Something and Nothing: reflections on an exhibition of Stephen Shore’s work and his book “The Nature of Photographs”

Reflections on an exhibition by Stephen Shore

window of the Spruth Magers gallery

window of the Spruth Magers gallery

It was by a chance scanning of photographic exhibitions in London that I came across this exhibition of Stephen Shore’s work at a private gallery in Central London. I wonder why the Open College of the Arts had not seized on it and made a study day of the occasion; it seems the college are more focused on photography as art rather than “photography for photography’s sake!” yet Shore is recognized as a seminal photographer. At the beginning of his book “The Nature of Photographs”, James L.Enyeart writes in the introduction that Shore can be considered in the same light as John Berger, Roland Barthes and John Szarkowski, all distinguished commentators on photography. Barthes and Berger wrote as critics of the medium while Szarkowski wrote with greater empathy for his subjects, promoting photography as art. What Shore has done is present photography and in particular the photograph from the point of view of a photographer or the “operator” as Barthes refers to the maker of photographs at the beginning of Camera Lucida.

Stephen Shore was born in 1947 in New York. He started taking pictures aged 6, had sold prints to the MOMA by the age of 14 and at 17 became a regular at Andy Warhol’s factory where he began to experiment with fine art techniques. In 1971, he switched to making colour photographs and started travelling around the USA photographing the diversity of the suburban landscape and producing the series American Surfaces and Uncommon Places; he started teaching photography at Bard College in New York in 1982.

Looking at the image on the Internet that advertises this exhibition, I wonder what makes it so remarkable. One sees the torso of a woman, her firm breasts filling the bra she wears while behind there is an interesting gold and black wall paper design. She does not seem to be an incredibly beautiful woman or particularly sexy neither is she a recognizable celebrity; what made the photographer take this image and put it in a gallery? The reason for it being put on the net is probably because the gallery thought that a loosely clad female would immediately attract attention particularly that of males, still the dominant force in society.

Paddington Station

Paddington Station

I made the 2-hour journey by train to London to see this exhibition before it closed, reading Shore’s book “The Nature of Photographs” as I did so. He is interested not so much in the technicalities of image making but the substance of the photograph. The book written in the 1990’s is perhaps a little dated (it has since been updated) as Shore writes about “all photographs made with a camera and printed directly from the negative” hence revealing he is primarily concerned with the pre-digital photograph. However, his consideration of photography as photography rather than under the vaguer term of art is welcome. These days, the majority of photographs are viewed electronically yet his description of “an image, an illusion of a window onto the world. It is on this level that we usually read a picture and discover its content” is still as relevant today as when it was written possibly more so.

Prints still do function in the world of photography since they are the mainstay of the gallery though screen viewed images are increasingly popular. A print created through electronic rather than chemical means still possesses many of the characteristics Shore mentions such as the physicality of flatness, the frame, hue and tonal range, texture of the base, the effect of dyes and pigments. Still of interest is “the way shadows, mid tones, and highlights are described by the print; they determine how many shades of gray the print contains and whether these tones are compressed or separated.”

The text refers to prints that were viewed in an exhibition and hence the book falls rather short of accurately conveying what Shore is talking about although the series of images reproduced give an excellent insight into the photographic medium and many of its protagonists. In his own words, Shore writes, “The context in which a photograph is seen affects the meanings a viewer draws from it.” A book or screen can never reflect the carefully produced image of the individual print, a fact that is often lost in the contemporary electronic proliferation of images.

A photograph “depicts” aspects of the world and “are the means by which photographers express their sense of the world, give structure to their perceptions and articulation to their meanings.” The three dimensional is transmuted into the two dimensional and yet photographs can present spatial depth and their monocular vision although apparently limited does give a unique view of the world as it “creates juxtaposition of lines and shapes within the image, edges create relationships between these lines and shapes and the frame. The relationships that the edges create are both visual and ‘contextual”. New visual relationships emerge from within the frame and the photographer needs to respond to these.

What the photographer includes or excludes is another important consideration. Visual relationships exist not just between elements within the frame but also in regard to the frame itself. The active effect of the frame varies between images.

Time also plays an important part in the still photograph since it is frozen. As Shore says, “A photograph is static, but the world flows in time. As this flow is interrupted by the photograph, a new meaning, a photographic meaning, is delineated.” What Szarkowski called “a discrete parcel of time” is effected by what Shore identifies as “the duration of the exposure and the static nature of the print and film.”

Focus and the way in which it is employed by a photographer is another important feature of the photograph as it can effect the reading of the image; it can also effect the way the eye adjusts to seeing the image when different planes of focus might upset the predictable movement of the eye. There is a mental focus as “your eyes don’t actually refocus (since you are only looking at a flat page). It is your mind that changes focus within your mental image of the picture …” There can be a marked difference between the space depicted in a photograph and the way the eye understands that space. “The mental level elaborates, refines, and embellishes our perceptions of the depictive level.”

When making rather than taking a photograph, a photographer makes decisions relating to vantage point, framing, timing and focus so that “The quality and intention of a photographer’s attention leave their imprint on the mental level of the photograph”. Such decisions can be “conscious, intuitive, and automatic” according to Shore and are part of the way a photographer mentally arranges a picture. “When photographers take pictures, they hold mental models in their minds, models that are the result of the proddings of insight, conditioning, and comprehension of the world.” There are basic models that allow “only sunsets to pass through” while “At the other extreme, the model is supple and fluid, readily accommodating and adjusting to new perceptions.” Shore makes the point that if the photographer is conscious of this process it can bring “the mental level of the photograph under control.”

There is depictive and realized space not only within the photograph but also between the photograph and its viewer. A landscape might cover a large area but not require the mental eye while a close up of a confined space might make the eye move between different elements.

The making of photographs “is a complex, ongoing, spontaneous interaction of observation, understanding, imagination, and intention.” There are different levels to the photograph that is ultimately ‘a piece of paper … a seductive illusion … a moment of truth and beauty.”

Reading Shore’s book “The Nature of Photographs” I thought might set me up for an exhibition that I might otherwise have difficulty comprehending although its message is probably much simpler than one might imagine from reading a book. It was good to read the book again and again, like last time, in a train! It is full of a certain kind of photographic wisdom as it tightly analyses the elements of the photograph. It did not however relate much to what I was about to see.

Spruth Magers gallery, London W1

Spruth Magers gallery, London W1

Spruth Magers is a gallery in Central London occupying a corner of Grafton Street tucked away behind the Royal academy of Arts amidst shops named after well known brands such as Burberry’s, Chanel, Cartier, Dior, Gucci and Tiffany’s. On the ground floor of the building, there is an impressive front window in which the exhibition is announced. “Something and Nothing” curated by Todd Levin starts (if indeed it does have a beginning) with a couple of books under a glass case, held in place by a large pebble with the Taoist ying-yang symbol on the top. Text by the composer John Cage is visible behind the glass and begins as follows …

“This is a talk about something and naturally also a talk about nothing. About how something and nothing are not opposed to each other but need each other to keep going.”

glass cabinet with John Cage text

glass cabinet with John Cage text

A print out from the gallery also on their website, gives information as to how this exhibition might be understood yet I leave this to read later.

Inquiring at the entry of the building whether photography was permissible and receiving an affirmative, I started by adjusting my camera to the colour temperature of the gallery by photographing a white wall. I could of course have left the colour correction to the eye dropper in a software program yet more elaborate approach seemed a good way to start if only to sustain something of the purity of the photographic process which Shore has obviously used in the making of his images. Another visitor asks me whether I think the photographs are digital or chemical; he points out one image in which the curious nature of digital seems to lurk in distorted foliage. A digital print perhaps possibly even the result of a digital camera? I wonder if this consideration is really relevant to the exhibition and show being more a concern of photographers trying to clumsily eke out the method behind the genius of Shore.

collection of landscape photos

collection of landscape photos

Behind the presentation of the books, is a wall with 4 large landscape photographs with white frames. Like all the photographs in this exhibition there are no titles or captions given, one needs to rely on the image itself to understand it, another example of the photographic purity of Stephen Shore. All four images contain slopes of one kind or another with 3 having texture brought out by rocks and stones and the other by grass. Other than being part of the landscape genre, one wonders what relationship these images have between each other; there seems to be no clear message although one image in the top left of the display surprisingly reveals a town that blends into the image disguised by the building’s similarity with the stones on the slope beneath it.

more photos from the first gallery

more photos from the first gallery

On another wall of this gallery, there is a series of 6 images that indicate a merging between landscape and the urban. In one, a tarmacked road leads towards a large Christian building, half hidden by the vegetation and buildings that surround it. Although in the background, Shore has focused on this building leading to a softening of the foreground detail thereby focusing our attention on the building in question, a technique suggested in his book “The Nature of Photographs.”

A feature of this exhibition is the way images have been grouped together, recognizably joined by subject matter. This was done in preference to presenting a chronological order.

Magritte painting

Magritte painting

Shore's photograph

Shore’s photograph

The other gallery, the one that forms the entry to the exhibition, also has a glass case mounted in the centre of the room. Under this, there is a painting that appears to be a Magritte original. It shows a meticulous and realistic painting of the seaside that perfectly merges with seaside behind it, seen through a window behind the easel on which the painting rests. The easel is inside a room. The motif is characteristic of Magritte and recognisably surrealistic. To the right of Magritte’s painting is a landscape photograph that contains another landscape photograph. As in Magritte’s painting within a painting, Shore’s photograph reflects the landscape yet it is far from a seamless blend showing the view at a different time of year and day as well as from a slightly different viewpoint. Shore seems to be making a point here about the nature of the photograph and the differences between painting and photography. They are different disciplines producing different results might be one message but one might speculate further. The photographed photo for instance is an idealised view, it contains not only a snowy peak yet also a sunset or sunrise, and like so many photographs of that kind remains an idealised view of the world rather than a realistic one as is clear here. I think perhaps this is my favourite image in the exhibition because it contains meanings that interest me and that I understand to some degree; there is also an element of humour in the juxtaposition.

grouping - main gallery - Shore exhibition-20140108-London-_MG_9357

The first set of photographs I look at in this room involve people moving through landscapes. There is an image of a man seen from behind, wheeling his bicycle through woods; he is just approaching a divide in the road and one may wonder whether he will continue along the well-worn path that bears left or the overgrown one that leads to the right. The photograph has a subtle tension and is another favourite of mine. In another image alongside this one, a man walks past a long lorry from which an arm drapes out of the passenger window. The man walking towards us looks to one side and carries a bouquet of flowers. In the background there is architecture that looks dated particularly the top of a tower above which a small mobile mast pokes incongruously into the sky; the road is unkempt, the setting rural. Another image shows a woman striding past a building, her shadow falling crisply on a stone wall while behind her is a much larger yet softer shadow of a tree looking almost as if it might ominously be creeping up on her. Other images of people walking through built up areas show different characters most notable a couple of bowler hatted Jews with beards and flowing locks.

grouping 2 - main gallery - Shore exhibition-20140108-London-_MG_9348

The next group of framed photographs contain not people but cars in built up areas. As with all the groups of images, some prints are small possibly contact printed from 4 by 5 inch negatives, while others are much larger. In one of the larger images, a woman sits in a car drinking from a bottle, her face partially obscured by shadow and the bottle she drinks from.

grouping corner - main gallery - Shore exhibition-20140108-London-_MG_9349

A group of 4 images is set in one corner of the gallery, indicating both the complex design of buildings that stand alongside each other in towns and cities as well as the array of objects that modern civilisation produces which includes keys and locks, light bulbs, kettles and so on. There is a symmetry to these images that arises out of careful design on the part of the photographer.

images of ordinary food

images of ordinary food

The next group of photographs shows close up images of different kinds of mostly prepared food although fruit does feature in one. The food is accompanied by cutlery and hence the idea of consumption is suggested. I cannot help but think of Martin Parrs culinary images although those suggest nauseasness while Shores merely imply a slight distastefulness, for instance, food being kept beneath plastic covers.

photographs of ordinary objects

photographs of ordinary objects

Another group of photographs show a set of interiors within which characteristic objects are found although these are of a dated appearance. There is a TV in a wooden cabinet, a newspaper with Russian script, a book with Jewish script on the cover, medals with Russian inscriptions are placed on a carpet, a telephone with a student ID card lying beside it and an image of a radio. These objects are transitory, the kind of devices that people change on a regular basis and their presence says much here about time.

group of found portraits

group of found portraits

The first of two groups of portraits shows found images; portraits in an official document, a photograph attached to a gravestone and portraits that are part of advertisements.  The second group of portraits reveal more formal yet unstudied portraiture, the subjects appearing in the real life the photographer is documenting. There is a baby (a small print), a young boy asleep against a window, a young woman wearing a head scarf her identity obscured by the fact she is photographed from behind, two small images of glamorous women (one of these is the one being used to advertise the exhibition), an elderly woman who looks up from her pillow with a lined face and eyes that do not meet those of the photographer, another small photo of a man with a naked torso lying on a couch in front of a window while a larger photo reveals a young man seen from the side who wears a small cap on his head. Another reference to Jewishness! Is this a subject Shore is concerned with? These two portrait groups and the former one of people walking through urban areas reveal that Shore likes to include a varied range of subjects.

group of portraits

group of portraits

grouping of photographs of suburban houses

grouping of photographs of suburban houses

The final series of photographs, these are on the right of the entrance to the galleries and so might be intended to be viewed first, shows a series of suburban houses. Again a taxonomic approach is suggested as Shore records houses that range from a mini castle complete with crenelations, a bungalow amidst trees lit by dappled light, a modern looking building with high windows set behind palm trees while there is a two-up, two-down fronted by lush green topiary.

I go to a nearby café for some refreshment; over an hour of seeing the exhibition and making notes starts to tire me. I also want to consider what I have seen, reflect a little on the nature of the images. Their appeal lies partly in the fact that they don’t need captions and can be viewed as entities in their own right.

The lighting in the gallery illuminates the photographs well yet there are many reflections that interfere with the viewing of the images, requiring the viewer to move around rather like a photographer seeking the best angle from where he can make his image.

The use of large format does add a clarity to the images that is admirable and eases the gaze of the viewer. This may just be a technical matter but it does have a considerable effect.

cabinet in passage way where Stephen Shores books were kept

cabinet in passage way where Stephen Shores books were kept

In another space, a hallway in which there is also a lift, there is a display of Shore’s books on shelves behind glass. They are not for sale (the poster was but copies were exhausted soon after the exhibition began) but can be ordered through the publisher Phaidon. The fact that Shore has released a project called “A New York Minute” in digital format and is still producing new work is evidence that he is not just a seminal photographer but also a contemporary one.

My lingering perception of Shore’s photographs is that they are well-made, high quality products. This is partly a result of them being made with a large format camera by a skilled operator who knows exactly what he is doing, not as common a occurrence as one might assume, while the content of these images are also thought provoking and informative. There is a kind of photographic purity to Shore’s work that I find refreshing in todays world of mass produced electronic photographic imagery which usually reveals little skill requiring only pointing the device in a certain direction at a given time. Shore’s images are everyday yet they are not mundane rather they transform what might be considered banal into something worthwhile. Shore’s approach is not just referential it is also reverential.

main gallery

main gallery

The A4 print out I read after seeing and reflecting upon the exhibition; it mentions that “the images are organised categorically rather than chronologically” as evidenced by the groupings mentioned in my account of the exhibition. One sentence from this print out reads, “Shore’s photographic eye similarly directs us to markers of time and of change, capturing the quotidian, a sense of locality and signs of cultural and temporal change” and that he pioneers “two of the most important photographic idioms of the past forty years; the diaristic snapshot and the monumentalised landscape”.  My understanding of the exhibition is influenced by the title and introductory text by John Cage though the correspondence is not immediately obvious other than to suggest that this is more than just a collection of favourite images, the result of many years of photographing the social landscape.

Here is a link to Stephen Shore’s Book of Books, a collection of his life’s work so far.

Tom Hunter in Hackney, London

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Tom Hunter, photographer, talking to OCA graduate students

Tom Hunter is a photographer I have been aware of since seeing his seeing his photograph “Woman Reading a Possession order” which is an overt reference to a painting by Vermeer, part of the Dutch School. The chance to hear him talking seemed too good an opportunity to miss and so early one morning, I left at dawn to catch a train to London. It was surprisingly easy to reach the Bootstrap Gallery, a 3 month old project a short walk away from Dalston Overground station.

20130302-AMANO - Tom Hunter talk-20130302-London-_MG_9049

The converted building where the workshop was held

The OCA crowd were already in evidence and Sharon Boothroyd, a tutor from the OCA let me in through the security doors. I needed to visit the Gents and following a sign went up to the top of the building in search of one. At the top was a door which lead onto a landscaped garden rooftop; from another building nearby I heard the whistle of a Mynah bird. This was obviously a wrong turning but it was an interesting spectacle.

20130302-AMANO - Tom Hunter talk-20130302-London-_MG_9057

the rooftop of the building in which the exhibition was held

Sharon, OCA tutor for the day, has written the following on her Photoparley blog about Tom Hunter …

Tom Hunter’s photographs permit the viewer an instantaneous and unashamed pleasure in looking.  Then, once we are drawn in, they deliver a punch of meaningful content. These large scale prints are grounded in the eye-opening realities of life in East London but at the same time speak to another world; one of beauty, thought and celebration. It is this blend of documentary and art that is so fascinating.

Not long after I found myself in a studio waiting for Tom Hunter to appear. There were a couple of dozen of OCA students. When Tom Hunter started his talk, he asked if we were “A” level students and it was left for me to pipe up, “No, undergraduates!” though it was difficult to notice many if any people under 40. Three cheers for adult education!

Tom started by saying that as a child, his father had a darkroom in the garden, and it was here he experienced the magic moment of seeing a photograph he had taken of his sister materialise before his eyes. It was however not until he was 23 that he picked up a camera and start taking photographs again. Initially, he took pictures of people coming to his stall in a part of Hackney where he lived; usually, markets are not easy to make photographs in but since he was sitting and snapping people who were coming to him, it worked well and encouraged him to do a course at LCP (London College of Printing).

As he photographed his surroundings, he became interested in local issues at a time when Hackney was a very different place to the one it is now; he found it a warm and welcoming place, a vibrant community. It was considered to be almost a ghetto at the time (with ruins of Second World War bombing) yet for Tom it was a “living” place with a recognisable community even if many people were living in squats. He made a model of his house into which he inserted 5by4 transparency photographs and this was appreciated not just by friends but officially and the piece now belongs to The Museum of London. The area has experienced massive regeneration since those days of the late 80’s and a house that was once offered by the council for £5000 recently went for £2.4 million; Tom does not consider himself as a successful businessman since he might have cashed in on this!

The acceptance of his work lead him to make the career decision to be an artist and he began to photograph his friends and neighbours many of whom were considered at the time to be anti-social elements of society, dispossessed people.

His studies brought him into contact with such work as Dorothy Lange’s “Migrant Mother’, a Madonna and Child image, that speaks of the poverty that existed in the U.S. during the Depression era of the 1930’s. He also came across artists such as Vermeer of the Golden Age of Dutch Painting. At that time, Holland was defending itself from the Spanish and so while the map in one Vermeer painting might appear an interesting but tame reference, at the time such maps were illegal owing to the Spanish influence which claimed Holland as it’s own so this image was actually provocative. Yet what inspired Tom about Vermeer was the way he elevated the status of common and ordinary people. He has been doing the same thing through his own work. A work by Vermeer called The Art of Painting, has been transformed by Tom into a contemporary “The Art of Squatting”.

Another of his recreations has been of John Everett Millias’ “Ophelia” (1852) which is apparently the most popular art print in the UK. His own photograph is made in similar circumstances in Hackney – his Ophelia is a prone figure lying in the water surrounded by weeds while an industrial landscape looms in the background.

Some photographs he made of friends on old industrial estates ended up being exhibited by the MOMA in New York! Mimicking fine art paintings often provides inspiration for this kind of work.

Thomas Hardy has been a source of inspiration and fascination. Hardy’s heart wrenching stories of life in Dorset, the county where he grew up, encouraged him to do as Hardy did and collect local real-life stories from local newspapers. From these he constructed photographs. Tom is quite open about staging photographs in which he seeks to embody the issues of the day. He wants to seduce his audience and change people’s perceptions.

He has faced opposition from gallery owners who find his imaging too real, grotesque even and that it is morally wrong to make beautiful works of art out of a tragedy. Tom points out that they are no worse that many of the scenes portrayed in classic works of art.

One of body work came about when he visited Dublin in Ireland and is based on some lines of Ulysses by James Joyce; he photographed old Victorian bathing stations that were dotted around Dublin Bay. For this he used a specially fashioned 5by4 pinhole camera.

Another of his projects is of places of worship in East London and documents the different kinds of faith that exist in the area.

FIne Art works often help to give a narrative.

Recent work includes making a film of his locality from old people’s stories and memories of the area.

After he has finished speaking, we have a chance to put questions to Tom and I am the first to jump in with a question that concerns me about his work and which is partly provoked by his reference to fine art (often not obvious to the viewer) in a medium that often seeks to go beyond the limitations of the past; he sounds me out almost immediately and makes me aware of the kind of the preconceptions I have started to build up around photography. The following is from an interview with Katy Barron on Photomonitor …

For obvious reasons photography, especially in the 1960s with the advent of the 35mm cameras, tried to distance itself completely from the past. It was like a Communist revolution, stating ‘we don’t belong to the past and we have no relationship with it, and photography must be seen in its own right’. And they tried to sever the link, because photography in the 19th century was very much linked to painting, which they did very successfully. It came to a point in the 1990s when some practitioners became frustrated that photography could only be one way of looking at the world; 35mm hand-held. People began to question this and started looking back and re-interpreting photography so that it became more experimental.

Tom started to reference fine art by happenstance rather than intentionally. He was photographing inside using a large format camera which resulted in long exposures, all of which resulted in softer images and light that were reminiscent of the Dutch School paintings. He considers photography a bit disingenuous in the way it claims to be divorced from art when in fact everything from cave painting to sculpture and painting is part of it’s DNA.

Another point he makes is that if an artist such as Caravaggio was at work today, he would not be painting but more likely to be doing something like video.

Tom is a picture maker. He does not have great technical virtuosity and prefers simple equipment such as a pinhole camera. He thinks that digital photography has robbed photography of much of it’s innocence.

He has to work hard to hold down his job in photography. He finds himself concerned about whether new work will actually be accepted.

Coming from a later generation of photographers than Martin Parr, Tom has rebelled against what he considers to be “smash and grab” photography; he takes his time, communicates with his subjects. He does not answer to the “in your face” photographer stereotype or the techie. Like Art, photography needs to develop from one generation to the next.

It is important to be able to communicate with people if one wants to gain access to places. Need to be direct, straightforward and honest, able to explain oneself and what one is doing. When he gets refused, he sees it as an invitation to a discussion.

Tom Hunter's photographs on show

Tom Hunter’s photographs on show

He wants to involve people, the whole of society, in a debate in issues that are of importance. This has lead to him being dismissed as political (by Saatchi for instance who did however later take him on) as a kind of Billy Bragg of photography.

In fact, he is searching for a voice through photography.

Where many see ugliness, he sees beauty; he is attracted to beauty like the PreRaphaelites were but does not think it has conform to certain conditions.

The relationship between photography and reality fascinates him. As he says in an interview on Photoparley …

I love the way photography is seen as the truth but that truth can be so easily manipulated. Reality and documentary are at the core of my practice as it is in photography but I find more truth in fiction. So it’s getting the balance between reality and truth I find most exciting and illuminating. Too much fiction and the real history and lives are lost, too much dry reality and no one wants to hear their stories. Thomas Hardy got all the facts and wove them together in such a beautiful way, that the life of the peasants in Dorset became alive and the fiction becomes a reality. This is how I strive to work.

After the talk, we went to a cafe next door and chatted awhile. It takes time though for something like this to sink in and it was later in the day that I wrote it up in the cafe of The Photographers Gallery.

downstairs at The Photographers Gallery

downstairs at The Photographers Gallery

OThe OCA blog of the event by Sharon is here while the pre-event blog is here

Other students blogs are by Shelley Holland John Umney

Laura Letinsky @ The Photographer’s Gallery

Image

Robert Enoch talks to an OCA group about the Laura Letinsky exhibition

“The series title Ill Form and Void Full continues Letinsky’s interest in playing with representations of space and time, but departs from the narrative potential of the still life. It focuses on the relation between positive and negative space, and a more muted depiction of a subject where two and three dimensional forms from different sources co-exist uneasily.” From The Photographer’s Gallery website

While looking at the photographs of Laura Letinsky which were on show at the Photographer’s Gallery, Robert Enoch suggested it would help to consider the meaning of the objects within the photographs, the way they have been juxtaposed and the overall effect this creates. Letinsky’s work can be considered still life; it is conceptual and experimental with a very meticulous approach. Not about narrative rather about dimensionality, different representations that question the nature of photography. It plays with time and space.

Listening to Robert, I am certainly more able to appreciate photography that could be dismissed because it does not conform to ideas of what a photograph should be. This is particularly true in relation to spatial dimension which in these works of Letinsky is not as three dimensional as one might expect. The use of collage (small cut photographs included in the main photograph) is one example of the way she achieves this effect but it is emphasised by symmetry and a short plane of focus that suggests the use of a large format camera which tends to have a small depth of field and is able to distort perspective. One starts to see shapes rather than objects!

The picturing of both fresh and rotting food introduces the notion of time passing.

One is aware of a layered effect in Letinsky’s images owing to different planes of focus. There is a lot of light (the pictures contain a lot of off-white) while the images overall have a somewhat pale glow to them.

OCA tutor, Robert Enoch, explains Letinsky's work in-depth.

OCA tutor, Robert Enoch, explains Letinsky’s work in-depth.

One photograph has a bent paper cup at the centre and I can not help but recall rather literally the “punctum” of Roland Barthes; it forms a focal point that draws the eye while the background is very much “schema” (another Barthes reference) which is the warp and woof of the image.

Letinsky clearly adopts the approach of an artist. What is real and what is unreal in these images? Letinsky makes us question the nature of photographic reality. Although the images are largely monotone there is also an exquisite sense of colour.

The objects are life size. They are carefully placed even though they may appear to be at random.

Amusingly, someone thinks that one of the photos has been damaged as he notices some dirty fluid drops on the paper; it does look very realistic but one sees them on another and realises that they are part of the photo and not a result of English rain! Such is the realism of Letinsky’s abstractions which draw one into their realm!

Downstairs in the bookshop, I come across a book of Letinsky’s photographs. They are interesting still life images but the body of work on show upstairs is quite different as a result of it’s “unfocused” appearance.

In a nearby cafe, we talk on into the late afternoon. I have not done much still life preferring instead to see the world outside and try to capture it’s fleeting nature. Robert talks about the constant experimentation involved in this genre, the need to see, to deconstruct – the placing of objects within the frame is not a random process as one considers not just the placement of an object but the way it juxtaposes with others.

One might start a still life by putting a glass down on a table and notice any shadows, employ backdrops and then other objects such as a knife, a fork, a spoon etc

I recall a phrase from William Blake ..

To see the world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour!

One can see a video of Letinsky … here!

Tutor Robert Enoch reads this blog and comments … “Really good points you’ve made here.  And remember those ‘drips’: questioning the picture surface?  Were they on the (very matte) print or in the photo? Just like the representations of fruit and the real fruit pieces in the photos, there is a questioning about our relation to reality.”

Light from the Middle East – new photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum

LIGHT FROM THE MIDDLE EAST

“You are always on these OCA days!” another student tells me as we wait at the V+A for the OCA visit to start. I certainly find it helpful to meet with other students and in particular tutors – it helps to give perspective on what one is doing and distance learning can leave one feeling isolated. For some people, attending an OCA day has kept them on track; they have been about to drop a course and attended an OCA day as a last ditch attempt and it has worked.

I share a coffee downstairs in the V+A cafe with a few other students. One complains about his tutor and enthuses about his camera; I wonder if the two are not connected – the OCA photography course is not about the best equipment or about how to use it as this knowledge can be freely obtained elsewhere rather it is concerned with understanding the medium and learning how to use it as an expressive tool.

Gareth Dent addresses the multitude

Gareth Dent addresses the multitude; to his right, tutors Robert Enoch and Simon Barber

As with most OCA days, it starts with a tutor, in this case Gareth Dent the CEO of the OCA, telling us what the day is about. One is to gain a personal perspective of the work on show (I try to pepper my personal perspective with as many other views as I can) and seeing photography in the gallery, a completely different experience to seeing it on screen or in a book. Gareth also asks us to question what is going on in the exhibition such as the way it has been hung and where images have been placed in relation to each other; he considers the three fold segmentation of the work into sections called “Recording, Reframing, Resisting” as somewhat arbitrary pointing out for instance, that Abbas does not merely record he also reframes. Certainly the work of Abbas, a Magnum photographer, is very skilled producing technically proficient images that print well but also creating compositions that both interest and inform the viewer. The images on show are about the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Mullahs and come from the end of the 1970’s when the Shah was overthrown and sent into exile. I am familiar with Abbas from his images of Islam and one can see he is getting closer enough to his subjects to make the pictures worthwhile; the grim spectacle of four generals in the morgue not only allowed Abbas to make a great document, it also probably helped the ruling party to show the populace that the generals were really dead.

What I like about this exhibition is that it is concerned with photography rather than attempting to make an artistic statement through the use of photography although the latter is present. The catalogue published by Steidl, currently one of the very best publishers of photographic books, also contains a helpful introductory essay by Marta Weiss, curator of photographs at The Victoria and Albert Museum, in which she mentions all the images on show and gives a brief description of what they are about that does enable one to understand photographs that might easily be discussed. She also makes pertinent remarks about photography in general. For instance, she starts by saying … “The immediacy, universality and accessibility of photography makes it an ideal choice for artists confronting the social challenges and political upheavals of the contemporary Middle East” which nicely contextualises the subject of the exhibition; she continues … “For many of them, photography is not just a documentary tool. Rather, it is a ubiquitous yet powerful creative medium to be exploited and interrogated.

She also has more general statements to make about the medium of photography saying “A photograph may be regarded as simply a window onto the world, as a picture of something. A photograph however, is not just an image, but an object, and the choice of how photographs use the medium and its techniques can be as important as what they choose to picture.” Weiss even suggests ways to look at the photographs with the following questions … “How has the maker exploited or challenged the medium? What is expressed by using photography in a particular way? Why was photography the medium of choice? To what extent does the work acknowledge pre-existing photographs that relate to the Middle-East?

Of course, Gareth is right to challenge Weiss’ decision to compartmentalise the work. Of the first section, Weiss writes that “the photographers … exploit and explore the camera’s capacity to record” a statement which can surely be applied to photographs from other parts of the exhibition. Yet one can hardly deny her statement that “photography is a powerful tool for documenting people, places and events. A photograph can serve a commemorative purpose or bear witness to historic moments” while she goes on to qualify this by stating “Despite their apparent authority, photographs can be ambiguous and difficult to decipher; they can trick or disorient. Their meaning can shift according to context, cropping or captioning.

If one wants a detailed account of this exhibition, one might read Weiss’s introduction. Here, I am just going to note down images that evoked a response from me at the time of viewing. For instance, Abbas Kowsari has made an interesting close up of a soldier”s tea shirt showing a Western male below which are the weapons he carries. Black and white photographs made over the course of 10 years showing a Sufi festival are striking since they show the practice of people gorging knives into themselves although this does seem rather sensationalist coverage. Another photograph of a bridge cracked and covered in graffiti does need an explanation since as an image it tends to say little – the bridge had collapsed sometime earlier to the photograph being made killing many people and so the photographer had made it into a monument.

The image of a square magnet surrounded by upraised iron filings might be read as a satirical comment on worshippers at the Qaaba in Mecca of which it is an obvious reference; however, one might also see it as an insight into the cosmic dimensions of this particular Isalmic practice suggesting that there is something deeply natural to the practice. The image used by the OCA to announce this study day visit is of a woman, one sees only her eyes and forehead since she holds a small blackboard over the lower part of her face as if it were a Burkha covering her; the woman is in fact a lecturer in English Literature at a university.

How honest a picture of the Middle East does this exhibition present? There is a political edge to it that might be expected in documentary photography yet is this representative of photography as a whole in the Middle East? Might not the exhibition be a response to our preconceptions of the Middle East? I do not know enough to answer these questions and yet there is another photographic book, Arab Photography Now that might – it seems highly unlikely that all the photographers reprinted here would be found in the other book and vice the versa? In fact, a review of this other book states … “All the leading arab photographers are ignored. Where is Walid Raad, Fouad El Khoury, Hrair Sirkassian, Adel Abidin, Ziad Antar, Akram Zaatari, Zineb Sedira, Meriem Bouberdala, … ?

Another image that I found meaningful was a large panorama by Mitra Tabrizian in which a couple of Mullah’s gaze down from a billboard onto a group of people; these people are staged models and their poises look strained. I can not help but see here the powerful control that religion has over people in Middle Eastern countries.

A pile of bricks in a characterless modern housing estate by Yto Barrada is the kind of photograph that makes one scratch one’s head a little. How to see beyond the banality of an apparently meaningless image? There is much to discuss though in terms of the shapes within the image, the slightly squewered verticals, the lack of people and of any character to the place etc

A video installation in a separate room had an eerie feel to it. The sound of American voices at one point could not stop the feeling that one was perhaps seeing some kind of military construction while the whistling wind further enhanced feelings of bleakness and alienation. The image was from the desert where the low sun of dusk and dawn may reveal what is not normally visible.

In the reframing section the artists “look to the photographs of the past for inspiration and as a point of reference … they research, copy and interrogate past pictorial traditions and photographic imagery.

One image that sparks quite a bit of discussion is Raeda Saadeh’s “Who will make me real?” She can hardly be called a Page 3 girl yet perhaps she is satirising this. For Gareth, there is an obvious reference to Manet’s Olympia although Marta Weiss makes the reference to a photograph of a Mohammed woman by Comtesse de Croix-Mesnil; Gareth also writes that “The title: ‘Who will make me real?’ could be a reference to the John Berger’s assertion in Ways of Seeing, that “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves…she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight”. Is it the looking at Saadeh that makes her real? Or is it a reference to her status as an Arab with Israeli citizenship – a status frequently ignored in the football team approach to considering and reporting the Palestinian situation ...”

It is really the gaze here that is important and this is similar to the Olympia of Manet.

Tutor Robert Enoch writes … “The reference to Manet’s Olympia is resonant because that is a painting of a prostitute. Saadeh is at the same time appropriating/using as she experiences being used/appropriated. It is a strange act of defiance. It also brings up the question of ‘who creates identity/history/reality?’ The newspapers over her body suggests more than oppression, but a sort of pressure from outside that both conceals and shapes the perception of self.

There seem to be different layers of meaning to this image; I question the assertion that “Any sensuality implied by her pose is disrupted by the harsh realities reported in the newspaper.” I can’t read the newspaper because I don’t know Arabic so this statement sounds a bit over the top. The newspaper prevents us from see her nudity just as often newspapers stop us from seeing the facts and the truth they suggest because of a particular slant that the newspaper adopts. Furthermore, the newspaper prevents us from seeing her sensuality by it’s physical nature not it’s content!

Another photograph from this section, a group of photographs in fact that were modelled on the style of the Becher’s project of photographing disappearing industrial buildings, was Taysir Batnaji’s Watchtowers, West Bank / Palestine (2008). I found this one of the more powerful pieces. The fact that the artist had to get someone else to make the photographs is a reminder of the ominousness of these buildings which loom out at one with much more drama than those of the Bechers. Batniji to whom these photos are attributed, is a Gaza-born Palestinian and therefore not able to travel to the West Bank. Should a Palestinian who wants to make an artistic statement about Israel be denied doing so? Tutor Peter Haveland commented … “I really don’t see why contracting out the taking of the images makes any difference to the work. This is an art work not a photography course exercise after all and the reference to the Bechers work brings a sense of irony and a historic reference to the piece. Much work is being made with found images, Mishka Henner for example, under the broad umbrella of ‘photography’ and no one is concerned if an image is printed by someone else and so often the shutter is pressed by an assistant anyway, so where is the difference?

Batniji comments on the photographs that …  “They are out of focus, clumsily framed, and imperfectly lit. In this territory one can not install the heavy equipment of the Bechers or take time to frame the perfect position, let alone afford to wait for the ideal conditions.”

There are a group of sepia coloured photographs by Shadi Ghadirian which look very much like antique prints until one sees reminders of modernity such as a bicycle, a pair of sunglasses and other contemporary objects in them. We jokingly wonder if she would pass the first assignment of the OCA module, The Art of Photography; the contrasts in this work do not relate to form however but to concept.

The final section is called Resisting where the photographers “resist the authority of the photograph: scratching out or digitally removing faces, inserting figures into new back-grounds, even burning the print itself.

Abiq Rahim for instance, has resorted to old technology in his making of small soft focus black and white prints of his native Kabul which he returned to after 18 years away. Joana Hadjithomas and Khali Joreige have used old postcards of Beirut which have been damaged to illustrate the way the city itself has suffered since the original photographs were made. There is also an interesting work by Sukran Moral in which a group of men sit in a boat (a black and white photograph) while on their shoulders sit brightly coloured birds (colour photographs) – the image is called “Despair”(2003) and refers to the fate of those who have to migrate.

Other images worth mentioning (actually they all are!) are those by Nermine Hammam whose dreamlike images of soldiers from a series called Upekkha references the Buddhist attitude of seeing the world with equanimity.

There was so much to see in this exhibition and consider and this blog only touches on it.

Exhibition Road entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum

Exhibition Road entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum

jogging across Hyde Park

jogging across Hyde Park

 

A SECOND VISIT

I like to visit an exhibition more than once since if it is a good exhibition, one is bound to deepen one’s perspective of it. Immediately, I think of the photographs that I liked first time that I did not spend time discussing because it seemed almost politically incorrect to do so since beauty was the mainstay of their appeal although there is much more to them than this – these are sepia toned images of a Arabian woman in traditional clothing yet what appear to be classical images are punctured by objects from the contemporary world … such as a soft drink can or a bicycle. The artist-photographer’s name is Shadi Ghadirian.

Much has been written on beauty over the centuries so it is not easy to define – my own perception of it here is certainly in part that of the male gaze! Recently, the OCA discussed the matter of beauty quoting from Elaine Scarry’s “On Beauty and Being Just” … this deserves a blog of it’s own!

 

 

A visit to the Royal Academy, London

20130215-Regent Street-20130215-London-_MG_8573

REGENT STREET FROM PICCADILY CIRCUS

Hearing of an exhibition on English landscape photography entitled The Making of Landscape and featuring the work of Constable, Gainsborough and Turner, I decided to visit it largely because as a photographer, I am interested in landscape and the aura that surrounds this particular form of artistic representation.

On arrival at the gallery, I was asked to join a long queue which was a result of the Manet exhibition that was showing; when I reached the end of this queue, I found it was only for Manet! A gallery employee apologised and directed me to a desk on the other side of the entrance hall where I was able to purchase a ticket.

It was not a major exhibition and hence there was no catalogue other than a slim booklet that one received on buying the ticket; this gives out the information that is written on the walls of the gallery to support the pictures along with other information and references. It certainly helps to digest the exhibition not just when one is walking around but later such as now as I write this blog.

Much of the exhibition is taken up with engravings which are composed of light and dark without a trace of colour; these show how landscape developed from a “lesser” art to an art in it’s own right. The gallery guide states about work by Richard Wilson, an eighteenth century painter …

His fusion of grand landscape and mythical tragedy chimed with the fashion for the “Sublime” – the expression in art or literature of noble or awe-inspiring ideas – and established his claim to have created a new, more serious style of landscape painting.

The guide continues to put this into a more contemporary context …

” … the Sublime was contrasted with the gentler characteristics of the Beautiful, which engages the “passions of generation”, that is, of love and an admiration for the soft and feminine, in opposition to the passions of awe and terror invoked by the Sublime.”

(the quoted text above is written by Andrew Wilton and based on Edmund Burke’s Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) )

This exhibition although billed as being “Constable, Gainsborough, Turner” does not show much of their work, there being only a small collection of paintings; much of it is composed of engravings, a number of which are of originals by these artists. Certainly there are a few large and striking paintings particularly by John Constable and it is good to see these originals and notice the way the paint has been laid on the canvas and, for instance, the places where an alteration has been made.

After seeing this exhibition, I had decided to visit the Barbican but it was getting dark and time was short owing to my late train and having to queue unnecessarily. Since there was a Manet evening and there were a few returns, I took a ticket for the talk and the exhibition, soon finding myself in a hall where three people sat at the front, all experts in their subjects. The topic was Manet and the Opera.

It struck me that this might be quite interesting and it was but as soon as I learnt that Baudelaire was a friend and staunch supporter of Manet, I thought perhaps I had made a mistake in coming. Charles Baudelaire was one of photography’s fiercest critics it it’s early days, writing that is should be a hand maiden to the arts and not be considered more that that. There are still people who hold to that kind of view since photography struggles to find a coherent identity. It was nevertheless a good talk and I could not help but be intrigued and amused by the distinguished female speaker who exclaimed … “Of course Manet and all his group died of syphilis!”

Indeed this seems to have been the reason why Manet died at the relatively young age of about 50.

It was possible to hire an audio-guide for the Manet exhibition; this helped to guide me around the various rooms it was situated in. There were a lot of paintings mostly of family and friends and I struggled a bit to see what made them so great since one could often see the brush strokes and what might have been taken as shoddy craftsmanship. Indeed, the Salon refused recognition of Manet for a long time as influential people gathered around to give him support. Eventually, the Paris Salon did accept one of his paintings which did strike me as quite remarkable since the character portrayed did not look entirely happy with himself – another syphilitic sufferer perhaps.

It was the words of Mallarme, a poet and friend of Manet, who really sums up the genius of Manet by saying that the painting is not the thing itself but the effect it produces and at more length …

Each time he begins a picture … he lunges headlong into it … each work should be a new creation of the mind … the eye should forget all else it has seen and learn anew from the lesson before it. It should not abstract itself from memory seeing only that which it looks upon, and that as for the first time.”

I was interested in the photographs that were found in most of the rooms, portraits of the people Manet had also painted. Early evidence of the use of photographs by artists in making their work.

Lecture Upon a Shadow

Open Eye Gallery Liverpool

Open Eye Gallery Liverpool

Before considering this exhibition, it seems appropriate to quote the poem by John Donne from which it takes it’s name …

A LECTURE UPON THE SHADOW.
by John Donne

STAND still, and I will read to thee
A lecture, Love, in Love’s philosophy.
These three hours that we have spent,
Walking here, two shadows went
Along with us, which we ourselves produced.
But, now the sun is just above our head,
We do those shadows tread,
And to brave clearness all things are reduced.
So whilst our infant loves did grow,
Disguises did, and shadows, flow
From us and our cares ; but now ’tis not so.

That love hath not attain’d the highest degree,
Which is still diligent lest others see.

Except our loves at this noon stay,
We shall new shadows make the other way.
As the first were made to blind
Others, these which come behind
Will work upon ourselves, and blind our eyes.
If our loves faint, and westerwardly decline,
To me thou, falsely, thine
And I to thee mine actions shall disguise.
The morning shadows wear away,
But these grow longer all the day ;
But O ! love’s day is short, if love decay.

Love is a growing, or full constant light,
And his short minute, after noon, is night.

The Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool that is holding the UK exhibition (it has also been seen in Shanghai, China) describes it thus …

“A Lecture Upon The Shadow brings together new work by six artists from the North West and Shanghai. Using different approaches, the artists play with light, shadow and form to re-imagine familiar situations, exploring photography’s relationship to illusion and the everyday.”

entrance to the Open Eye Gallery

entrance to the Open Eye Gallery

The Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool is a modern angular building in black that looms over the docks. It is free to visitors and contains a small shop. We, a group of students from the OCA along with a couple of tutors, meet near the entrance around 11 a.m. and Peter Haveland, senior lecturer in photography at the OCA, gives us a chat about the exhibition, explaining the context; the fact that it is a collaboration between Liverpool and Shanghai is of interest as is the title of the exhibition “Lecture Upon a Shadow.” I wonder whether the title of the exhibition was something that the photographers consciously responded to or whether the curators looked for work that conveyed the subject of Donne’s poem. Perhaps the poem was used later as a way to cobble the works together! Peter is interested by my question but unable to answer it.

It is worth considering the input of the curators for they do have considerable effect upon the exhibition. For instance, David Penny’s images were actually chosen by Patrick Henry, the director of Open Eye Gallery who writes that Penny “makes absorbing, provocative still life photographs. It’s not easy to do this. Photographs are bound up with our desire to know something about the world out there – their lifeblood is contingency. The canon of photography (as art) is dominated by the documentary tradition. The further still life photography gets from the language of documentary, the more it swims against the tide. Still life at worst circumscribes an airless space, cut off from the world, accessible only by the obscure, absolute desire of the photographer.

John Umney looking at work be David Penny

John Umney looking at work by David Penny

Penny has found some unusual ways to breathe life into this space. He creates simple, meticulous compositions, photographing single objects against plain backgrounds, populating his frame with undecided objects – objects that pose questions and engage the imagination. His approach is tentative and interrogative – it makes us look again at what surrounds us and where it has come from. It’s photography from first principles – innocent photography, strangely reminiscent of the earliest experiments in photographic picture-making by Niepce, Talbot and others.”

Penny’s images entitled “Dutch Painting” is as Denis Joe writes “a series of images of small detailed sculptures, behind coloured glass is an interesting work. Penny takes a reproduction of a painting from an art book he found in a charity shop. The picture is cut then bent into a shape, held erect by wire. As Penny states: “There is a movement from the original painting, to the book as an object, to the torn out single page, which in turn becomes a sculpture, and then is photographed, framed and exhibited as object.”

This is the kind of work that deserves reflection. What are they about? What are they saying?

Curators of exhibitions do make decisions that effect the way an exhibition is perceived; for instance, the method of attaching the images to the walls (many in this exhibition were unframed and simply stuck on the wall) as well as laying out bodies of work in a particular way.

I first heard of the exhibition from the Open College of the Arts website where it was discussed by Dewald Botha, an OCA photography student from South Africa. He had “mixed feelings” about it.

Accompanied with notes from his tutor, he initially “had a walk through, to try and find or feel a connection between the work of all the artists, and made notes on images that pulled (or pushed) me more than others, to return and work out why.”

In regards to connecting images, he noted “The six separate wall spaces for each artist didn’t connect to each other as much as I’d somehow expected, and this disappointed me a little, but I can only put it down to not really having looked at group exhibitions before, to know what to expect in terms of ‘connected-ness.”

Eldon Grove - Tabitha Jussa

Eldon Grove – Tabitha Jussa

He proceeded to then turn his gaze to particular images and artists who were Jussa, Fan and Man. Tabitha Jussa’s image “Eldon Grove” from the UK of an “abandoned utopian social housing development” is striking and Dewald could relate to it partly through the work he has been doing yet also because “Like most of the prints in the exhibition, Tabitha’s print was nailed neatly to the wall, unframed. The print quality was beautiful, sharp and colours rendered beautifully, to bring across the gray drab British weather, but also, this allowed her to show minute detail. Her image seriously demands a first glance, followed by a second much closer analysis, because at first view it’s a beautiful place, seemingly (possibly) under paused construction, but is in fact the opposite – a slowly deteriorating once-idyllic ideal.” Personally, I found this image striking by it’s subject matter of what looked like an attractive housing estate that had gone to rack and ruin; one sees dilapidated buildings with slates missing from roofs and an overgrown area of waste ground in front of it. The fact that this image was cobbled together from a lot of digital photos is not noticeable.

The Memory of Water - Man Yi

The Memory of Water – Man Yi

Another of his choices is Man Yi’s “Memory of water” which is a collection of black and white prints. Again, it is because he can relate to the way the photographer is working as a result of his own practice, that he is attracted while also “his exploration around the element of water, and the near impossible-to-detect details, creating a strange unease … ” further intrigues Dewald as does the feeling that he is almost intruding upon the photographers personal vision. There are only 10 images in the exhibition which makes it easier to understand than the plethora of images on the website.

viewing work by Fan Shisan

“The Two of Us” – viewing work by Fan Shisan

However, it was the work of Fan Shisan that really struck him and I likewise find it the most absorbing body of work. Entitled “The Two of us” this body of work explores the one-child policy of the Chinese government. Of it she writes … ”

I started “Two of Us” in 2009. I photograph people who grew up as an only child in China. They are the result of the strict 30 years of One-Child Policy.The One-child Policy in China restricts the number of children a married urban couple can have to one. In fact, nearly every Chinese born after 1980 in urban, including myself, is only child with no siblings. The policy is enforced at provincial level through fines and other punishments, leaving a result of over 100 million only child in China.Beside the Rusticated Youth of China, and the Culture Revolution, the only child generation was the nation’s most turmoil in post-Mao China, but it is more personal and internal. To me, the imaginary of “Two of Us” is much true than today’s reality, the progress of shooting “Two of Us” is a ceremony, to record the tragedy history of One-Child into memories. ”

Dewald wonders whether such work will be understood in the West since it relates to a kind of politics with which we are unfamiliar; I find myself a passive supporter of the one-child policy as it addresses probably the number one problem humanity faces (too many people) and one which Western governments completely ignore preferring to believe in the Christian ethic of “Go forth and multiply”. As Denis Joe writes, “In the West one finds much criticism of China, mainly from environmentalists, and those who fear the country’s rapid economic growth. But there is one policy that some sections of the environmentalist movement and Malthusians such as the Optimum Population Trust, are delighted with and that is China’s one child policy for urban families.” He continues, “It is this that Fan Shi Sanʼs work is criticising. But this is a very measured outrage. The quality of the images captures an existential crisis. The individuals within the image do not cry out to us; in fact they appear to be empty of emotion and Two of Us does not demand our sympathy but, perhaps, our outrage.”

Dewald sees loneliness in these images. OCA tutor Jose Navarro had also apparently seen “The Two of Us” and commented that the “Two of Us is a powerful body of documentary work. Moving in the no-mans-land between real and imaginary, the photographs convey a strong message and the photographer’s intention. In fact, it is the photographer’s point of view that comes across in the images, rather than the sitters’. It is the photographer’s feelings about the one-child policy that clearly transpire in the photographs.Subjective, performative documentary at its best I would say. I don’t think we can draw any conclusions re. the feelings of the people photographed. The only conclusion we can come to is how the photographer feels about the one-child policy. And that’s precisely why I like it so much. No claims of objectivity in Two of Us. The photographer felt strongly about something and let us know in his own personal, artistic way.” Looking at these images for myself on the internet and in the gallery space, I can not help but feel this is something much more than a portrayal of the one-child policy rather it reflects on the inner self, playing with the idea of the “double” and self. This metaphysical aspect is the first reference I find to the work of John Donne whose poem is full of meaning and not easy to identify in any particular way.

Dewald’s explained the nature of his  “mixed feelings”; “I’ve come to the realization that I personally find work which creates and questions, invites and includes me in a conversation, much more interesting than something where I can find the answer (too easily), or even where no communication is elicited.”

I have mentioned Dewald’s views because it was he who alerted me to the exhibition as well as the fact that he is one of the most promising of OCA photographic students and more advanced along the course than I am. Following his post, I communicated with him about this exhibition; my text was “I would like to see this exhibition in Liverpool partly because I think one does need to see photography from around the world. It may not be the best example of Chinese photography but it is at least relevant.” The desire to see “Chinese photography” is perhaps a superficial reason for seeing this exhibition but it is not the only one – it is clearly accomplished work and apparently different to what one might expect to see in a UK gallery. In fact, some students do not see anything in the work by the Chinese photographers preferring that of the UK ones; this is perhaps a result of their cultural conditioning suggests Peter. Like Dewald, I also consider this body of work the strongest; I may not be aware  of the side effects of being a lonely child but this work is obviously about more than just that. One can so easily project one’s own emotions onto work like this and it is surely a mistake to read too much into any body of work.

At the beginning of this blog, I quoted from a review by Georgina Wright (a writer based in Liverpool) who describes what the exhibition is about. She concludes by saying, “Overall this exhibition unites the work of all six artists in a captivating and sequential manner, provoking both analysis and sheer visual delight.” I am still left wondering though about the cohesion between these different bodies of work – where does the John Donne poem come in? As Peter points out, the metaphysical poets were philosophical and produced meanings that are hard to identify; my own experience of them is that since my teenage years when I first came into contact with their verse, the words have been echoing inside me like Zen koans, their essential meaning apparently beyond the grasp of the ordinary mind. For Peter, photographs are themselves metaphysical in their very nature by the way they construct and deconstruct; the fact that this exhibition does not seem to hang together is itself metaphysical. John Umney suggests that there are a lot of crossovers within the exhibition such as between the old and the new, between east and west and so on.

Peter goes on to talk about the state of art at the present time asking us what we think characterises the present day climate of change. I suggest a shifting attitude in our perception of death! For Peter, art is at a transition point and no one can see where it is going (could they ever?) in a world experiencing unconstrained growth and globalisation. In a post-modern world, there is no truth only truths. The discussion is not heated rather it draws us in and other students start to make comments.

was this the image by David Jacques that offended the Chinese authorities

was this the image by David Jacques that offended the Chinese authorities !?

There is also a review by Denis Joe that is more extensive and reflective; he also interestingly mentions the fact that the Chinese authorities took exception to the piece by David Jacques. The work of David Jacques entitled Corpus Mercatorium is interesting perhaps because of it being banned by the Chinese authorities when the exhibition was shown in Shanghai. Was this just an authority trying to be seen to be doing something or was it reacting to satire that might be considered too outrageous for Chinese tastes or did perhaps the element of demonology evident in the work and admitted by the photographer play on the sensibilities of the Chinese who have quite a strong tradition of spirituality in spite of communism? On looking closely, one can see one of the little photo-montages in which characters that look like high ranking military personnel yet are in fact corporate heads are pictured; there is a Chinese face stuck onto the body of what appears to be a yak while a western military man rides the beast – Tibet is always a touchy subject with the Chinese but this domination by a westerner and the bovine status of a Chinaman can hardly have pleased the Chinese authorities. It is only after reading Denis Joe’s review that I come to understand that the faces in this work are actually of the CEOs of international companies; this knowledge helps to further understand the context of the work.

Is it preferable to look at the photographs in an exhibition before one researches them or vice the versa? No direct answer to this! I question the practice of reading reviews of an exhibition before actually visiting it; this practice can help one get more out of one’s visit since one is prepared yet it may also prejudice one’s view as other people’s ideas crowd in upon one’s own. My question is the extent to which this exhibition covers the brief of John Donne’s poem. Did the entrants make work in response to John Donne or was his poem used as a way to consider the work on show? Peter does not consider this very important – it is the show that matters on it’s own merits rather than the way it responds to a particular brief.

The important point is that when looking at photographs in a gallery, is one needs to be aware of the environment they are in – the way they have been hung may be of interest (David Penny’s wooden frames and coloured flexiglass are of interest and an important aspect of his work which he sees as a blending of artistic disciplines) while the positioning of the photographs in the gallery space might be making a point. John Umney, OCASA secretary, admits to perhaps being a little cynical when he says that he thinks the prettiest photos have been hung where there is the most light; however, I am not sure this is true since some of the ugliest pictures, the demonological photo-montages of David Jacques, are in one of the brightest parts of the gallery – there is not much evidence of any sequencing of the work but decisions might have been made in regard to light reflecting possibly refracting off some of the works. The four images by David Penny for instance are covered in perspex.

Talking about photography

Talking about photography

One worthwhile aspect of OCA study days is that one gets to meet the tutors and chat with them, not about the weather but photography in general. Peter asks a question in his inimitable way … does one need to understand more than one sees in a photograph? Does one need to understand it? Perhaps confusion might be the artist’s intention! Furthermore, different people see different meanings.

John Umney is very informative on Shanghai which he describes as an output of western civilisation rather than a Chinese city. It was around here that the Opium Wars took place. He describes it as “Manhattan on steroids!”

Sometimes photos reveal, sometimes they obscure. They may not be want to convey any particular meaning (ambiguity is a recognised trait of the photograph) and what may be of interest is references contained within the image. Peter considers the exhibition to be of fine art that happens to use photography; he clearly thinks this is true of a lot of art photography exhibitions.

After seeing Lecture Upon a Shadow and having a coffee break with discussion, we went to see an archive exhibition upstairs of landscape photographs by Edward Chambre-Hardman.

Prix Pictet at the Saatchi Gallery

OCA students gather outside the Saatchi Gallery for another study day

Another study day with the OCA and another visit to The Saatchi Gallery. The last visit was for the Out of Focus exhibition which I found interesting but not particularly inspiring. If this is the kind of work we are expected to aspire to then perhaps I should stop my studies but keeping an open mind is part of what the course is about – one does not want to dismiss work because one finds it meaningless.

This visit is concerned with another exhibition, the annual Prix Pictet, which is a prize concerned with photography and preservation that the Saatchi Gallery website describes as “one of the most important photography prizes in the world. The aim of the Prix Pictet is to use photography to raise public awareness worldwide to the environmental and social challenges of the new millennium. The exhibition this year focuses on the theme of ‘Power’.

Kofi Annan has given an introduction to the exhibition in which he says, “it reveals how the same forces that result in disaster and despair can also generate hope and renewal.” Looking at the images I wonder how this is true. Annan also says about the exhibition that it is “to use the power of photography to overcome our numbness, our lethargy; to use the qualities of the visual image  to move us and reawaken our understanding of the urgency of the issues that confront us.”

The winner this year is Luc Delahaye. Looking at his work, I can see no obvious connection with environmental issues, even after reading the captions. What makes him the winner!?

One of the other entrants of which there were 12, is Daniel Beltra whom I heard speaking a few years ago after he won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition with the set of images he is presenting here. His photographs of an oil spill had made him a winner since not only were they a record of a catastrophic event, they were colourful and dramatic images. He works for Greenpeace.

The fact that “Power” is this year’s theme perhaps implies a political theme.

Another photographer whose work I am familiar with is Carl de Keyzer, a Magnum member, whose submissions for the prize are obviously environmental since they contain landscape style images; however, the environmental message is not obvious. Presumably, more will be revealed actually at the exhibition, if not by the images it will be by the tutors and ensuing discussion.

Another photographer on show is Robert Adams whose work is all in black and white; it is not very easy to make out on the Prix Pictet website that can not do justice to the tonal quality of his images and the paucity of the web view may account for a lack of understanding of the other entrants. However, the work of Rena Effendi seems quite obvious even without the captions and will perhaps be more so in the gallery.

It will be good to see work by some of the supposedly best photographers in the world …!

Gareth Dent, CEO of the OCA, addresses students at the beginning of the visit

We meet outside the gallery, a rather grand setting since the building was once a royal army barracks and the entrance to the gallery has columns; one has self-confessed artoholic Charles Saatchi to thank for this large gallery.

The conversation soon turns to why Luc Delahaye is the winner. Does the panel of the judges simply want to be controversial? Tutor Clive White does not see it as important if the content does not relate strictly to the environment and sustainability message of the competition since social issues arising from it fall within the remit of the brief. There is also the suggestion that the judges award prizes not necessarily to the best photographers but to the most deserving, photographers whose careers might be helped by the prize.

Once in the gallery, the majesty of Luc Delahaye’s work is seen and is immediately striking. Of the three works on show, the central piece is a vast panoramic image not of a landscape but the inside of conference meeting. It is only when this is explained as a meeting of oil executives and what appears to be the press, does Delahaye”s work start to assume relevance. This is a tableau and one is reminded of the drama of some Renaissance paintings where dynamic figures crowd around a central action. There are no divine figures here though, rather the scene is one of near mayhem in which the general confusion that is so often politics, is being played out. In spite of this organised confusion, the image has a certain stillness to it almost a silence – is this a construction of the photographer or does it relate to the medium of still photography as a whole, a medium in which time is frozen? One interesting point about this image made by Robert, one of the tutors present, is that no one in a crowd of almost 50 people, is looking at the photographer. I do not really spend time examining the other photographs of Luc Delahaye because they obviously need to be read and I do not find this easy.

Almost opposite Delahaye, are the photographs of Daniel Beltra who has photographed an oil spill from the air; not only is the content of these images relevant and moving in the awful spillage of oil but they are colourful too in the way the sea carries the spillage while forms also become part of the image. The message is very clear here.

Tutor Clive White discusses an image with students

OCA tutor Clive White likes the edgy images of Mohammed Bourissa which at first makes little sense. After awhile, one can see something in the way they have been sequenced since the first image is of a group, possibly a gang, is standing in what is almost a circle in the corner of a car park beside a large puddle. Another image is of someone dancing in a ring of fire, what might be kerosene flames burning; the dancer wears some kind of skeleton mask. This group of images is very ambiguous, so ambiguous that it is not easy to describe them, but there seems to be some kind of gang activity going on. These are images that make you stop and think because something is certainly going on and one wonders what the relationship of the photographer is to this group.

There are images by Carl de Keyser from his series “Moments before the flood”, the meaning and significance of which is fairly easy to understand. One image shows a boat out of the water and supportd by wooden blocks. It stands in the middle of a field in which there are sheep, some of whom shelter beneath the boat. In the foreground is a concrete block wall with some of the blocks obviously loose; it it through here that the boat came at a time when the water was much higher? The whole scene seems temporary, impermanent, since water might flood in again and the sheep will need to have been moved or they are likely to drown.

Looking at photographs by Robert Adams

It felt like a privilege to see and even imbibe the work of Robert Adams who one reviewer apparently considered to be the true winner. His black and white images are perfectly crafted with a wonderful range of tones that would of course be lost in most media reproduction. The images are of severed trees in rural locations, the message of environmental destruction being readily apparent. Do these images have an appeal only for the connoisseur or does their quiet realism touch a wider audience. There is an image of a large tree stump, rather dull and dark looking since the bright sky is behind it. Yet if one looks closely at this image, one can see details of the tree in even the darkest detail while the tree itself looks just as it might do in real life execpt for the fact it is in black and white. I notice the way Adams has developed Adams’ style in which high contrast often played a major role and instead presented something effective but more subdued. This impresses me very much.

Why did not Adams win this prize? Perhaps the delightful beauty of his images just do not suggest power, the theme of the exhibition and competition. Gareth Dent thinks it is sad that Adams has not had more recognition; instead, his sensitivity and artistry has been ignored. His images though are much smaller even minute in comparison with most of the other photographs hanging in the gallery.

I do not have a good look at all the entrants although one can not miss them in the two galleries in which the exhibition is staged. Rena Effendi has made photographs that obviously relate to the environment; in one, a dead “Falcon” hangs from a wire over a backyard. The caption informs us that it has been put there to deter other falcons from predating chickens.

looking at work by Joe Sternfield

Joel Sternfield’s images of politicians such as Bill Clinton blown up to larger than life size are perhaps symbolic yet also somewhat numbing. It is people like this though that represent power and are responsible for a lot of what happens in relation to environmental policy even if the “real” power is in the hands of huge corporations.

part of Women Of Power – Queen Bees

Another OCA tutor, Sharon Boothroyd, chooses the work of a Dutch female photographer. These photographs are diptychs, one images showing an Arabian woman’s dining room at home, the other showing her office. The environmental connection here is of the Arab-oil kind one presumes. I do not find the look of the prints very appealing although there is quite a lot of detail to feast the eye on. The title of this series “Female Power Stations: Queen Bees” has a humorous feel to it.

Gareth Dent ask Sharon Boothroyd for her view on work

After viewing the images for over an hour, we sit in the gallery cafe outside around a table that takes about 20 of us (some students have already left or are still inside). Gareth Dent buys us beverages and later the tutors all give a little pitch about the photographs on show as do one or two of the more accomplished students such as John Umney and Catherine Banks. This little discussion not only helps round the day off, it also helps one to further understand a group of images that are not easily comprehended.

A comment by the journalist Phil Thornton is worthy of note since he says that political action “can be motivated by shocking images that force the viewer to face up to what is going on.”

anti-governemnt demonstration march London October 2012

After the exhibition, I took a bus and then had to walk owing to an anti-governemnt demonstration. Another reminder of “Power” the subject of the exhibition I have just seen. Later I write to my tutor the following …

“I got to understand why Luc Delahaye was a worthy winner although the decision of the panel to focus on “people power” that can bring about change rather than power inherent in the environment is perhaps an indication of the way humanity seems unable to face up to the way we are destroying the planet … loved the work by Daniel Beltra, a former Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner, although his images of oil stained sea do look a bit glamorous.”

A bit pompous perhaps? Interestingly, an article in The Guardian echoed similar sentiments.

Contemporary Japanese Photographic Books (display at The Photographer’s Gallery)

view of Ramillies Street and The Photographers Gallery

Contemporary Japanese Photography Books

My rather vague impression of Japanese photography is of the gritty realism of the snapshot mode, of a subversive approach rather than a traditional one which in Japan has produced much  in the way of fine art, Zen temples being an obvious example. An exponent of this photographic approach can be seen in the writing of Ken Domon who exerted considerable influence over post-war photography in Japan. He advocated the “absolutely unstaged snapshot” which he considered has “a fundamental historical and societal value.” This was accepted as a genre as is landscape, portraiture or still life; a realist approach that challenged the more conservative one. Of course, the upstaged snapshot also embraces these other genres. During the 1950s Domon proposed such views in which there is “a direct connection between the camera and the subject”.

Before the war, the Japanese had made contact with the Bauhaus and Ihei Kimura was known for “snapshot spontaneity.” However, modernist associations were to be dropped and as Shomei Tomatsu put it, “I release the shutter in Tokyo or in the provinces for my benefit only, not for someone or something else.”

Another photographer, Nobuyoshi Araki, writes in his text “Photographic Discourse as Strip Show” that to the photographer, “… you must plainly lay yourself bare. That is your duty to the subject. But even without that intention, the person who takes the photograph is exposed.”

The photo book in Japan has been very important in the development of photography because, until more recently, there have not been other outlets for serious photography. Personally, I find the photo book a stimulating form of expression and an inviting means of outputting my work. Photographs while gaining support from words can so easily be swamped by them.

The Wolfson Gallery during the Japanese photobook exhibition

At the Wolfson Gallery, on the second floor of The Photographer’s Gallery in London, there is an exhibition of contemporary Japanese photo books with perhaps as many as 100 placed around the room for one to peruse; one is asked to put on a pair of white gloves to do so, these being supplied by the gallery.

The first book I pick up is called “Dance” and is by Seiji Shibuya.

There is a book about Mount Fuji by Ishikawa; it is in bright colour with a considerable amount of Japanese text. Visually, the view of the place is highly subjective and includes photographs of wood cuts of the mountain. Another, larger format book by Ishikawa is called The Void; there is a verbal statement “One forest is all forests!” which refers to the interconnectedness of all things, the photographer having studied with a local shaman. The photographs are from the northern island of New Zealand being mostly of forest and often the presence of water. At the end of the book, there are a couple of pages of text written by Ito, a Japanese professor of art, who attempts to explain what the book is about, writing “the apparatus of visual perception – the photograph – does not fully capture the presence … must limit itself to directing people’s attention towards the power’s source.” 

looking at photographic books – white gloves supplied

Another book is called “Children of the Rainbow” and is by Juriji Takasago; this is a series of nature photographs in colour. Most feature animals but there are some good landscapes. 

Taigan by Dodo Arati is a visual account of off-beat travels through Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. The photographs are in colour and have titles; one can find out more about what is happening in the images from information given at the back of the book.

Another photographer is Murakoshi Toshiya; http://murakoshitoshiya.com

Here the photographer is using small prints about 6 by 8 ins in black and white with no words. The title of the book “Until and unless” is not easy to deifier but there is a quality of stillness within the photographs.

The exhibition of photographic books presents about 100 to be viewed, too many to be looked at in detail. Most are highly imaginative if not abstract often with the sense of meaning they might convey being implied by titles only. It is not easy to generalise about these books as a whole although they are true photo books in the sense that most are primarily concerned with the visual effect of the photographs and use few if any words. Text is subordinate of as much importance as the framing of the images perhaps less. Often these books can absorb one for quite sometime as one contemplates their meaning in an attempt to understand what they are actually saying; returning to look at the same book after sometime might produce further insights.

Liberty

Sharon Boothroyd

a view of Oxford Castle

temporary beauty parlour, shopping arcade, Oxford

I arrive early on a pre-booked train for the OCA study day with Sharon Boothroyd since the time of meeting appears to have changed; spend a while walking around Oxford before heading for the Jam Factory, our meeting place. When I arrive, Sharon is already there – a mix up means that everyone is now coming at 12 rather than eleven.

OCA tutor Sharon Boothroyd waits for students to arrive

I chat a little with Sharon who has only been a tutor at the OCA for only a few months. She asks me what I have been up to and I briefly relate my short visit to Switzerland to photograph the inauguration of a Buddhist centre. No fee but I was not charged for accommodation and food while there; what I actually got out of it was some photographs of Tibetan Sacred Dance taking place in Europe rather than the Himalayas.

Sharon shows me a fascinating article in The Guardian Weekend magazine (28.7.2012) in which different photojournalists discuss their feelings about photographing people in distress when they might actually be helping them. The words of one photographer, Ian Berry, seem particularly relevant when he says … “When you are working with a camera, you tend to disassociate yourself from what’s going on. Your’e just an observer!” Sharon’s own blog is called Photoparley.

As the midday hour approaches, people start to arrive although only 7 of a possible ten eventually turn up. We start chatting and Jose Navarro’s blog “Why” about the recent shooting inside a cinema showing the launch of a new Batman film; Jose’s main objection seems to be with the BBC using unsubstantiated and poor quality video of a sensationalist nature that has been shot on a mobile phone.

Sharon Boothroyd (right) guides the OCA study day discussion

The day starts with us introducing ourselves by name and saying a little about our involvement with photography and/or the OCA. One student echoes my thoughts when he says he is doing the OCA course to try and inject meaning into his work rather than just make cliched images. Most of us seem to have been photographing for sometime, at least a couple from childhood and the spectre of the Box Brownie is raised. The support offered by the study days is a relief from the isolation some of us feel in our studies. Eddie, a frequent attendee to such days, remarks that he thinks the days are more about art than photography and I guess he has his point though exactly what he understands as art and photography is not something we start to discuss. One student says he is setting up a wet darkroom and plans to go back to analogue ways of workng.

We discuss blogs and their possible content. There has recently been a post on the We Are OCA website about “learning logs” and the different levels of interest they might evoke. I do not completely agree with the sentiments expressed since the occasional out of context remark such as “the coffee was good” can help to create a wider sense of context even though the subject does not in any way demand it. Blogs need to be well organised on the site so one can navigate to what one might want to read or look at. Someone expresses the need for privacy on their blog and not wanting to share it with others since it contains ideas and thoughts that are not necessarily valid points rather conjecture.

Why do we love photography? Eddie, by whom I find myself sitting, loves photography but feels frustrated by his lack of technical ability in actually making photographs since he would rather be developing the aesthetic side. He is attracted by the challenge and so am I.
I do not love photography! I see it as an almost organic approach to life, a way to see the world and understand it intelligently. There can be an obsessive side to it as cameras become objects of desire, adult toys, that we like to play around with. A Freudian interpretation is that the camera represents the phallus and for the middle aged man who no longer has the zest of a younger man, it maybe a welcomed substitute. Cameras can be seems as phallic objects and photography as a kind of totemism.
Photography can give a sense of the aesthetic, the freedom of expression. I find it can help me to stay on my own two feet and not become too dreamy or philosophical.

Who are our favourite photographers? I mention Raghu Rai, the quintessential Indian photographer, who no one seems to have heard of although he is an associate of Magnum. Sharon mentions photographers such as Hannah Starkey who think a lot about the images they create, making a lot of time to produce finely constructed images that also possess narrative. Jill, a new student who has only been with the OCA for about 5 weeks but has done a foundation course in photography, mentions a diverse range of photographers; Jeff Wall and his constructed images, Robert Frank and his use of the frame and text as well as Sebastian Salgado who produces such interesting work with themes such as migration and work. There is someone who doesn’t have a favourite photographer seeing photography as a means of data collection that can later be used; Sharon mentioned Geoffrey Crewdson to him. The name Salgado crops up again as others express their views as well as Geoffrey Crewdson with Bill Brandt and Henri Cartier-Bresson being inspiring photographers from the past. Someone has seen an exhibition by Anna Fox about Butlins that they liked; Martin Parr is mentioned in connection with this, his images being worth looking at out of interest even if one does not like them very much.

We walk to a nearby gallery to see Sharon’s exhibition. The Art Jericho Gallery as it is called often shows photography in it’s constantly changing programme.

OCA students inside the gallery

“Representations of the Real” is the title of Sharon’s talk which focuses on her work. She is a full time mother as well as a photographer and her blog Photoparley is worth a visit.

She made her first series of images while a teenager when she was visiting the USA for a summer holiday camp. The images are of people she encountered and shot in black and white. Later on, while doing a degree in photography, she photographed women in Kazan (one of the largest cities of Russia situated in Tatarstan). These are of women in their environments such as their place of work or home and also includes girls. The approach is documentary.

The title of the exhibition that we see on the walls around us is “If you get married again, will you still love me?” and is about the relationship between children and their fathers who have moved out of the family home owing to divorce. The work was done for her masters degree. This kind of break up is not something that she has experienced directly in her life but something she has been aware of particularly through the Fathers for Justice movement which has highlighted the trouble men have faced by being separated from their children. She initiated the project by interviewing fathers who had gone through divorce and ensuing separation from their children; it took about 6 months of talking with such men to make notes on the kinds of situations they experienced since actually photographing the real situations felt like an intrusion. Instead, she created her own sets roping in friends who were given prints in return for acting out the parts other men had experienced. The style of these images is documentary and yet Sharon uses a tripod mounted medium format camera with colour negative film for it’s richness of colour and detail, along with a couple of lights. Fathers portrayed in these photographs have been generally supportive of what she is doing. The images accurately convey a certain breakdown in communication that is characteristic of these kind of situations as one OCA student who has been though the experience of divorce recalls.

one of Sharon’s photos – this was set up in a local shop

Sharon shows us other work that includes “Disrupted Vision” which involves photographing people using a relatively inexpensive polaroid camera, showing the result to the person photographed and making a note of their reaction to their image and writing it below on the polaroid itself; she initially, had people write their own comments but their writing was often illegible or over-filled the space. Sharon is interested in the kind of dialogue that photography can create.

Another body of work is called “The Glass Between Us” and is a series of photographs made looking through the windows of people’s houses; before making these images, she asked the owner’s permission and this was usually granted.

A present body of work is called “Edelweiss” and is about the world of the child seen through adult eyes. For this, her children are the subject. She has also been using other people’s or found photographs and creating montages; this has attracted interest but she is at present unsure of the legality of this work.

Sharon answers questions from the group of OCA students who, along with a few members of the public, are gathered in the gallery space. Someone wonders why she does not use black and white (or to give it another name, “black and shite”) photography as this might help create a much more moody look to her photographs which in many cases are of emotional situations; Sharon however, likes the nuances offered by colour and more expressive of what she is communicating. She does not go for digitally constructing situations either, her work being more performance related with actual people playing out appropriate roles. I am struck by her sense of composition which tends to be informal; this is not really deliberate on her part since she takes many photographs of each situation and what is important is the facial expressions and other body language rather than the arrangement of elements within the frame. What strikes me overall about these photographs is that they are of intimate situations and yet constructed so the sense of intimacy is false; this generates a feeling of awkwardness.

On the walk back, I meet a new OCA student called Gill who obviously has a good insight into the nature of photography; we chat a bit about the OCA. Her blog of the event is here.

inside the building housing the large screen video installation

There is another exhibition running in the same gallery showing images from an abandoned mental asylum but I only look at those from Sharon’s exhibition since this is what interests me; I want to understand what that is all about if I can. Before taking the train home though, with a couple of other students, I visit another art photographic exhibition in what looks like an old factory. This is a simulated video made from various digital sources; I need to catch a train and so do have time to see it the whole way through. It is eerie and intriguing yet the relevance of U.S. soldier training is questionable.

a child plays in front of the Djibouti video installation

Daniel Meadows

The Ffotogallery Gallery, Turner House, Penarth, near Cardiff, Wales

I arrive before the talk at Ffotogallery near Cardiff to have a brief look at the “Daniel Meadows: Early Years” exhibition.

Downstairs, there is an audio-visual room, which is showing short movies about Daniel Meadows and his work. As a student, he hired a studio for several weeks and photographed local people at his own expense while later on, he bought a bus and went around the country photographing people while using the bus as a darkroom, allowing him to photograph people one day and present them with a print soon after. The Arts Council supported him in this.

upstairs at the Ffotogallery

While there are some photographs from Mosside in the 1970’s, upstairs there is a much larger group of photographs largely of people from ordinary walks of life.

coloured photos of Butlins

One section is about Butlins and in colour prints of the time when colour photography was beginning to gain respectability as a form of photographic expression although it’s initial tackiness is perhaps being used by Meadows (also Parr) to comment on a perceived tacky nature of Butlins. Most of the photographs however, are in black and white and made in a straightforward documentary style.

An interesting aspect to this work is the way Daniel Meadows has gone back and found the people he photographed almost a quarter of a century ago; rephotographing them and then putting the old and new photographs side by side does create a fascinating insight into the way people age and the way British society has changed over that period.

I have a booked seat but arrive early since there are people who have come without bookings! Before the talk begins, I go to the toilet but someone pushes past and enters before me; as I wait the photographer Paul Reas (have a copy of his book Can I help?) comes up also wanting the loo and I wonder if I should let him go before me. We say “hello!” and both wait; I decide not to let him go in front as that might be psychophantic!

Val Williams, the curator of the exhibition, is not here tonight; she has however, been very influential in putting it together, choosing the photographs herself. She has a special interest in 1970’s British photography (apart from her book on Meadows, she has also done one on his friend, Martin Parr). Birmingham City?? Gallery are also an interested party. Meadows himself does not understand the “art” gallery world. There was an extensive search to find photographs for this exhibition such as inquiries being made to now defunct regional arts bodies.

Raul Reas and Daniel Meadows (right) seated

Paul Reas interviews and introduces Daniel Meadows; he is himself a documentary photographer but of the next generation to Meadows. Reas has a retrospective in Bradford next year, the town in which he grew up. He cites Meadows as an early influence and studied under him at Newport; he has known him for about 30 years. Along with contemporaries such as Anna Fox, Paul Graham and Paul Seawright, he not only learnt from Meadows but also challenged his approach.

The late photographer and teacher Bill Jay cited Daniel Meadows in his book Photographers Photographed, describing him as a peripatetic photographer; Meadows had bought his own bus, converted it into a studio and gone around England photographing ordinary people. He is regarded as being part of the development of 1970’s photography in Britain.

Daniel Meadows was sent away to boarding school at the age of 8, a place he hated. The school did once allow the boys to see TV, the programme being the funeral of WInston Churchill. He was aware that the 1960’s was happening outside the confines of his school where cruel treatment was commonplace particularly from other boys. Art was only a possible option when you had failed at everything else. It was on an art trip from school to the Hayward Gallery in London where there was a Bill Brandt exhibition on that Meadows, aged 18, experienced the possibilities of photography as a viable medium. Bill Brandt impressed him by his ability to move through the class system, from workng miners to old boys at their club in London. Women took their clothes off for him, another source of inspiration for an 18 year old!

memorablia from Meadows career posted on a wall of the gallery

A lot of the portraits and following prints Daniel Meadows made in his early days, were given as gifts to the sitters; in turn, they would invite him into their homes and to events that he was happy to photograph. His book “Living Like This” from this era sold as many as 17,000 copies. He deliberately tried to copy the approach of not only Brandt but also Tony Ray Jones and Benjamin Stone. These days photographers are not encouraged to copy but to be more original and different.

He saw much of his personal work, work that came from him rather than work he was paid to do, as not being serious; now it is the more important. There was a time when he had to photograph Margaret Thatcher who was busy with the Lockerbie disaster and so turned up late. While waiting, he asked permission to do a few test exposures and security eventually said that he could; it was not until sometime later that he received a call congratulating him on photographing Mrs.Thatcher’s handbag, something no one else had managed. Photography is full of coincidences.

He started out working with Martin Parr, his contemporary, who has gone on to radically alter the general perspective of photography; Meadows however, has taken a different route and one quality of his documentary style photographs is that they show what people featured are like. He is a story-teller and also used a tape recorder to record audio-diaries.

When he bought his bus and set out to photograph what people were really like, he expected them to be “rotten” but was surprised to find them “fantastic”. His documents are of time and place, slightly melancholic. Meadows himself often felt nervous, seldom had much cash (it took him a year and a half to raise the money for the trip). People sometimes tried to break into his bus and were surprised to find there was someone inside.

Politics does not feature much in Meadow’s work. He has always hated mainstream politics and has a similar disdain for popular TV although he did work for Granada TV for two years – he saw the culture as rubbishy.

It took him a long time to realise he was making his own photographs. Early work in Moss Side, a part of Manchester, was a conscious attempt to record a place that was being destroyed. Some of the photographs made in people’s front rooms could take him and Martin Parr up to 3 months to arrange.

Meadows had to take maths “O” level 6 times before he passed; hence he did not fit in the hold of the photographer who trained to be a professional.

Most photographs that are taken will never be seen yet those that are can have a big effect.

Meadow’s approach is humanitarian; there is greater engagement by the photographer with the subject. Meadows was inspired by Ivan Illich‘s 1973 book, “Tools for conviviality”. We are surrounded by tools and we need to choose and use them carefully.

One of his subjects was Stanley who he met as the man operating Britain’s last steam driven cotton mill. Meadows developed a close relationship that continues to this day. There are 2 videos about Stanley in the audio-visual room accompanying the exhibition.

Meadows spent the second part of his photographic like trying to understand the first part!

His photographs carry stories although these are not made clear in the exhibition. He went back after about a quarter of a century to rephotograph them and this makes a fascinating document part of which is visible on a digital screen at one end of the gallery. Talking to the people he had photographed before bought up interesting memories of the time that are not evident or only hinted at from the images.

Although Meadows has experienced disillusionment, his photographic explorations has helped him discover humanity.

The quality of his work was not always of a professional standard but that did not detract from what he was photographing. He would have liked to have the kind of equipment that exists these days that can make almost anyone into a maker of photographs. His equipment was quite basic in his early years and yet it did the job.

Meadows has had good feedback about his work from people who have gone to see it being able to access views from the internet notably Twitter. There are this who wonder what the wall paper must have looked like in his earlier black and white photos to those who found the images brought back memories of former times for those who had lived through them. Some details found in the images are interesting because of the way things have changed – hence, particular types of jeans or shoes common or fashionable then now are no longer made.

Apart from teaching, Daniel Meadows has worked with the BBC, helping to create digital stories, enableng people to make their own stories. The role of the photographer seems to have changed over the years.

Daniel Meadows signs books after his talk

WHen the talk is over, Daniel Meadows signs books downstairs and I buy one and queue to have him sign it. We do not exchange many words. I might have said how I also suffered years of incarceration in boarding schools while the sixties was raging and furthermore also experienced some kind of release on being taken to The Hayward Gallery though I can not remember what I saw there (it certainly was not photography!). He did sign my book and I left feeling that here was a man who had a sense of humanity and joy which shines through his photographs that appear remarkably ordinary and yet have been staged quite brilliantly.

A few weeks later I am back with a group from the OCA and we are met by Helen Warburton of Ffotogallery who gives us a talk about the exhibition and Daniel Meadows as a whole. Much of this can be found in my record of the evening with Daniel Meadows above.

Helen Warburton from The Ffotogallery

One of the striking things about Daniel Meadows is his ability to engage with his subjects; there is a genuine relationship between photographer and sitter. This was not the case when I photographed him signing books at the end of his talk and yet, as Jesse points out, there is a case for keeping a certain distance. There is discussion about Meadows and his old friend Martin Parr, about their differences rather than their similarities; Meadows laughs with while a more satirical Parr laughs at !? I wonder if Meadows really is a more humanistic photographer though since Parr is often misjudged and misunderstood, apparently possessed of a different kind of humanistic outlook.

visitors to the gallery looking at The Free Photographic Omnibus Revisited

One interesting project of Meadows is his re-engagement with earlier work in “The Free Photographic Omnibus Revisited” in which he sought out and found people he had photographed about a quarter of a century before. A video presentation shows what these people were like in the past and what they look like now; there is also text about them while before they were nameless. The bus that Meadows used in his travels was later bought as an antique and restored at expense to it’s former condition so what might have proved to have been an even more priceless antique has been lost!

Meadow’s colour negative photographs of Butlins from the early 1970’s

Meadows and Parr spent time together at a Butlins holiday camp. Apart from doing their required photographic work, they also found time to make their own photographs of the place with Parr later going on to make a book called The Last Resort of this kind of touristic culture. Meadows photographs show much of the kind of life that went on at a Butlins. Colour photography at this time was new and only just starting to take off.

layout of Butlins colour negative prints

One of the remarkable things about this exhibition and Meadows too, is the way his archive has been preserved along with a wealth of information relating to it. This is largely thanks to Val Williams who has curated the exhibition which was first shown at Bradford; it was Val Williams who  decided exactly what went into the exhibition which is unusual since it is the photographer who usually does this. However, it is thanks to Val Williams that this valuable archive exists.