On an exhibition 'crawl' at Brighton Photo Biennial

Yes, the analogy is not inappropriate. By the end of a long weekend of exhibition visits at Brighton Photo Biennial, OCA’s Director Gareth, photography tutor Clive, a selected group of students and myself felt very much intoxicated with photography. Such was the variety and sheer number of exhibitions in Brighton this year.

The Brighton Photo Biennial and the associated Brighton Photo Fringe are considered amongst  the most important photography events in the UK. Every two years Brighton and neighbouring towns such as Bexhill and Eastbourne are the epicentre of a photography shake up whose ripples can be felt all over the UK. Martin Parr is this year’s Biennial curator; a photographer and a place, Brighton, arguably made for each other, converged at last.

Our visit to the Biennial started with the exhibition Myths, Manners and Memory –  photographers of the American South in Bexhill. A selection of B&W and colour work from influential photographers such as William Eggleston, Walker Evans, William Christenberry and Alec Soth demonstrate the futility of trying to pigeonhole documentary photography. Formal portraits, casual snaps, travel photography, pseudo-reality photography, traditional photojournalism and landscapes all contribute to convey – with varying degrees of success – the contradictory and complex sense of place and identity of the American South. Alec Soth’s images, taken for his project Sleeping by the Mississippi pose interesting questions as to what the intention of the photographer was. A certain quest for the odd, the bizarre, that which shocks the viewer because of unfamiliarity, seemed to be Soth’s approach. But was it really? What I mean is, did the photographer have an agenda before he set off? Surely he didn’t, but his cultural baggage and preconceptions about people and place must have played a role in the final editing process.

I was personally  dissappointed to see a set of photographs by Walker Evans being shown on very small prints, vastly overexposed, which did little justice to the photographer’s work. Now, can someone tell me why Evans’ photographs were printed at such small sizes? The argument of the images being originally taken for their publication in magazines, hence it makes sense to show them small, is not good enough. What is a stake here is the received institutional concept of what is worthy of the label art and what is not. Eggleston’s images are art – presumably, hence we print them big. Walker Evans’ are not art; they are, well what? documents? photojournalism? materialised nostalgia? Hence they’re not worthy of large print sizes.

On Sunday we visited no less than a dozen exhibitions in at least four different venues. The grand finale was at the former Co-Op Department Store building, with three floors bursting at the seams with photography. Two of the bodies of work shown there merit a special commentary. Dhruv Malhotra’s Sleepers portfolio blew me away. OCA level 3 students reading this, please go and see his work. This is a lesson for us all in the West, with our far-reaching gaze which is at the same time inherently shortsighted. Here we have an Indian photographer from Jaipur who could teach us a thing or two about what it takes to put together a coherent and captivating body of work on a humanist topic of universal appeal.

The other body of work at the Co-Op building I would like to mention is Simon Roberts’  The Election Project. You may have heard of it. It provides an interesting visual and conceptual counterpoint to Malhotra’s sleepers. Sitting on a fence is hardly a comfortable place to be so I will take a stance here, for the better or the worse. Roberts’ images left me cold. What is photography if not a mechanism to elicit emotions in the viewer? Roberts’ images triggered zero emotions in me – unless you count my frustation and mild annoyance at his work as emotions. What purpose do his images serve? To me, they reflect an election utopia, an idealised society devoid of emotions and tension embarked in the ultimate civilised activity: a confrontation-free electoral process.

So you see Roberts’ images, and then you go to the far end of the exhibition were election photographs taken by the public are also shown in a collage. Here you will spot posters of Gordon Brown defaced with red paint – a metaphore for the spill of blood in Iraq? And photographs of David Cameron with a hand-painted toothbrush moustache – OK, unfair but very funny. Yes, emotions, they make us human. On a very personal level, and intellectual and artistic considerations aside, I’d rather see the photographs taken by the public one hundred times than Roberts’. Because if a photograph doesn’t make the viewer feel anything,  well, what is the point of taking it in the first place?

9 Comments

  1. CliveW 9 November 2010 at 4:24 pm

    I think there was a universal thumbs up for Dhruv Malhotra’s’Sleepers’.

    I thought that, and Stuart Griffiths’ ‘Closer’, were the strongest work of the Brighton shows.

    A lot of the rest provided plenty of grist to the mill in the context of some of the debates already taking place on here, irrespective of its appeal.

    Interesting references here to Walker Evans’ prints.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/25/arts/design/25evan.html

    Well I know you could get Brownie points for making images that don’t make you feel anything but do illustrate some aspect of critical theory. I’m not sure if that scheme is still running though.’ } Hand me down my ‘Back to Mono’ badge, cross out the Mono and scribble Emotion over it.

    Reply
  2. standickinson 9 November 2010 at 5:26 pm

    Re the Walker Evans prints – I was at the exhibition the previous weekend when there was a ‘walk round’ with the two curators. They exlained that the first batch of Evans images close to the entrance (can’t be sure about the others) were taken from the Library of Congress public access site where many of the FSA images are available – downloaded and then printed locally. I don’t know whether that had something to do with the size/quality.

    Re other exhibitions – another thumbs up here for ‘Sleepers’ and also for Suzanne Opton’s Soldier/Veteran portraits

    http://suzanneopton.com/

    They have stayed in my mind ever since I saw them.

    Can’t comment on Simon Roberts because there was a power failure on the first floor of the Old Co-Op building when I was there. They certainly didn’t look too good in semi-darkness!

    Alec Soth? For me, it felt most like a collection of curios. I didn’t feel any sense of an agenda, other than a desire to record the less obvious – sometimes vaguely sinister, sometimes just plain odd, sometimes amusing, rarely just ordinary. I’ve never visited the Southern USA, but I wonder whether that is actually what it’s like?

    Reply
  3. Keith Greenough 9 November 2010 at 8:40 pm

    For me the highlights were the sensitive portraits by Molly Landreth – Queer Brighton at the Lighthouse and Mexican taxi driver, Oscar Fernando Gomez’s, photographs through the window of his cab on show at the Co-operative Department store.

    I share Jose’s concerns with regards to the Election Project images…on first sight they left me a bit cold. Although I have to admit as I spent more time looking at the images I began to see more in them – perhaps this was Simon Roberts’ intention…to make us look and think.

    Reply
  4. Gareth 9 November 2010 at 8:54 pm

    Both thumbs up from me for Sleepers – the images prompted all sorts of thoughts.

    As to Alec Soth at Bexhill, I have two observations. Sleeping by the Mississippi is one of my favourite books. Yes Soth is drawn to outsiders, but he also documents the physical margins of society.

    My real issue is the way part of his series, which covers a journey from the northern to southern states, is used in this exhibition to illustrate the argument that the southern states are weird. If anything, the full Mississippi series is evidence that the southern states are no weirder than the northern states.

    Reply
  5. CliveW 9 November 2010 at 10:35 pm

    A little refinement on the connotations of image size; the MA course convenor at Goldsmiths said to me, “large is art, small is photography!” That sits well along side his other statement that “we’re making culture not art”.

    It could be argued that the contact print is the pure root of the form and enlargement a mutation. The nature of the results, the tonality produced by the two, are markedly different in normal practice.

    Reply
  6. tom smith 13 November 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Not sure about the exhibition because i did not get to
    see it but from what i read about in the article i found
    very interesting.Though i found some of the comments rather
    confusing if not a little harsh.As i said i did not go to the
    exhibition but if some one goes out of their way to show
    the public there work then i feel that they deserve better than
    critical comments.My view is.(at least they tried)
    Tom

    Reply
    1. Jose 15 November 2010 at 9:22 am

      Yes, it’s true that showing your work to the public requires courage; commitment to a photographic project should be acknowledged and valued. But at the same time photographers need to be prepared to receive both praise and criticism. It happens to us all. My experience is that you can have compliments and also take a lot of flak on the same body of work, in equal measure. I think that even less than positive comments are also helpful for the photographer. Showing photography to the wider public is a form of communication, and you can’t expect everyone to agree with you.

      Reply
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