Thursday, 4 November 2010

Brighton Photo Biennial

Last weekend, I visited Bexhill & Brighton to take in a number of the exhibitions at the Brighton Photo Biennial Festival.  Stating the obvious, it was a great pleasure to spend two days viewing the work of, in total, within the time I could manage, around 23 photographers - mainly contemporary, but also some 'heros' from the past e.g. Walker Evans in 'Myth, Manners and Memory' at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill.

This exhibition features work from six American photographers, focusing on images of the American South, including work from William Eggleston, Alec Soth, William Christenberry, Susan Lipper and Carrie Mae Weems, as well as Evans.  The visit was especially good because on Saturday afternoon there was the opportunity to walk around in a small group led by the two curators who had put the exhibition together - Celia Davies from Photoworks and Jane Won from the De La Warr Pavilion.  In the context of 'People & Place', there were several interesting aspects:
  • large prints of portraits by Eggleston that I had certainly never come across before - some uncompromisingly vivid images (very Eggleston) of 'characters' from the South;
  • 'staged' portraits by Susan Lipper, made with the local inhabitants of a small town in the Appalachian Mountains, that were intriguingly ambiguous  - hard to tell whether they were presenting caractures of themselves, representational images of what life was like in that isolated community, or just p***-taking;
  • sometime disturbing images from Alec Soth's Southern roadtrips;
  • dreamlike self-portraits by Carri Mae Weems, in which she placed herself (and by association the viewer) into Southern locations that evoke the South's sometimes questionable past - almost always back to the camera, facing into the image, as if standing in for the viewer;
  • and two classic Walker Evans portraits of Southern sharecroppers - Floyd and Allie Mae Burroughs.
There was lots or portraiture else where in the Brighton event and its Fringe e.g. Molly Landreth's images of the gay & lesbian community in 'Queer Brighton' and Oumar Ly's black & white 'studio' portraiture from a village in Senegal in the 1960s and 70s.  But I was particularly struck by Suzanne Opton's work on soldiers and veterans from recent US wars.

Her images of 'vets' draped in blankets were especially good, for me.  They seemed to lie somewhere between/amongst classic paintings of warriors, photographs of refugees, religious images.  Once again, it made me think about the 'process' of making someone's portrait - the communication between the photographer and the subject & just how crucial that is.  I wanted to be a 'fly on the wall' when she was working with these guys and to understand just what she said to them to bring out the expressions and impressions that they created together.

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