On Saturday, I met up with three other OCA Photography students for a visit to the National Media Museum and the Impressions Gallery, both in Bradford. Whilst there is perhaps less time for personal reflection when visiting exhibitions in a group, that is more than made up for by the chance to share reactions and discuss the works immediately. The three exhibitions were:
From Back Home – Anders Petersen & JH Engstrom
The outcome of a seven year collaboration between these two Swedish photographers, the exhibition shows images of the Varmland region of Sweden, where both have lived significant parts of their lives. I won’t repeat in here too much in the way of background derived from the accompanying leaflet or their respective websites – no point – but will record my own personal reactions.
Engstrom’s work was, for me, the most interesting, being the most challenging and the most varied. He uses the photographic medium in a very broad, creative manner. Some images resembled teenage snapshots, taken at night with a compact camera & flash, or even on a mobile phone. I’m not saying they were taken in that way, but that this is what they most looked like. They were arranged in a row, closely together, printed/framed at about A4 size, looking a bit like a slideshow that you could take in all at once – and that is how I felt they should be viewed; all at once, like a single piece of work. Other parts of Engstrom’s work was similarly grouped, though it wasn’t made clear whether the groupings were based on specific places, specific people, or indeed, just a particular memory. What was interesting, was that each group might include black & white landscape images, portraits, family ‘snaps’, an image of a painting, and ‘faded’, de-saturated mages of mundane urban scenes, or pieces of agricultural equipment. I found the latter particularly intriguing. The effect was certainly that of a faded photographic colour print from the 1960s/1970s, but has he deliberately underdeveloped/de-saturated the colour to create that effect, or has he actually photographed a faded print (particularly since, in some cases, he has definitely photographed paintings). Either way, the outcome is effective in helping to create the sense that these images represent the sometimes ‘faded’ memories of places, times and people. Another section of Engstrom’s work showed large prints of photographs of selections of old ‘snaps’ pinned to a board – again, emphasising the role of the photograph in fixing our memories. The final grouping, before the viewer moved on to Petersen’s work, showed a series of closely cropped, intimate black and white images of the heads of older couples, closely embraced in dancing. As well as quite closely resembling the style of the Petersen images that were to follow, this sequence provided a sharp contrast to the earlier shots of pairs of teenagers – the latter, in full colour, standing side by side, sometimes touching but rarely seeming close and intimate, looking straight at the camera, self-conscious and fully aware that they are being photographed; the former, older couples, in slightly grainy, softly-focused black & white, absorbed in each others’ arms, often eyes closed, heads almost merging into one, unaware or unconcerned, as they danced together, wholly absorbed in each other, that they were being photographed.
The Anders Petersen photographs were presented in a much more consistent manner – large black & white prints, again combined in groups, though without specific explanations as to the significance of the groupings. Mainly close-cropped and wide-angled, they seem to take you right into the heart of whatever is being depicted. Again, the subject matter includes landscape, people, groupings/pairings, domesticity, and often absurdity – but the close framing, combined with a tendency to shoot the image with the camera off-level, and to crop the shot so that parts of the subject might be out of the frame, results in a sense of vigour, but also a sense, as viewer, that one is there, involved, part of the activity. I also got the sense that Petersen pays close attention to composition, even though the framing and angles suggest something spontaneous. Patterns, curves, diagonals etc, seemed to emerge, for me – almost separate from the subject matter and the action.
Overall, I was left with a less than comfortable feeling about the Varmland, but then I’m sure that was the photographers’ intention. Both use both subject and medium in a manner designed to unsettle the viewer, and both succeed. The most significant thing that I feel I took from this exhibition was that matter of ‘the use of the medium’, particularly in Engstrom’s case. It does make one aware, again, that there is plenty of scope for using the photographic medium in a more creative way, beyond the perfectly-exposed, perfectly-composed, perfectly printed image that one sometimes find oneself pursuing.
Land Revisited – Fay Godwin
Having already written about Fay Godwin, and ‘Land’ in particular, when completing my Landscape course, I’m not going to say too much in my Log about this exhibition. It confirmed my feeling of how ‘modern’ her work can feel, even though this exhibition is marking the 25th anniversary of the first time these images were exhibited. It was good to view the original prints and to watch some background videos, including film of Godwin herself, talking about her photography, but also out shooting in the landscape as well. I felt less impressed by highly enlarged versions of two of her images, which seemed to miss the point, losing the detail and tonal qualities of the originals.
Lost Languages & Other Voices – Joy Gregory
This retrospective brings together various pieces of work from an artist of whom I had heard before, but knew nothing about. I thoroughly enjoyed it. She is another artist who uses the photographic medium in a highly varied and creative manner, albeit totally different from Engstrom above. There are large-scale prints of ‘mock-tourist’ photos of European landmarks, brought together with the theme of a pair of shiny gold high heeled shoes that appear somewhere in each image. There are playful self-portraits, simply shot and teasingly cropped. Victorian photographic processes are used to create ghostly images of items of female clothing. And, large-scale images of sites in London that have historic links to Africa, are combined with brief pieces of text, to create disturbing poster-like pieces that point to the uneasy racial history of those sites. And that is just some of the variety on show. Again, apart from the stimulating nature of her work in its own right, the exhibition inspires one to think more broadly about the creative possibilities in photography.
I’ve not, so far, been one for experimenting with, for example, exposure, focus, grain, colour etc, but I wonder whether it might be time to try to explore some of those possibilities?
Additional Comment 09-02-2011
Paid a return visit to NMM today, as part of an OCA Group, during which we received introductions to the two exhibitions, by the curators. It was an interesting opportunity, though a little disappointing that there was little time for questions. Some interesting comments that stick in my mind:
Enjoyed seeing the Swedish work again, though. Petersen's work made me think again about my approach to 'People Unaware'. His subjects usually are 'aware', but it is the energy and power that he gets from wide angle, close-up, roughly cropped images that I find interesting. It is possible to do something similar 'in the street', I think.
- Apparently, Fay Godwin would not have described herself as an artist (though she didn't object if others thought that she was). It sounds as though she kind of felt that she was more of a technician. What's in a word, of course? And it doesn't really matter a jot in the end, but it was an interesting comment.
- The Engstrom exhibition is arranged 'thematically' by the curator (I refer above to the 'snapshots' in a row, like a slideshow), though that is not how the photographer would normal present his work, as I've subsequently seen on the Internet. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity to ask why!
- He referred to Petersen and Engstrom as 'fine art' photographers. When OCA CEO, Gareth, asked what he meant by that, his answer seemed to amount to 'because they can sell to collectors' (though, to be fair, he did say it was a complex question to answer).