Thursday, 13 June 2013

Look 13–Liverpool Study Visit

Nothing to do with Landscape, but as I’m planning on doing Documentary next, the study visit to the Look 13 Festival in Liverpool seemed a worthwhile Saturday outing. Full details of the festival can be found on its website – which, if I’m honest, is not a paragon of navigability. The theme was “Who do you think you are?” but more on that later.

The formal visit was due to start at 11:00 at the Open Eye gallery which is down on the harbourside – and in a stunning location. I got there 40 mins early which was a bonus as I’ve not been to Liverpool previously (except for a conference 20 years ago where I saw nothing) and was very pleasantly surprised by how dramatic the harbour area is. A sunny day helped in this regard as well – the shots in this post taken from my phone capture the overall feel pretty well.

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It soon became clear that many of the people loitering with intent were other OCA students, and once we’d coalesced into a group Keith (Roberts) our host for the visit handed out some info and led us into Open Eye for the first of the galleries on the visit schedule. There were two artists on display here Charles Freger and Eva Stenram. Both websites have a significant collection of work on them, but I think Freger’s work is better represented by the images on display at Open Eye than Stenram’s.

Freger’s work reminds me of a Becher/Sander-esque typology, although the poses are slightly less formal and consistent. Series that I found especially interesting were Legionnaires, Wilder Mann and Short School Haka. The first consisted of two rows of waist length portraits. The upper row were all relatively young recruits, bare chested and for the most part striking a pose. The bottom row were soldiers at the other end of their career, with medals beards and full dress uniform. The thing that struck me most was how tired they looked – their eyes suggesting that perhaps they’d seen too much – and the dramatic contrast with the new recruits.

Wilder Mann was a collection of folk-dance costumes from around Europe/Asia. They were all reassuringly crafty and primitive, but I can’t help wondering just what relevance they really have in the lives of the individuals that were wearing them. No such misgivings for Short School Haka though – a series of pictures of teenage boys in school uniform  and engaged in a Maori haka. No sign of self consciousness – the performance clearly meant something to them. Some really inspiring material here.

I was a bit less (but only a bit) convinced by Stenram, who’s series Drapes uses Photoshop to add curtains over the female bodies present in a number of found soft porn images. We had quite a good discussion about the impact of gender on our reactions. They were mildly amusing and reflect a theme which can be found on her website where she has a series in which she has removed the ‘actors’ from outdoor porn shoots leaving just vaguely disconcerting empty spaces.

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Once we’d revealed more about ourselves than was truly comfortable we moved on to the Bluecoat Gallery for a collection of Sander/Weegee images from the Side Gallery – some of which I’d seen before at the Side – and Identity Documents by Adam Lee – which I somehow overlooked because there was a truly fascinating collection of images from Arabic photographers in the gallery as well. The more I see of Weegee’s work the more I think he has quite a lot to answer for. He may well have played a significant part in forming the way the USA sees itself but he may also have been the first paparazzo. I think there’s a fair chance he’d have been regularly assaulted if he had tried his characteristic approach in the current climate. Sitting at the interface between ‘public interest’ and ‘interesting to the public’ his shots are undoubtedly quite hard hitting slice of life (and death) photos, but at what cost to the subjects and ultimately the reputation of photography as a whole.

Sander I’m a lot more comfortable with – setting aside the somewhat archaic underlying idea that there are “types” of people. I find the images very revealing of a way of life now long gone, full of characters – some respectable – some villainous, and full of tiny historical details about haircuts, clothing, footwear and tools. I could look at them for hours.

I exist (in some way) was a selection of contemporary Middle Eastern photographers who explore issues of identity in the Arab world. In my book pride of place goes to Lamya Gargash with her series Though the Looking Glass, which consists of diptychs featuring individuals as we see them, and as they see themselves, with their self-perceived failures to achieve ideal standards of beauty enhanced by the use of prosthetics. As well as revealing something of the frailty of the subjects the images should lead us to question the ridiculous stereotypes we are fed by the advertising industry. I also admire the bravery of the subjects, and perhaps the persuasive powers of the photographer herself.

Other displays of note included Hijab Series by Boushra Almutawakel and Larissa Sansour’s Nation Estate.

I wish I’d not missed Adam Lee, as on the evidence of his website his work would have played to my prejudice that you can tell a lot about people from their bookshelves and music collections (although he doesn’t cover that last bit).

The final trip of the day was to the Walker art gallery to see Rankin’s “Alive: In the Face of Death”, a double header from Martin Parr and Tom Wood and a curated trip through the archive of commercial photographer Keith Medley. For me this was the least convincing part of the day overall. Starting with what I felt was the best bit, the Medley exhibition showed pairs of photos taken for passport or studio portraits, one of which was used and one of which was rejected. The result is a series which highlights the subtle changes in pose between shots – and very often the stilted similarity between them. It also leads to questions about how we, as viewers, make a choice of preferred shots since it was not always obvious why one might be preferred over another. So far, so good, but it felt a bit downhill from there.

The Rankin exhibition seemed to consist of several separate projects all on the theme of death. The images were, as far as I can tell, technically exquisite and in some ways that was their undoing for me. The treatment worked well for the series of masks made from various objects – which offered more than a nod to Hirst’s “For the love of God”. Attractive, but what did they tell us? Then there was a series of photos of casts of the faces of the rich and tedious– which seemed to say little about them except to foreground their vanity. The centrepiece was a series of “everyday people who know they are running out of time”. As a subject this has huge potential, but I felt the visual treatment left you looking at the picture rather than the person – very contrasty, commercial style lighting, monumental scale - I don’t know, perhaps I missed something – but I got no sense of the personal tragedies and triumph’s behind the images (with the exception of the image on the link above). Sometimes the spirit of the individual would creep out – and I have nothing but respect and sympathy for them – but as a viewer I felt the series suffered a dislocating mismatch between style and content.

I’ve left Tom Wood and Martin Parr until last because I genuinely don’t know what to say. The Tom Wood feature in the BJP a couple of months back was more interesting, and having read so much about Martin Parr perhaps I came to the exhibition with unreasonable expectations, but am I alone in thinking that they’re just well observed and moderately witty snaps of everyday life. Perhaps that’s all they’re intended to be, and context is everything, as they say. I’ve seen it suggested that Parr in particular was among the first to adopt this style for photos of us Brits – and that’s something I can go away and explore – but for the moment I just don’t get it.

At this point we split up – some went to the Exhibition Research Centre at Liverpool John Moore (it was shut I gathered from one of the group that I bumped into on the station), some went to the Victoria Gallery, but out of an odd sense of loyalty to my local city I tracked down a fringe exhibition by some students from the University of Cumbria who call themselves the 3+2=1 Collective. The work that stood out for me was “Peripheral Strangers” by Julie Dawn Dennis who has tracked down cropped out and enlarged portraits of those strangers who crop up in her family albums. We all have them, the people in the background of snaps taken at the seaside and at parties – and I thought the idea of bringing these to the foreground, almost as a memento of people we’ll never now was a really interesting idea.

It left me wondering what elevates some to the Walker Gallery and relegates others to a dank passageway in the back of a cafe bar. Time? Or Timing?

I’ve written far more about this than I expected. I must say thanks to tutor Keith for narrowing down the viewing opportunities for us, and spreading himself around as well as he could given that there were lots of us and only one of him. Thanks also to my fellow students for the debates and the good company. I have to say that up until this visit I was quite worried about the idea of embarking on the Documentary course, but there are now so many ideas running round that I’m almost looking forward to it.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Nigel, I totally agree about the Parr images, and about the allocation of prestige place allotted to some practitioners rather than to others. You missed a gem at theBluecoat - I went to the talk by Sarah-Jayne Parsons, curator of the Arab contribution (which followed the Arab Festival in the city) who gave tremendous insights to various images on show. As a result, I am now in contact with one of the photographers which is very exciting! I shall publish my take on this gallery soon - as soon as I have finished reading "The cruel radiance" which I am sure will scar me for life & will probably result in my never looking at another photo in my life!