Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Next review will be in Haiku...

I've been thinking about the purpose of this little blogette and the fact that somewhere in the tag-line I announce it to be a place for 'musing' about photography related things...  How did it then become so focused on Le Pub reviews (of too many words)?  It seems to me that at the moment, I am not doing enough mind-wandering around photography and this is an assertion that I SHALL START!

So, first stage in the plan is to shift focus away from the serious word count...  Next Le Pub reviews will be in Haiku...  If I can do it.  Three lines, seventeen syllables and a pattern of 5, 7, 5...

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Happy Valentine's Day

What to do on a cold, blustery and WET Saturday afternoon in uptown Newport?  What will warm the cockles of my chilly little heart and take me away from my garret room view of stripped trees and sludge-brown roof tiles?  Ah, I know: I shall think of romance, of St Valentine and a recent Tuesday evening of carefully chosen tunes, intimate contact and gifts being exchanged.  No: not a meal with my lover, but the latest Le Pub Photo Extravaganza which just happened to be scheduled for February 14th.

The evening didn't start with romance though: no heady positivity and soft focus vibe from James Kieran Doran.  In fact, he got us ready and all set for doom and gloom with the title of his work, 'We Live, We Influence.  We Die, We Vanish'.  The Doc Phot 2nd year was very honest about the personal nature of the work charting his own emotional and thought journey.  His admission of being pessimistic and negative was supposed to be reflected in the images, but I didn't really get this at all and actually, this wasn't a problem.  Doran's work was meant to say, 'This is me; this is how I feel, but you might feel differently and read the images differently' and I did. 

The 'journey' along a disused railway line took the view through paths overhung by threatening branches, under bridges and out into the open.  An alternative reading could be that the rich palette of browns and greens speak of abundance (even in Winter) and a promise of yet more life to come in the future.  He wanted to 'use landscape to illustrate the cruel fact of mortality', but actually he simply made me want to go for a walk in the same environment myself!  The work could also be seen politically: this line once served the industry of Ebbw Vale, an industry which supported thousands of workers and their families.  With the destruction of the British Steel industry, the plants closed down and have since been demolished; all that remains are gaps in the landscape and the ghost of the railway.

(Apologies for the 'grab and paste' images and the fact they are not necessarily in the right order...)

And now for something completely different:  Eugenijus Giena Barzdžius' portraits of monks from Palendriai Monastery of St. Benedict.  Presented as 'work in progress', the series will eventually form part of a larger body of work which focuses on the spiritual community in Lithuania.  The photographer's strategy was to remove the monks from the context of their surroundings, in order that the viewer could focus on the subject without distraction.  Presented as individual portraits, shot with controlled studio lighting (Barzdžius was able to explain EXACTLY what he did – including distances between subject and light source) we notice how each man holds himself and how each black garment falls; we see the twinkle in one monk's eye and the tension held in another's neck.  There is a respectful intimacy to the portraits, we are close enough in our imagination to reach out and touch the hem of their garments (out of shot) and perhaps attain some kind of absolution.

It would have been so easy to produce a series of images which are the cliché of religious portraiture, but  Barzdžius manages to avoid this.  There is no 'light from Heaven' bathing each man in metaphorical glory; the lighting is more subtle than this.  By shooting the bodies 'side on' and allowing each man to look where he wishes, we are allowed to see a little of the private world; the monks are not instructed to look directly in to camera and therefore seem more 'real': they are individuals who have made a pact with God, rather than just representatives of faith.

My favourite is definitely the portrait of Brother Kazimieras: there is something about the life in his eyes that suggests a monk with a sense of humour and I am strangely drawn to the delicate folds in his neck.  Is that a bit odd?  (Let's leave that as a rhetorical question, shall we.)

The evening then shifted from the contemplative and holy to the cruelty of a political system which treats women as breeders who need to be controlled (almost at any cost.)  Claire Kern's work, made in India and entitled 'Silent Genocide' deals with the sterilisation of Tibetan women as part of the Chinese policy to control population numbers.  The body of work which was over a year in the organisation, saw Claire in India for three months last year, befriending Tibetan women who had fled their home country and who were seeking refuge in India.  Presented as a multi-media piece, the photographer offered a series of photographs accompanied by harrowing text and a soundtrack made up of birdsong and first person testimony (untranslated.)

The combination of the simple, almost macro close-ups of eyes, scars and jewellery and the sound of real women sharing their stories was a powerful combination.  The images hinted at lives led, hopes shattered and dreams yet to come; the musicality of the speech patterns played with imaginations and invited the audience to write each individual's story.  One fellow photographer summed up their response to the work with the phrase, 'It hits me quite hard' and another acknowledged how the strategy 'makes you search harder for the meaning.'

The discussion surrounding the issues highlighted in the work was the longest of the night and it was fascinating to find out more about how Kern worked.  She shared with us stories of political prisoners and the horrors of the 'Chinese Ring' and had a powerful effect one women and men alike.

After the last Le Pub session, I described three of the contributors as 'The Big Boys', a tongue-in-cheek bit of nomenclature which was meant to reflect their status within student photographic practice and now I find myself of adding another of their cohort to the 'gang'.  Jack Latham's sensitive project about his grandmother and the loss of her health and home was powerful, moving and memorable.  

I particularly loved the colour images made inside the walls of her former family home and felt more than one little twinge of emotion when I thought about the personal objects left behind to be destroyed by rising damp and the property developers loitering aggressively on the sidelines.  What is it about a cardboard box and a paper carrier bag filled with possessions on a bare mattress that is so powerful?  Actually, it isn't just those objects which literally suggest a life packed up, but it's the strange light fitting with its shade that appears to have  a craned neck as it searches the room for someone to illuminate.  I'm guessing that this used to be grandma's reading light: how sad that it is now redundant.

Latham forces us to look at the stains on walls and floors, on a chair which once was comfortable and a vacuum cleaner leaning in a corner.  Quiet elements of domesticity, marooned in the silence of the empty home.  Whilst the work is personal and filled with love for his own grandmother (now in her 90s and living with his family), it also stands for every older person who is forced to make a choice, who needs to leave their own home to live out the remains of their days in a different form of accommodation.  This usually requires 'downsizing', a curiously unemotional term for something which can be so incredibly distressing and Latham's images make us imagine what this would be like.  

'Empty Houses' is actually in three parts.  The second is further large format images, but this time outside the home and shot in black and white.  We see the remains of his grandmother's garden – the overgrown brambles and trees and plants cut back (shockingly, by the potential developers who did not have permission to enter the land and wreak havoc.)  The skeletal interweaving of plant-life reflects the chaos and destruction of the Eden that used to be so important.  

In the Q & A session afterwards, Latham was disparaging about the inclusion of the single telegraph pole standing cruciform in the back ground of more than one image: he hadn't even noticed it when composing the original frame, only discovering the shape on processing and printing the negative.  He referred to the cliché of the religious iconography and poked gentle fun at himself for his lack of observation.  My feeling is that sometimes a cliché is absolutely fine within an image and he really shouldn't be so hard on himself – after all, he is a big boy now.

Finally, the series ended with a picture of his new born niece Ruby.  He described his work as being similar to poetry – 'It doesn't say a lot, but it can suggest many things': the little girl invites the viewer/reader to consider the obvious ideas such as new life and hope, but perhaps too the idea that it isn't actually the material things that are truly important in life – it is the people we love.

Onto Oliver Norcott, 1st year Photo Art...  Norcott presented work that was designed to show his development as an Artist, and his move from Graphic Design towards a style which incorporates photography and other art forms.  He was obviously a very good designer and if I were him, I'd be feeling pretty confident about a future marriage between the different disciplines.

The work on Reality and Representation, using the 3d mirrored cube amongst the natural world was a big hit with some of the audience.  Aesthetically playful, the images were inspired by 'Plato's Allegory of the Cave', but as I don't know what this is and I haven't got the time at the moment to find out, I can't comment on the work's success in relation to philosophical ideas!  (Call myself a 'reviewer'?)  Another viewer suggested that the work was an exploration of photography itself and the importance of the mirror within the camera, helping the artist to reflect upon the world and its concerns. 

However, I did understand the work on 'Postmodern Dystopia' -well, the dystopia that is the large out of town supermarket.  The headless bodies of staff and customers are both unsettling and 'real'.  The brutal cropping speaks of a faceless, brainless humanity moving amongst the aisles.  But how many of us do actually look down and refuse to make eye contact when in those places?  How about a challenge – next time we go to Tesco or Sainsbury's smile at and say hello to everyone...

Norcott confessed that he likes visual experimentation; joining the Photo Art course has allowed him to explore what it means to be restricted to photographic processes.  To be tied to one discipline could be seen as a hindrance, but to Norcott it should bring real freedom.  I look forward to seeing his work in the third year!

Meg Beaumont offered a gentle and rather lovely end to the evening.  The work in progress that 'really is not finished' came with apologies and a plea to 'not rip me apart'.  The audience, already in a fine mood after a series of discussions and a few drinks was very happy to oblige.  It was Beaumont's work that made me remember it was Valentine's night as so many of the images were PRETTY.  Now, don't even begin to assume that I mean this in a negative way and that I am suggesting a saccharine, easy to swallow sort of aesthetic – not at all – I just mean that the work was visually and emotionally rather lovely and many of the images made me feel all warm and fluffy inside.

I can't remember who said that good work should elicit some sort of emotional response in the viewer (if it comes back to me I will let you know), but these uncomplicated images of coast paths, flowers and objects associated with beach huts definitely moved me.  It could have been her strategy of using a 1950's Ilford Sporty and the resultant softness of focus that suggested a dreaming and other worldliness of her experience; it could have been the slightly surreal colour palette – but whatever it was, she had me hooked.  I absolutely loved the incorporation of family slides into her work – an unidentified woman resplendent in bathing costume pins down 'her man' to the grass, her foot firmly planted against his chest.  He is bare chested, yet still wears his rather smart trousers: rather coy in the face of such a potentially amorous attack.  The image is so wonderfully joyous and innocent and I wish the world were still the same in many ways.

Later work becomes more enigmatic, and Beaumont captures bird footprints on the ground following the death of a beloved grandma (grandmothers are proving incredibly important to our photographers: if you still have one, grab her and hug her!)  We see flock wallpaper and gently billowing curtains.  The work talks about memory and nostalgia, about how things change and shift and how photography can help capture moments and hints of moments so that they won't be lost.

The work is truly lovely.


p.s. Additional highlights of the evening included the rather successful print swap and the mobile phone link with a certain Mr Norton who was unable to attend the event in person.  Thanks Alex, once again, your contributions brought a smile to our faces.


Interested to see more?  Here are some links

Jack Latham:                       http://www.jacklatham.com/

Giena:                                   http://www.giena.lt

Meg Beaumont:                  http://hellomegbeau.tumblr.com/

Claire Kern:                          http://clairekern.wordpress.com/

Palendriai Monastery of St. Benedict:  http://www.palendriai.lt/#1

Tibet and the control of birth rate:         http://www.tibet.org/Activism/Rights/birthcontrol.html

p.p.s. Don't forget ffotogallery's Book Arts Fayre on Saturday 25th Feb...  You'll be able to purchase work by some of this week's featured artists and many others.