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.

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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.

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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

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!

 

 

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.

Open College of the Arts week-end seminar at Leeds

If it apprehension I feel about this week-end, it is because it could turn out to be rather academic if not institutional rather than focusing on photography which is surely what we, about 20 students and a small group of tutors, are coming for. The underlying theme may be art rather than photography; of course, one can assume that photography is an art form and question whether there is a difference yet as Barthes writes at the very end of Camera Lucida, art threatens to undermine photography.

The guest speaker is Mishka Henner. He works largely by appropriating the work of others rather than making his own images. Looking at his website http://mishka.lockandhenner.com is not inspiring yet perhaps his talk might be. Landscape views from Google Earth with photographs of alluring women inserted is an interesting combination of subject matter. Les Americains is a book based on Frank’s The Americans; the original images have been largely erased. What is this new version about? I do not wish to dismiss it but am unable to see what has lead Henner to make this work. Perhaps I shall find out at the conference.

Another work by Henner, Photography Is, is a collection of over 3,000 quotes about photography. Many of these do not seem very insightful and jumbled together in a somewhat meaningless manner; Henner is apparently making some kind of comment if not on the incessant questioning about photography certainly the assumptions that people have about the medium. What I do not like about this book of which I have read a fair amount is that it seems to be suggesting that nothing worthwhile has been written or that what has been written is largely nonsense. For many it seems, Barthes is boring yet for some, he is not so much academic rather poetic.

Mishka Henner is described as an artist; I wonder therefore why he has been chosen as the guest speaker at a photographic seminar. The answer seems to be because there is this assumption that photography is art. Henner seems to be a very clever man; I wonder if I will be able to understand him!

Winning Mentality” is easier to understand. In this 2010 book, prefaced by a quote from Van Gogh, “Winning isn’t everything … it’s the only thing.”, this book shows lots of winners with the same face imposed upon each photograph. Where is the creativity here? The photographs are all appropriated yet well reproduced. Perhaps art is something we don’t need to create; it is already there. A comment about the book is that it “subverts the conventional gestures expected of winners and hints at a deeper malaise in the culture itself.”

I have emailed the other attendees to say I expect to be photographing during the event and will share photos if they want. Jesse Alexander does not want me to do it during the lectures as this would distract people while at the same time appreciating the value of such work! One student also replies to say she does not want photography during the “sessions”. I wonder if there is any point to making photographs since the social occasion is not what it is about. Perhaps a few photographs of the “sessions” might be allowed as long as I do not go on for too long. Perhaps now is the time to purchase a camera without a mirror as this allows almost silent operation but the Canon M is software based in operation rather than physical with knobs so I am not keen to purchase one; I shall stick with my compact.

outside the New Ellington Hotel, Leeds

The hotel have not answered my email about car parking! I get the feeling that it is going to be one of those places where image is more important than actuality as with many business enterprises. It takes two phone calls before the hotel call back to let me know about car parking. On arrival, I am directed towards the hotel car park; it is £14 per night but a secure one! There is some problem with one of the knobs in the bathroom – yet this is fixed.

First meeting with Eileen, Gilly and a Scottish sounding woman whom I have met before. What about the new modules that are being rewritten – are they not a little condescending !? OCA banter begins. Over dinner, I sit opposite “Shaun from Munich” who is on his second Level 2 module; he works for Hewlett Packard. Not surprisingly, he has been influenced by German photographers from the Becher school such as Gurksy and Struth. His work is worth looking at if only because it is one I might be doing; the photographs have been made in Germany and Shaun has been using Canon TSE lenses.

The enthusiatic effort of many tutors is mentioned; they are not paid a lot but they still work hard for us. It seems my role as “pet paparazzi” is more or less established and I make a few images with a compact, an attempt to be more discrete although there are times I like to be a little upfront. In fact, I do not do a lot of photography during the week-end but make a number of key photos and there have been requests fro students to use them on their blogs as well for more formal usage such as with OCASA.

Informal Group Photograph of OCA students at the beginnng of the week-end

The first session is about Open College of the Arts photographic courses and what to expect from them. Before this gets going, there are introductions, something I had suggested which at first was resisted yet Jesse Alexander was one tutor who was up for it. everyone stood up and briefly introduced themselves; standing before the assembled group of 20 students including myself, I made the above photograph and introduced myself as “a carer” and a “photographer” attempting to juggle the two; I might have said more, something about myself being a sannyasin and a Swami, but doubted anyone would be interested.

The two tutors then proceeded to give an overview of what was expected from OCA students; Peter Haveland introduced himself as head of the curricula, a title that seems to mean nothing, and a fine artist while Jesse Alexander is a working photographer who also teaches. Peter Haveland observes that all the cameras are in the hands of the students and that this is a fact worth reflecting upon; in fact, this is not entirely true as Mark Lomas is photographing from the back of the room on behalf of the OCA of whom he is a staff member. I wonder what Peter was hinting at.

Some students complain later that the week-end has not given them much to go on in regard to progressing to Levels 2 and 3; it seems to me that quite a bit of information is given out but many are still at Level 1 and not ready to progress yet having at least one more Level 1 module to do. Level 1 is more about acquiring basic knowledge, maintaining good habits, developing technical ability; this may be boring although I have not found it to be so. Exploring concepts such as The Bauhaus Contrasts is quite fascinating and exemplary of what made me want to do a degree in photography; others apparently do not see it this way yet for me, learning is about understanding the knowledge one acquires rather than merely the pursuit of knowledge.

Level 2 is about engaging with one’s work critically, putting it into context. The portfolio review later does this for me very well. Feedback from assessments can contradict what the tutor might have said and be hard to understand as I have experienced over the suggestion that I need to be more innovative although what innovation might mean in photography escapes me and no tutor can define it for me either. The assessment might not reflect expectations that are based on tutor’s comments. At Level 2, there is more engagement with the tutor. One needs to engage more with the local art community. Failure is to be welcomed since it is an important part of the learning process.

OCA tutor Peter Haveland

During the following coffee break, I chat with Peter Haveland who, as usual, has something of value to say. We discuss “knowing what one knows”, the acquisition of more books than one can store and the European fascination with Japanese art including photography. For a lot of people, this week-end is going to be about gaining encouragement towards further study; as Yiann, a student, says “I have lost my Mojo and I want my Mojo back!” I feel like popping out to the car to get my guitar and play her the “Mojo boogie” but am not sure I know very much of it. Inspiration can come from radio, films and reading.

Mishka Henner

I have already written a bit about Mishka Henner. Hearing him talk gave one a greater insight into his work which Eileen Rafferty, one of the organisers of the week-end event, described as “inspirational, challenging and thoughtful”. I managed to make a few grab shots of Mishka before being asked not to photograph; it seems that Mishka is going through a transitory period and does not want to go down on record as stating a particular point of view at present. Can not see how this would be effected by a few still photographs but he was not to know that I was not doing video. However, the request did seem a bit incongruous in the light of what Mishka does, the lifting of photographs from Google Earth rather than the making of them. Of course, the criticism he receives for this and the accompanying threats only encourage one to like his work which is brilliantly conceived and executed. Laudits have come from photographers such as Jim Goldberg and Martin Parr which is encouraging yet has done little if anything to promote sales of his books. Conceptual art is not to everyone’s taste and often people miss the point.

To view Mishka Henner’s work, one can view a lot at his website and it is really only for me to make certain points to avoid the reader missing the essence of these works. Work he discussed included his “Photography is” which is certainly worth a look at if you happen to be interested in what people are or have written about photography, a medium that seems to avoid definition. This book is certainly a fascinating resource albeit a rather muddled, incomprehensible one; a review by Joachim Schmid discusses the book in greater detail.

51 U.S. Military Outposts coincided with the Wikileaks revelations and further enlarges upon US military presence around the world. As elsewhere, Mishka has appropriated images from Google Earth and enhanced them to produce an aesthetic record that is both visually appealing and informative as people were largely unaware of these military institutions existing in the countries cited.

Dutch Landcapes is a similar work but centred on Holland which has a carefully controlled landscape since much would disappear under the sea if it was not. Here, very obvious filters have been stuck over sensitive areas which draws attention to the sites rather than obscuring them; these filters have since disappeared.

The question that Mishka’s work raises is one of authorship even ownership; these are questions that have been around for sometime as can be evidenced in the writing of Roland Barthes. Google Earth Pro does make high resolution photographs possible and it is these that Mishka has used to illustrate his work. However, one does wonder at what Mishka is doing since there are restrictions imposed by Google; presumably Mishka has got the necessary permission but he did not discuss this.

No Man’s Land is Google Earth photos made at places where sex workers were or are known to operate; amazingly the Google Earth car has captured the sex workers along with the landscapes. There were enough images to do a second book. There is a certain irony here for though “the pleasure of the gaze” is often discussed in this case the gaze is a purely mechanical one.

While projects can be inspiring, they do take up a lot of energy and considerable time especially when his books sell in small quantities and he makes no money in spite of a lot of interest in his work. He has received death threats and a lot of irrational criticism. There are a lot of issues surrounding copyright with Google since they use one’s images with any copyright being granted. His new work, Feedback Loupe, contains work that deals with some of the vitriolic feedback he has received!

Another book that Mishka has done is called Astronomical which is a clever scaled map of the solar system.

Another book, Less Americains, is a skinned down copy of Robert Frank’s The Americans; this is quite an interesting analysis of the book yet there is also a satirical edge as with 50 years since the book was first published, there has been a lot of attention paid to this book with publications such as Looking in: Robert’ Frank’s “The Americans” This work has received an apoplectic response from photographers with some treating him as if he has urinated on the bible such being the status of The Americans by Robert Frank. I can’t help but think Henners’ book provides an insight into the original book but certainly I am in the minority here.

There has been serious consideration of Mishka Henners’ work by writers such as Sean O’Hagan.

The afternoon talk is by OCA tutor, Jesse Alexander, on the subject of Photobooks. The book has a certain uniqueness, it is almost a sacred object. One can mention various things about photobooks …

_ presence or authority
_ a narrative; beginning, middle and end
_ good way to juxtapose photographs (and text if necessary)
_ an intimate experience

There are different kinds of photobooks …

_ monographs (Jesse cites Michael Bodiam’s book on a deserted London department store) Often these are not intended for wide scale publication.
_ exhibition catalogues (Oil by Burtynsky)
_ surveys (Susan Bright – Art Photography Now)

There are also books that are full of photographs but are not really photobooks; this might include my bird books or something more like an encyclopaedia with lots of photographs in to illustrate passages.

Jesse shows us some of the bird books he has done. He works with a professional book binder in Bristol called Bristol Bound to whom he presents prints which, after some discussion, are then bound. Martin Parr has worked with these publishers.

Jesse shows us some of the books he has done. Book designing does require skills and so they are best not used at Level 1 and Level 2 since they might detract from the portfolio. Photobooks are more than just a colllection of photos – they involve highly complex editing skills.

Photobooks do not conform to any particular format (companies like Blurb might give this impression) and they can take many different forms – Auto-portrait by Martin Parr is an example being a small, post card sized book with a soft cover. Photobooks can sometimes be published in collaboration with galleries such as Ffotogallery in Cardiff.

When considering a photobook, one might think of the following …
_ genesis of book
_ the design, typeface, paper used, quality of printing etc
_ how does the book present itself
_ is it self-explanatory?
_ additional material; does it contribute positively?
_ narrative of the book if there is one.

We look at a number of photobooks in small groups and discuss them in detail; some students would have liked more time for this.

I find myself wondering at the end of the day as to what creative photography might be – not sure that conceptual photography is really creative in spite of being ingenious.

Photographs contain a sense of nothingness; there is often no clear meaning or message (“a message without a code” as Barthes has written) other than the image itself.

skylight in the bar at The New Ellington Hotel

My closing thoughts at the end of the first day seem taken up by the first talk on the second day which is given by Peter Haveland. However, this is extremely complex and my notes, such as they are, rather too disjointed to write up. Peter does recommend a text “The Rhetoric of the Image” by Roland Barthes about the way we extract meaning from photographs as well as other art forms. A subtitle for this talk was “Neither Levi-Strauss nor Levi-Strauss”, the reference being to the anthropologist Levi-Strauss rather than the make of jeans although jeans also did feature in the talk. I am not going to dwell too long on this talk partly because of the paucity of my notes but also because I question the relevance of semiotics to the understanding of the photograph, a questioning shared by others as the discussion in Photography Theory clearly reveals. I am however reading “The Rhetoric of the Image” in an attempt to better understand the subject! Other Barthes work one might consider is Mythologies and the Death of the Author

Structuralism is about the way we see things. Saussure was a major exponent with his dyadic, two part model, which considered both the “signifier” and the “signified”, the form of the sign and the concept it represents; this can be referred to as “signification”.

Peter analyses a photograph of a group of men wearing jeans. He also mentions the semiotician C.S.Pierce

Other references given are Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners

A book on Visual Culture by Howells and Negreiros is also advised.

The next talk is by Jesse Alexander and about developing a major project. He talks about how he came to do his M.A. being inspired by the photographer Thomas Demand and information in the news about underground bunkers. He drew inspiration from a writer called Rosalind Williams who has written about such human imaginings. Another source of literary inspiration was Robert Ryan

Jesse’s portfolio consisted of photographs made in dark places such as underground where exposure in one case was a week long !! He used large format quite a bit as technically, digital DSLRs were not up to the job. He networked with people who aware of dark places that might be photographed.

After a coffee break, we had a talk from Peter Rudge, a visiting speaker from duckrabbit He talked about making photo-films which make great use of still photographs, converting them into a film-like sequence. The emphasis is on digital story telling.

The symbol of Duckrabbit is interesting because it could be either a duck or a rabbit – my first impression was of a duck but when prompted, the rabbit also came into view. This symbol was made more widely known by the philosopher Wittgenstein who commented on it. Duckrabbit want to reach people which is encouraging since OCA “artists” seem to be the kind of people who would put down a photographer like Martin Parr because he is successful ad makes money; real artists don’t care about money one is told. This is of course a Marxist view operating in a capitalist environment.

There is an expanding market for digital video but it does not really interest me as a still photographer though I can see that a video of one’s own work might be good. Peter talks quite a bit about the use of still photographs which he sees as representative of the way the mind works. There is a need though for a strong sense of narrative. In a film, every second counts. One needs to start with an opening that is interesting as well as an interesting title. Short, straight introduction to the story, not deviating from the theme – there is no need for a formal introduction.

portfolio review with Peter Haveleand

The week-end finishes with portfolio reviews. We are given guidelines for presenting our work at the OCA …
_ not glossy prints or matt: best is something between the two e.g. Pearlt
_ protective sleeves whether just plastic or archival
_ need for margins around print (A4+ on A3 about right) but not digital frames
_ framing: no need to make the image fir the paper
_ prints often need to be presented in a particular order i.e. sequenced
_ theme to work
_ photos can fit together in regard to their design
_ for assessment, one can show the way one has thought about the work
_ print quality needs to be good; a reliable street store can suffice
_ might have to leave a choice photo out because it does not fit in with the others
_ black and white work needs to be well printed with a good range of tones!
_ might have to cater for the ego’s of those assessing one’s work
_ if one does go beyond established boundaries, one needs to explain
_ (John Tagg – The Burden of Representation
_ need to edit work possibly ruthlessly
_ it can be comforting to the viewer of an abstract image if they know something about it
_ chocolate box images !? need to go beyond them
_ dealing with matters that artists have dealt with
_ low-contrast, dark images OK as set but not individually
_ sequencing can bring a collection of images with no apparent meaning into something with definite content
_ visual consistency within portfolio

Eventually, the group attention is turned towards the portfolio of images I have brought along;

Robert and David Crow gardening outside Ford House

The feedback I get from my work is different from most of what I have had before perhaps because it is largely in terms of visual culture. Rather than direct comment on my work perhaps because it is proficient enough in photographic terms. It is the use of saturated colour and choclately boxey look presumably that leads to mention of Martin Parr and <a href=”_ (John Tagg – The Burden of Representation” target=”_blank”>Peter Dench although my sense of composition does owe quite a bit to Martin Parr. The subject of my images is not chocolate-boxey; the images are very ordinary but there is something beyond the banality. Although they look like home snaps they are much better composed. Images of domesticity and family. A bok is mentioned, Family Snaps by Jo Spence and Pat Holland.

Tessa with her dog Jesse

Although the images might appear banal they are not in fact banal.(One student who does black and white work insists that the images are 90% banal apparently unable to take in what the tutor is saying) I am given encouragement to do a book or make an exhibition by expanding on the number of people and place photos; this is possible but not really the way I think my OCA assignment needs to go. Juxtaposition of style and content is another comment.

The Fox family at The Bungalow

The week-end is finally over. I am not in a hurry to leave but don’t want to reach my next destination too late. Many have left by the time I drive off saying goodbye to the few remaining students. My feelings are mixed about the week-end. My apprehensions about the week-end were not really mistaken but I did not let them get the better of me. I enjoyed some socialising and meeting one or two people such as Penny Watson and Rob with whom I had come into contact via the forums; new student Tim whom I had met in Manchester and Stan, the OCASA chief. I could mention others of course but these are the ones that spring to mind at present.

The week-end has perhaps been a good introduction to Level 2 but it has also made me think about the visual culture bias of the OCA photography course in which photography seems almost compromised.

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

about Hereford Photography Festival november 2011

The link for the photography festival is …
http://www.photofest.org/

The Open College of the Arts are visiting and the first exhibition we are due to visit is the main one. Here is the blurb about it …

Time & Motion Studies presents the works of five photographers, each the result of deliberate and sustained observation. But more than that, each employs a carefully thought-out strategy for their study, a methodology by which to transcribe and communicate ideas about the world, tackling subjects that aren’t always obviously photogenic. For the photographers in the exhibition, the ideas they are trying to communicate take prescience over aesthetic concerns, although these remain important, both in terms of engaging viewers and in contributing to the development of a wider photographic language. Photographers include Vanessa Winship, George Georgiou, Donald Weber, Robbie Cooper and Manuel Vasquez

Simon Bainbridge said: “I was thrilled to be approached by Hereford Photography Festival who have such a great history of exhibiting international photographic work. I’m excited to be working with them in this their twenty-first year, on an exhibition that will respond to the idea of movement; this year’s festival theme. Work will focus on the strategies contemporary photographers employ to capture everyday life as it passes across their frame and photographers will be selected from the UK and throughout the world.”

The statement that “Work will focus on the strategies contemporary photographers employ to capture everyday life as it passes across their frame” gives an interesting insight into the exhibition.

We are also due to see another exhibition called A Social Landscape; here is the blurb about that …

The last twenty years have seen huge shifts in the definition of documentary practice. The photograph can no longer be seen as an objective record. The work included in this exhibition has been developed within a demanding critical framework that requires students to continually question their process.

All of the photographers are in one way or another documenting the social landscape, be it Kentucky, Saint David’s, California or Paris. The work is at a half-way point for some students and two-thirds of the way through for others. The exhibition should be seen as a preview of the final work, which will be presented at the City University Campus University of Wales, Newport in June 2012.

There is a URL connected with this exhibition … www.wearedoc.com

We then have a choice of two other exhibitions … one of which is called Solsbury Hill which was published to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the 1994 Solsbury Hill road protest, one of the first major anti-roads protests of the 1990s. This exhibition of beautifully reproduced photographs by Adrian Arbib documents all aspects of that protest.

HPF stages this exhibition at a time that young people have staged protests for the first time in twenty years.

there is a more at this address … www.solsburyhill.org.uk

The other exhibition that we can visit as part of the OCA is “Walking in my shoes” …

Featuring work by seven talented photographers trained through PhotoVoice’s groundbreaking projects in the UK, this exhibition presents a truly diverse selection of perspectives and experiences of life in Great Britain. Visitors are invited to discover new ways of looking at their homeland, and to consider viewpoints and facets of life in Great Britain that they may have never considered.

Photographers showcased in Walking in My Shoes include one blind and one partially sighted photographer, both of whom use sensory photography techniques to capture and share their thoughts and experiences. Also showcased are photographs by two young people living in supported housing in Hackney, a wheelchair-using photographer, a young person with experience of homelessness on the streets of Glasgow, and a young Afghan photographer who is working to establish a new life in Britain having arrived as an unaccompanied refugee a few years ago.

An audio trail featuring audio captions, soundscape and quotes from the photographers will be available for download from the PhotoVoice and HPF websites during the exhibition.

It does not look particularly inspiring! The festival as a whole is impressive but I wonder how much of what I see I shall actually like and how much I will look at because it is on a gallery wall and hence expects to revered. As a student, I may find it interesting!

Flogging A Dead Horse – Paul Reas

This book was suggested to me by OCA tutor Jose Navarro. I had come across another book by Reas called “I can help” which had struck me as deeply ironical and so I wondered what this book might be about. With a postscript by Val Williams I felt I would be able to keep a detached and informed view.

The book was published in the early 1990’s with help from the Arts Council of Great Britain; it is a comment on the growing heritage industry which tends to glamourise the past as it makes old coal mines and the like available to a fee paying public armed with cameras. There is an absence of grime and the apparent authenticity is rather deceiving.

The photographs could be described as post-modernist in approach. For instance, many images are tilted. It is not obvious as to why this has been done yet it adds to the sense of confusion these images seem to be portraying.

There is also text by Stuart Cosgrove which outlines his experience of looking at the photographs and what some of the images mean to him. Its’ not easy to determine what the individual images are concerned with and this text along with the captions at the back help. The text itself is creatively placed on the page with some of it being enlarged and almost floating. A reminder of the way text and image can work together.

There are many images one could comment on but one that stands out is of a “black” man wearing a union jack tea shirt stands at the back of a bus; the photographer looks from the outside past the heads of two white people. There is an obvious conflict here of different kinds of heritage. One can not help but recall an image by Martin Parr in which a “black man” stands talking to an elderly British couple at a party.

The cover image of the book is of a cobbled street from a bygone age in which a cart is placed; a man with a video recorder is seen photographing the scene. It all appears rather unreal and on reflection not at all like any street that actually existed in a previous century although the elements of such a scene are apparent.

Val Williams’s commentary is at the back; she is describes as a photo-historian and writer about photography. Her prose helps one to see deeper into the images and understand the photographer’s intentions.

I like this book not as a document to be enjoyed for pretty photographs but as an insight into the culture we create around us; even when it is meant to be there to inform us, it is more likely to mislead in an attempt to entertain us.

Often one’s feeling towards photographs is personal. One photograph that sticks out for me is of a tour guide with bowler hat and brolly raised talking to a group of smiling tourists of different nationalities. I remember seeing these guides when I visited The Tower of London some years ago; they were very amusing with their theatrical approach and did actually give a valid insight into the place even if an exaggerated one.