Friday, 28 June 2013

Three more student shows

I've done three more student shows in the last ten days - 2 degree shows at Huddersfield University & Leeds College of Art, plus a Diploma-level show from Mid-Cheshire College, which I stumbled on by accident at the Cube Gallery in Manchester.

I'm not proposing a detailed write-up here, though I have notes, but just to log the visits and to draw out any lessons/ themes.

·     The quality of work that I've seen at Sheffield Hallam and in these three shows is, on the whole, good, but it is variable.  By the end, I feel that I could have made quite a confident shot at ranking the students and estimating their mark.  It does bring home the fact that Quality and Originality really stand out in this type of multiple show.  And, one needs to remember, this is kind of what the assessor looks at.  3 or 4 'bog standard' A3 prints of a street shot look decidedly ordinary when others have gone for a high aesthetic in their presentation and/or taken a novel approach.

·     The Most striking and memorable, for me, was Aaron Francis' work at Huddersfield.  I can't refer directly to the actual piece of work, but his website is here -  His degree presentation was in a curtained off, dark area of the space, and it comprised - a table on which were laid out some old photographs of Sheffield's steel mills, some newspaper cuttings about the mill closures, a notebook that he had compiled, and some colour photographs of him dressed for hot metal handling; also on the table was a small monitor, on which a video was running that showed him melting down pieces of metal in a foundry-type setting; behind the table, several light bulbs were hanging at different levels, close to the floor, and fading on and off in an apparently random fashion; below them, on the floor, were round metal discs, which looked as though they had been melted.  I stood, wondering, as one would - mildly fascinated, but puzzled.  Fortunately, Aaron was on hand to explain.  He had printed each of the old images onto pieces of steel; then melted them down - hence the video - and that was what I was looking at on the floor.  In the ceiling, above the light bulbs, was a laptop, on which software was slowly and consecutively scanning digital files of the images, pixel by pixel.  The light and shade in those pixels was what was controlling the level of brightness of the light bulbs - one representing each image.  Aaron said he was interested in 'process' - and it showed.  I wasn't the least bit surprised to learn that he had just been awarded a First, or that he already has a job to go to.  There is a lesson there for all - about engagement and commitment and quality and originality.

·     Leeds College of Art was probably the best 'quality' show, overall - rather more of a fashion bias there, and also some quite 'personal' projects.  I particularly liked Alessandro de Besi's 'Makers', which can be seen here -  He has filmed artists in the process of creating their work - again, an exploration of 'process' - and had presented each video as a 'hole in the wall' above which he had placed a large, high quality print of his portrait of the artist.  These front-on, deadpan portraits looked straight at the viewer as one watched them at work on the small screens.  Whether deliberate or not, they challenged you to take them seriously; to really understand the depth of their creative process and the care they were taking over it - very effective!  Bianca Wallis-Salmon's combination of images from her parents' photo albums - combining images of each of them at similar stages in their lives, but using prints on transparency to merge one image into the other - also caught my eye.  It's a relatively simple, but highly effective means of presentation - both as individual print combinations on the wall and in bok form, with transparencies interleaved with paper prints.

So - as expected - very worthwhile to seen these shows; they were inspiring without being 'frightening', but, to repeat, really hammered home the need for Quality, Originality, Engagement, Seriousness of Purpose; but they also encourage me to 'give it a go'.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Study Visit - Bank Street Arts & Sheffield Hallam University

Bank Street Arts - "The Motorway Service Station as a Destination in its Own Right" is here: 

LINK Bank Street 

and the Sheffield Hallam University students' "Creative Spark" is here: 

LINK Sheffield Hallam.
As always, it was a pleasure to spend 3-4 hours in the company of fellow students and Andrew Conroy, OCA Tutor, Photographer in Residence at Bank Street Arts, and curator of the exhibition we were viewing.

The Motorway Service Station as a Destination in its Own Right

The inspiration for this exhibition (and the background to its wordy title) is a pamphlet by poet Simon Armitage, with the same (not to be repeated!) title.  The work is from 11 photographer/artists (including curator, Andrew), mainly photographic prints displayed on walls, but including one multi-media presentation and a pair of books.  Andrew approached a number of photographers, two years ago, with the idea and has managed the process of bringing the exhibition together in this form.  It has been done with limited (if any) funding of the artists' work; and they have had complete freedom as to how they respond to the brief and in what form the work has been submitted.  Andrew did see some small jpegs in advance, and the curatorial team has 'edited' the artists' supporting text to manageable length, as well as, of course, making the 'hanging' decisions.  Andrew highlighted some of the pressures of making such an exhibition happen - not least, opening the work when it arrived with no real knowledge of what it would comprise. 

It worked, for me, as an exploration of the relationship between a text and visual imagery, but also as an opportunity to compare the responses of different photographers to this type of brief.  On the whole, I found them to be quite 'conservative' responses - when compared to the work of some of the SHU students, for example - and that, in some cases, the depth of creative engagement was limited, albeit understandable with limited funding.

My most positive response was to Andrew Robinson's 2 books, 'North' & 'South', which can be seen here - ANDREW ROBINSON.  The books comprise images compiled over a Bank Holiday weekend last August, as he drove a total of 1000 miles (more or less 50/50 North & South from Sheffield), stopping at 30+ service stations along the way and recording his impressions.  The book form matches well with the journey concept, of course, but the editing and presentation also worked very well. To be totally fair, in a multi-artist exhibition such as this, with relatively little time to take in context, the 'obviousness' of the book form response appeals most easily, perhaps; but there is a lesson for any of us in that and I have to say that the obvious depth and quality of this particular response was what really stood out for me. 

I found Tribble & Mancenido's contribution more of a challenge.  This is a link to the relevant page on Bank Street Arts' site - LINK - but there is nothing showing the whole work.  They had chosen to respond with images, or cropped/edited versions of images, from their existing portfolio, in order as it says on the site to evoke a sense of "... travel, time, memory and wanderlust"; and create an "... abstract narrative ..." around an "... imaginary road trip through memory".  There were ten prints (of consistent colour and style), pinned to the wall, in an order determined by Andrew and his colleagues.  Perhaps the setting at Bank Street wasn't right for me; perhaps I wasn't in the right frame of mind (I do often struggle to fully engage with more challenging work in this type of group viewing); for whatever reason, I found it hard to discover more than a somewhat superficial appreciation for this work. 

There isn't time to write a detailed reflection on all the artists' work, but they ranged from a single large print of 20-30 images of the sky, by Jessa Fairbrother - actually a highly personal response about a journey taken just once, by her mother, from Bristol to Tibshelf Services, for which the supporting text was essential to appreciating the work - via some almost typological large-format images of anonymous service stations - shades of the Bechers or John Davies; to Andrew Conroy's multi-media work 'The Drive', viewable via 'We Are OCA', HERE.  The latter, I viewed five or six times, on line, before attending the study visit.  It produces a kind of tension in me, interestingly more so the more I view it.  I don't know whether that is intentional, but I feel a 'clash' between the word-based imagery evoked by Armitage's poem, as spoken in the background, and the visual images of Andrew's drive.  I find it makes me uneasy, and I can't quite reconcile the two - which may well be intentional.  If I simply go with the rhythm and sound of the poet's voice (with the music, that does kind of bring both aspects together), then that's find; but if a really listen to what the voice is telling me, I sense a kind of dissonance between quite strong visual images evoked in the poem and what I am viewing on the screen.  It's a moody and uneasy piece. 

We did discuss the mood of the exhibition overall and it isn't a particularly optimistic one.  There seems to be a consensus that the notion of motorway services evokes a somewhat negative mood in all of us - tedium; impersonal; necessity over desire; and so on.

Creative Spark @ Sheffield Hallam 

This was my first visit to a degree show, so bound to be useful as a comparator and as a benchmark, quite apart from the inspiration and information that are always derived from looking at other peoples' work.  One the whole, it was much as I would have expected.  A wide diversity of approach, subject matter and presentation, as would no doubt be normal for such a show. 

Presentation is probably a good place to start.  The modes ranged from printing on fabric & hanging as a 3-D presentation (Georgia Mackey - can't find anything on the Internet & didn't take a picture, but there is an example of her work here - BOOK LINK), through to a single, 'faded', self-portrait image printed life-size onto wallpaper (Milly Futter - again no further info to show on here), which was about 'Conformity' & which worked well, for me.  As well as diversity of mode, I felt that one could also easily identify a diversity of effort and engagement - predictably. 

The accompanying texts were also informative to us as 'fellow students'.  One assumes that most of those presenting are in their early twenties, and the creative energy displayed reflects that; but for many young students, diverting from that creativity to express what they are doing, through writing, in a recognisably 'academic' fashion will be understandably difficult - and it showed, in some cases. 

I was surprised by the seeming lack of engagement with digital techniques; and, truthfully, a little disappointed by the fact that so many of these young people seemed to be more engaged with early photographic techniques than with those of the 21st century.  Discussing this with Andrew, it emerged that many, perhaps most, of the students are 'anti-digital', seeing it, perhaps, as a threat to photography's authenticity and, maybe, to their career prospects.  I don't know enough to say that this reflects the teaching - though that would be an obvious place to start - and any proposed explanations are pure conjecture. Is it possible, for example, that they want to see their photographic work as something different from the preponderance of digital imagery to which they are subjected day after day, hour after hour?  As I say - it is conjecture - but I find it surprising and, truthfully, disappointing.

One person's work did strike a chord with my own current thinking - Katie Sturgess' Simulated Simulacra.  She was one of the very few who seemed to have positively engaged with the digital medium and I like the fact that she is acknowledging the "crisis of faith in the medium" and looking to explore it rather than revert to techniques of the past.  That's my take on it, anyway!

Thursday, 6 June 2013

"Tied" - a project derived from Assignment One

So, following the advice of Michael Atherton, my tutor, myself, and everyone else, I have been progressing a project that I began to play around with way back in February.  It's a derivative of the first assignment of the course, when I photographed the immediate surroundings of the Holme Valley, a somewhat rugged, rural theme, with an emphasis on the less immediately attractive aspects of this neighbourhood, the 'make-do-and-mend' approach to the tough life of hill farming.  A theme that has been attracting my attention, ever since I did that project about fifteen months ago, is the use of all manner of strings, wire, rope, electrical cables etc to fasten field gates.  It is absolutely endemic; almost every gate is tied at least once and sometimes several times.  Apart from the potential for a quirky set of interesting images, I saw the symbolic potential, in the 'make-do-and-mend' context, and also the metaphorical potential in a series entitled 'Tied'.  I already have about twenty different images, all taken within ten minutes walk of where I live (hence the derivation fromn Assignment One - Neighbourhood).  Here are just a few.

I find it an interesting project to progress, maybe as a final version of the submission for Assignment One; but I've been giving some thought to how the subject is best photographed.  The light, in all the above, is sunlight, creating its usual high contrasts, which doesn't work too badly at a purely aesthetic level in these examples, but would a softer, diffused, more even light be more appropriate, I ask myself.  That set me thinking about what I'm doing and what I'm trying to achieve - no surprise there, given my recent obsession with thinking! (Too much?)

The project is motivated, at least in part, by my interest in the way photography renders the insignificant significant.  These bits of string, wire, etc, are of no significance until I create a series that imbues them with symbolic and metaphorical purpose; and I'm proposing that I choose a most appropriate time of day and light, to say nothing of the choice of camera, lens, aperture, framing etc, etc.  Then I'm proposing to process my RAW files and present a series of images that maximise the chance that my reader will 'get it'.  Nothing new in any of that - and studying Barthes will remind me that, even after all of that work, the 'Reader' is the one who will interpret.

Which led me to want to comment as much on this process as on the subject itself - it's that 'thinking' getting to work again.  Which led me to explore another possibility.  What if I remove the insignificant aspects that I am trying to make significant?  What if I take them out of the image altogether?  What will that look like? What might it say?  So here is one I prepared earlier ...

Shades of Mishka Henner's "Less Americains", of course; but I find it interesting.  What about a book of these images with the 'cut-out' bits available at the end - as 'cut-outs' - so that the viewer can get involved and put them back together again!!  That would be plain silly, of course!  Hm!