Open Eye Study Visit

Last month we had our first study visit to the newly re-opened Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool. The gallery is approximately twice the size of the previous site in Wood Street and we will certainly be going back. This time, 15 students joined myself and Peter Haveland to see two radically different exhibitions. The first, Mitch Epstein’s American Power was ideally suited to the capacious downstairs rooms – as you can see from the photograph above the prints were immense – some two metres wide and revealed the sumptuous detail captured by Epstein’s 10×8 view camera. Seeing the prints on this scale is a completely different experience to seeing them on the web or even in the book of the series. The scale not only reveals the detail but also the care with which the images have been constructed – in this image of Las Vegas the relative amounts of space given over to people and cars hits you immediately and then you see the turrets of Disneyland, the mock Chrysler building and the ersatz Space Needle and the sense of looking an insane model village becomes overwhelming – all the time the mountains in the background hint at what what was and what might be again and the black pyramid looms in the foreground – is this an allusion to the demise of the Pharaohs or a reference to malevolent force in 2001 A Space Odyssey. Whatever the interpretation, it is clear that these are images which remind us of both the immense resourcefulness of American Power and its vulnerability.

This vulnerability was illustrated in another image which provoked a lot of discussion; Martha Murphy and Charlie Biggs is claimed by Epstein to be ‘his best shot’. It is very clearly posed and the objects within it carefully arranged. In the gallery the large scale enables you to see how the blue of the sky and the sea is picked up in the ‘Haint Blue‘ of the disconnected porch and the very different jeans of the Martha and Charlie.

As someone who was somewhat disappointed when American Power won the Prix Pictet and rather startled when I realised that the Open Eye was only showing 8 of the 63 images in the series (‘We have asked students to come to Liverpool for 8 photographs!’), I came away convinced. The work is both beautiful and thought provoking.

After a break for coffee and discussion at the nearby Starbucks, we were back to the Open Eye. Chris Steele-Perkins’ The Pleasure Principle. This exhibition was a challenging one to visit straight after the seeing the immaculately produced images in the gallery downstairs. Plainly mounted laser jet prints from 35mm film, it was clear that if Epstein was documentary meets fine art, Steele-Perkins was documentary meets photojournalism. And while the Epstein images are from afar, The Pleasure Principle speaks of here, albeit distanced by time and your experience of those times colours what you see in the images. Steele-Perkins makes it clear that they are images which reflect his sense of being ‘other’ from the British elite portrayed and Peter pointed out that there is a tradition of such portrayal and that Tony Ray Jones’ perspective, taken as it was in the more optimistic late 60’s is altogether gentler.

[After The Pleasure Principle Chris Steele-Perkins went on to spend four years photographing Afghanistan and become President of Magnum, editing this overview of the agency’s work]

23 Comments

  1. RobTM 2 January 2012 at 9:03 am

    Seeing as Open Eye is “round the corner” (i.e. in the NW of England), I’m really disappointed I didn’t get to this study day or the exhibition itself. I had mentioned doing a similar thing on “power” to Jesse (Alexander) when doing landscape and he pointed me in the direction of Epstein and I really like the work, although I found the website a little too much. It would also have been good to see some large prints that have been commended after finding Struth a little disappointing (although they’re not to the same size).

    I’m now looking forward to Sheffield…

    Reply
    1. AMANO 5 January 2012 at 12:08 am

      Rob

      If you ever get down to London then there are 5 Mitch Epstein large scale photographs hanging in The Tate Modern as part of the New Documentary exhibition which is worth a visit in itself.

      Reply
  2. Janice Kellock 2 January 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Thank you Gareth.
    I was very sorry to have to miss the visit and the exhibition, and am grateful for your comments.
    I hope to be able to attend any further Study visits to Liverpool.

    Reply
  3. anned 2 January 2012 at 3:14 pm

    I thought the Mitch Epstein exhibition was very interesting – the interplay of power in all its many forms very thought provoking. AFterwards I saw a short program on sky arts about the exhibitions in which Mitch Epstein explained that he wasn’t being didactic, he hoped that people would look at his work with critical engagement, empathy and respect as works of art on paper. (Possibly I’m paraphrasing a bit there!) Anyway I found that a very interesting comment, and it confirms my pre-existing beliefs about looking at art and photography.

    I wrote some of my thoughts on the student website about Chris Steel Perkins’ exhibition (http://oca-student.com/node/75893)

    About his work – I’m not going to explain my personal history to explain my feelings – just that they were interesting photographs with an honest personal viewpoint on society at that time which I can empathise with.

    I think the idea of an unbiased viewpoint is mythical. I suppose the idea of him being “distanced” could be confused with being “objective”, but in fact I don’t think it is the same thing at all. I suppose you could argue that CSP could have taken a more empathetic view of society in his photographs, but sometimes its hard for an individual to show empathy for society at large when that society doesn’t appear to have much empathy for parts of its membership. And in any case if we aren’t honest in our photography we might as well not bother!

    Reply
    1. Gareth 3 January 2012 at 4:17 pm

      Norma – I am not going to shoot you down in flames (hopefully not my style), but I think that you are overlaying on Chris Steele-Perkins images your own analysis of ‘why’ the events pictured in his images occured. I do not think that the why is in the images, what is in the images is the ‘what’ – it may be a partial ‘what’ and that partiality could be a combination of CSP’s selections and then the Open Eye’s further selection (as anned points out).

      John Berger in ‘The uses of photography’ makes what I think is a powerful critique of limitations of photography when he says ‘There is never a single approach to something remembered. The remembered is not like a terminus at the end of the line. Numerous approaches or stimuli converge upon it and lead to it. Words, comparisons, signs need to create a context for the printed photograph in a comparable way.’

      It might be the absence of such a context which allows you to think that you are seeing the results of something which started in America in the 1960’s and me to think that we are seeing the results of something rather closer to home.

      Reply
      1. Norma Bellini 4 January 2012 at 2:36 pm

        Thanks for this, Gareth – point taken re me overlaying the work with my own analysis. Without entering into a philosophical debate, I take up the point made by John Berger ‘never a single approach to something remembered’- for me C S-P took a ‘single approach’ and demonstrated his distaste for Society in the 80s. Perhaps one of my own big failings is that I like to try to understand the ‘author’ and why a particular image was portrayed, a piece of music written etc. Perhaps I read too much into his implication that he felt excluding from becoming English.

        I watched the interviews which Alexei Sale had with both Epstein and Steele-Perkins (SkyArts). I wish I had seen it beforehand as seeing and hearing Epstein talk about his approach to the project, rather than simply reading it, made more impact and I would probably have appreciated his photographs as a unit rather than individual images. The apparent unwillingness or inability to discuss the reasons for his project only served to strengthen my views on C S-P’s work (or was I by then biased?). I would like to see his documentary work on society side-by-side with that of Martin Parr, whose work I very much admire. However, that would be totally unprofessional.

        So, why did I react the way I did? Perhaps it is as already stated, and commented on by you – perhaps it was a lack of ambience in the gallery which did little to add anything to the work, or was it simply the shoddy presentation of images of shoddy people? The first option may be answered to some extent by looking at more of C S-Ps work, which I will do.

        Thanks for you comments, Gareth – much appreciated. I always welcome any comments which lead to further thought.

        Norma

        Reply
  4. Norma Bellini 2 January 2012 at 2:34 pm

    I was pleased to read an earlier report on the Forum with reference to the Epstein image of Martha Murphy and Charlie Biggs. As I stated in my reply, to some extent the report softened my reaction to the image which, because it is so obviously staged, gave me the feeling that there was an element of voyeurism in the photograph. As Gareth has said, it was disappointing to see only 8 of the 60-odd images. I think to have seen more would have given more meaning to the whole. As it was, I felt as though I was looking at 8 documentary photographs taken in USA, with little connection between them. Since then I have looked at a larger number of Epstein’s images and feel that showing only 8 images did not do justice to the message he wanted to put across. It was certainly worthwhile being able to see in larger format and look at small details.

    With regard to Chris Steele-Perkins – I will stick out my neck and repeat what I said originally

    This left a deeper impression on me, for the wrong reasons. As those of you who were there when I was speaking to Gareth will know, I think that the exhibition was shoddily mounted to begin with. I feel so strongly about the selection of images that I could probably write a whole assignment on the issue, but, in a nutshell – in his short bio Steele-Perkins makes the comment to the effect that if one is not white one is not English (though he could have said ‘British’, I cannot recall). I feel that his images were his way of getting his own back on a Society which had dismissed him. That apart, to understand the images I feel that one needs to look back to the 1960s. I suspect that I was the only member of the group who was working in the 1960s and can comment on the effects of the introduction of many ‘new’ ideas imported from America. In America at that time there was a politically biased group whose sole, written, aim was to destabilize society, to destroy any sense of elitism or societal success. This led to a society where the child dictated the terms. This, in turn, had an adverse effect on overall education. As I said, I could write an assignment on the subject, and it is far more involved than I have stated here, but by the 1980s we had a culture of young people, not only America, who had too much spare time, too much money, too much pressure to ‘succeed’, too little self-respect, too little concern for other people. This group may have been a small minority, but by concentrating his images on the ‘hurray Henrys’ etc. I feel that Steele-Perkins has thumbed his nose at ‘the English’ and wishes to show them in a very bad light. If he wished to show an unbiased view of England in the 1980s he could have used a variety of images. Even his images of Blackpool did not reflect anything worthwhile.

    Personally, I would like to hear what other folk felt -not just ‘art appreciation’ language, and I would like to find out more about the psychology of Chris Steele-Perkins’ work. I want to prove myself wrong in my interpretation of his work, which I think is indicative of a harsh schoolmarm. OK – so that is what I am, or was, though once a schoolmarm always a schoolmarm!

    I know I am playing Devil’s Advocate, and it would be very interesting to hear what effect his work has had on a younger generation (two generations younger!)

    Great to meet you all. Thanks for the day – thanks to Gareth and Peter for their hard work in organizing the day, and thanks to Peter for putting me in the direction of a number of philosophical essays which I look forward to reading. I am also looking forward to the next Study Day at the Tate-Liverpool on 16th January. For those who will be there – there will be no need to go outdoors for a coffee as the cafe is in the same building.

    Please, shoot me down in flames re Steele-Perkins …………

    Reply
    1. AMANO 5 January 2012 at 12:20 am

      Norma

      Although the exhibition shows quite a number of “Hooray Henry” kind of images, I do not think the work of Chris Steele-Perkins is biased in that direction. For instance, there was quite a striking image from a nightclub where the photographer looks like he is going to be punched while a previous catalogue of his work was on “The Teds”, who were from a lower income group.

      Gareth and I discussed the “rich bastards” as someone referred to them i.e. the Hoorah Henrys, and I thought the images were interesting because they showed a different more intimate side to the wealthy, emphasising that they behave much as lower income groups do.

      You seem to be self igniting so need to shoot you down in flames !!?

      Reply
  5. Patrick Henry 4 January 2012 at 3:46 pm

    Fascinating to read your comments on our exhibitions and great to see that they’ve stimulated some debate. We’re always trying to learn from the feedback we get from our audiences, and I’m curious to find out what specifically you saw as shoddy about the presentation of ‘The Pleasure Principle’. Thanks, and best wishes, Patrick (Director, Open Eye Gallery).

    Reply
    1. AMANO 5 January 2012 at 12:30 am

      My comments on the Chris Steele-Perkins exhibition include the following …

      Chris Steele-Perkins may feel like an outsider but he photographs like an insider. However, his images pale rather when seen alongside those of Mitch Epstein. The prints would appear to be digital made from transparency film scans; their quality is nothing like that seen nowadays and one wonders at their exact mode of preparation. They are C prints made in 1989; beyond that we know next to nothing.

      Not shoddy at all but as a photographic student, I do like to consider the substance of the print as well as the content.

      Reply
  6. Norma Bellini 4 January 2012 at 7:09 pm

    Trust a Northerner to ‘speak out’. What did I think ‘shoddy’? I thought the frames were too flimsy for the nature of the venue and some of the photographs were badly placed in the frames. If the presentation had been the work of first year Art College students I would still have been critical.

    Having said that, I was impressed with the building, and certainly with the staff who were extremely helpful. I am disabled and needed to use my wheelchair – the staff were pre-emptive of my needs on more than one occasion.

    I am looking forward to returning to the gallery for the Martin Parr exhibition. If I have caused offence with my remarks about the Pleasure Principle exhibition, I promise to grovel when next I visit the Gallery.

    Norma

    Reply
  7. marmalade 4 January 2012 at 10:08 pm

    It was my first visit to the Open Eye, and in fact to Liverpool, in a very long time. I was hugely impressed with the entire docklands area, I really got the impression Liverpool’s art scene was alive and buoyant…and the Open Eye seems to be right in the epicentre, light, airy and minimalist. With regards Epstein’s work, hugely impressed…I was disappointed not to attend the ‘breakfast with Epstein’ a few months earlier. There were surprisingly few of his images on show, but in this instance, size made up for quantity!! This visit has triggered all manner of thoughts for my coursework!!

    Picking up on previous comments about the presentation of C S-P’s work, I wasn’t sure whether the presentation was intentional and in keeping with the era in which they were shot. However, I’m more persuaded to think that having been blown away by the ‘masterpieces’ downstairs – what with dinner-table size prints and no compromise on quality, the bar had been raised a tad as we headed upstairs!!! Anyway to save repeating myself, the following post on my blog below relates to this visit.
    http://marmalade-cafe.blogspot.com/2011/12/is-less-more-and-bigger-better.html

    I’m looking forward to a return visit to this gallery…which is relatively ‘just around the corner’ for me!! Many thanks to Gareth and Peter for organising, and it was great to meet fellow students.

    Reply
  8. Patrick Henry 5 January 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Glad to hear that you enjoyed your visit Norma, despite the shortcomings of our archive exhibition! No offense taken – we’re always keen to hear what our visitors think, and eager to learn from it. A couple of points: the Pleasure Principle prints were new giclee prints, made by Magnum under Chris’s supervision. They were scanned from 35mm transparencies, hence the high contrast and saturated colours. The prints are ‘floated’ rather than window-mounted, in order to show them as objects. This is our usual practice with archive exhibitions – it reveals the print as an object in its own right, which can be particularly interesting with vintage prints, which often carry visible traces of their history. The frames are solid oak, and not flimsy at all, so it’s interesting that they’ve received such negative comments. Best wishes, Patrick

    Reply
    1. anned 5 January 2012 at 6:20 pm

      Thank you for taking the time to post here. Personally I did think the presentation was appropriate to the photographs particularly after I’d realised they were a display from your archive. (that’s what I wrote on the student website – I just didn’t want to repeat myself here!)

      One thing is confusing me though – if the photographs are from your archive, why would you need to print them – and doesn’t doing so negate the idea of them as objects?

      Sorry if its a silly question, I’m quite new at photography.

      Reply
  9. Patrick Henry 5 January 2012 at 6:44 pm

    Good question! They’re related to a new acquisition: we’re buying a number of the exhibition prints for our archive – not sure exactly how many yet. So their life as objects began recently, and they are new prints, but we want to use a consistent ‘language’ (ie mode of display) for our archive exhibitions. The point is to make their materiality visible and to ‘locate’ them historically, even if they’re brand new. Patrick, Open Eye

    Reply
    1. anned 5 January 2012 at 9:21 pm

      Thanks – that does make sense!

      Reply
  10. AMANO 5 January 2012 at 6:46 pm

    When were the scans done and the prints made!? Technology has come such a long way in the last 20 years or so.

    I do not consider the prints poor quality by any means and it was the objection of others that drew my attention to them. With this kind of photography, a slightly etchy image does no harm. However, if you were to place them alongside some of Martin Parr’s work, I think you would see a difference.

    Reply
  11. Patrick Henry 5 January 2012 at 6:55 pm

    I don’t know how recent the scans are but Magnum are pretty hot on quality control. The prints looked fine to me – you have to remember that Chris was shooting on 35mm and quite possibly ‘pushing’ the film to work under poor lighting conditions. Martin Parr was working on medium format by the 80s, so you wouldn’t be comparing like with like.

    Reply
    1. Gareth 5 January 2012 at 8:19 pm

      Thank you Patrick for providing these insights

      Reply
  12. AMANO 6 January 2012 at 11:09 am

    The question I have which perhaps Patrick might answer, about both these exhibitions is, who made the selections!?

    Did Epstein say “OK, you have space for 8 photographs of mine, take these!” or was the decision made by the curator? There has been some critique of Chris Steele-Parkins’ subject matter but the images exhibited are not fully representative of that series. Who chose to focus on the partying rich images.

    I actually saw an exhibition of Chris Steele-Perkins last year in my hometown under the title, “England My England”. What was the point of returning to an older body of work some of which is contained in this newer series!?

    It is encouraging to see work like this being exhibited.

    Reply
  13. Patrick Henry 6 January 2012 at 5:41 pm

    The Mitch Epstein exhibition was curated by Karen Newman (Curator at Open Eye) – she worked closely with Mitch and I contributed too. I made an initial selection of Chris’s works from the Pleasure Principle book (pub 1989) and then got input from Chris and Karen – I was concentrating on strongest and most resonant works, rather than a fully representative selection.

    Reply
    1. AMANO 7 January 2012 at 11:54 pm

      Thanks for this response Patrick.

      Reply

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