Friday, 22 April 2011

Study Day :o) Deutsche Borse and London Street Photography

I've sat back for a while to let both exhibitions sink in and to formulate my opinions on both. I wish I had written a bit neater scribbled notes which made sense then don't seem to be quite so clear now! Firstly I'd like to thank the OCA for organising such a great day and the free lunch. It was just as interesting to talk to people about their experiences as students, with the course material, their tutors (were there any ears burning?) how to write up your blogs etc as much as take in two diverse exhibitions.

I had already done the Street Photography exhibition at the London Museum on my own back in February but had not yet written it up so was great to go back and look at things more in depth and discuss how the genre has changed in some ways yet remained the same in others. To quote the Museum of London's web page "It includes work by both professional and amateur photographers and covers most aspects of London life. It contains some topographical and architectural images but the main emphasis is on social documentary."
Museum of London - London Street Photography

The images dated from the mid 1800's from Roger Fenton's topographical views of London, to the current "Street Photography Now" photographs; the audience can see how changes in technology altered the face of "street" photography. The main problem at the outset being long exposures. Technical advances with cameras and publications meant photographs started to appear in newspapers and magazines and the press photographer was born. John Thomson was a photographer of this period who travelled extensively, eventually settling in Brixton, photographing London life as well as the rich and famous of high society. Collaborating with Adolphe Smith the world's first social documentary series "Street Life in London" was published in 1876/7. It was interesting to read this person's blog on their opinion of the image "Hookey Alf" and the magazine article which accompanied the original publication. Valentine Blanchard's delicate stereoscopic images were the forerunner of the modern day 3D images. London Stereoscopic Company - Official Web Site *nod to Jose for the interesting link.

John Galt was another featured photographer, a missionary commited to the London City Mission which compelled him to produce photographs of the East End. Galt's family in Canada have 67 photographs that survive as lantern slides. Identical sets of copy prints were given to the London City Mission and the Museum of London. Images on display also show the every day such as recruiting sergeants.

As well as taking in the familiar landscapes, having worked in London for many years, it was great to jot down the names photographers I have never heard of before, or look at work from those I had. I was surprised to discover that female photographers were making a name for themselves from quite an early point; Christina Broom 1862-1939 is credited with being "the UK's first female press photographer" covering the women's suffrage movement. She also undertook some street photography in and around Kings Road Chelsea

The photographs were arranged in chronological order as you walked around the rectangular room. Each era given it's own introduction as to what was happening socially or technically to influence the images we were about to view with a little information about the photographs or photographers accompaning the images. I spent quite a bit of time reading the information and closely studying the images that caught my eye. One in particular (maybe for the wrong reasons) was by Humphrey Spender of  A nanny and her charge at the Round Pond, Kensington Gardens  the dodge and burn was so noticeable even on the online image you can see how "worked" it all those who criticises over isn't a new crime ;o)

There was so many names and too many images to name them all but to give you a brief idea (thanks to the Museum web page again) the highlights for me were: -
  • Early topographical views of London by Roger Fenton, c.1857
  • London street life by John Thomson, c.1876
  • Poverty in the East End by John Galt, early 1900s
  • Christina Broom, early 1900s
  • East End homes by Humphrey Spender, early 1930s
  • London street life in the 1930s by Margaret Monck, Wolfgang Suschitzky and Cyril Arapoff
  • Underground shelters during the Blitz by Bill Brandt, 1940 
  • London street life in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, including work  by Nigel Henderson, Roger Mayne, Paul Styles, B J Green, Cory Bevington, Jerome Liebling, Lutz Dill, Jim Rice and Paul Trevor
  • Contemporary work by many photographers including Yoke Matze, Anna Fox, Alan Delaney, Paul Barkshire, Tim Daly, Chris Dorley-Brown, Tom Evans, John R. J. Taylor, Ed Barber, Magda Segal, Paul Baldesare, Dave Trainer, Paulo Catrica, Ronen Numa, Angus Boulton, Janet Hall, Dave Young, Michael Donald, Jason Wilde, John Davies, David Turner Tom Hunter  and Mike Seaborne

The images were interesting both for technical/historical and social reasons. I found myself drawn to them all because I empathised with aspects in most due to my own family albums and will write a longer post later as to how.The video interview's with Matt Stuart, Paul Trevor, Polly Braden  and Wolfgang Suschitzky were both enlightening and reassuring that pro’s suffer the same as us! They spoke of the difficulties of photographing children, the gradual distrust of people having pictures taken, discussed the fact that if street photography/social documentary is strangled we will have no photographic history in years to come. Matt Stuart and Paul Trevor spoke of the benefits and downsides of using digital cameras, Trevor using film and Stuart film for pleasure, digital for work. Polly Braden talked about the techniques she uses to get the shots she wants, very handy hints and tips.

Listening to Wolf Suschitzky talk about how and why he took images once again illustrated how we, as photographers, view other countries from a different viewpoint. What I loved about his images were the creative uses of light and weather conditions to create atmosphere.

Charing Cross Road 1937
Charing Cross Road 1937

The above image reminded me of the iconic image by Henri Cartier Bresson, Suschizky explained that he was merely concentrating on the puddle and it's reflection when serendipitously the young girl jumped across.

I left with a plethora of names to investigate, thoughts on how I should/could approach Social Documentary when I come to it, the impression of how contemporary street photography has become obviously whimsical rather than subtly so, for example comparing Lutz Dille and Jerome Leibling

to contemporary photographers such as Nils Jorgensen and David Gibson.

Not a bad thing just an observation. I would recommend this exhibition whole heartedly :o)

So onto the next stop....The Photographers' Gallery | Exhibitions The Deutsche Borse Prize has made me raise my eyebrows on each occasion I have been, and preferred Tod Papageorge to Paul Graham the year he won,although I can see that he had a more novel approach to his images. Will be interesting to see who will win our coffee table betting session for this year ;o) I chose Elad Lassry when pushed but I expect I'll be wrong again.

Demand, with his paper organ had only one image so was difficult to assess his body of work, and like Jose although I liked the photograph it didn’t hold my attention for long. I would question the "blurb" that "these works subtly reveal the mechanisms of their making, and challenge the viewer's perception of reality by examining memory and photographic truth." The one image was large and impressive, it was tack sharp and was a very clever reconstruction of an organ (the history was explained but for me did not impact upon the physical photograph) I didn't find them unsettling, I thought the construction was brilliant, the idea that no-one would be able to reproduce that shot ever again due to the models being dismantled after, an interesting concept but apart from that there was no other meaning for me. Excellent depth of field and technical delivery but no emotional pull or reaction.

Roe Etheridge has bright pin sharp photographs that were harking back to advertising or were actual outtakes of his commercial work again left me feeling non plussed, ( oh I didn't have much to say on him did I?) Elad Lassry hmm I’m probably the student that was commented on in another blog about the dodgy green tomatoes ;o) He had pretty frames which colour co-ordinated his images and backgrounds…he pushed the boundaries of is it art or photography but I couldn’t help asking “why?” even after watching his video about making photography democratic I was left feeling I missed the point? Apart from the obvious link of colour and shapes his images were totally random, some manipulated, others not, some of people/animals others still life. Oh and lets throw some videos in for good measure with unconnected images, Zebra and Woman springs to mind...Once more the phrase Emperor's new clothes came to mind...

I saved Goldberg until last because he seems to be a hot favourite. He is the first on display and the quantity of his work is overwhelming compared to Demand. Less is more? He again mixes videos and photographs and even his photographs are varied, Polaroids vie with large format and differing ways to showcase. Goldberg’s exhibit starts off by stating it is highlighting problems no-one knows are there…that made me think oh really? Everywhere you go there are posters telling of poverty/abuse/people trafficking/ turn on the TV there is yet another appeal for human rights etc. Take in any modern exhibition and there will be photographers highlighting wars/ earthquakes/human right interventions. I can think of the Taylor Wessing exhibition for the last two years for a start plus Mark Condren Defending Life with Life.... but I digress. What he does, I suppose, with some is make them more personal and highlights the individual as they contribute to his final pieces.

He does this by allowing them to write comments on the Polaroids, some are tippexed over, their bodies outlined by black marker, arrowed route "maps" drawn around them with untranslated text describing the journey. More thoughts of is this more art that photography? I felt in some ways he was exploiting them for his own gain rather than to assist them? We debated as to whether the fact there was no explanation with some of the images meant you had to look for the meaning or couldn't be bothered to look for the meaning. As ever there were arguments for and against, I finally decided that some would have been enhanced by an explanation as after watching the video I returned and studied some a little more. I like text as long as it isn't gushing, superficial twaddle about how the photographer felt enlightened, (I think I used the phrase some think along the lines of 'if I take rubbish then talk rubbish I've made it" although not with regards to the images by Goldberg) and am training myself to look at an image first, take away from it what I think is there THEN read the text. I am either correct or incorrect in my assumptions. Occasionally my opinion is altered but always I find I have learnt something.With unusual images or presentation (thinking back to Lassry) this maybe as simple as realising non-conformity is allowed to exist as long as it can be justified.

Returning to Goldberg, once he has clicked his shutter does he contribute to altering their lives? Campaign for change? His images cover so many places and so many issues to do with migration, his framing of the images was inconsistent, the method of display awkward and uncomfortable. Maybe to highlight the awkward and uncomfortable issues he was dealing with. My opinion on that is let the images speak for themselves he seemed to be trying to hard to impress to say "look what I have done" rather than "look at their plight". Due to everything I was carrying plus having an aching back I didn't bother to stoop to look at the small frame a few inches off the ground. If I went again, looked harder maybe I'd change my mind? Possibly.

On leaving this exhibition I didn't have the feel good factor of the Street Photography, not because of the subject matters but because it opened up so many questions, which has to be a good thing. Why had they chosen to take those photographs, what was their purpose? Was it just to exhibit? Raise questions? Push boundaries? Change lives? Why those methods of display? I can imagine "photo club" members/judges becoming apoplectic with the breaking of so many "rules" ;o) Ultimately whatever my opinion, it boils down to that, it's my opinion. We all have different experience, ideas and opinions. Just as Clive and Jose said when I was discussing my own work, the feedback your tutors give you is just their opinion, as long as you take on board what they say, have an open mind and either alter your work, or keep it the same, as long as you can justify the end result you will be on the right track.

All the entrants obviously feel justified in producing what they do and how they do it. If I missed the point of some of the imagery there will no doubt be many out there that didn't. Do I think any of the entrants have made a significant contribution to photography in Europe between 2009 and 2010? Goldberg certainly had a very experimental approach with his, Lassry visually stimulating, each photographer broke conventional thinking behind photography and exhibiting but to pick a worthy winner.....erm.....can I pass? ;o)

*UPDATE* The winner was Jim Goldberg

Brett Rogers said, on behalf of the Jury: ‘Due to the breadth of the Award criteria, the Jury felt that any one of the four nominees could have been the winner. They however awarded the Prize to Jim Goldberg for Open See, acclaiming its timely and inventive approach to documentary practice, at the heart of which lies for him co-authorship, a form of creative collaboration allowing these individuals to tell their own stories.’

Julia Taeschner, Head of Corporate Responsibility for Deutsche Börse, stated: ‘The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize has once again succeeded in bringing together the most important and interesting representatives of the European photographic scene. We are exceptionally pleased to announce Jim Goldberg as this year’s winner of this prestigious prize. Our congratulations and thanks to all those who have contributed – The Photographers’ Gallery staff, the Academy, the Jury and the artists – for their engagement and contribution.’
Which goes to show I know nothing ;o) But shows that the contraversial can be good. Next time I do some portraits I'll say "have a pen and some scissors, be creative" the creative idea would be "mine" but the final result surely would be collaborative?

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