East London Photography Festival study visit – Oct 25

Another study visit embarrassingly close to my flat and I still managed to be the last person to arrive…

We started with Keith Greenhough’s Lifting the Curtain at the delightful Town House in Fournier Street, in the shadow of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, Spitalfields. Keith was kind enough to give us a great talk about his work. It is always good to hear directly from the artist but is especially useful when it is a fellow student.

Keith explained that he has long been fascinated with East London and how it’s been shaped by a colourful history.   This led him to Charles Booth’s 1889 socio-cultural survey Life and Labour of the People. Booth’s view was that East London ‘lay hidden from view behind a curtain on which were painted terrible pictures’. He wanted to lift the curtain and expose the myths and reality. Keith has captured images from modern day East London and juxtaposed them with texts from Booth’s survey, linking them to the past. This helps us to understand how much things have changed and how much they have stayed the same.

Keith detailed how he had managed to secure exhibition space and that his work was supporting Toynbee Hall. He also touched on how interesting it is that people viewing the work often did not read the text first as he had hoped. He talked about his influences (Simon Norfolk, Simon Roberts, Joel Sternfeld, Chloe Dewe Mathews) and about the concept of aftermath photography – landscapes being a site of contemplation. Thomas Struth’s Unconscious Places and David Campany were mentioned.

He also touched on the difficulties of using text with images – they can’t be too obscure but cannot be too obvious or it will ‘anchor’ the image (with references to Barthes’ Rhetoric of the Image and Umberto Eco’s The Open Work). Tutor Simon Barber observed that this raises questions about the target audience. Keith also talked about his “presentation strategy” and how he’d made a conscious decision to frame and float-mount the text, in the style of a leaf from a book and using an old typeface, so that it became more than just a caption and was clearly seen as a document.

Some more Greenhough insights:

  • Using Google Streetview to scout out locations – we can save a lot of time and effort via good desk research
  • These images were shot with a medium format camera with a tilt/shift to keep the verticals straight
  • Viewfinder Pro app on an iPhone can simulate different lenses
  • Most of shots were taken between midnight and 5am to ensure no people were in the scene – Keith felt that would be too modern and too distracting
  • Mostly shot at around F22 for 20 seconds
  • Consciously used text within the images (signs and ads etc)

Next stop was Drift in the Truman Brewery.

This exhibition was billed as “an exploration of contemporary urban environments” by eleven “up and coming international photographers”. “The work represents the conclusion of an intense process of interrogation and decoding of urban cultures and seeks to shed light on the complex milieu and diverse narratives witnessed in the city and its edge lands. Displaying a mixture of portraiture, documentary, landscape and street photography, Drift is an exploration of multiple, contemporary urban environments. In a world where the political and socio-economic dimensions of an expanding and mutable urban plexus are in constant flux, these diverse artists offer new and revealing insights into the world we live in.” (from http://www.urbanphotofest.org/drift)

Tutor Rob Bloomfield mentioned that this was a show of Goldsmith’s MA students. Overall it was quite a mixed bag and I actually found some of the work to be extremely amateur. We had some great discussions afterwards about what some of the work meant and if (and how) it had resonated with us. The general consensus seemed to be that some of the ‘concepts’ had rather got ahead of themselves.

According to the booklet about the show, Audiographies by Kevin Fitzgerald “takes its place within a discourse of perceptual inquiry. Combating theories of ‘visuocentrism’ by seeking a unified but differentiated approach to the senses of sound and vision, it seeks to understand what an inquisition into the audible reveals about the aural and visual dimensions of urban space.” I liked the grand aim of making “the invisible observable through the photographic medium” so that viewers “listen with their eyes and see with their ears” but I didn’t feel that the work really achieved this.

Most people in the group were impressed with Bas Losekoot’s Urban Millennium. This is street photography but using extraordinary lighting (and possibly very elaborate post-production work) resulting in a very theatrical and hyper-real feel. According to this article: “Losekoot brings small flashes with him and sets them up on whatever is available, be it light posts, poles or railings. Then he waits for the perfect moments. Nothing is staged; it’s all a candid flow of human interaction. The most subtle gaze or movement speaks volumes in a still image. Losekoot does his best to be invisible so that people will act naturally and not pose for the camera.”

Whilst we were all raving about one of the images being so brilliant and the ‘ultimate’ in street, the tutors pointed out that this work is actually derivative as it is very similar to Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads project.

Losekoot’s images show more of the surrounding street and other people so there is a different feel. He says in the show’s booklet “in my work I try to imagine the consequences of large-scale development of megacities on human behaviour. I would like to create awareness, which can lead to a better understanding, which can finally cause change in complex cultural and political issues.”

His large glossy book of the project has no text except for this excellent excerpt from Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop:

“Some frowned, some smiled, some muttered to themselves, some made slight gestures, as if anticipating the conversation in which they would shortly be engaged, some wore the cunning look of bargaining and plotting, some were anxious and eager, some slow and dull; in some countenances, were written gain; in others, loss. It was like being in the confidence of all these people to stand quietly there, looking into their faces as they flitted past. In busy places, where each man has an object of his own, and feels assured that every other man has his, his character and purpose are written broadly in his face. In the public walks and lounges of a town, people go to see and to be seen, and there the same expression, with little variety, is repeated a hundred times. The working-day faces come nearer to the truth, and let it out more plainly.”

I loved the textures and rich greys of Beatrice Tura’s Terra Firma. I think these images of the “urban soil” appealed to me so much as I walk in London a lot – often looking at the ground – and am always fascinated by the manifold signs of life. Tura has abstracted the pavements and roads to create new worlds of lines, reflections, tarmac cracks, chewing gum swirls and fag butts.

I was also quite drawn to Spaces of Otherness by Carlo Navato. This work was, according to the artist’s statement, inspired by Foucault’s 1967 essay ‘Des Espace Autres’ “in which he uses the term heterotopia to describe spaces that have multiple layers of meaning and a fundamentally deeper relationship to other places than might immediately meet the eye. This body of work explores a variety of spaces that can be considered neither here nor there.” There are large square images with centralised subjects, minimal signs of human life and a lot of open space, some snow-covered or enveloped in fog. They could have come across as chilly and bleak but felt quite inviting to me.

There was much discussion about Tanya Houghton’s A Migrant’s Tale, described as a “collection of narrative explorations of home and nostalgia, told through the language of food. The body of work represents a collaborative reworking process of the migrant’s tale, which explores the relationship of the narrator and the interpreter and the use of photography in creating a visual retelling of the migrant’s story. All tales are visually translated with consideration and transcribed from the migrant’s own words.” These portraits include some text with described memories from the subject, a straight headshot and a constructed tableau of the food and other personal items related to the migrant. I interpreted this as a kind of fetishism of the food items (almost presented as trophies) showing the migrants as being ‘other’ but in an ordinary, not exotic, way. The book accompanying the collection is well laid out and quite engaging, although as was pointed out by the tutors, the project was possibly a little banal.

Our mixed views on the work led to Rob talking about how visual language must make sense for it to have meaning. This was one my frustrations with Surface Tension by Harri Närhi. I felt the visual language was incoherent and the images did not work together as a series.

Nacho PiquerasFrom a Window gave me an excellent opportunity to say “This is a strategy, not a concept!” (with a tip of my hat to Jesse Alexander).

For a Space to Come by Nai Wen Hsu was a refreshingly loose portrait of Hackney made up of snapshots presented in various shapes and sizes and arranged on the wall as family pictures might be at home. Many were blurred and felt hasty but as a collection, there was an interesting narrative, which I found drew me into the scenes depicted.

Sophie Ebrey’s Portraits of Urban Youth raised many questions and ideas for a number of OCA-ers. The images were of students in their uniforms at a Lewisham comprehensive school and in their own clothes outside the school. It was clear that the photographer had engaged successfully with the students and this allowed her to explore issues of identity and the dynamics of their relationships, through mirrored poses. The composition and close cropping of the images seemed to reflect how the students are still growing, physically and mentally, and pushing against their boundaries.

Next we walked in the rain up to Rivington Street in Shoreditch to the Autograph ABP exhibition Rock Against Racism by Syd Shelton. The collection documents the RAR movement, formed by some musicians and political activists, from 1976 to 1981, which confronted racist ideology at a very grass roots level across Britain. Shelton says “Photography for me has always been an autobiographical tool, a sort of staccato visual diary. I also used my photography during that period as a graphic argument, enabling me to be a subjective witness of the period which could, hopefully, contribute to social change.” All the images were in black and white (the ‘truthful’ medium of the time) and are bold with strong contrasts. There are some brilliant captures of the protagonists, clearly placed within their urban environments. The collection shows the ferocity and complexities of the human collaborations behind the movement: “After the tears, the fury” as one newspaper headline read.

The final viewing of the day was Frantz Fanon by Bruno Boudjelal photographs which “embody the artist’s search for reliable traces of past histories and the imprint of memory”.

I absolutely loved these images and the way they sat together as a collection. Beautifully presented in a darkened room, these haunting, impressionistic images are like whispers or fleeting memories of a place, a person, a time. Taken with a Holga, often whilst the photographer was walking, giving some delightfully tilted horizons, the images are blurred (except one portrait, confusingly) and grainy with very black shadows and a gorgeous sepia tint. All the square prints are the same size and presented in two long rows. I’ve never made images like this and was quite inspired to try to emulate that style. The text excerpts from Fanon’s books did not appeal – as Rob said, it felt a bit ‘soundbitey’ – but this room is definitely worth visit for the images alone.

All in all, it was a good study visit. We saw a wide range of work, some good, some bad, some bloody excellent. All of it thought-provoking in some way. I definitely can feel my confidence growing in terms of critiquing and contextualising contemporary practice. Talking with the tutors and other students is invaluable and I am looking forward to another outing soon.

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One Response to East London Photography Festival study visit – Oct 25

  1. Pingback: Assignment Two: timeline | Gesture & Meaning

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