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?