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.