L > R: John (from BSA), Gareth and Tanya
A couple of weeks ago, before my Mac went off to be repaired, I went to the Bank Street Art Gallery in Sheffield to look at Tanya’s Shades of New York exhibition. The exhibition itself was very interesting, though not what I had in mind after seeing the East 100th Street exhibition a few weeks earlier, but that’s a good thing. Two slideshows formed the exhibition, one featured a mostly architectural view on the “city” (rather than specifically being identifiable as New York, at least to my eyes). The other was an abstract slideshow on the New York marathon, taken from above.
The more interesting for me was the architectural view. This featured a number of black and white photographs of the area around East 100th Street, and I was struck by the lack of people in this collection, especially after the earlier exhibition which was almost exclusively of portraits. The slideshow was accompanied by some fairly haunting music which added to a sense of sobriety, of somberness. The other thing that the music achieved was to provide a “flow” to the images as they transition. This is something that I’ve never really considered with my own work, I don’t tend to use slideshows although obviously Change featured the video. It’s something that appears to be gaining popularity though.
The fact that these photographs were drawn from the same overall body of work as East 100th Street proves to me that two completely disparate views can indeed be drawn from the same body of work. The curatorial view is obviously very, very important in order to get the message across. A different curator, with a different message, be that political or whatever, can give completely different meaning to a sequence of photographs. This then ties into my own YOP portfolio, Into the Valley; it wasn’t until very late in the portfolio that I finally decided on the narrative that I was going to give the work. The narrative that I’ve chosen is very different to what I discussed first with Alan and then José, and it was really only Clive’s input that made me see what I have been trying to say all along.
In amongst looking at the exhibitions, there was some very interesting discussion with Tanya, and with John the creative director at the gallery, and with fellow students Stan and another John. Gareth from OCA even joined in later on. Much of the discussion centred around what the Bank Street gallery did, how they decided on what they would display and how to get work in there. Much of what goes on display in the gallery is privately funded; they hire rooms out to students or to people who want to put on their own exhibition. The price of a room was surprisingly little and it might be something to look at in the very near future.
As we were leaving, Gareth asked me the question “how would you feel for somebody else to curate your work?” Well, that’s a difficult question. There needs to be huge amount of trust in the curator and to get that trust you really need to know the curator. Having seen what he did with Tanya’s collection, drawing less upon the people photographs, I’d feel more comfortable, but it must still be a unnerving experience...
The exhibition was in the main room of the gallery, and featured 13 photographs from the submission (which originally contained 18 photographs), a display cabinet with a series of postcards and a copy of Davidson’s book.
When I look at Davidson’s photographs, I feel they’re generally dark and voyeuristic. I see the photographs of a social documentary photographer who is looking to the ‘Other’, making political photographs with a desire to drive a degree of change. His photographs show a gritty side of E100th Street, reinforcing what I would anticipate having been the outsiders view of the area - I’m too young to know for sure, my impression (rightly or wrongly) is based on the way it has been painted by cinema. I see Tanya’s photographs as being different, and with a different agenda although still pushing to inform the viewer about the area.
For a start, the images shown in the gallery tend to be much airier, gone are the dark and gritty interiors, replaced by much lighter rooms as we can see in the photograph below:
This airiness will come from various sources; from the renovation of the area and contemporary interior design fashions, through to the desire of both the photographer and the family in question, who are shown sitting within their home. This gives rise to an important difference to the two projects, and to a fundamental reason why I don’t believe Tanya’s work is copying Davidson’s (this question was raised in discussion). Davidson went in and photographed what he saw. Yes, there are posed photographs but I find it hard to believe that the people in question will have always wanted to present themselves in such a manner (here, for example), and this goes back to what I meant when I said I found his photographs to be voyeuristic, and a perceived connection to the “beggar photography” of Walker Evans et al in the 1930s. Tanya, on the other hand, appears to have collaborated far more with the subjects, they have posed as they wanted. I understand Tanya asked for them to leave their home as it normally is, but that they’d (naturally) been given a tidy up before she arrived with her camera; this reminds me somewhat of the Stranger series by Shizuka Yokomizo - people who have a certain pride in themselves may not want to be seen amidst their normal everyday clutter, respectability takes over. In this respect, I also felt a connection with the family portrait series by Thomas Struth…
This collaboration and Tanya’s association with the people and the block mean that the photographs are far more sympathetic than anything done by Davidson. Tanya looks to have gone in with a view of full disclosure of why the photographs have been taken, with Davidson I’m not so sure. Certainly, I consider it unlikely that his subjects ever saw the exhibition or the book of his photographs, visiting a gallery like MoMA used to be the reserved for the upper classes and back in the late 60’s I guess the history of racial segregation in America will have further ensured this be the case - Davidson’s photographs were taken in the time around when Martin Luther King was shot. If we consider that Tanya is bringing Davidson’s project up to date, she has done it with the eye of an insider, rather than an outsider, and has shown life on the block far more positively, and from a different subjective viewpoint. I said that Davidson wanted to drive a degree of social change, Tanya’s photographs go towards illustrating this change has happened (and is still happening?) and therefore can be seen to have its own political agenda; to illustrate to the viewer that the block is not what it once was, and it does this well.
Looking at the photographs themselves, outside of the historical context, there’s an undeniable quality in the printing. The lighter tones in the rooms are at times incredibly delicate, and what looks from a distance to be devoid of detail can actually be home to some subtle shading. It would’ve been very easy to lose all this, and I know from experience how hard it can be to get the results that are wanted. The composition of the photographs is very interesting; by allowing the people to recede into their environment, you actually get more of a feel for their personality and for what it is they hold to be important. Without this context, it’s possible for people to put up a façade but when viewed within the sanctity of their own home, it’s possible to get to grips with them better. This is especially true when comparing the semi-formal family shots with the views of the children on their own in their bedrooms, away from the presence of their parents, the children’s own personality and exuberance comes to the fore. In some ways it’s a shame these pairings weren’t obvious from the sequencing in the gallery.
This leads me on to a couple of slightly negative points I picked up on from the exhibition. The sequence is one, and the presentation is the other. There’s also a further slight “niggle” for me - I understand from what was said that Tanya picked out the 13 prints to be displayed, and on the whole this was perfectly fine, she picked out those photographs with people as the subject of the photographs, I just found the photograph of the guard to be a little out of place. The same with the “gang” of youths, but less so (this image served as a good anchor point to the Davidson work, especially sited as it was above the book of his photographs). Having seen the 18 sent for assessment, I believe the inclusion of one or two of the location shots would have been beneficial, to further anchor the interior shots. As it was, “home” could’ve been pretty much anywhere, the feel for it being E100th St was lost. Having said that, it will have been incredibly difficult to edit the work to the original set whilst keeping what you want to say intact, and cutting back further can dilute the narrative, and I think this has happened. Or maybe it’s just a slightly different narrative now, and hence why the exhibition was titled “I call this place home” rather than “E100th Street” or similar. It shows the strength of the body of work that various edits can be pulled from it and still be meaningful. Anyway, I’ve not questioned Tanya on the reasons for her selections yet, but I will be doing…
Putting aside this niggle about the guard, I’m not so sure that the order in which the images were hung in the gallery was the best. It certainly differs from the more cohesive sequence of the full 18 photographs on Tanya’s blog. The edit has changed, so perhaps it’s unfair to compare them, but Tanya showed a number of relationships in her sequencing (family groups, hand gestures, etc.) which have been lost by that put together by the curators at Bank Street Arts. Other than an attempt to alternate square and rectangular frames, is there a natural flow to the images? I’ve not grasped it if there is.
This alternating sequence then leads into the other negative issue for me. The way the prints were framed and mounted. As can be seen from the images above, the photographs were in a silver frame (not an issue for me in itself) with an off- white mount board with a black one beneath it (or white facing on a black core, I’m not sure which). Personally, I don’t like this. I’ve done it in the past, but now I’d steer clear of it, opting instead to keep it simple with a single colour. I’d probably also have opted for a larger mount (which admittedly means a larger, more expensive frame) and possibly also to keep the frame dimensions the same; in some instances the bottoms of the frames were at different levels - certainly on the right wall as seen in the room shot at the top of the post. Then there was the “little” thing of the brass frame mounts - the frames were silver, so please use silver ones, or paint them to match the wall! The postcards and artistic statement also felt a little disjointed from the rest of the exhibition, and would’ve been quite easy to miss. These things will no doubt be due to the fact that Tanya lives in NYC and was not on hand to organise things, financial constraints and also I guess in part because of the relationship of control between Tanya, OCA and the gallery, not to mention the learning curve of setting up an exhibition. It sounds like I’m being really picky, but having noticed things like this, there’s a dull fear for when (if?) I ever get into another show myself.
These points aside, it was a really good experience to see the work of a fellow student on the wall of an exhibition space and a huge honour for Tanya to lead the way with her OCA degree show. The work in itself was excellent, and sets a high bar for the rest of us to try to meet. The actual study visit itself was also one of the more accessible ones in that there was a small number of students and a small number of prints to look at, so everyone would see them all and this then lead to good discussion. Everyone could be involved, and they were, from those who had been with OCA for just a few weeks to those of us who had been around the block and approaching the end of the degree pathway. An excellent initiative from Gareth and co, and I look forward to seeing where future events might pop up, for all of the creative disciplines.
Moving on from Bank Street, there was another student show on at Sheffield Hallam. Now, I’m not going to go too deep into what I thought here, other than to say I was underwhelmed. Having seen this, it makes me wonder whether the negative comments I raised against the presentation of Tanya’s work were completely unjustified. All I can hope is that others will see my own work in a better light than what I saw in this group show...
I’ve had a bit of a discussion with Tanya and it’s actually been documented that Davidson encouraged his subjects to go to see the exhibition, so I was wrong on that point. Tanya provided a link to an article on the weareoca site, but it’s currently unavailable. I guess it will come back soon though.
Looking at the works as a whole, you can see how the work has progressed. He starts of with Dorps and Platteland and what might be considered to be documentary work that displays echoes of Walker Evans and the FSA photographs from the 1930’s. The photographs, like all in the exhibition, are superbly printed and framed in a traditional modernist style of thin black frames and a white mount, and this presentation seems to reinforce the idea that they could be part of a historical document, and they are, being from the 1980’s - I just mean from further back in history. The subject matter seems to further displace the images in time; there’s a photograph called Side view of Hotel, Middleburg, 1983 (image 1 of 4 from the gallery here) that appears to be from a much earlier time, at least it doesn’t say “1983” to me - if it were colour then maybe, but I doubt it. The same goes for the other images, on the face of it they’re from an earlier time, but it would appear that this is just how these people lived - one reason for the apparent outcry they created when released, perhaps?
Platteland starts to look more at the people, rather than the surroundings (although Dorps included portraits), and here the work of Diane Arbus is brought to mind; the people he is photographing look to come from a marginalised section of the South African population - the poorer whites. The apartheid system in SA appeared to me as dividing the rich white from the poor black, a simplistic view that says nothing of the poor white. Again, was this the reason for the outcry that it created? Or was it his choice of subject, such as the twins, Dressie and Casie? With this photograph, a connection with Arbus is inevitable. And yes, as such this will be a cause for outcry.
Dressie and Casie, Twins, Western Transvaal, 1993 raises many issues. The one that I suppose it fairly high on the list would be whether Ballen was taking advantage of them. Why did he choose to photograph these men? Is he taking the mickey? Well, why should he be taking advantage and why not photograph them? They are entitled to have their photograph taken, and they’re obviously aware that it is being done, so there is nothing surreptitious going on. I think what the real issue is has more to do with the viewer rather than the photographer; the twins are looking at the viewer, heir stance is confrontational and square on and they are questioning the viewer in much the same way that Olympia did years before. The viewer is forced to question themselves, and how they react to the photograph - the viewer will have a reaction that will perhaps make them feel uncomfortable. It’s this reflection on the viewer’s mind (and the photographer’s mind of course) that Ballen takes forward further in his work.
The photographs from this point become much more collaborative and staged - rather than simply posing for the photograph they are starting to act out increasingly surreal scenes. In Outland the viewer might be forgiven for expecting the documentary nature of the photographs to be continued, although in some it is clear it has not (e.g. Twirling wires, 2001). Now more references can be drawn from his work, through psychoanalysis to Freud and Jung or through more ‘normal’ artistic associations to Dali and Surrealism. The photographs are dark and troubling in many cases, and again it is in turning the viewer in on themselves in self-reflection that we can become uncomfortable, we don’t necessarily want to face the questions that Ballen asks of us.
As I said before, all of the photographs are superbly printed, and there’s a comment on one of the walls that there’s no darkroom or photoshop manipulation either (Peter H said he was going to take up knitting at this point). I find the comment about no darkroom manipulation hard to grasp, as I would always expect a touch of dodging and burning to go on, but hey, what do I know. There was one image that was particularly well printed though (Tommy, Samson and a Mask, 2000), the range of tones here was superb. The photograph itself is excellent as well, raising issues of race, age and death, amongst other things. It wasn’t my favourite though. My favourite is more a piece of artwork than a photograph (the same should be said of all of his later work), but unfortunately I didn’t think to get the name of it.
It’s basically some twigs/branches resting against a graffitied wall, and I think it’s actually the human-ish forms drawn on the walls that draw me in. I find them quite disturbing in the way that the loom over the faces at the bottom of the wall. I suppose they’re quite reminiscent of the ghosts that feature in the work of Miyazaki Hayao. I don’t find them scary or horrific, just disturbing in a quite mesmerising way. It’s quite interesting that this work has gone back to not featuring any people in it, all of the previous series post the Evans-esque documentary work (at least the examples displayed) had done. Ballen talks of looking inside his own head, and things are starting to get quite lonely.
The photographs are becoming more “still life” in nature, and I now start to draw stronger connections to the artwork of Dave McKean, an illustrator and artist who’s work I first saw 20-odd years ago when he provided the covers for the Sandman collection of comic books. The Sandman story (written by David Gaiman) was rich in the occult and supernatural, the main character being the lord of dreams (hence “Sandman”). There’s obvious links here with the sub-conscious and the inner workings of the mind. This link is especially strong for me when you compare the home image on McKean’s website with a still from the Die Antwoord video, I fink u freeky. Is this particular instance Ballen or Die Antwoord, I don’t know for certain (Yolandi Visser has worn those contacts in other photographs I’ve seen), but I can’t help but think it must be Ballen. Incidentally, watching the video on a large screen is a very different experience to watching it on the web, viewed larger there’s a lot more to be seen, details that are difficult to catch on You-Tube.
Asylum seems to be heading in the direction of a more traditional surrealism (if there is such a thing), and as such it feels a little more accessible and less troubling. Again, I find myself thinking of Dali and a host of other surrealist photography images, the artists names of which I can’t recall. I’m not sure if it was the return to a tradition or an overload of the work, but at this point I was beginning to feel ambivalent towards it. It interested me less than I really expected. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy seeing the work and pulling back some of the various layers of the images, drawing links in my own mind with the work of others that may or may not be intended by Ballen, I did. Just not as much as I thought I would. Was this overload, or was it a response in my head to the hype that has surrounded the work in recent weeks? I’m not sure at this point. In the same way I’m often disappointed by Oscar winning films on first watching, I’ll know what I really feel in a few months when I look at it again, and to this end I’ve ordered a career spanning book of his photographs from Amazon, rather than one of the monographs featured in the exhibition (although Outland is also in my shopping cart, just in case).
The first exhibition, and the head of the bill if you like, is Richard Mosse’s Infra. I saw this some months ago in Aperture, and I didn’t like it then, and this was based purely on a superficial look and the obvious aesthetic, rather than anything to do with the communication being put forward. Having seen the images on the gallery wall rather than on the pages of a magazine or the web, I still don’t like them on an aesthetic level, but having taken the time to more fully digest the images (or at least the handful of images on the walls in Liverpool), they’re interesting on various levels.
The photographs were in the two ground floor rooms at the gallery, in the first there were several that deserved the attention. The first is of a rather camp looking African gentleman - General Février, although on inspection and consideration of the subject matter, I think camp is far from the truth. The pose is perhaps reminiscent of the old paintings of military figures ( especially the more foppish looking French ones… ), mostly side on and with a hand on his hip. Now I had thought that this campness was largely due to the colour that the photograph has been infected with thanks to the use of the Kodak Aerochrome film, but no, I did a quick and dirty test with my iPhone at the exhibition, and even in black and white, he still looked camp:
It’s largely down to the pose, but the coloration from the film does make it feel more like a fashion shoot, something a little LaChappelle maybe? You can see there’s a look in his face that I guess indicates he’s seen things, and done things for that matter, that I would rather not know about. You only really get this from stepping up to the photograph though - this was printed smaller than the others in this part of the gallery, and from a distance I thought he looked maybe a little effeminate. This might have been the colours playing with my expectations though, affecting my more superficial first glance. Mosse has used a large format field camera in this series, so there’s no covert image taking, this has been posed and I wonder whether the directions for the pose came from Mosse with cognisance of the fact that there would be a good chance the colours would be so, or whether the man had taken up his finest military painting stance? The former would smack of taking advantage of an unknowing subject…
Another image in this first room was of a group of men looking to the right of the frame, this times with their fatigues rendered a much greyer tone, and the background of a grassy hill rendered in a saccharine pink. All of the men except the one on the track seem to be more interested with what Mosse has omitted from the frame - do they look towards a leader giving orders for some raid or other operation? Or could it be more sinister, an execution perhaps? If this would be the case, the men are all looking disturbingly relaxed and casual, but is this a numbed reaction, or a scared one? Of course I could be putting far too much into it, and their actually in a queue for lunch… It all reminds me of the “excluded elephant” that Errol Morris talks about in his book Believing is seeing, and how the choice of framing has a huge influence on how an image might be interpreted - here there is much left open for the viewer to work with, rather than say with the photograph of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing the VC prisoner during the Viet Nam war. In that image, it’s straight documentary (which Mosse is not, although it might be easy to fall into that frame of mind), and with more selective framing, the whole image changes, i.e.
(image available from wikipedia)
This is a quick and dirty edit, but with the prisoner out of frame, it’s just a man firing a gun, what at has to be invented. Similarly, with Mosse’s photograph, the fact we can’t see what the group of men see makes the viewer fill in the detail based upon what they understand about the situation in the Congo - as the article from the Guardian states, there were 5.4m deaths in 9 years, and 400,000 rapes in one year - are they looking at one of these atrocities? Or just queueing for lunch? One thing though, the one man looking at the camera draws the viewer in, they’re questioned - “what are you looking at?” - in much the same way as Olympia, although without the male as viewer undertone and replaced with something a little darker.
Something else of interest here, and in contrast with the images upstairs; I didn’t see captions for these images (was I just being unobservant? I didn’t think so). Anyway, looking at Mosse’s website there’s a caption for the images, and the photograph I’ve been talking about above is called Colonel Soleil's Boys, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2010. Now, perhaps I’m reading too much into the caption, but to call these soldiers “boys” seems to be a little irreverent, the assumption I have of them is that they will all be killers, and are at least young men not the child soldiers of some of the other photographs. Is the term “boys” something that has been given by Mosse? Is it a term that the Congolese would use? “Les garçon du Colonel Soleil” doesn’t sound right to me, but then I’m no expert. Does this then hark back to European rule over the African countries? Much was said by Barthes on this sort of thing, and many others too. Watching Simba - Mark of the Mau Mau a couple of years ago it really struck me the way the English used the term “boy” when speaking of the Kenyans, and so I guess the Belgians may have used “garçon” in the same way. Either way, I wouldn’t use such a seemingly derogatory term to describe a group of armed men…
Moving to the second room, the images were generally smaller, with one exception - a photograph blown up to life sized proportions of a youth in fatigues and with a Kalashnikov looking directly into the lens and so at the viewer. Again, thoughts of Olympia came to mind, but now the youth seems to plead with the viewer - this isn’t the face of a hardened killer (or at least this is how it seemed), but of a boy ( and I use the term without any derogatory connotations ) who would rather be playing with his friends, etc. This is easily the most compelling of the images because he is looking to the viewer in the way that he is. The coloration of the foliage forms a stark contrast, isolating the figure and therefore focusing the viewer on him, and then to his plight as a child soldier. And that’s what the use of this military film does. It focuses the viewer, makes them look again because the colours are so abstracted, so unlike what we are used to seeing - black and white is one level of abstraction, and we are used to that, but the pinks and purples of Aerochrome are something else.
I mentioned before that Mosse is not a documentary photographer, but this then asks various questions - is he trying to make war, death and atrocities seem frivolous? To the casual observer coming in to the gallery from the street, the photographs might seem like some garish fashion shoot in places, or like badly colour-popped photoshop images. The aesthetic certainly turned me off from the article in Aperture, and I guess it would do the same to others.The apparent campness of Février doesn’t install the horror of conflict. But then, as I said, this is not documentary. The use of the gamut might also seem very gimmicky, much like the use of toy camera iPhone apps in reportage, but in some ways this is the very opposite of the likes of Hipstamatic, which can be seen to bring disparate images together with a common algorithm for the aesthetic feel of the images, Mosse on the other hand has gone the opposite way. These images are pretty unique.
Simon Norfolk on the other hand uses a traditional aesthetic; black and white photographs displayed in simple black frames and with a good white mount. Moving clockwise around the room, the first ten ( ish ) images could easily be “simple” landscapes, perhaps the square format and horizon composition of some is non-conventional - straight through the middle or right at the bottom of the frame - but they are not obviously of conflict and genocide sites. A line of trees is very reminiscent of the work of Michael Kenna for example ( no idea who came first… ) and a view of Auschwitz may easily pass as a New Topographics style image showing an industrial presence in the landscape. Some will recognise the chimneys for what they were, but I did not. Not without the aid of the caption. That’s the major thing about this exhibition for me, called For most of it I have no words, a collection of photographs drawn from the Open Eye collection. The caption means so much to these images. Some explanation is required, even if it is just the opening statement and one or two words to state the location.
There was one image I found really quite powerful, and it is the one shown on the Open Eye exhibition page (linked above) of the stairs. Without having read the caption, my mind went to the stairs in my old school, which were similarly worn by years of passing feet. Reading the caption and the realisation that the left hand side of the stairs were far more heavily worn than the right, the knowledge of what this represented came home. Many Jews will have walked that staircase on a one way journey to their deaths. A sombre thought, intensified by the black and white nature of the photograph and the shaft of light from above illuminating those worn stairs; symbolising a divine light is the way I read it.
Some of the images were more ‘obvious’ in their horror though, notably those from Cambodia featuring collections of human skulls. Whilst horrific in their own right, I can’t help but feel that we, as a modern viewer and consumer of media images, will have become insensitive to this material, and in some cases find it a subject of morbid fascination rather than disgust. The photographs introduce a distance between the atrocity and the viewer, and black and white is a further level of abstraction. The photograph of the teacher training college is a case in point for me. A dog wanders through the centre of the photograph, at the back of which you can see, when closely inspecting the photograph, a mound of skulls. You can’t count the skulls, there’s so many, but if 5 skulls is more horrific than 1 skull, is 20 more so than 10? At what point do we cease to see and quantities becomes blurred, almost irrelevant? I personally find it far more disturbing to put the horror to an image myself, rather than be shown it. It works in a cinematic sense, it’s more suspenseful or scary when you don’t know what is happening than when the scene is overly graphic, and I find it the same here. My mind can be a dark place - which probably leads quite nicely into my next planned gallery visit to see the work of Roger Ballen in Manchester next month.
I’ve not had too in depth a look at the book, but there’s a number of interesting little features in there, from the loose pieces of paper with poems written on them and the receipts from the period, to the loose introduction text. The images themselves are a mixture of period and modern, colour and black & white, and the subject matter and styles are really quite diverse. I’m going to need a much more considered look at the book to formulate my thoughts, but it’s certainly got me interested.