Tuesday, 31 January 2012

A Night of Concepts

If you were a visitor coming to the Le Pub for the first time, you would be forgiven for thinking that folks at Newport no longer make 'straight' narrative photography.  Prepared to show work and bare artistic souls to the audience were representatives from the 2nd and 3rd years at the university and the work took us from  bedroom to studio to street, from the UK to Cyprus, Berlin and Sicily.  It was a night of visual adventure and once more, did not disappoint.

First up was Ewan Paton with his series, The Assembly Line.  Paton is a Fashion and Advertising photographer and in some ways you could tell.  The images on show were slick, clean and impeccably styled.  Blank faced handsome models, dressed in simple collarless shirts found themselves working with simple, yet clever props and in plain white spaces to create the robots of the assembly line itself.  Much was made of his girlfriend's makeup mirror and I did find myself wondering how hard  it had been for the models to hold poses whilst mirrors were held using an extended arm and in another image, the mouth. 

Why would one even notice such things, you might ask.  Well, Paton gave a running commentary of the way each image was constructed.  This was mightily generous of him, and was done just in case anyone else wanted to use the devices in their own work.  Was this a mistake?  He'd obviously spent a long time working out how to make mirrors appear to float in front of the face and now we can all go and do the same thing.  The other downside of the technical commentary was that although the work was designed to be produced as a book and have a determined 'pace', the explanations slowed everything down and for me, took away the 'punch' of certain pics.  Others in the audience disagreed, they were obviously very happy to have the benefit of Paton's experimentation and discovery: I hope that one day they will return the favour.

The next photographer is not not going to be respresented here fully as I haven't been able to get hold of them to get copies of his pics.

Steven/Stephen Duffy's work explores the relationship between darkness and light and asks the viewer to consider what it is like to experience darkness (of the interior kind) and be given hope by pinpricks of 'light' which could come in the form of – well, anything that might make us feel just a little bit better.  To do this, he has photographed streetlights at night, exposing the images just enough to provide a halo of light (in the darkness) without providing us with contextual information about the geographical location.  Presented in two sets of three images, the pair of triptychs form a 'circle' that represents the movement in and out of darkness and in and out of depression.  Unfortunately, I can't show you an example of his work, so here is something I found using Google images:

There was some discussion following his presentation about the reasoning behind the number of final images in the set.  Was six too few?  Would the viewer like to see more sets?  Many in the audience who offered an opinion seemed to agree that the six made for completion: no more were needed.  Perhaps one reason for this is that six images of streetlights in the darkness is aesthetically attractive; additional sets might underline the unoriginality of the idea and the banality of the work. Personally, I wanted to see more.

Lianne Bowens' pictures were also aesthetically appealing.  She'd gone to a lot of effort to transform her bedroom into a camera obscura and why not?  The view from her window of the river is stunning.  Through her images, we see light change and water rise and fall; we see nature captured upside down in full colour, almost transluscent against the white walls.  One of the refreshing things about this work was the artist's approach: she wasn't trying to do anything particularly new (after all, camera obscuras have been around for centuries.)  By watching the weather play itself out against her walls, she was/is prepared to play, to observe, to explore.  This seems to be a work about being part of the world, and at the same time, separate from it: it is a meditation.  She is also experimenting with moving image, speeding up the frames so that we see the clouds 'racing' across the sky and the water's ebb and flow at a hyper-real speed.  By playing with time, we lose ourselves.

My favourite images were the simplest: the cast of the sky thrown in relief across wall and door; I was less keen on those that involved 'trickery' (well, the turning upside down of the image to reveal a bedframe seemingly suspended from the ceiling.)  In my view, the artist does not need to be 'clever' about making the pictures, the view is enough.

And now to the 'big boys' (and it's nothing to do with their physical stature)...  Sam Laughlin, Alexander Norton and Pietro Motisi are all final year Documentary Photography students and when  folk accuse Doc Phot of thinking they are the 'best', well these guys are one of the reasons why... 

Sam  Laughlin shifted proceedings up an intellectual and aesthetic gear with two projects.  The first, Geschichte, provoked a little titter from those in the room who thought the word had scatological connotations, but actually it is the German for 'History'.  The images, when projected large onto the screen seem monumental, like natural edifices of rock and stone of the sort captured by Ansel Adams and his large format camera in the first half of the 20thcentury.  They also bring to mind, Joan Fontcuberta's 'Landscapes Without Memory', for when one starts to notice the details, they don't look quite 'real'.  Just as Lianne plays with time and perception, so Laughlin does the same with scale.  Shot at night in building sites across Berlin, the mountains and peaks are actually piles of rubble: insignificant mounds of dirt and debris.  

And this is one of the clever elements of Laughlin's project: by making the viewer experience a little 'ooh, ah' moment at the realisation of the strategy, he then gets us to consider the reasoning behind it.  He referenced Walter Benjamin and his assertion that history is the piling up of events, one on top of the other; each of Laughlin's images silently hints at not only the history of Berlin (the bombs during WWII, the carving up of the city at the end of the war, the erection and final dismantling of The Wall) but European history in general.  Its history of destruction and its ability to build again.  

The second body of work, Pulver is potentially controversial.  In my house, books are sacrosanct, pencilling a line in a margin could get you sent to bed without any supper, and here is Laughlin burning eighteen 'great' and 'important' works for effect.  Steering clear of religious texts – so as not to cause offence – the books were selected for their influence not only on Nazi and Communist ideology, but also on the development of rational thought.  In destroying each text and then photographing what remains, the artist wants the viewer to think about knowledge itself and how so much of it is held in print.  What does it mean to burn a book that one has not ever read?  Does this mean actually that the knowledge no longer is accessible to the viewer?  What is the chance of Laughlin ever actually reading all of the books that he burned?  To go and seek out new copies would diminish the artistic act of destruction.

This is one project where the technical details of making the work are as important as the concept itself.  Laughlin's approach is meticulous. The resultant ash is manipulated into a pile and photographed.  The images are printed on fibre-based paper, coated with handmade liquid emulsion containing some of the ash itself.  The print shows us the image of the remains of the book, but is also itself partly the remains of the book.  We look at the image, can read the height of the ash pile and consider how substantial/insubstantial the book actually was.  I am very excited about seeing the final prints.

Alexander Norton's Nothings Happening(sic) offered viewers some breathing space.  From the black and white starkness of Laughlin, we moved happily into the full colour world of the watcher and explorer.  Described as having a 'childlike' eye by one audience member, Norton is not a complicated photographer, however, do not be fooled by the seeming naivety of his images.  There is depth beneath.

Made during a trip to Spain, Norton this is part of an ongoing exploration into the idea of the 'quiet' spaces which surround holiday destinations and which many people never notice.  Norton photographs kerbsides and pigeons, almost empty beaches and private moments between holiday makers who are unaware of being observed.  One audience member compared him to Martin Parr, but this is far from it.  Whereas Parr's images are often harsh and unforgiving, Norton's are gentle and affectionate.  Visually, the colours are not Parr like either: there is no brashness here, no hyper-reality for effect.  A couple of us turned to each other and mouthed, 'Stephen Shore' and 'William Eggleston', but although closer to it, it seems wrong to make such comparisons.  It is almost as if Norton has his own appreciation and understanding of colour: his own palette for talking about the 'anti-decisive' moment (his phrase, not mine.)

Although the series is called Nothings Happening, things are going on in some of the images.  A grandmother stands quietly with her grand-daughter as they look out to sea; a couple run along the beach.  Each image is heavy with emotion, yet subtle too.  One audience member wanted a narrative, felt that this would make the work stronger and I say, NO!  This is not the case.  One of the many strengths in this work is the space within the images for the viewer to write their own story.  I look at the grandmother and miss my own.  It is also interesting that Norton has carefully and deliberately constructed the images to ensure that the hustle and bustle of the holiday world is out of view, out of shot.  Instead of 'Nothings happening', everything is happening.  Elsewhere.

There was one image that jarred, for me it was too obvious, too descriptive, too clumsy.  Interestingly, a couple of others in the room seemed to love it.  Evidence of the subjective power of photography and the validity of our own responses.  I post the image below and leave you to make up your own mind.

The evening ended with a 'guest' presenter – Pietro Motisi – and his series Cemento.  He gave us a sort of typology of the use of concrete in Sicily, but with colour and life.  Made in his home country, the search for, study and presentation of concrete is all tied up with the identity of the Sicilian people (and not because of the Mafia association with the material) and their relationship with the landscape.

But it's not just about how concrete is used, but also about the history of Italian photography and how landscape photography is not part of the Italian artistic culture.  Just as landscape painting was the poor relation to portraiture before the early 19thcentury, so landscape photography lags behind reportage in terms of interest and exposure in 21stcentury Italy.  Motisi may well be on his way to changing this though: his work is beautiful.

(Images to follow are copied from Alex Norton's blog:)

One can see the layers of history within the images; tower blocks loom over a 19thcentury cemetery; a mausoleum stands on a hill; a piece of 'land art' (a huge concrete frame) offers a window on the sea.  Working with a 5 x 4 field camera, Motisi is able to capture the tiny details and our eyes are drawn to a red jumper drying on a balcony and the photographs of the long dead on tombstones.  He offers us a new view of Sicily, a new set of landscapes to fill our imaginations.

I started this review by commenting that this was a Le Pub event that focused on the conceptual, but it also focused on the real.  A good night with some great discussion.  Thank you, everyone.

If anyone wants to buy work by Laughlin, Norton or Motisi – you can do so at the Ffotogallery Book Arts Fayre on February 25th.