Sounds cosy? Well, yeah, but there were other people there too - it was an event organised by Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool to promoted the new exhibits “Richard & Famous” and “Painted Photographs”. The talk kicked off with Martin introducing Richard Simpkin, an Australian who has been working the same project for the last 23 years: photographing himself with famous people.
This could raise all sorts of questions about Simpkin, he’s obviously got quite a singularly obsessive and addicted personality in order to pursue this project for so long. Has he actually done anything else in his life? Looking at his website, it’s all pretty much about celebrity, and he says he doesn’t care for it! The work could be said to be self-absorbing, egotistical and a little disturbing, after all, there’s a case for him being a serial stalker. And to put on an exhibition (and book) with hundreds of photographs of yourself surely feeds your ego!
It is fascinating though, and he’s an engaging speaker. No matter what you say your views are on celebrity, some of the stories and escapades he told would pique your interest. And I challenge anyone to visit the exhibition and not go “Wow, he’s had his photograph with xxx”. So, beyond being a comment about Simpkin and his personality, this is undoubtedly a narrative on modern culture in general, the celebrity game and the commodity of it all, especially after Simpkin has become better known for what he does, and the PR guys actually want Simpkin to take the photographs. Parr refers to it as “art”, I think more of a ‘narrative”, but the two are interchangeable these days anyway.
Simone Lueck’s “The once and future queens” is perhaps a more traditional form of photography to be found hanging in a gallery. The large sized portraits depict older women from LA, dressed and posed in a glamorous way, recreating images from the golden days of Hollywood.
I find the images to be tinged with sadness, but perhaps that’s of my own creation. Certainly Mara, who poses in several of the photographs, seems to be having fun, enjoying the opportunity to play make-believe in what must surely be the world capital of fantasy and glamour. I guess the collaboration with Lueck (and she is keen to point out that it is collaboration, with the women picking their own clothes and setting their own scene) may have been deeply therapeutic for the women who will, in all probability, be coming to terms with ageing, and particularly feminine ageing, in Tinseltown.
I’m not by nature a huge fan of portraiture, certainly I don’t like taking portraits myself, but there was much to be read into these photographs, and it was all very enjoyable. There was something to be said about presentation here though; the images were all glass fronted and reflections were a major issue, certainly nearer to the large windows.
The layering effect might be interesting in its own right, but sometimes it’s nice to see the image on its own…
The final exhibition in the Open Eye was a number of artefacts from Parr’s own collection of “painted photographs”. Yes, once again Parr is proven to have an odd but nonetheless interesting taste in things to collect.
These historical items are a little surreal but complement perfectly the subject of celebrity, as they are celebrity photographs (poodle excepted) that have been altered and re-used for a different purpose. We don’t see the final ‘after image”, just these remnants from a process no longer in use because of the power of Photoshop. Yeah, interesting from a photographic history perspective…
Not sure why I did this really, but I did so here it is.
I also went to a couple of other places - the Museum of Liverpool (not impressed by Mike McCartney’s photographs though) then to the Tate where there was some significant works by well known artists that I was quite happy to see. I’ll not comment too much here, they’ve been spoken about by people far more eloquent and informed than I am. I will say however that the photographs by Gillian Wearing were disappointing, this one in particular was blurred when blown up to exhibition sizes!
This sculpture by Don Brown was exquisite though - so delicate, although perhaps disturbing in its subject matter.
Finally it was off to the Slavery Museum for 42 women of Serra Leone, which I found to be too centred on the caption - I took longer to read these than look at the image, and sometimes the image and caption didn’t particularly match. I’ll say something more about this in another post though.
The venue was a small one, a far cry from some of the larger exhibition spaces that I’ve been to, but then, it’s one of those spaces where you don’t need to be one of the really big guns to exhibit in. It’s one of those invaluable spaces for us mere mortals to be able to display our work. They need to be applauded for that. It also meant that they were more amenable to a bunch of people coming in on a Saturday when they’re normally closed - having the space to ourselves meant that we didn’t have to worry about upsetting other visitors by gathering around an image and talking about it for 10 minutes. Yes, a big thanks to the gallery, and to resident photographer/curator Andrew Conroy who was on hand to throw in his opinion and some inside info from time to time.
Looking around the 5 rooms, the images were all printed to the same general size, format excepting (yes, the format of the images all seemed a little random - different cameras, different crops?), and all were fastened directly to the wall with drawing pins. There’s been some discussion on other fora recently about quality of prints, mounting and presentation, etc. some of these comments have been my own, notably about Red Saunders at the Impressions Gallery in Bradford (which, with hindsight, may have been more suitable than I originally gave it credit for - still not a fan of the work though). Here though, it felt completely appropriate to the work. Not because it only deserved to be pinned to the wall, but because it was representative of the throwaway society and the less fortunate elements of that society. It was also a budgetary consideration, but it worked. I liked it anyway.
Looking to the images themselves, I think many worked really well in the small groups as displayed, with visual and contextual flow in the adjacent images. The first image we discussed was of a soldiers funeral procession - an interesting image as it was many layered, with different readings possible. The procession was pictured as it passed in front of a Poundland store, and the obvious visual pun was that life was cheap. However, looking further into the photograph, there was more. The roads were lined with people showing their respects to the fallen soldier, which then contrasted with the nearby photograph of another military funeral showing only the coffin bearers and, in the distance, the honour guard at the entrance to the church.
from Si Barber’s Flickr stream
from the Big Society website
This has a more institutionalised respect and tradition, not the societal respect shown in the other. It’s also pretty much timeless as the photograph has no obvious means of being dated; the dress uniform of the soldiers is probably much the same as it has been for decades, although no doubt an expert in the matter might notice a certain issue of boots or something. The “Poundland” image is more placeable through the shop, the fashions of the people lining the street, etc. There was a brief discussion about which would be used in the press, with some division of opinion, but it would depend on whereabouts in the press and the message being communicated - it could really be either.
As Gareth pointed out, there was also a family bond in the small group of people following the hearse, with the connection between the younger man on the left of the group (a brother perhaps?) and the older man (the father?) to his right. An interesting image that shows that there’s often a need to look deeper into an image, moving past the first impressions to reach a deeper understanding. This was true of several of the images here, but is becoming increasingly more difficult to do with the constant stream of visual information to which we are subjected on a daily basis. I will add the following image though, taken from Si Barber’s Flickr stream which shows the tags assigned:
The tags are “funeral, poundland, £1, soldier, death, dead, war, casualty” - they say nothing about this bond that can be seen, or the respect being paid by the people on the street. Just the death of a soldier and £1. Was this a case of the reader “owning” the image more than the photographer, with Si Barber having lost control of the meaning of his work? It would appear so: I’ve posted a question on his Flickr image, and he responded with acknowledging the reader makes their own mind up, but summed up with “However I suppose to me it says something about the way a society can regard life as being very cheap.” This image can be argued to say as much about the death of the author as the death of Private Hendry.
There were other images that were discussed at length, those of the sex workers being one of the prominent discussions, particularly of the ethics in running such images. The women were paid to pose as they would do if Si was a punter, and how would we approach such a project should we choose to run it? Would we do like Si and pay for the image (as I believe Philip-Lorca DiCorcia did with “Hustlers”, but I’m not sure on this), or use some other technique? Sniping with a long telephoto, or snap and dash, or getting under the skin and using gatekeepers, etc. Also, would we show them online, in a book or even in a gallery? It was no coincidence that these images where in a room that could be seen from the street, should you pause and look through the windows.
from the Big Society website
Another image discussed was of an older lady with a “do not resuscitate” tattoo, a strong image that showed a determined and outwardly upbeat woman who has made her choice about life and death. The image was in stark contrast to the adjacent photograph of a woman apparently in a care home petting a lamb. This other woman did not come across as in control of herself, perhaps largely due to the setting itself (plastic chairs and sheeting on the floor) but also because of her pose at the time the photograph was taken. Maybe this was a split second view on the woman, but it did come across as markedly different to its neighbour. Yes, a strong juxtaposition of images.
from the Si Barber’s website
from the Si Barber’s Flickr stream
Also interesting to compare is the image of Joy from the Big Society exhibition with that on his Flickr stream, which has either been left unprocessed, or far more subtly done.
from the Si Barber’s Flickr stream
Less dramatic? Certainly. A little more human? Yes, I think so. The image from the exhibition is in keeping with many there in the style of processing, which is quite bold and vibrant.
The last image we discussed that I think needs a mention (there were many interesting and provoking images there) is that of the Coke can crack pipe. Obviously there is an historical connection between Coca-Cola and drugs (not sure if it’s all just an urban myth though), but the thing that I think needs to be mentioned is the orientation of the image in the gallery, which was vertical, as opposed to horizontal on the website and in the book. I read them differently, with the vertical image almost being a defiant celebration - the can held aloft, almost as the Statue of Liberty does with the torch. Horizontally, it’s perhaps more of an offering…
from the Big Society website
A thoroughly enjoyable visit, and an engaging exhibition. I’d like to thank Si for giving me permission to reproduce his images here, his responses on Flickr and also for posting the book of the Big Society out to me so quickly.