Ways of Looking 2011 Photography Festival

I spent Friday visiting three of the exhibitions within Bradford’s ‘Ways of Looking 2011‘ festival. The photographers I chose were:

Red Saunders

Red Saunders’ ‘Hidden’ exhibition at the Impressions Gallery consists of a small number of very large tableaux-vivant – I estimate that the largest was about 9m x 3m. Saunders uses the size and presentation of the images, they are printed on thin fabric-like hanging canvas sheets. to tie them in more closely to the tableau paintings which they mimic.The size of the images also plays an important part in the viewer’s reaction to them – they are so big that they force you to work your way around the image as you can’t take in the span of the image in at one go.

Saunders is an interesting character who worked for The Sunday Times Magazine for two decades before becoming a leading figure in the Wapping dispute.   He is also the founder of Rock Against Racism.

Saunders’ ‘hidden history’ project re-enacts ‘neglected’ scenes from working class history, see William Cuffay and the London Chartists 1848 for an example. He combines, in Photoshop, costumed re-enactors shot on location, with additional figures and weapons shot against a blue screen background. Typically, each print requires two weeks of retouching work. Saunders makes two of these tableaux images a year – each is a major production in its own right involving large numbers of volunteer re-enactors, a costumes team, make up, assistants etc. etc.. The preparation for each shoot is very detailed. In an accompanying video, Saunders mentions that for one of the shots he worked out that there would be only one weekend in October when the buds on the background foliage would be just right for the image. Saunders is particularly meticulous about the historical detail within his images, for example, makeup is used to provide re-enactors with authentically bad teeth, the injured and disabled are also proportionately represented.

One of the things I found of particular interest within this exhibition was that Saunders’ own working sketches, test images and notes are available on the gallery walls. It’s very interesting to see these details of his working practice and I have included some mobile phone shots of these in my sketchbook. Also of interest was a substantial lever arch file containing details and background on Saunders. the history being depicted and also his influencers who include

Donovan Wylie

Wylie holds the 2010/11 Bradford Fellowship and this major exhibition, at the National Media Museum, covers three of his, (related), projects:

  • ‘Maze’ (2004)
  • ‘British Watchtowers’ (2007)
  • ‘Outposts’ (2011)

The last of these was funded through the Bradford Fellowship.

Wylie’s work explores the function of the military architecture that is designed to observe and control, click here for examples.  His images are presented in a very consistent way – low contrast, subdued colour, sharp from foreground to background, fairly central horizons and generally, people free. Taking the ‘Maze’ images as an example, Wylie uses architectural details to project a sense of confinement even though the the areas of the prison depicted are outdoors and open to the sky. In the accompanying videos to the exhibition, Wylie mentions that he accidentally found the architect’s plans for the prison.  These clearly revealed that the Maze was designed to systematically control, disorientate and diminish its inmates.  I’m sure that my understanding of Wylie’s approach will come in useful during my work on the ‘buildings and spaces’ project.

‘British Watch Towers’ continues Wylie’s commentary on the ‘troubles’ within his native Northern Ireland. In these photographs he shoots from a military helicopter to record the position and perspectives of the watch towers within the landscape. Although he is shooting different bases, he is essentially repeating the same photograph again and again – after all, all of the structures have the same function. The consistency of light, colour and printing add to the sense of the military template.

The ‘Outposts’ project was triggered as a result of Wylie finding a image of a outpost in Afghanistan on the web – an image that clearly correlated with his earlier ‘British Watch Towers’ project. Backed by the Imperial War Museum and embedded with the Canadian army, Wylie made a series of images of outposts and forward operating bases in Kandahar province. Like the images of Ireland, the landscape around the bases does not look like it harbours a threat. However, in his Afghanistan images, Wylie does include human figures. Soldiers are depicted with heavy machine guns and armoured vehicles, those outside the base are typically pedestrians apparently going about their daily business – the sense of function and control is pervasive.

Like the ‘British Watch Towers’ project, the images are compositionally and tonally similar. The brown Afghan dust drapes over everything and the appearance of any other colour is relatively rare.

Daniel Meadows – ‘Early Photographic Works’

I have to confess that although I am quite well versed in the work of Meadows’ contemporary at Manchester Polytechnic, Martin Parr, I really did not know anything about Meadows himself. This major exhibition covered seven of Meadows’ projects:

  • ‘Butlins by the Sea’ (1972 with Parr)
  • ‘June St Salford’ (1973 with Parr)
  • ‘The Shop on Greame St.’ (1972)
  • ‘Nattering in Paradise’ (1984-87)
  • ‘Welfare State International’ (1976-1983)
  • ‘The free photographic omnibus’ (1973-4)
  • ‘The free photographic omnibus revisited’ (1995)

In the first two projects Meadows’ work has many of the characteristics for which Martin Parr is now so well known, highly saturated colour, ahead of its time, and an arguably brutal honesty. In the ‘June St.’ pictures, I note that one family poses proudly in their living room, apparently oblivious to the tights that are hanging to dry on the fireplace. Whilst Wylie is depicting the scene as it was, the family’s unknowingness is significant to the image.

‘The shop on Greame St’, a former barbers in which Meadows set up a studio offering free portraits, can, with the benefit of hindsight, be viewed as a forerunner to the ‘Free photographic omnibus projects’. In the first omnibus project, Meadows used a converted double decker bus as a mobile home and darkroom. He took free portraits of people, typically posed in pairs, often set against backgrounds such as concrete walls. In doing so he has successfully created an archive in which we can clearly see the clothing, influences and even attitudes of people in the early 1970’s. The hair styles are particularly telling and made me realise that even if one were to photograph nudes without props, hair styles could be the single characteristic that dates the image. (Although I recognise that lighting styles and even film/digital technology may also provide clues). Finally, in 1995, in the second omnibus project, Meadows sought to recontact and re-photograph as many of the subjects from the 1973 omnibus project as possible. Those that he managed to photograph are displayed in a digital slide show which shows the original and new images side by side – I found it quite compelling and I was surprised at the difference in how people change over twenty plus years – some changed a great deal and a few, changed surprisingly little. Examples of Meadows’ work can be seen here.

Learning

So, having devoted a substantial amount of time to these exhibitions, what did I learn? Unsurprisingly, given the diverse range of work, my learning points are something of a mixed bag and so here they are in bullet point form.

  • research matters and deeper research can lead to more meaningful images
  • the lighting for elaborate and complex images can be surprisingly simple, even just reflectors
  • I should have an attempt at simple and relevant compositing within Photoshop
  • significant projects can require significant teamwork
  • acknowledge and learn by imitating my influencers
  • a muted palette of tone and colour can convey as much as a more contrasty and colourful image
  • ideas can be express (Saunders) or implied, (Wylie)
  • serendipity can trigger projects / ideas
  • there is a value to working and re-working particular themes and ideas in which you are interested.
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