Monday, 21 November 2011

Exhibitions in Bradford

I managed, recently, to get back to Bradford again, to take a proper look at the Donovan Wylie exhibition that I glanced at during the RPS Event a few weeks ago.  As planned, I was also able to take in the Daniel Meadows show at the NMM, plus a visit to the Impressions Gallery, where I saw two more exhibitions – Red Saunders’ ‘Hidden’ and Jeremy Deller’s ‘Poking About’.  They all had impact, in their different ways, and I have been able to take something away from each.  Having reflected over a few days since the visit, there is a lot I could write up.  I’m going to try and distil things down into a few bullet points here.  I’ll take them in the order that I saw them.

Jeremy Deller – ‘Poking About’

·        Deller is a conceptual artist and this is his response to, or choices as a result of, being asked to ‘poke about’ in the archives of Bradford Museums’ photographic archives – notably, from my own point of view, a collection of thousands of glass negatives from a Manningham Lane photographic studio that was in business from 1926-75.

·        It was the ‘social’ aspects of his selections from the latter, especially from portrait photos from the 1950s, which caught my attention and interest.  That was when ‘affluent’ Manningham Lane changed its characteristics significantly as it was populated by the new immigrant arrivals from Asia and the Caribbean.  The portraits present a fascinating impression of the new arrivals – dressed to the nines for the recording of images to send back to friends and family (one assumes).

·        Often stiff and formal, not much removed from the old-style Victorian portraits with the requisite side table and vase of flowers, they nonetheless present a fascinating narrative.  But of what?

·       All these exhibitions were part of Bradford’s recent photographic festival – ‘Ways of Looking: Evidence’.  These images present evidence that there was a studio on Manningham Lane, which recorded the major change that its neighbourhood went through in the 1950s – but of what else?

·        Apparently the smart suits worn by the men were often loaned by the studio.  There are several images of racial mix – usually Asian man & white woman – but then you see the same woman, in the same clothes, photographed with two different men.  We soon read our own versions of the story into what we look at, but we really have no idea of the ‘truth’.

·        I found this a really thought-provoking presentation, despite its apparent simplicity.  Another excellent example of an artist using the photographic medium in which, on the one hand we are encouraged to look at the photograph as document, with all its connotations of truth and reality, and yet, on reflection, begin to question the whole foundation of what we’re looking at.  It is some form of truth – but about who and what?

Red Saunders – ‘Hidden’

·        Epic-scale prints of ‘supposed’ photographic evidence of significant historical events that have been somewhat ‘hidden’ by the traditional grand narrative of British history, these images are staged reproductions of Saunders’ view of what these events might have looked like, had they been photographed.

·        A few comparisons sprung to mind on viewing this exhibition – advertising posters, especially for epic feature films; the classical tableau paintings; and other modern staged photography, such as Gregory Crewdson and Tom Hunter.  I’m also reminded of other historic paintings I’ve seen recently, such as two images of major historical events in Parliament, which I saw in the National Portrait Gallery.

·        Very carefully staged and constructed, obviously deliberately presented in massive scale for impact and, maybe, credibility, Saunders works are provocative images.  They say, very strongly, look at these events; see them as important aspects of our history.  That’s where the comparison with the two National Portrait Gallery images comes to mind – ‘grand’ paintings that ‘record’ major events in the ‘grand’ narrative.  I’m sure this is what Saunders was getting at with these pictures.

·        Unfortunately, I’m not sure, as presented in this exhibition at least, he has carried it off.  I found them something of a mixed bag in terms of style and presentation.  Perhaps I’m being over-picky, but two of them (Hilda of Whitby & Mary Wolstencroft) have too much of the ‘modern’ feel about them.  I realise that doesn’t invalidate the approach, might even be deliberate, but the Hilda portrait was, for me, a photograph of a young 21st century woman, dressed up in a 7th century outfit.  Apart from the clothes, nothing seemed to say anything else.

·        I wasn’t particularly impressed by the quality of some of the large prints either.  Once again, reflecting back to comments on the Struth exhibition, I find I am questioning the effectiveness of presenting photographic images on this epic scale (see later comments on Donovan Wylie prints).

·        Again, the approach is thought-provoking, but I found myself less convinced of the outcome in this case.

Donovan Wylie – Outposts

·        This series, depicting Canadian military forward bases and operational installations in Afghanistan, follows the photographer’s earlier work on the Maze Prison near Belfast and British Army watchtowers in Northern Ireland.  The images have a ‘bleached’ look about them – partly reflecting the Afghan landscape, I guess, but also in line with the quite muted colours of the earlier works referred to.

·        Scale of presentation is big, but smaller than the Struth and the Saunders, and it works – for me.  I’m guessing that they were maybe 1mx1.25m, comparable, I’d say, with the Simon Roberts’ ‘We England’ images.  Perhaps this is the limit of where we should be pushing photographic prints?  It hardly fits with the artists such as Gursky & Struth, and if they can sell their massive prints at the price they do, good luck to them, but this scale works best for me.

·        When I looked at this series, I wanted to ‘classify’ it as a typography; but then I also wrote ‘... interesting to see it applied in a documentary context’.  So I was sensing some difficulty in ‘pigeon-holing’ Wylie’s work.  Having followed up the visit with some online research of what he has to say about the pictures, it’s interesting that (in an interview at the NMM, available on u-tube) he uses words like ‘scientific’ and ‘functional’ but then says there is an ‘emotional’ aspect as well.  Interesting also, that the book accompanying the Bradford festival describes him as a ‘picturemaker’ and observes that these ‘visual images’ ‘... resonate enough to inspire ... thought and contemplation ...’ because they engage the viewer visually.

·       In the video interviews mentioned above, Wylie also talks about his fascination with the way humans control landscape and about ‘vision as a form of control’ – as in the watchtowers and the manner in which the outposts are watching the landscape.

·       The notions of watching and looking were very much in my mind as I went around the exhibition.  Wylie is looking at ‘looking’.  Some views are of the outposts themselves; some are of the view from the outpost; and then we, as viewers of the exhibition, look at both those views.  In most of the images, nothing is happening, just lots of watching and looking.  Wylie says that he felt a real sense of fear – but I’m not sure that comes across in these images.  For me it was all about this watchfulness.

·       It did provoke an idea for me – in many ways totally unrelated to this subject matter, but relating to the idea of looking at ‘looking’.  When on holiday in Switzerland last year, I was struck by the way in which, confronted by massive world-famous scenery, most visitors, having travelled from all around the world to see it, took out their camera and, standing in groups, took photographs of it.  It was as though the shared experience was the taking of the photograph not the appreciation of the scenery.  Makes me think that there is a project in here – exploring the global concept of ‘looking’ through the camera.  Taking Wylie’s approach, the subject matter might be the cameras, as much as the people or the scene.  That’s a bit of a wild notion – to tuck away for future consideration!

Daniel Meadows – ‘Early Photographic Works’

·        I can’t really do full justice to the scope of this exhibition in a simple post.  I had been vaguely aware of Daniel Meadows before the publicity surrounding the show, but known little about him and never really engaged with who he is. But, I really enjoyed what I saw, at all sorts of levels, and have followed up with further investigation of his website

·        Some of the resonance is at a personal level, I suspect – the Lancashire connection; the fact I lived through the 70s, when much of this work was done; the link with Martin Parr, whose work I’ve looked at much more.  I think there is also the recognition that a lot of the work he and Parr were doing at this stage was at or just beyond undergraduate level – so there is a sort of a learning/experimenting/searching resonance going on as well.

·        Particularly enjoyable, and worthy of thought for future work, were his ‘Digital Stories’.  Looking at the website afterwards, I realise that this has been a direction for his work since the 1990s – largely, it seems using still images, but combining them together, with voice, music, text etc to create short (2-5 minute) ‘stories’.  Considering that he has been doing this for more than fifteen years, you have to see him as a bit of a pioneer, in the context of the coming together of digital media today.


  1. Great post Stan. A question for you. Did experiencing Daniel Meadows Digital Stories change the way you subsequently experienced the photographs in this exhibition? If so, how?

  2. Thanks, Gareth; I did look at some of the stories whilst in the exhibition (well, with titles like 'For Stanley' and 'Stanley Replies', how could I not!). I would say that they enhanced my perceived understanding of Daniel Meadows himself, rather than the images - though that is bound to impact on one's reading of his work to an extent, of course. I sensed a warmth in the personality through the way that he presented the stories, which I think confirmed a feeling that his portraits have a warmth and affection for their subjects. (Rather different from the later work of his buddy Martin Parr, for example.)

  3. I agree with you about the warmth.

    What I noticed was Daniel Meadows' background. Val Williams in her survey of Meadows work says ' I first met DM and MP when Andrew Sproxton and I were setting up Impressions Gallery of Photography in York. They were tall, confident and much, much posher than anyone we knew. We felt like hobbits.'

    The Graeme Street and June Street photographs I think are fabulous. If you view them as a kind of photographic research, then it is interesting to consider DM's positionality - link here

  4. Thanks for the link, Gareth; 'yes' I did initially feel some concern myself about Meadows 'credentials' when I watched the short video about his family background. 'How could this posh middle class guy from rural Gloucestershire think he could come and take photographs of life up North?' - type of attitude. I think I was wrong, and I felt more 'confident' in his interpretation when I watched some of the other short films - including the one where 'Stanley' responds.

    As you have pointed out elsewhere, the presence of Parr and Meadows in the living rooms of June Street cannot fail to have impacted on their subjects to some extent. "If them two posh chaps 're coming round we'd better hev a clean up & mek t'place look respectable." (I'm from Lancs, so allowed to write like that!) However, does that make these any less significant as 'documents' recording the living rooms of 70s Salford? I feel not; they look 'authentic', as far I can remember, and as I have hinted above, I sense that Meadows is a trustworthy documenter.

    Of course, the broader 'lesson' that one takes from these thoughts is how they impact on one's own work. I've been critical of some of my own work in People and Place for its lack of emotional content. Being too detached and rational, taking care not to let one's own feelings, values etc influence what we're doing, might not be the most creative approach. Are we setting out to produce a piece of research or are we reacting, emotionally but honestly, to our subjects? Personally, I think I probably need to be doing more of the latter.