On Saturday 24 Oct 15 I embarked on an OCA study visit to take in several exhibitions that were a part of the East London Photography Festival. The study visit was led by OCA tutors Robert Bloomfield and Simon Barber.
After meeting up with some of my fellow students and the tutors at 1115hrs, we split into 2 groups and my group headed off to the Town House Gallery in Spitalfields for the Lifting The Curtain¹ exhibition.
Of the 3 exhibitions I saw that day, Lifting the Curtain was by far the best, not least because the artist, Keith Greenough, an OCA student in his final year, was on hand to talk in-depth about his work and processes, as well as answer any questions that we could throw at him.
Greenhough’s work is presented as a gallery exhibition, a book and as a website¹. Having already seen the work online, I was instantly struck by the difference that seeing the work in-print makes. Each image seemed a lot more vibrant, with added depth, and given it’s size it felt a lot more encompassing and inviting. Proof if it were needed, that prints still have a valuable place in our digital age.
On his website, the text is presented before each image and in the book, the text sits to the right of each image. The reasoning behind this is that Greenhough wants us to read the text first. The texts, taken from Booths original work act in relay with the images. As viewers, we are invited to superimpose or project the past onto the image of the present, exploring social concerns. There is sufficient narrative in each text to generate thought in line with the image without directing us to a specific conclusion, allowing each viewer to form their own narratives and derive meaning.
Greenhough’s affection for this area of East London is evident throughout both his work and his methodology. The exhibition location itself is consistent with the subject matter, being an old Victorian surgery, and the proceeds of his work are all going to a local charity. Knowing that this connection exists adds a ‘human’ dimension to the context of the work from which I can draw future inspiration.
As a whole, I find that the work transcends a number of genre’s. It is urban Landscape, Narrative and Documentary, with overtones of Late Photography. Greenhough cites the likes of Simon Norfolk as a contextual influence. I particularly like the absence of any people, which not only gives the work an otherworldly feel, it focuses our attention on the environment and prevents us from focusing too much on the ‘modern’ which is Greenhough’s intention. This is also heightened by a lack of vehicles. Each image is colourful and vivid, which bucks the current ‘deadpan’ trend in contemporary photography. The work is aesthetically pleasing and visually arresting, whilst conveying meaning, raising social concerns, generating thought and educating the viewer. There are subtle signifiers in the images, such as billboard messages, adverts or even shop names which work with the images or Booths texts to further generate meaning. The use of shadows can signify the past, and the theatrical lighting works with the title Lifting the Curtain, which in turn comes from Booths view that “East London lay hidden behind a curtain on which terrible pictures were painted”.
As well it being great to see Greenhough’s work in the context of the gallery, it was also very useful to hear how he conceptualised the work and the process he went through from planning the images to presenting them. It was interesting to hear that he suffered several false starts, which highlights the importance of perseverance. Ultimately, the project stemmed from his interest in the history of East London which led him to Booths work. His use of tools such as Google Street View to recce sites was interesting as was his use of a phone camera and apps to gain an idea of how images may look as he wandered around London in the day time. The photographs were then taken using long exposures on a medium format camera using tilt-shift lenses to ensure that the verticals of the buildings remained vertical.
In terms of presentation, I’ve already mentioned the book, which is a hard-back limited edition. There was also a catalogue, and limited edition prints for sale. Within the gallery, the installation had to be geared around how Greenhough wanted his images to be viewed, but there were also some practical considerations. Firstly, the gallery space is very small and intimate. secondly there is the cost of printing and the size of the images to consider which not only affects layout, but print sales. To that end, the larger, more expensive prints were hung on the wall directly opposite the entrance in order to strike and envelop the viewer, with the smaller prints on the flanking walls. Greenhough was quite adamant that he did not want the texts to be seen as captions. To achieve this, each text was presented as a leaf from a book in an original font, framed below the photograph to create a diptych which worked very well.
Next on the agenda was the Drift Exhibition² at the Truman Brewery, which was just a short walk away.
As a gallery space, I wasn’t all that enthused. The work of 11 photographers was on show as an exploration of contemporary urban environments, but on the whole, I found the exhibition quite disjointed. Perhaps this was the aim, being representative of the urban environment? However I felt that this was because I’d just left a very polished and succinct exhibition where the quality of presentation was excellent. Here the work on display did not appear to be ‘gallery’ quality. As for the other exhibitions, I’d done some research beforehand in order to get the most out of the day. I was thankful for this because there was no supporting literature for any of the work in this exhibition. In one sense, this was quite refreshing as it allowed me to view the work without any other influence, but on the other hand, it caused me to be a little dismissive if I found an image difficult to read.
I found several of the works very interesting:
- Javier Charbadjian’s Southbank buskers: A case study, was an interesting and contemplative narrative told in a linear form by the use of 4 photographs. The real interest comes from the final image which is devoid of the human presence and destruction which is now turned handed over to nature. It asks about the nature of these performers and their art which is destined to be destroyed. although a linear story, there is the sense that the story continues and that the cycle will continue. I particularly like the way that each image was framed and composed in exactly the same manner, adding a film strip quality to the set.
- Tanya Houghton’s A Migrants Tale, used a series of triptychs to explore the identity of migrants. It wasn’t the portraits or the texts which caught my attention, but the precisely arranged foodstuffs in the top images which got me thinking. Here the ingredients were arranged or displayed like gallery items which made a statement of “this is me”. It could also be said that the items were arranged forensically, providing evidence of the individuals identity.
- Carlo Navato’s Spaces of Otherness uses large prints to immerse the viewer in these otherworldly spaces. The 4 x square format images, arranged 2 x 2 focus the viewer on the centre of the image and add a sense of tension to these otherwise wide open and peaceful spaces. Each image is devoid of life and uses very simple composition making them easy to look at. The colour temperature, mixed with the snow, is a signifier for the cold war or the bitterness of conflict (for me at least). Only the elements are present/remain: Wind, Fog and Snow, which adds a sense of foreboding as does the use of Shadow in the image of the bunker’s entrance.
- Bas Losekoot’s In Company of Strangers immediately made me think of Henri Cartier Bresson and his famous term “the decisive moment”. Each image seems to be timed to perfection. I find people to be the most interesting subject, and have always struggled photographing strangers, so I find this work very inspirational. His use of natural light is fantastic, using it to put the subject in the spotlight. From discussion with fellow students, the consensus is that he must have identified the locations/lighting first, then waited for the subjects. The use of the city as a backdrop tells a story of how we interact (or don’t in this case) with each other. All walks of life are captured and people, or elements of the body, are juxtaposed with each other or elements of the urban landscape to reveal notions of human nature. Because the subjects are unaware, there is a gritty realism and photojournalistic feel to the work.
On leaving the Drift Exhibition, it was off to Spitalfields Market for some lunch, which gave us the opportunity to mingle with each other and reflect on the work we’d seen. This is the closest it gets to a classroom environment when distance learning and so is invaluable. It was great to chat with other students who are all at varying levels of study, but whom all share a passion for photography. Most interesting is listening to others thoughts or interpretations on a piece of work, which can open up new trains of thought or expand my own understanding. Over the course of the day, through casual dialogue, we discussed sources of influence/inspiration, ways of seeing or viewing work, had in-depth discussions as to what makes a photograph ‘Art’ and I was given some good pointers in terms of further reading or research.
The 3rd and last exhibition of the day was Autograph ABP’s exhibition of Syd Shelton’s work: Rock against Racism³ at Rivington Place in Shoreditch.
Rivington Place is a stereotypical gallery building, with multiple large white-wall gallery spaces and an overly expensive ‘arty-farty’ cafe. Rock against Racism featured an Information Wall at the entrance to the gallery space, providing some historical context to the work. In the centre of the space was a low display which featured many of the orignal flyers and posters for various gigs adding another level of context. It was also of interest to see some of Sheltons contact sheets and working prints.
A lot of Shelton’s work from the period was displayed around the perimeter of the gallery. It was all of a consistent size and print, but notably featured a mixture of posed Portraits and documentary images which created an interplay between the events being documented and the people involved in them. All of the characters within the narrative were represented, whether fascists/racists, anti-fascists, and every gender, age and ethnic group were included. The famous performers, the audiences and the police are all photographed.
On the whole, the images support the aims of Rock against Racism, which demonstrates the subjective ability of photography. Shelton has been careful to show mixed ethnic groups enjoying the music and just having a good time alongside one another. In other images, particularly of conflict, he stresses the absurdity of racism through the lack of any conclusion, or by showing the perpetrators as minorities.
Text and captions are used to anchor meaning, giving the images a photojournalistic and authoritative feel.
I found that the quantity of images and the diversity of them helped to get across the scale of the problem at that time in history.
After this final exhibition, we retired to the cafe for an overpriced coffee and chewed the fat for a while. I was very impressed by the difference between all 3 exhibitions, but felt that I’d definitely seen enough for the day. I was at risk of becoming over-saturated. Like many of the other students, I highly value the study visits, and with an impending move to the North of England, made a resolution to not let the distance prevent me from attending more of them. Yes, there are galleries throughout the UK, but London definitely has a lot to offer.
¹http://www.liftingthecurtain.net [accessed 25/10/15]
²http://www.driftexhibition.com [accessed 25/10/15]
³http://autograph-abp.co.uk/exhibitions/rock-against-racism [accessed 25/10/15]