Saturday, 10 March 2012

RPS 154th International Print Exhibition – Study Visit, 9th March 2012

As an RPS member for 3 years, I have been aware of this annual competition but this is the first time I have had an opportunity to see the travelling exhibition that results each year. There were 120 images on show, chosen from just under 3000 entries – from all over the world, as the title suggests. I have to say, in honesty, that I approached the exhibition with some degree of scepticism, fearing, in short, that it might display more of the RPS’ tradition than a celebration of photography today. Having seen it, I think the scepticism was misplaced and, whilst that RPS tradition was present in no small numbers, the overall reality was an extremely wide range of images representing many photographic genres, both traditional and contemporary.

The images are here and the catalogue is downloadable as a pdf on that page.

The very wide diversity of images on display has a number of implications:

· It certainly makes for interesting comparisons.

· It confirms, maybe even celebrates, the diversity of the photographic practice. The RPS President in the intro to the catalogue says that it combines “contemporary cutting edge and more traditional work”. Just how cutting are the edges on display might be open to debate – but some are certainly edgy.

· It means that the hanging of the exhibition has its challenges. Where there was an attempt to put together themes, it was sometimes a little forced; and the 'hanger' can end up, with ‘odds and ends’, which certainly seemed to happen here on occasions. Going down the ‘random’ route has its merits, but it then challenges the viewer to cope with the variety that meets the eye on any particular occasion. All-in-all, the hanging of this exhibition didn’t trouble me a great deal – other than the very practical fact that some images were hung a bit high for those of average/short stature (and those of us looking through varifocal lenses)!

· This level of diversity in an open competition does mean that one is, on the whole, viewing individual images outside of their context and without any supporting information about the artist or their intention. Some are very obviously part of a series. One can always do more research afterwards, of course – see below – but it can make the ‘reading’ in the exhibition difficult and it certainly led to a large part of the discussion that took place during and after the visit.

One striking factor was the truly international nature of the exhibition with, in particular, many Asian photographers represented. This may partly reflect the international reputation of the RPS.

There was a lot of ‘over-processing’ (in my opinion), though it wasn’t as prominent or dominant as I had feared. It was no bad thing to be able to make direct comparisons between heavily HDR-ed landscapes/cityscapes and those images with more obvious ‘purpose’. I don’t recall any of the former generating discussion amongst the group!

With 120 images on display, it isn’t possible to include comment on all, or even very many of them. Indeed it isn’t even easy to spend much time looking at most of them whilst present. I am going to focus on a few that were the subject of significant discussion, and which I have subsequently followed up with further online research.

I’ll start with the striking images – there were two in the exhibition – from Tobias Slater Hunt’s Closer to God series. This is a classic example of how viewing just 1 or 2 images tells only a tiny fragment of the whole story. The distinctly unglamorous and deadpan portraits of two naked women, both with, seemingly, disfigured faces, will have caught the attention of everyone visiting the exhibition. Few will, one suspects, have taken the trouble to find out more, and many will have gone away unsure just what is going on. As soon as I went to research further, I realised that I had seen another image from this series –at the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait exhibition, which I wrote about previously here. Having read Slater-Hunt’s statement, I admit that I am still not very clear. ‘Closer to God’ is itself part of a wider piece of work, linking to Dante’s Inferno and Renaissance paintings, whilst also reflecting the photographers own experience of living with chronic illness. The images are manipulated –and does that mean the ‘disfigurements’ are themselves not real? The question is still hanging in the air for me – but I don’t feel motivated to explore the complexity of the work any further. The images on display certainly provoke questions, but how far can those questions take the viewer without at least some of this background?

Another image that provoked much discussion was Aaron Dempsey’s ‘The Dolls School’. A young girl, dressed in a white cotton nightdress, sits on one side of a double bed, looking, without expression, into the camera (i.e. directly at the viewer). The bedclothes are folded back and there are two pillows. The bedroom has an ‘old-fashioned’ look and there is an open fire burning in a fireplace beside the bed. Above the brass bed end hangs an image (could be painting or could be photo) showing a young girl ‘schooling’her dolls. There was discussion of the photographer’s intent, in what was clearly a carefully ‘staged’ image. Many felt that it hinted, quite powerfully, at child abuse, in one context or another. Further investigation reveals that Aaron Dempsey does indeed stage his (assumption here – regarding gender) images, and that this is from a sequence entitled ‘Dreams’. This series recreates female dreams, mainly fear-related, as recounted by the dreamer. This particular one is that of a six year old girl and can best be seen, with the rest, via Dempsey’s Facebook page, here. Dempsey’s work feels inspired by the likes of Gregory Crewdson. If my gender assumption is correct, the exploration of female dreams is interesting. Another useful observation, for me, would be to note the effectiveness of the use of text/caption when the images are presented on the Facebook page as opposed to the single, uncaptioned (though titled) image in the exhibition. As already discussed in a previous post here, I am certainly going to use text as part of the image presentation for my final assignment in People& Place.

The‘winner’ of the informal OCA Study Visit competition for best photo went to ‘Recess’by Feng Zhang, which I can’t reproduce here and nor can I find a link, other than to say that it is on page 70 of the catalogue. Two young girls are sleeping, presumably in a break from their schooling because they are lying on wooden tables with their heads resting on colourful ‘Western-style’ school bags. We are looking from directly above them, perhaps from a balcony, and can see the rough concrete floor beneath their tables, a worn and crumbling wall, plus various wooden stools around the tables. The stools and the tables are of old, heavy rough-hewn wood, in contrast to the girls’ more modern dress and their up-to-date school bags. The lighting is soft and natural, highlighting the two girls across the centre of the frame. The tones, the textures, the subtle colours, the soft lighting, and the quality of the print all made it an eye-catching image, but further looking raises questions about the intent – the contrast between the old and the new, the softness of the human forms with the hardness of the wood and concrete, the anomaly of sleeping in such rough hard surroundings, and so on. The angle of the shot – looking down on the scene, implies a captured moment, even if it is, in reality, a posed shot. The natural light and the gentleness with which the image has been processed lends it a realistic feel, whether or not it is in fact ‘real’.

Which I find to be in sharp contrast with another image much discussed on the visit – 'Goal' by Chan Kwok Hung. This is certainly a striking image, with young boys – Buddhist monks in training – playing football, seemingly on a hillside. The colours and the composition, not least the captured instance, absolutely grab the viewer’s attention. Striking as it may be, however, the image made me uncomfortable. The heavy processing, the unnaturalness of the light (the source of which is very hard to pin down), the perfection of the composition (such as the ball in the very centre of the image and exactly positioned between the two main protagonists in the football game) all made the image feel unreal. I found myself questioning its veracity and wondering whether it was, in fact, a manipulation. It may not be –but if that is the case, the photographer hasn’t done himself any favours, in my view, by presenting it in this ‘other-wordly’ style.

Another general reflection that has run through my mind after the event takes me back again to some previous thoughts on painting and photography. There were a few images in the exhibition with the ‘painterly’ feel about them – ‘Mist’ by Jialiang Luo and ‘Okavango Scene with Wild Dogs’ by John Cucksey being two (very different) such images that spring to mind. One could question the point of creating a photographic image that has the look of a painting. But then likewise, one could question the point of painters who paint in an ultra-real, ‘photographic’ style– Gerhard Richter being one highly respected example, and I discussed others in my blog after seeing the BP Portrait Prize exhibition last year. It’s certainly an interesting debating point and, at the very least, a challenging observation that artists from these two different mediums choose to work in this way. Are the photographers frustrated painters and/or the painters mocking the photographers? To my mind it is the intention and the outcome that matters, not a generic view of which is right/wrong/best/appropriate or whatever.

So, many thanks to Gareth, Jose, and Maggie (who I am tempted to refer to as Mary!) (a comment that will only be meaningful to those present!) for organising and attending another useful and interesting study visit; it has certainly provoked some useful reflection and learning for me.

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