Sometime ago, my tutor at the OCA, Sharon Boothroyd mentioned she was making a body of work around prayer. As someone who meditates, I offered to be a model for her work. However, although Sharon’s work embodies the documentary she is not interested so much in recording the world around her but in interpreting it. Prayer is not being taken as an activity here, one does not see a selection of people kneeling in response to their faith, rather one sees a collection of images that seem to be saying different things. Initially, it may be hard to determine what they are saying as although image and text are combined, the text does not necessarily relate directly to the image. As Boothroyd says, “The pairings between image and text are not meant to be illustrations of the prayer but operate as visual stimuli for the viewer to bring their own nuance and interpretation into the space between, often referred to as a ‘third meaning’.”
To see this work for oneself, click HERE The gallery space is at Williams in Soho, named after the visionary and poet, William Blake, one of the most extraordinary British artists. He wrote poetry which he also illustrated and there is a biblical feel to his work. The building is a series of offices or study areas for people working in artistic production and the exhibition itself is hung along the walls of the ground floor alongside the entrance, a welcome desk and a staircase; there is also a coffee machine and this space is obviously one used by people on a regular basis so the work gets seen. The rarefied presence of the gallery is barely noticeable but the photographs themselves are mounted on aluminium with wooden tray frames and hung on white walls. The archival prints have been made using an Epson inkjet.
Sharon at one point questioned the strength of the shadows in her work and I offered some advice from my own experience of working with Epson inkjets; the images do look a little contrasty but this arguably works to give an effect that is not manicured rather true to the etchy way we tend to see things. Boothroyd does not appear to believe in colour correction; for example, the interiors reveal the colour castes, often pleasurable, of interior lighting. However, her photograph of a couple fencing is a classic example of a perfectly lit and expertly designed image which can not help but impress as do the tips of the swords as they poke into their opponents. Boothroyd is an accomplished photographer.
Before considering individual photographs and their textual counterpoints, it might be worth reflecting on text that runs alongside one part of the exhibition space, “Mutual Forgiveness of each Vice, Such are the Gates of Paradise.” The prayers cited by Boothroyd do not seem religious rather they are personal wishes, demands made to a higher force to grant desires some of which can not be described as pure! As Boothroyd says, “Most seemed to centre around the self without a deference of God’s will or any alternative outcomes.” Some border on the humorous such as “Please bless my eBay listings” which is paired with a view of a warehouse.
Another example, “Please make him kick her out” is printed like the other text which is framed similarly to the images; it is right of an image of what appears to be a beauty salon. To the other side is an image of a washing machine for clothes, standing in the corner of a room in which there is also a basket and a box of washing up powder.
The next image in this row is of a young woman in a bar; we do not see her whole face, only the side of it as she turns; there is no bartender present. The caption reads “Please keep us safe tonight.” If one had jumped to the conclusion that this single woman was some kind of hooker then the sentiment of the caption would probably destroy that idea yet leave one none the wiser; as Boothroyd writes, “I hope the ambiguity allows for further, even conflicting, narratives and interpretations to emerge depending on the personal viewpoint and history of my viewer.“
Is there an image I would like to take home with me if I was prepared to pay £750 for a mounted photograph? The image of a dog looking out of a window from the chair it is lying on is immediately appealing among a group of images that can take time to even glimpse meaning within. However, the caption to the dog photo, “please help me to withdraw my affections” gives an almost diametrical meaning to the contemplative dog! Are we being made aware of a typical doting attitude towards dogs? Perhaps the caption to the left of the dog photo is the one we ought to be reading! This text states, “Please don’t let anything happen to Popo” and so the poor brute is kept locked up.
Boothroyd says that this exhibition is about “loneliness in contemporary society” and this is what seems to echo from these images. The photographs themselves are imbedded with meaning but this takes time to extract. One could comfortably view these images in a few minutes but one would leave unsatisfied, unaware of the diferent layers of meaning. One image that seems straightforward is of a collection of mobile homes with the caption, “Please give me a new roomie” as is a photograph of an unkempt looking dwelling with the caption, “Please bring us some luck”, both perhaps reflecting the chronic lack of housing in contemporary Britain. Yet collectively this body of images is saying something more.
After over an hour scrutinising the images, I am still not really any the wiser. I would like to be able to see all these images put together in a book that I can read and reread so that their meanings can be absorbed.
Do I have a favourite? It would have to be a personal choice! As one drawn to trees, my choice is the leafless tree that casts a shadow on the pinkish wall behind it; the caption is one of the few that actually reads like a prayer …
This is an exhibition I have seen before and written about; to make the trek up to Leeds which involves a 4 hour train journey each way does at least allow me to study en route yet more importantly, to see my old tutor again even though she has now left the college. Apart from a more in-depth view of the exhibition, there is the chance to show work and receive feedback.
Boothroyd has said of this work that it is about “loneliness in contemporary society” and knowing that does help to explain what these photographs are about. Of course, one is looking for something more than the sense of misery being conveyed; the prayers cited tend not to point to anything more than self-concern. Is not art only really art when it points to something greater than itself? That is a bigger question that I don’t think I shall be asking Sharon; am more likely to enquire how she came to be exhibiting in Manchester when she lives in London. Sharon however comes from Ireland.
advertisement in Leeds railway station
I arrive in Leeds and after a snack lunch on a bench at the station make the short journey to the gallery not 5 minutes walk away. Everything seems very quiet! Have I got the wrong day? Surely not. The exhibition is on and I wander through making some record shots. It is good to see the works again and clarify a few details.
Looking at these photographs, one year or so on, with a mind perhaps more developed in regard to reading photographs, I look again with fresh insight. To comment on every photo would be too tedious but I shall endeavour to do so about a few.
Some of the “prayers” seem strange. “Please help me to withdraw my affections” is such a one; it accompanies a photograph of a woman possibly Sharon looking at her mobile phone while sitting in a cafe with the photographer peering in from the twilight outside. One might comment on the symbolism such as the bicycle outside but there are no obvious meanings here!
The lead photograph for the exhibition of a tree and its shadow on a pinkish wall behind carries no caption.
Another photo of a seated woman, this time facing one, has the caption “please let him see the signs that we are meant to be together” yet the image contains no such signs that I can recognise!
I find the ice cream sales van in the middle of the country with no one around rather amusing; the caption reads “please lead me to a brighter path”
The woman alone at the bar has the caption, “please keep us safe tonight!” which is redolent of violence against women who might be “picked up” in bars and similar places. No comment other than the picturing of the loneliness and violence such women sometimes are forced to endure.
This time I take stock of the faceless duo fencing. The caption here reads “please strengthen my heart.”
The caption for the dog looking out of the window photo is clearly “please don’t let anything happen to Popo!” I know that dogs can get terribly lonely and am relieved that my dog has a carer while I am out today but, given the circumstances, wish I did not have to have said goodbye to her early this morning although by the time I left she had gone back to bed.
The man having his hair coiffured in the barbers is interesting. The caption is “Please lighten his heart!” The “open” sign has the n missing and so is reduced to ope which implies Hope. One might also read into this image the various connotations that a barber suggests but beyond mentioning contraceptives I shall not give in to conjecture.
A washing machine with a box of washing powder carries the caption “please bless my eBay listings”!
There is a second photograph of theatre seats this time containing not a close up of the seats but a wider view with a screen. Sexual jealousy of which the movies might be considered to encourage with their glamorous untouchable characters is mirrored in the caption that reads “Please do not let a romance grow between them”.
There is an eerie quality to the ambiguous nature of these photographs suggested by the twilight nature of the light that is present in many of them.
I ask the barman about the talk and portfolio session. He says it has been cancelled. I contact the organisers Red Eye and receive a profound apology. Apparently Sharon cancelled this morning! I might have got a message but did not yet even if I had it would have been too late! Can’t help but. reflect for a moment on the perceived selfishness of the art world; those who transcend it are few it seems.
whether they have considered local photographer, Peter Mitchell? Apparently they have! They also answer my question; they were approached by Sharon Boothroyd in the first place!
The White Cloth gallery
itself is an interesting venture. The owner also owns the cafe-bar but is not present. The space looks good and they invite photographers to show work by emailing images for show. Apart from one other person who drops in for a drink, I am the only person present. The magazine Hungry Eye although advertised is not for sale. There is an account of the gallery opening on one placard; this happened over four years ago in 2012.