, change and transformation.”

Jesse left listens while Gareth talks; the photo here is of Agecroft Power Station, Salford 1983

Jesse left listens while Gareth talks; the photo here is of Agecroft Power Station, Salford 1983

OCA tutor Jesse Alexander commented that this was a chance to see some much reproduced images (e.g. Agecroft Power Station, Salford) in the flesh, as prints that do have a certain aura (Walter Benjamin’s comments in the The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction can not be taken too literally) when printed so well.

There is an historic value to Davies’ work in that many of the places he has photographed have changed beyond recognition. The Agecroft Power Station is a case in point having been photographed by Davies in 1983 and demolished in 1995.

Davies records the human geology of the landscape, borrowing from traditional landscape motifs that were developed by pictorialists. Often this means a foreground, a middle ground and a background – a layered composition in fact. Davies is photographing not just landscape but also industry while within this larger narrative, smaller narratives can be read such as the football players in Agecroft Power Station as well as people with horses in the foreground.

Jesse Alexander in discussion with Anna Goodchild over a John Davies photograph "Allotments, Easington Colliery, County Durham 1983"

Jesse Alexander in discussion with Anna Goodchild over a John Davies photograph “Allotments, Easington Colliery, County Durham 1983”;                    a gloomy view yet one that will change dramatically over time.

Apart from captions identifying the subject, the place and the date, this exhibition does not go into detailed explanations about the photographs; we are left to make our own explorations. Elsewhere, he has given more information about the content of his photographs such as in the book British Landscapes (2006).

Liz Wells who has written a major work on the critique of landscape in Land Matters refers in the section entitled “Class and Region” to “Davies’ interest in an anti-pastoral pictorial; the critical vein of the work emerges from the content of the image. ” and that his work ” … documents visual legacies of industrial modernity“. Her criticism is that “There is a risk that political commentary is diluted rather than distilled, as the industrial becomes a strand within a new perspective.” Of his gallery prints, she writes that they remove emphasis from the documentary idiom while drawing attention to the pictorial.

view crowd around a John Davies print

view crowd around a John Davies print

My understanding of his images is partly that of connoisseur since I have also laboured in the chemical darkroom and know how skilled one needs to be to present work of the nature of John Davies who combines the craft of printmaking with the ability to compose; a wide array of tones helps to convey a sense of the sublime. There is seldom however a pretty picture and much is said about the use of land.

John Davies shares much about the technical side of his work on his website under the menu item technical notes. The following mention is a reminder of the significance of his black and white work … “The quality of digital photo technology has rapidly improved in recent years but CCD sensors still have some way to go to compete with the versatility of the boiled cow bones that are manufactured into gelatin film. To date (2010) I have not seen anything to match the quality of a fine B&W silver gelatin print made on fibre-based paper and made from a negative.”

The OCA group looking at before and after prints made of a French town loosing a war memorial and countryside where a road was built

The OCA group looking at before and after prints made of a French town loosing a war memorial and countryside where a road was built over a pond

Davies’ work is remarkable in the way it records a moment in time; this tendency runs through earlier work yet is more prominent in some of his later work such as in before (1995) and after (1998) photographs of a French town “Chaillac, Saint-Benoit-de-Sault” in which the war memorial was removed and the lawns of the town replaced by tarmac for a car park.

In spite of the obvious mundanity of much of Davies’ work, these are views that can be contemplated over and over again. The prints here have also been laid out in relation to each other not so much as a sequence rather as a collection of formal objects with interior detail.

Arles – 6 – Hiroshi Sugimoto

entrance the Sugimoto's Revution exhibition

entrance to Sugimoto’s Revution exhibition; self portrait in mirror reflection

I thought this exhibition might be the highlight of my visit yet it turned out to be rather disappointing owing to the harshness of the presentation; black and white photography can be a delicious exploration of grey but here it was very much black and white without much in-between! Armin Zweite argues in the introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition in the “Photography Becoming Painting” section that “His works range from black to white with a striking variety of gray nuances” yet this does not seem to be in evidence in Revolution; the text is in fact referring to Sugimoto’s Seascapes.

Catherine Banks by Sugimoto panoramic

Catherine Banks by Sugimoto panoramic

The panoramic images of seascapes containing the moon were upended so that one found oneself cricking one’s neck to see what they might look like horizontally; there is virtually no detail visible in these images except for the foreground of some images that revealed the ripple of waves. Apparently, this was done purposefully to add depth to the images and provide hazy horizons. Clouds are likewise defocused.

exhibition space of Sugimoto's Revolution

exhibition space of Sugimoto’s Revolution

There were a couple of horizontal photographs and these were placed at either end of the panoramic shaped hall in which the photographs were displayed. Long exposures mean that the moon is often registered as a bright streak. The following is from the artist’s statement and may provide some deeper insight into the nature of these photographs …

“For a long time it was my calling to stand on cliffs and gaze at the horizon, where the sea touches the sky. One day, standing atop a lone island peak in a remote sea, the horizon encompassing my entire field of vision, for a moment it felt as if I was floating above an immeasurable void. But then, as I viewed the horizon encircleing me, I had a distinct sensation of the earth as a watery globe.

In my dreams as a child, I often floated in midair. Sometimes I’d leave my body and watch my sleeping self from on high near the ceiling. Like a astral projection perhaps, a waking self coexisting simultaneously with a sleeping self. Even as an adult, I habitually imagine myself airborne. Might this be at the root of my artistic spirit?

There is certainly a contemplative feel to this work but referencing the artist’s statement seems necessary rather than enjoying the work for it’s visual impact. A fellow student (not Catherine who is pictured above) finds the presentation “slick”!

entrance to Colours of the Shadow exhibition

entrance to Colours of the Shadow exhibition

The philosophy behind Sugimoto’s other exhibition “The colour of shadows” is similar to “Revolution” as Sugimoto connects with nature in the making of the images. He explains … “my daily routine saw me rise at 5:30 every morning. First thing, I would check for hints of light dawning above the eastern horizon. If the day promised fair weather, next I would sight the ‘morning star’ shining to the upper right of the nascent dawn. Only then did I ready my old Polaroid camera and start warming up a film pack from the long winter night chill.”

discussion in Colours of the Shadow exhibition; the Last Supper mural can be seen in the background

OCA discussion in Colours of the Shadow exhibition; the Last Supper mural can be seen in the background while the glass prism is centre.

It took me a bit of time to work out how these images were made; some people said they were computer generated images and hence divorced from reality. In fact, they were scanned from polaroids made from photographing dawn reflections on a prism. Sugimoto states … “Sunlight travels through black empty space, strikes and suffers my prism, and refracts into an infinite continuum of colour. In order to view each hue more clearly, I devised a mirror with a special micro-adjusting tilting mechanism. Projecting the coloured beam from a prism onto my mirror, I reflected it into a dim observation chambre where I reduced it to Polaroid colours.

inside the Colours of the Shadow exhibition

inside the Colours of the Shadow exhibition

With Sugimoto’s work, it helps to know the context in which it is made to understand it. That done, this exhibition I found thoroughly enjoyable.

an image from the Colours of the Shadow exhibition

an image within glass from the Colours of the Shadow exhibition; others appeared as banners and wearable jackets

Hiroshi Sugimoto is highly regarded by the art world yet the immediacy of his work is not always evident. Is he playing with us? If so, it is in a good way it seems! I liked his exploration of natural or primal colour as a way of better understanding colour itself and understanding the emotional lure of colour where, for example, green is envy but can be spacious and free as in a colour of nature. If art is transformative, here it is helping us to see beyond the tug of the everyday colour we have become accustomed to perhaps enslaved by, and to connect with colour that can enliven our lives.

Perhaps I am starting to justify this work in the language of art critique and yet I did enjoy it unlike the rather dull and foreboding Revolution which one might however grow to like with time – the reproduction in the catalogue seems better than in the gallery to say nothing of the seductive accompanying essay!

Another student, Rob Seabridge, did not like Colours of the Shadow but did like Revolution, for almost the same reasons I liked Colours of the Shadow and not Revolution; we did not come to blows over this but enjoyed a meal together! Eileen has given a more balanced view with links.