Study Visit 24th October 2015
This was my third OCA study visit and it proved to be an excellent learning experience. My group was led by Rob Bloomfield and he struck a good balance between allowing students time to engage with the work in three separate exhibitions whilst also providing tutorial support through comments and questions. This approach does make a study visit a much more valuable experience than just a visit to an exhibition.
All three exhibitions that were part of the wider East London Photography Festival were quite different in terms of themes and content and in terms of the learning opportunities they offered to me. I will describe each in turn and as ever in such a blog entry it is in reality hard to do justice to the full experience each of the exhibitions offered.
Drift – Photography of contemporary urban environments, Shop 7, Truman Brewery
The first visit of the day was to the Truman Brewery, Shop 7 Gallery, a shop like venue in the heart of the shopping streets off Brick Lane and part I believe of the Truman Brewery complex.
As the exhibition guide states:
‘Drift Exhibition will bring together the work of 11 up an coming international photographers as part of the Urban Photo Fest in conjunction with Tate Britain during Photomonth East London in October 2015’
This was a very mixed selection of work by a range of artists who had just completed the Goldsmiths College MA in Photography and Urban Studies. Rob Bloomfield alerted us that this was in effect the final year show for these students. Some further research revealed that this show had been crowd funded using Kickstarter and this funding had provided the resource for the exhibition, the hire o the space and the production of the associated materials. Rob also let us know the fact that this was not a curated exhibit. This was clear upon arrival at the gallery. To me there was too much work in too small a space, this is not a criticism, but rather an observation. That said I have not visited degree shows and this might be a feature of this sort of exhibit.
Further research also highlighted that the course the students had followed was in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths and social and cultural learning is a large part of the programme of study and research they had followed. In retrospect this made sense because the associated exhibition guide at first reading appeared quite oblique and initially not that easily accessible. The artist’s motives were I assume, much more complex than the images initially appeared.
Because of the wide range of work in the exhibition I chose to focus on the work of a small number of the artists work on display after my initial survey of the whole body of work. I then gravitated to the work that I found the most engaging. I will talk about these in turn and reflect on my own learning from the visit.
Bas Losekoot – In the company of strangers
Of all the artists I found this work the most accessible. This was an interesting collection of very clear and sharp scenes from the city that were beautiful and full of detail. The work posed questions. Images of people going about their business but framed and composed to reveal something about life in a large city. Losekoot himself suggests:
“I have always conceived the street as spectacle; I spend a lot of time observing its movement, rhythms and patterns.”
What was most striking in the images were the notions of relationships, loneliness and alienation, all very common themes for the street photographer. Losekoot had however managed to capture some genuinely intriguing moments that ask the viewer to think about life in an urban context.
Although different, there were some similarities to the work of Philip-Lorca Decorcia in his work ‘Heads’ I thought. Something about the light and sharpness, but also the sharp homing in on the subject leading the viewer to consider questions about their lives. I also found some similarity to Paul Graham’s recent work: The Present. In particular the image below which I think is particularly powerful with its allusions, the city, power an possibly alienation. There are several images in Graham’s work that also suggest revelation. This was particularly a feature in the Losekoot work I feel.
In all I found this to be an engaging set of images that left me wanting to see more and research Losekoot’s work further.
Carlo Navato – Spaces and otherness
The large-scale square images of this artist drew me too them immediately. At first they appeared to be abstract and simple. On closer inspection they contained considerable amounts of information. Reading the exhibition guide the work was inspired by Michel Foucault’s 1967 essay ‘Des Espace Autres’. I was familiar with Foucault’s essay and the concept of heteropia and had read of others using the term to describe a space as having the potential to have more layers of meaning than initially meets the eye. This is a recurrent theme in writing about architecture and the built environment.
I think the artist had really captured Foucault’s concept in the art he had created. Take for example the image below, although simple the snow covers up the real details of the place leaving the viewer uncertain about where and what this image is about.
Our associations with a traffic cones are similarly multi layered, for example as part of an official action (on road or car parks) and also whimsically, when they are stolen and placed in other some times inappropriate places. And of course sometimes they are just abandoned.
The simplicity of the scenes in all his images and their composition belie the complex questions that the works pose. I was left wanting to see more of this work
Although perhaps siting within the landscape genre, each of the images in the set had signs of human presence in the landscape. Again I liked this work and will undertake some further research into this artist’s work. I was also interested in the artist’s use of quite muted colours, which worked well with the very, linear and graduated composition of the work. The composition also presented challenge, again in the image above the proximity of the top of the cone to the trees in the far distance and the horizon, slightly jar, but also satisfy! All in all very engaging work to me and my interest in rural landscapes as but environment
Beatrice Tura- Terra Firma
Beatrice Tura’s work was one of the smallest exhibits in the show. With just four monochrome framed images her work focused on the notion of the ‘constant movement’ of the urban soil. We had the advantage of Beatrice talking to us about about her work at the gallery. She described how her work records the changing city through images of the ground, indeed she talked about seeing change and the transient, by looking down at your feet. In summary, the constant change in the city takes its toll on the surfaces on which we walk and the changing ground beneath our feet. It is this that she recorded, perhaps at a metaphor for the ever changing urban landscape.
She described not setting out with a specific idea in mind when she started to make the work. Rather, as she saw scenes she then recorded them and then developed the idea from this.
In many respects this is very different to the approach I am taking in my OCA course of study where planning and preparation are very much in advance of any image capture. This artist offered an interesting and valuable alternative and insight into how she worked and how her work developed over time.
There was an abstract simplicity to her work that can be seen in the image below.
Keith Greenough – Lifting the Curtain, The Town House Gallery
Keith Greenough’s (a recent OCA Graduate) exhibition, ‘Lifting the Curtain’ was a high point of the study visit and the second exhibition of the day. What was particularly enjoyable was that the artist was there in person and he delivered an excellent overview of his work, setting out his motivation, the genesis of the work, how he researched and developed the idea and how he executed the whole project. His description was both engaging and informative. A real bonus was the insight he offered into understanding final year work with the OCA.
All photographed in the East End of London and based on a contemporary take on a Victorian survey of the poor, the exhibition was made up a large beautifully composed and exposed colour prints taken in the pre dawn hours.
As Keith described in his excellent talk, Charles Booth a Victorian philanthropist undertook in 1889 a survey of poverty of the urban poor in East London. Booth’s survey created a view that suggested:
“East London lay hidden behind a curtain on which were painted terrible pictures”.
Keith’s work captured something of the spirit and cadence of the statements and quotes about the urban poor recorded by Booth in his survey. The interplay between text and image is excellent and what is created is something greater than the sum of the parts. The work illustrates something Keith referred to as the use of ‘parallel text’, not captions, but rather words that encourage the viewer to think and conceive of the images in a range of ways. For me this worked very well. Keith’s contemporary 21st images did transport me back to the time of Booth, asking the question, how much has really changed? I had come across this notion of the link between image and text in my study of the work of Paul Seawright, although it was Keith who used the term parallel text. Like Seawright’s 1988 work: Sectarian Murders, Keith was operating in the realm of Aftermath photography, a subtler and indeed oblique take on the concept of documentary photography. Cotton (2004) in fact describes this approach as a sort of anti documentary image making.
From a purely photographic perspective the work has a cinematic quality, in part created by the large very high quality colour prints, but also by the level of detail delivered by Keith’s use of medium format digital image making. There is to me a very sophisticated and simultaneously satisfying composition to the images and the light within the compositions is to my eye quite beautiful. Keith explained his rationale for using a large format view camera with adjustments allowing him to correct verticals in the buildings he photographed. The use of digital technology supported the sense of urgency he described in the actual image making, not least because he chose to make the images in the hour or so before sunrise, when the streets would be deserted of people and traffic. This gave him all the advantages of the view camera for architectural work, but the immediacy of a digital medium.
I found the work very engaging because it created a level of intrigue, the absence of human activity in the heart of the city raises lots of questions for the viewer before the text associated with each image is even considered.
The text connected to each image had been taken directly from Booths survey and was even printed in a font matching the printing in the original published survey, a very nice unifying touch.
A further connection I found really interesting and important in this work was the link to my current to work within chapter 4 of Expressing Your Vision, the language of light. In particular the beauty of artificial light. Keith’s choice to make his images in the brief time before sunrise, when the city scenes he selected would be devoid of human activity and also bathed in the light of sodium, mercury and neon. I have really been drawn to this part of the Expressing Your Vision course and Keith’s work significantly influenced my choice of assignment 4. More about that within the background notes with assignment 4.
Syd Shelton – Rock Against Racism, ABP Autograph Gallery Rivington Place
This was the final exhibition of the day and one that I had very much been looking forward to seeing. As a 50 something Shelton’s work about an important period in British history was all about my generation. In truth I was not prepared for its how much nostalgia this collection of images had on me! Seeing friends from school in three of the images sealed the overwhelming sense of nostalgia the exhibit had on me. In fact I travelled to London two weeks after this first visit to look at the work again, to really get a sense of the work from a photographic, documentary and artistic perspective.
The ABP Autograph gallery space was light and airy and the walls were filled with many 24×16 and 24×36 prints taken from Shelton’s 35mm negatives taken between 1976 and 1981, documenting the rise of the Rock Against Racism movement. Shelton, along with Red Saunders and members of the music community created Rock Against Racism in response to growing racist tensions in Britain. Ironically Shelton had been in Australia prior to the Rock Against Racism’s formation photographing the plight of aboriginal communities an their challenge living in urban Sydney. As Tulloch (2015) suggests:
“Shelton joined Rock Against Racism in early 1977 on his return to England from Australia. He did so because he found his birthplace a more racist than it had been when he left”
The work in the exhibition was predominantly large black and white images but also augmented with graphic work from the Rock Against Racism publications ‘Temporary Hoarding’ to which Shelton was a key contributor.
There is a real sense of social commentary in the work, which for me places it squarely in a ‘real time’ documentary genre. Shelton is not neutral though. By this I mean he was not a passive observer as some documentary image-makers. Shelton was at the heart of the activity using a mix of posed images and captured candid moments to contribute to the Rock Against Racism movements principles.
Again Tulloch (2015) says of the photographer:
“for Shelton this work was socialist act, what he call a graphic argument”
This is an important lens through which to see the work as whole. It was intended to make a difference, rather than just document.
That said it does document an interesting period in British history very well. From the repugnant National Front marches in the East End of London, through the initial Rock Against Racism events and on to the various Rock Against Racism and Anti Nazi League concerts around the England. Through these events young people around the country came together through music such as, Punk, New Wave, SKA and Reggae to make a statement against racism.
The quote below one of the large images of the crowds at the Rock Against Racism / Anti Nazi League Carnival 1 held on the 30th April 1978 in Victory
Park, Tower Hamlets, seems to sum up the purpose of the movement and perhaps something of Shelton’s motives for the work:
“…the moment when my generation took sides”
I was particularly pleased to be able to see the 35mm contact sheets for many of the images in the exhibition, they showed Shelton’s selection and cropping and gave some insight into his thinking. I also couldn’t help be impressed by the large evocative prints made from these tiny pushed HP5 and TRI-X emulsions!
There are far too many images to talk about in detail but the three images below set out in my view the essence of his important and inspiring body of work
In the image above , which shows the scale of attendance at the Victoria Park concert, Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 has just read a speech to the crowds. Although originally billed to play at the event, Sham 69 didn’t play at the concert because they received death threats. A measure of the tensions of the time. The image has an almost biblical quality and the single person in front of the crowd, the look on his face and the stark grainy monochrome of the picture say much about the mood of the day.
In this posed image Shelton’s captures a fantastic look of defiance and confidence in the faces of this group of young people . Taken in Bethnal Green, the subjects must have been very much part of the youth close to the centre of Rock Against Racism’s activities.
Fans of the Ruts getting on to the the stage at West Runton Pavilion, Cromer, Norfolk, in 1979. An image that is so much of its time!
Like many others of my generation this work struck a chord beyond nostalgia, a reflective thought about the politicisation of youth and the impact of young people from very different backgrounds coming together around a common cause.
As we read about right wing reactions to the Syrian refugee crisis in the autumn of 2015, there is more than ever the need to resurrect he spirit of April 1978!
Short summary of the day
This was an excellent but intense day. There does come a point where I am challenged to take in more information. I have for many years visited exhibitions but probably as a more passive observer. Since starting with the OCA I am trying to be much more engaged with the work, reflecting on it more deeply and thinking about how viewing and thinking about the work of other artists can inform my own developing voice. A really excellent day and a big thanks you o the OCA and fellow students for making it a very memorable event.
Cotton, C (2004) The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Thames and Hudson, London
DiCorcia, P-L. (2001) Heads, found at: https://thephotographyblogger.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/famous-photographer-series-philip-lorca-di-corcia-heads/ (accessed 1st November 2015)
Foucault, M. (1984) Des Espaces Autres. Hétérotopies- found at:http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html (accessed 1st November 2015)
Greenough, K. (2015) Lifting the Curtain found at: http://www.liftingthecurtain.net/ (accessed 1st November 2015)
Losekoot, B. (2015) Quoted in Drift (Exhibition Guide)
Seawright, P. (1988) Sectarian Murder- found at: http://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian/ (accessed 1st November 2015)
Shelton, S. (2015) Rock Against Racism ABP Autograph, London
Tulloch, C. (2015) Quoted in Shelton, S. (2015) pp11, op cit