Artist Presentation–Castlefield Gallery

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(Image courtesy of Castlefield Gallery)

On Tuesday evening, I had the opportunity present my practice, and specifically ‘New Photographic Chemistry’, alongside three other artists, at a meeting of the Castlefield Gallery Associates group, in Manchester. It took the form of a 10 minute presentation followed by five minutes of questions. The meeting was attended by around 16 members of the group.

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(Images courtesy of Castlefield Gallery)

These are some of my reflections following the event:

  • Once again, the value of time spent in planning and preparation was evident. I had a slideshow (under my control rather than running independently) and a ‘script’ that I had rehearsed – so it was no surprise that the timing worked out more or less exactly. It took the form of a slightly extended version of the video from my website – here – covering the grounding of my practice; the origins and development of ‘New Photographic Chemistry’; and the various forms in which it has, to date, been brought to an audience. So, I covered a lot of ground in a short time but that didn’t seem to be a problem.
  • Everything seemed to be well-received by the audience, in terms of attention and body language during the talk, questions that followed, and responses during the tea interval and at the end of the evening. Most of those in the audience (and all of the other three presenters) were practicing artists with multiple exhibitions, commissions, residencies etc; so there was the potential for a ‘credibility gap’. But I didn’t sense it, and the interest seemed to go at least a little way beyond the merely polite.
  • Questions/comments immediately post-talk covered – printing onto fabric; choice of colours; time to produce; size of output (with a suggestion that I might go bigger … a lot bigger!); and praise for the way I managed to create a sense of depth and dimension in the images. I was pleased when, after the talk, one audience member compared the images of text manipulation (below) to the work of David Batchelor (which had been part of the original inspiration, as blogged here. It was also good to find some connection with the presenter who preceded me – Roger Bygott – who was talking about a recent residency during which he produced some work that physically deconstructed and subverted Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida.

Sulphur Sensitizers

Sulphur Sensitizers (2015)

Perhaps most importantly, I enjoyed doing it and felt confident in the work and my ability to talk about it. Artists tend to be supportive of each other and to have genuine interest in what others are doing; and the CG Associates scheme offers plenty of opportunities to develop and maintain contacts. As I have observed before in various contexts, the basis for a sustainable practice is there and its future is entirely dependent on how much I want it and how much I am prepared to commit.

Oh – and my image featured in the e-mail to all associates about the evening …

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Exhibition at Bank Street Arts–some initial reflections

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All done! The exhibition was installed on Thursday, open Friday & Saturday, with a social/private-view Friday evening and a student event Saturday; all taken down by 4pm Saturday afternoon (in time for the gallery’s comedy evening in that same space Saturday night!). Earlier in the week I had remarked that I had everything planned to the nth degree, so something was bound to go wrong. Nothing really did, apart from the middle one of those five frames in the foreground falling off the wall shortly after hanging (my fault) and breaking at the top right corner. We managed to fix it with some glue and a piece of ‘invisible’ tape – and no one noticed (or rather no one mentioned it!).

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A formal reflection on this culmination of the publication of my work needs to form the core of Assignment Five, but here a a few informal and initial reflections:

  • At a purely personal level, I’m very pleased with the way that I managed to present the work. Some details could have been better, inevitably, but I think I achieved the touch of spectacle, the variety, the use of space, and the visual interest that I was hoping for.
  • That outcome was, I think, the result of good ‘research’ (I’ve learned a lot from contemporary art shows that I’ve seen in the last year or two) and meticulous planning. Fair to say, I think, this is something I take to more naturally than some artists.
  • Which might be one of the reasons that I got a good response from the gallery, who have offered me the chance to do another micro-exhibition sometime next year; and encouraged me to consider some of their other opportunities, too.
  • Response to the work and discussion about it with others is hugely beneficial and has, on the whole, gone really well. The audience has been a varied one – family/friends; gallery staff; fellow students; even the occasional walk-in visitor – though not large (whatever might define ‘large’, of course). I’m fairly sure that their engagement with the images/installation has been more than just ‘polite’ – testament to its visual appeal, I suspect. I enjoyed the anonymous comment in my ‘Comments’ book that said “It took me a while to realise it was a photography exhibition”. Good! One such casual visitor (not the same one) thought I’d painted the big mural on the far wall. Perhaps I’ll try that another time!
  • I would observe that most such response has been on an aesthetic/formal/process basis, rather than a reading of significance in the images. I have to say that I don’t mind that in the least – whilst recognising that not everyone would feel that way. In many respects, I have begun to read it that way myself. Hopefully, for those who wish to find significance, there are enough opportunities to look and respond – and I’m pleased with that, too. But I’m also reminded of responses to Thomas Demand’s work, where one could argue that the only significance is that he made it. It’s a complex area of thinking – but there is, I think, genuinely a ‘new formalism’ in contemporary photographic art. It doesn’t appeal to everyone – but I’m quite happy to engage.
  • The numbers for the Student Event on Saturday were disappointingly small. Huge thanks to those who did attend, of course – for making the effort to be there and for your contributions to the very useful discussion. I think it happened to clash with some other OCA Study Visits – and I must stress that I don’t feel any personal disappointment about it. I got what I needed from the day. But it seems a pity that more students at all levels couldn’t have seen the work. I am absolutely not blowing my own trumpet here, but I think it’s fair to say that this exhibition had much about it from which other OCA students could have gained. Anyway, “c’est la vie”.
  • And finally, I have an exhibition here that could be transported and repeated elsewhere – so just need more locations!

So, overall, I’m satisfied and pleased; and I have the basis for preparing an Assignment Five submission in the next few weeks. Still need to do Assignment Three as well, of course.

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Assignment Four–Tutorial and Feedback

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I’m pleased to say that there isn’t much to say about submission and feedback for Assignment Four. The submission is about a final ‘draft’ of the proposed publication of the work – in my case, the plans for the exhibition at Bank Street Arts, which I sent to my tutor last week. We had an online tutorial yesterday and, apart from a whole series of very useful and encouraging tips/comments, the feedback is, essentially, get on and make it happen, enjoy it and, in the parting comment, ‘break a leg’, That’s not entirely inappropriate; so much is about rehearsing ideas and then putting on a performance.

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As these images show, the layout planning has progressed; the wall mural and larger prints are ordered (and the mural has actually arrived, within four days of ordering!); my own printing & framing is also under way; and, most importantly, the publicity machine is turned on and beginning to roll. There is a social/preview on Friday 30th and OCA are fully on board with invitations for that – 150+ have gone out, including 30 or so that I have done personally. Many of those are to people that I know won’t be able to attend but this is, of course, an excellent opportunity to promote the work anyway. There is to be a Study Visit type event on Saturday 1st, and this has been publicised on WeAreOCA – here. These two events are important – partly, of course, as a means of publicising, but also as a potential source of feedback. Engaging an audience with the work is also about engaging the work with an audience, so to speak. The student event, in particular, should be an opportunity to talk about the work and gauge responses – just hope I get a few people there. I’m also in discussion with the gallery about their related promotional activity, which is likely to be very useful.

Some key pieces of input from the tutorial, in no particular order, were:

  • make sure to gather as much in the way of statistics about site hits, footfall, views and so on as I can; and fully document them for eventual assessment submission.
  • make sure to have sufficient assistance at the installation stage because something is bound to go wrong;
  • take some good installation shots;
  • consider doing a set of affordable, editioned prints for sale at the preview as a means of covering some of the cost;
  • write personal e-mail invites to people I’m particular keen should be aware of the work/event.

The sale of a set of prints wasn’t something I’d considered at all & I wish I’d thought of it before sending out invitations. However, still time to do something, if I decide to. So, all seems to be in order, for now.

Dark Matter–the unseen world of artist-led activity

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On Saturday, I spent the day in Liverpool, attending this event, Dark Matter, run by local artist-led organisation The Royal Standard.  Many thanks to them for organising the symposium. A few weeks ago I floated a preliminary proposal for Assignment Three past my tutor; to be based around an exploration of artist-led organisations/spaces in my part of the country. She is encouraging me to focus down the scope somewhat from that preliminary idea, which makes good sense; and it has, to an extent, been ‘parked’ whilst I focus on the Bank Street exhibition (about which Assignment Four was submitted late last week). However, via social media, I spotted that this event was happening and decided, at very short notice, to attend. I’m glad that I did – the organisers know something about their ‘world’ by coming up with the title ‘Dark Matter’! There is a lot that goes on in this ‘world’ that is hard to identify and track down; so attending an event devoted to the subject has provided a good starting point.

This post isn’t going to attempt to draw firm conclusions or define a potential project more tightly. The intention is partly to record the fact that I went and to draw out a few reflections from the day.

  • There were representatives there from 10 or more organisations that I could identify, with reference during the day to several others, and the first point to note is the huge variety of formats, structures and intentions for this loosely defined concept of ‘artist-led’. From the ‘one-man-band’ organisation seeking, temperamentally, to find a place for contemporary art in a provincial town that was barely interested; through the multi-site, voluntarily run, provider of extensive studio space, developmental mentoring, collaborative and exhibition opportunities, etc; to the site-less but vibrant curatorial project-based organisation set up by a group of graduate friends; and touching on pretty much everything along the way, including both the commercial and the subversive.
  • Precariousness seems to be both/either an inevitable consequence of operating within the ‘dark matter’ world and/or a principle by which the organisations must operate if they are to retain their independence. The ‘wobbly chair principle’ was an idea that came up in the morning panel discussion and remained a theme for the day. In essence, creativity is better achieved whilst ‘sitting on a wobbly chair’ – a state of uncertainty in which one is never really still and must be permanently attentive/responsive. Space itself is one of the drivers of this precarious state – so many artist-led activities taking place in temporary space. It’s no surprise that those which seem to have survived longest frequently have either a founding member who owns the property or a particular relationship with a supportive landlord. Funding is, naturally, the other source of vulnerability – much activity depending on voluntary/low-paid organisers. Willingness to learn the skills of filling out grant applications is important to many organisations – but retaining a degree of ‘alternativeness’ is also important to others.
  • There is a ‘wealth’ (perhaps a questionable word to use) of talent, energy, creativity, drive, and so on through which ‘artist-led’ does what it does. And this ‘hidden’ world is providing opportunities for those involved and those it recruits/supports that would never be achieved through public institutions or the commercial art world. One or two simple benefits that I noted during the discussions – the way in which simply coming together and having a ‘name’ can open up dialogues that are hard to achieve on one’s own; the flexibility and responsiveness of these organisations in comparison to institutions with corporate constraints; the genuine commitment within organisations that are led by those for whose purpose they have come into existence to serve.

At a personal level, I remain interested in the idea of structuring an Assignment Three project around this area – maybe, as my tutor as suggested, focusing on a small number of case studies (and there is enough potential amongst those attending on Saturday). I made one specific new contact with a locally-based organisation of which I hadn’t previously been aware. But I also have to admit to a sense of ‘otherness’ that I felt, too. It is perhaps best summed up by the thought that I don’t, and perhaps never will, sit on the sort of wobbly chair that is an essential aspect of this ‘world’. Then again, ‘artist-led’, as I said above, can mean all sorts of things and I reflect, not for the first time, as to what sort of ‘artist-led’ might work for OCA graduates in a comparable way to those set up and led by graduates from other art schools and colleges.

Arles 2016 Episode 1

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Eamonn Doyle Exhibition ‘ON’ – Arles 2016

This was the biggest and, for me, the best Rencontres de la Photographie of the three that I’ve attended. Bigger, physically, in that there were more exhibitions and they even extended out of Arles to neighbouring towns; and the best, because there was more variety, more trully contemporary work, and because the Eamonn Doyle exhibition at the Espace Van Gogh was, perhaps, better than anything I’ve ever seen in Arles. There is no way, in this blog, that I can write up everything I saw, and I am not going to attempt to do justice to all, some good things will be omitted. But I will start with the Doyle.

Housed in a rectangular room with high ceilings (where some will recall seeing the Sugimoto work a few years ago), it is in three parts, beginning with i (here). Throughout, we share the space with the citizens of Dublin, or at least one particular pair of streets, close to Doyle’s studio. In this first part, they are arranged in colourful groups of nine, all elderly (we imply, though we don’t see much of their their faces), turned away from the camera, shot from above, looking down, often bent/stooping, women’s heads mainly covered with scarves. The bright colours and strong lighting make for something almost cheerful and positive; these are real people, with long-lived lives, a bit care-worn perhaps, but stoical. Doyle’s manner of photographing them (described by him on the web link) is detached and unobtrusive, leaving us free to observe and reflect, as we might if in the street.

The second section is a much more powerful space, ON (here), dominated by massive black and white prints on opposing walls, one side looking down, almost challengingly, the other (mainly) looking up, shades of Rodchenko’s Soviet images. Between are 2/3 rows of same-sized images with varied subjects; mainly human but interspersed with birds, architectural details, and occasionally by gaps, spaces through which other parts of the exhibition peek.

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We are very definitely in the street, in the city, but we’re also in a space of reflection – an existential space, in the presence (for me) of the human condition – of what it’s like to be human; it’s that strong. Perhaps important at this point to mention that the exhibition isn’t just photographic, and not just visual. It is a collaboration with Niall Sweeney (drawings and superb curating) and David Donohoe (sound – a crucial element in the overall experience). The subjects of the images range from the prosaically mundane to the almost heroic – but they are all, essentially, insignificant until they come together in this context, to make this experience. I wrote in my notes, soon afterwards, that it all might just add up to ‘an experience of the unconscious’.

Finally, we move into a more intimate space, less challenging than ON. This is END (here). There are smaller, colour portraits, some yellow/black, some just ‘random’ objects/details, many drawn over with seemingly abstract shapes … and then, on the end wall, this ‘iconic’ arrangement.

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Eamonn Doyle exhibition ‘END’ – Arles 2016

An elderly man, again, slightly stooped, grim determination on his face, shirt & trousers & trainers, on a sunny morning, walks the street, looking down like those in i, except that we can see his face. The camera is on the ground rather than above him. I wondered whether this was a more obtrusive image than the others, but it doesn’t feel so. He seems weighed down – by the cares of a long life, by age, by illness (my wife and I recognised signs of a condition that we know from a close relative), the city, loneliness, his own psyche … but he is walking off for his morning constitutional, going somewhere. The city is there, in the pillars and portico. And, in the accompanying frames, the younger faces are also caught in their own reflective moments. Once again, I sense the existential presence of the human condition.

I’ve seen a great number of exhibitions in the last nine or ten years; and I suppose I must admit to having become immune to much of the sensory experience of ‘looking’, certainly of being ‘moved’ by what I see. It is not difficult to get a sense of having seen it all before, especially when it comes to ‘street’ and ‘documentary’, of which photography’s history already has plenty to offer for consideration and analysis. It is trully a challenge for the contemporary photographer/artist within those genres to be seen to move the medium forward – hence so much experimentation with the boundaries of ‘what is a photograph’, Flusser’s ‘experimental photographers’ and Cotton’s ‘photographic magic’. What Doyle has achieved (and Sweeney & Donohoe, in this specific context) is most significant, for me, because it does just that – moves the photographic image forward. It remains, essentially, photographic (despite the presence of drawing and sound), and it remains, essentially, in a gallery space – but it lifts the medium upwards and outwards, confidently demonstrating what it can do … despite, and without reference to, the deluge of the internet and social media. It was worth the trip to Arles just to see this – it’s that strong!

‘Photography Matters’ Symposium–Materiality of the Image

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‘Figure 34’ – from my extension of the ‘Textbook’ project into ‘New Photographic Chemistry

Photography Matters was a full day or presentations and discussions around the PhD research and practices of five OCA tutors. This note will reflect on just one of those which, perhaps, has most relevance to my own practice. That isn’t to say that there wasn’t much of value in the other four – there certainly was, and maybe too much to try and cover in a brief blog post.

So, I concentrate on Rachel Smith’s ‘The Materiality of Images: exploring creative practice’, which was, in itself, a rich and substantial paper. My reflections here are based partly on my notes from the day but also on a second viewing through a video on the OCA Student site – and I needed that second viewing. Rachel referred to the possibility that concern with materiality has not always been of high regard, intellectually, but that she is particularly concerned with the connotations associated with the object itself – and reflected on the significance, perhaps, of her own formative experience with a Kodak Brownie & the physicality of the process of making/developing images. She referred to that ‘formative’ experience notion again, when talking about the work of Wolfgang Tillmans (his was with a photocopier, apparently!), and wondered whether this was a rich area for future research. I would agree – so often, a photographer talking about his/her work begins “I remember when my uncle gave me a camera when I was …” or “I will never forget the smell of chemicals in my grandfather’s dark room …”! (I could never make much sense of chemistry but have had associations with the digital for nearly 50 years – Is this significant?)

The paper took us through several examples of artists who have worked with the photograph’s materiality – the aforementioned Tillmans, Gerhard Richter and Ann Collier, in particular – concluding, via a quote from Kim Timby, that ‘… process and presentation are inextricably tied to the meaning of the work …’. Along the way, we had encountered Barthes’ description of the physical attributes of the ‘Winter Gradens’ photo of his mother and Flusser’s reference to the intervention of the photograph’s objectness. We may see (or seek to see, as in the peering through over-painting, in Richter’s work, towards the ‘family snapshot’ behind it) the subject, but the object intervenes.

She wondered whether the current concern with materiality had any connection with the rise of digital – noting that many of us rarely encounter the image in physical form unless we attend a gallery. Responding to the torrent of digital images in digital form, some artists e.g. Anastasia Samoylova give them a physicality by printing, folding (we could add tearing, burning, cutting, moulding and so on) and re-photographing to represent that physicality and build layers of process (meaning). (Some dismiss them as ‘vapour’ e.g. Sally Mann!) Rachel also suggests that there are ways in which a physicality can be identified even in images that remain in digital form. Compare, for example, the glitches and errors that can occur even in digital handling of digital images – again, artists are working with these as a disruptive reminder of the impermanence, even of the digital. And, what about the cultural (and other) significance of the mode in which we view these digital images – on a mobile phone or at the end of a series of cables? [In my Contextual Studies essay, I briefly compared Roland Barthes’ emotional consideration of the old physical print of his mother, as a child, at the Winter Garden, with, say, a 21st century son glancing at his iPhone to see a Facebook-posted picture of his mother in fancy dress at a ‘Hen Party’ outside the Winter Gardens in Blackpool!]

I mostly concluded, from Rachel Smith’s excellent presentation, that critical thought around Photography is still at the ‘coming to terms’ stage in relation to the growth of digital methods of making, distributing and viewing photographic images. Flusser described the importance of the ‘experimental photographer’ who ‘plays against the camera’; and I feel that, as artists, this is where we can perhaps play our part. I didn’t make the image at the top of this post as any sort of reflection on materiality; it is part of my ongoing experimentation and exploration from that old ‘Textbook of Photographic Chemistry’ and has gone through a few iterations over the last couple of months. But there is scope for such a reading. It sounds such a cliche to ask ‘what is a photograph?’ – but the viewing/making of art that explores those boundaries is what interests me.

“Between Instagram and the Photobook: the democracy of photography” (Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield)

An ambitious title for an event that I attended last weekend. Two ‘names’ had attracted me to attend – writer/curator David Campany (who was billed to ‘chair’) & publisher/lecturer Bruno Ceschel. The former, we were informed as the event began, had had to pull out at the last minute, which was disappointing – not to take anything away from his ‘substitute’. Much respect for Open Eye Gallery curator, Tom Dukes, who had agreed to take over the chair (because he happened to be in the building doing something else, as far as I could tell).

First up was Bex Day, a young photographer who, as well as producing her own projects (http://www.bexday.com/about/), is photo-editor for a fashion/photography magazine called Pylot (http://www.pylotmagazine.com/the-magazine/), which is only produced in analogue/printed form and allows no digital retouching of photographs (and no iPhone photographs). She argued that digital technology may encourage laziness and that social media has caused anxiety and impacted on mental health (though to be absolutely fair, she also acknowledged that both she and the magazine use Instagram as an effective tool for publicising their wares https://www.instagram.com/bex_day/?hl=en). Later, in response to a question from the chair, she suggested that her magazine’s commitment to analogue provided an important sense of community for those keen to adhere to the traditional approach. Everyone, I would agree, is entitled to work with whatever principles and methods they choose; and good luck to them. But I was left with a slight sense that this was something akin to a trainspotting club! Just me, I guess.

Then Bruno Ceshcel, who is well-known as the Director/Founder of Self Publish Be Happy http://www.selfpublishbehappy.com/about/ (one of the artists from whom I got feedback on my work suggested that I should get my ‘Textbook’ book in front of him). His talk was mainly (no surprise) a run through the story of SPBH, with a theme that the organisation and its approach are both rooted in the ‘object’ & the community that ‘makes books’. Paradoxically, it all exists, mainly, online – the organisation’s website publicises books that are sent to it (70% of them, he said, surprisingly – not much editing/curating going on there!) & has recently begun to use Instagram, for publicity purposes, like Bex Day – https://www.instagram.com/selfpublishbehappy/.

Gideon Mendel, the third speaker, is a well-established documentary photographer http://gideonmendel.com/. He took us through some of his work, occasionally veering off to tell us that he prefers to work with film (though he was honest enough to say that the advantages that he identified were quite probably all in his own mind), despite the challenges of making his flood victim work that way. He also admitted to being very bad at books, having hardly produced any in his 33 year career. The problem for him, he said, is in deciding that a project is finished – which is perfectly understandable and made good sense. Gideon does use Instagram, but in a slightly different way; one that is more clearly rooted in the principles of the site, I would suggest – that of telling stories/representing life in picture narratives. He has set himself the goal of making/publishing at least one image a day on Instagram, with no fancy filters or borders – https://www.instagram.com/gideonmendel/?hl=en.

The discussion that followed was, for a time, mired in a digital/analogue pros/cons session, which added little of value and caused me to reflect that it often seems to be those who choose not to use digital methods who feel the need to explain. There was, too, often a discrepancy in individual interpretations of what exactly was being referred to as ‘photography’; the medium’s polysemy strikes again. There are huge differences between the art-based images that Bex Day publishes on Instagram as a way of sharing/publicising what she does; the casual but thoughtful daily observations that Gideon Mendel makes about his life and the world in general; and the instant, retro-filtered iPhone shot of someone’s pint of beer in front of them on a pub table, shared with friends online. When, as occasionally happened on Saturday, there is concern about the dilution of quality in photographic images as a result of social media, and when there are suggestions that good photographic work gets lost in the dross etc etc, it frequently seems to stem from a failure to appreciate the medium’s ever increasing diversity and from a kind of nostalgia for the old days when making a photographic image was so much more difficult and beyond the reach of the masses!

Someone (I think it was Bruno Ceschel) did say, in passing, that we must understand photography as a language – and that seems to be the key. Photographic images have become the democratic means of mass communication and most of what is shared online relates most closely to casual conversation around the dinner table or whilst watching TV in the living room – and it is intended to be about as ephemeral. No one waxes nostalgic about words just because a chat over a beer isn’t as lyrical as one of Shakespeare’s sonnets!

So – there is always much value in hearing professionals talk about the way they work and why; and my somewhat downbeat reflections on Saturday’s event should not seem to belittle those involved or the quality of the work they do – which on the evidence of what I’ve seen, is excellent. The very best of luck to them & much respect. Rather, I suspect, I’m reflecting again on an ongoing theme for me – that the entity that is ‘Photography’ still struggles to come to terms with just what it is in the post-postmodern world (not unlike so many other entities, by the way) and that the process of exploring its potential boundaries and possibilities is fascinatingly frustrating and frustratingly fascinating!