Having recently moved to Yorkshire, I jumped at the opportunity to accompany fellow student Andrew Fitzgibbon on an impromptu visit to Bradford’s civic art gallery, Cartwright Hall, to see the exhibition 100 Leading Ladies by Nancy Honey.
Discussing the work with another student, especially one who is studying the same module, was invaluable as it stimulated thought and opened discussion about aspects of the work that I alone alone may not have considered, so I would like to thank Andrew for his company and his insights.
Keen to get an understanding of the context prior to the visit, I watched a video interview with the artist (link in references below). In short, Honey has set out with the aim of bringing lots of mature, highly successful and influential female non-celebrities to the attention of this generations young women. With a generation of young girls who may relate success to being a reality TV star, Honey is offering them alternative role-models.
The project took 3 years to complete and has been exhibited at a number of galleries across the UK. It also takes the form of a book in which each image is accompanied by an interview of the subject by writer and journalist, Hattie Garlik. The gallery installation does not include the interviews, but a copy of the book was available to read. Honey makes it very apparent that each photograph was a collaboration, with each subject choosing the location for the shoot, a location in which each subject finds their inspiration, or which holds significance to them.
Below each set of photographs is a small card with the subjects Name/Title and a very brief description of their profession or achievements. The photo’s are relatively small for portraits, approx A4 size, which is probably a limitation imposed by logistics and exhibition space, but in my view this doesn’t detract from the exhibition. The photo’s appear to be arranged or grouped by similar colours (which is easy on the eye), with a mish-mash of landscape and portrait orientations (which creates interest and variety). It wasn’t until perusing the book at the end of the exhibition that one realises the pictures are hung in the same order as they are presented in the book.
Despite there being a whopping 100 portraits, there is an awful lot of variety. I never got bored with looking at the portraits, and found all of them to be interesting and stimulating (there was the odd exception). I think that this level of variation is thanks in part to the authorial control of some of the subjects. There is a real sense that some of the subjects have had more control over the final outcome than others. Also, the women come from all walks of life and the backdrops play an important part of each portrait, often being more revealing than the subject alone. Although we know that the setting was decided by the subject, what we don’t know is who decided on the pose. Again, there is huge variation, from the stoic, confrontational stare at the viewer, to almost hysterical laughter, to nonchalance. The body of work really highlights just how telling a pose can be, and how all the elements of a portrait, from the pose to the props, clothes, animals or backgrounds all work together to reveal intricate details about the subject and the photographer.
Some of the most thought provoking images:
This is the first photo in the series, and the only one in which the subject is so small in the frame. The setting is quite magnificent, and the image would be far less interesting had it had a closer crop. This is one instance in which I wonder about exactly how much authorial control Honey had. Faced with a decision by the subject to use this location, I feel that Honey may have had little choice but to compose the image in this manner. We are still drawn to the subject who has been nicely framed. Unlike some of her other photo’s, Honey has chosen not to blow out the window light, but to expose for the view, which leads me be to believe that it has some significance to the subject.
I particularly liked this photo as it’s a great example of how text can add value, but still leave enough room for the viewer to come to their own conclusions. At first glance, I was left wondering how this evidently successful woman found inspiration in this setting. I almost immediately assumed that she must have had humble beginnings on an east London estate. The sub-title below her name simply reads “First female Chief Constable”. Armed with this snippet of information, we have a better understanding of how and why this may be a source of inspiration to her, and of who she is.
Germaine Greer is one of the very few women in this series that I am familiar with. As far a portraiture goes, this photograph has worked well to show a side of Greer that most of the public will be unfamiliar with. Having spent a lot of time in the public eye, I again wonder who’s decision it was to present us with this more considered, relaxed, feminine character?
My favourite portrait of the set. The crop is a traditional 3/4 length portrait, yet the pose is anything but ordinary in comparison to the remainder of the set. I feel that it is the most telling and insightful photograph, allowing us a real glimpse Hambling’s character. As potential role-models, I find it odd that the artist has permitted the inclusion of the cigarette which seems a little contradictory. I also feel that the image is a little stereotypical. You don’t need any text to guess that Hambling is a contemporary artist.
In this photograph I feel that Mattinson is quite stoic, and has chosen a very bland backdrop. I’m very impressed by the way the artist has used clever composition, leading lines and a colour accent to make a visually arresting portrait.
Amongst all the portraits, this one immediately caught my eye because of its imperfections. The whole image appears uneven and I feel that the subject is about to slide out of the picture. The pose feels awkward and uncomfortable, but the similar colours work well. I’m left wondering if the photographer has created this tension purposefully as a means of portraying the subject. The clock, the awkward pose that the subject seems to have little time for, and the dynamism of the slant; Are they all signifiers of a busy/hectic schedule? Or, as a photography student, have I been conditioned to read into all the details to find meaning, when actually, it’s just imperfect? Perhaps I’ll get an opportunity to ask the Artist, as she is scheduled to conduct a lunchtime presentation at the exhibition on 13 March 16.
This portrait of Plant sits adjacent to the photo of O’Grady, but is in stark contrast in terms of style, being technically perfect. This photo could almost be from an advertising campaign, or a Film Still. Given the vast difference, it again poses the question as to who had the most control over the concept and final outcome.
It was a very interesting exhibition to view, and the discussion it generated added to the learning value. I will strongly consider re-visiting the venue on 13 March when Honey is due to visit to talk about the work. I am left with some questions about the context of the work, particularly when it comes to her original intent. In my experience, there are not many young women (generally speaking) that visit Art galleries. The book is out there but at a cost of £30, and it is marketed at fans of Art Photography/portraiture. How then does Honey intend to reach her target audience? Without an understanding of how and why the work was created wouldn’t the meaning be lost on an audience of young women who did visit the gallery? Wouldn’t they just see a load of pictures of mature women? Surely, in the context of the gallery, an understanding of Art is required to understand the work? I can’t help but feel that if Honey really intended this work to be inspirational to this generation’s young women, it should be on display in school assembly halls, in an affordable book in school libraries, or perhaps school visits should be taking place at the galleries where this work is on display, otherwise it’s a lost cause.