Monday, 31 October 2011

“Photography & the City” – RPS Event at NMM

On Saturday, I attended a Royal Photographic Society organised event at the National Media Museum, entitled “Photography & the City”.  Fellow OCA student, Rob, was also there.  There were four speakers through the day:
Ian Beesley – Social documentary photographer and course leader on the MA in Photography at the University of Bolton;
Roger Hargreaves – photography writer & curator;
John Davies – contemporary documentary photographer;
Colin Harding – Curator of Photographic Technology at the NMM.
Ian Beesley presented images that he has shot in Bradford from late 70s to today.  They were almost exclusively black and white and mainly of architecture or urban detail; though there were some portraits or groups, mainly shot in a deadpan, posed manner in front of buildings, and at least one shot of children playing in the street.  I would have included a link here to some of his images but there seems to be nothing on the web.  Most of these photographs had been made in the late 70s and early 80s, when Beesley was in his late twenties or early thirties, and he said in his presentation that looking back at them made him realise that they had been about recreating his past, revisiting his childhood.  He was born in Bradford and grew up there.  The images were mainly high contrast, quite grainy, reflecting a gritty documentary style – he acknowledged Bill Brandt as an influence, including quoting him as having said that ‘photography is not a sport; there are no rules, I can do what I want’.
A confident and entertaining presenter, he adorned his images with some enjoyable tales of their creation and of the characters who peopled the Bradford of his youth – not least the fight between two blind piano players in a pub car park!  That said, there was some content that I found useful and informative – not least the images themselves, which reminded me also of the early Don McCullen photographs of Finsbury Park, London.  Those were earlier than Beesley’s, and showed bombed out streets peopled by gangs and down-and-outs rather than demolished mills and streets where only the pub or fish shop had been left standing – but they had some common ground, and not just the high contrast grainy black & white presentation.
He said that he sees that he has been photographing change, and he had even been back to some of the locations specifically for this presentation, to try and photograph what, if anything remained from his images of thirty years before.  In most cases, the answer was nothing, and he had even struggled to identify the exact location.  I think he was trying to avoid suggesting that the changes hadn’t been for the better, but that feeling did come through anyway.  Reflecting again on the style of the images, the grainy black and white, which he also used for the updated ‘today’ images, I find that I cannot avoid reading them as nostalgic and, as Beesley himself said, seeking to recreate and revisit the past.  What if all these images had been in colour?  Which they clearly could have been.  How would the narrative have looked then?
John Davies, with an international reputation ( had a high level of credibility, for me, not least because I have already looked at some of his work during my Landscape course.  That said, he struggled a little as a presenter and, at times, seemed to find it difficult to talk expressively about his work.  It was interesting to note that he identified his early direction and inspiration as surrealism.  He suggested that photography was more effective that painting in expressing a surreal aesthetic because of its connotations of reality, which gives it a strong potential to undermine.  His early work was chiefly landscape in the more rural and traditional sense ‘tackling’ a scene from a high vantage point, looking down and exploring the topography, using changes in weather and light quality; but he then went on to ‘look at cities’ through their industries.  We saw many of his characteristic high detail city landscapes, often exploring particularly ‘quirky’ architectural aspects.  He said that he often finds it difficult to explain why a particular location appeals to him, but he just sees some conflict, some edge, which ‘creates a sense of meaning’ for him – back to the surrealism and making people question the world and the tradition around them.  When talking about this image of Ladbroke Grove, London, taken in 1985, he noted the queue of people at the phone box, and then remarked that he is sometimes surprised to realise that his photographs have become historical documents.  That’s an interesting one; his website describes him as a contemporary documentary photographer, so I interpret the remark to mean that the images are made now, for now, to reflect the particular conflict or edge that he has seen and to encourage the viewer to see today differently.  25 years on, inevitably, some aspects of that edginess look dated.
I was particularly interested in something he had to say about his creative process.  It was said in the context of a current or planned project about Britain as a warmongering nation.  He said that he begins with a concept, with something to say, and then looks for strong graphic images that demonstrate that concept or message.  Of course, he was referring to his personal work rather than his commissioned work (I think), and he is well enough established to be able to take that approach, but I think that is something which could usefully inform my own work.  My images of Holmfirth in Assignment Four, were made to a plan, to a brief, but not in relation to any overarching concept or message.  As I said in my previous post, and as will be clear when I write up my tutor feedback, the resulting series does its job and satisfies the brief, but it doesn’t have much emotion or obvious message in it.
The other two presentations comprised an examination of Trafalgar Square as a recurring photographic subject and location, from a very early daguerretype from before Nelson’s Column was built to mobile phone images of today; and an illustration & description of the work of the street ‘smudgers’ (‘stop me and have one taken’ photographers)..  Of passing interest, there wasn’t too much in either to inform one’s image making, but I did reflect on the comparison between the ‘unchanging architectural backdrop’ of Trafalgar Square and the very definitely ‘changing architectural backdrop’ of Beesley’s picture of Bradford.
A useful day; good to have the opportunity to talk with a fellow student again as well; and I got the chance for a very quick look at the Donovan Wylie exhibition at the NMM, which I want to back to in the next few weeks.

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