I received an invitation to this exhibition party just a couple or so hours before it was due to start; after making the obligatory “leave of absence” request, I drove over to Bridgewater and parked by the River Parrett, the very river I had been busy photographing a year ago when it was flooding in some places and threatening to in others. I did not know exactly where the gallery was but seeing some banners outside a nearby building, I made my way there and it turned out to be the Bridgewater Arts Centre where this exhibition about the Somerset Floods is running. Called “Reflections, Somerset Floods, One Year On” it features the work of Matilda Temperley whose book “Under the Surface” I had bought last year and have read from cover to cover; it is a remarkable example of a photographer covering an event of which they are themselves part. It is largely free of the photo-journalistic element being more of a personal response.
The information about the exhibition on the Arts Centre website runs, “Reflections : Somerset Floods, One Year On” is a stunning photographic exhibition that documents the impact of the devastating floods that transformed the landscapes and communities of the Somerset Levels in early 2014. It is a creative collaboration between photographer Matilda Temperley and Bath Spa University’s Department of Social Sciences. The eerie beauty of a landscape impacted by the incursion of flood water is documented in Matilda Temperley’s stunning photography. She details and records the lives, homes and businesses turned upside down during those traumatic events of one year ago. Accompanying the images are the reflections of families whose existences were devastated by the waters and who were visited by Bath Spa University social researchers in late 2014. They share their experiences of recovery from this natural-social disaster and their hopes and fears for the future of the communities on the Levels.”
The exhibition was referred to as a display by a number of people I met during the exhibition party. This partly seemed to stem from an unawareness of photography as art that can be exhibited rather than mere document yet also because in some cases, a couple or more photographs had been printed together on a board with text added. The was the work of Bath Spa University who were responsible for this exhibition and have been working with Matilda, the photographer, and interviewing people affected by the disaster. Beside the photographs, they have included text from interviews with the people affected; this use of text and photograph make for a powerful record.
On one wall of the gallery, a rather awkward internal space not purpose built, was a large photograph of the flooded church of Moorland with before and after photographs to one side including the local vicar and interviews with her (see below). The photographs gives substance to the text and vice the versa. This documentary approach seemed to dominate and effectively describe what happened and what life was like for those who had to endure it.
Personally, I would like to have seen more of a photographic exhibition in which text was secondary; visual delight rather than information overload. Yes, it was an event that needed to be recorded but looking through the prism of art, one is encouraged to see beyond the muddy reality. This exhibition has the stamp of sociologists and geographers rather than the photographer who made it possible.