Kurt Tong

I will be discussing with photographer Kurt Tong his two series on show at Photofusion on Tuesday 21st September.

The two series of work on show in this exhibition, “In Case it Rains in Heaven” and “Memories, Dreams Interrupted”, are very different and raise a question in my mind of how we might distinguish between different photographic genres. I think it is  necessary to understand that not all photography is equally suited to gallery display. In Kurt’s work we find someone with a capacity to sit comfortably across art and documentary photography.

Tickets are £5/£3.50.

Call 020 7738 5774 (Photofusion) to book.

Photofusion’s details can be found here.

See Kurt’s images on his website.

New York Photo Festival

A trip to New York is generally easy to say yes to, a trip to New York plus a feast of photography is a no brainer: so it was with much alacrity that I booked my flight, rang a friend to check the spare room was still on offer and revelled in the idea of spending time in my favourite city and visiting the New York Photo Festival.

Upon arrival, much delayed due to the vagaries of the ash cloud, I pondered on the choices of heading straight to Dumbo, meeting up with some friends or going to the Picasso exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As this was a rare opportunity to see nearly the entirety of the Met’s collection of Picasso it seemed rude not to pay homage to the master and it was indeed a rewarding experience. With my head full of ideas about photography I had a completely different approach to Picasso’s early work. Here was an artist; painting around the time photography was invented, using the same subject matter that photojournalists and documentary photographers use today. His work based on visits to brothels, Saint Lazare’s prison, a blind man and his wine jug all had the same social concern many photographers use as their starting point. Yet as a painter Picasso was doing something different; reaching for a universal story rather than that of the individual.

Having filled up on a diet of Picasso I headed off to the photo festival with high expectations. Now in its third year, last year’s festival had received less than favourable reviews. But with an interesting line up of curators including the singer song writer Lou Reed, it seemed likely that this year the organisers would have raised their game.

The press night was well organised with a host taking us from venue to venue and the individual curators talking us through their shows. Most interesting was the exhibition by Erik Kessels: “Use Me and Abuse Me.” Kessels had looked at the processes of image making, in particular digital technology and collage.

Osang Gwon

Osang Gwon

Strikingly dramatic were giant statues brought to life with pasted photographs covering the entire surface by Osang Gwon. This show stood out for its coherence; both in the work shown and the way it was exhibited, which was visually led and often using the humour of the work to lead you round the exhibits.

We ended the tour with the celebrity highlight of the festival, a Lou Reed slide show “Hidden Books, Hidden Stories” in the presence of the great man himself. I should say straight away that as a songwriter and singer, Lou gets all my votes and he has written two of my all time favourite songs, Wild Things and Perfect Day. While it was clear that Lou had had a ball doing what ever it was he had done, as a curator his enigmatic monosyllabic talk [about three sentences long] and obvious discomfort in being asked to give us a few clues about what he had done, left me bewildered and just a little disappointed.

Morton Bartlet

Morton Bartlet

About half way through his slide show, having settled into the seemingly random mix of imagery being displayed I decided that there was no obvious connection between one image and another except perhaps a visual link. This was quite an exciting thought as the idea of a visual rather than content driven or linguistic link was potentially a refreshing approach and certainly one with which I had a great deal of sympathy. However Lou didn’t quite pull it off. While I am sure that the visual relationships between each image and sequence of images were clear to him, for the viewer it was often ambiguous or simply not apparent at all. This coupled with Lou’s refusal to engage with his eager and indeed supportive audience led me to think of the fable of the emperor’s new clothes.

The rest of Lou Reed show was a collection of photography books placed in display units, which the visitor could leaf through. There was no written explanation about why these books had been chosen; nor why, given the title of the exhibition, they were hidden; nor whether or not there was a relationship between them. Nor was there any information about the artists. It was a little bit like being in Waterstones on Piccadilly in their photography section. Although some of the books and their authors were fascinatingly weird, in particular Morton Bartlett and his collection of dolls.

Michael Wolf

Michael Wolf

The two other shows, “Object Lesson” curated by Vince Aletti and “Bodies in Question” by Fred Ritchin were familiar in their imagery and presentation. Neither curator had given much thought to the space they were given and it was difficult to separate them out from the satellite galleries who had as equally interesting work on show. Ritchin’s collective theme was “isms” as expressed by the motley collection of protest movements currently active on the left of politics. His stated intention was to look at the transformation our identities undergo when surveyed and the inclusion of Michael Wolf’s Paris streets as seen on Google earth was a stroke of genius and very apt. But the pictures of icebergs seemed to pander to some curious green agenda that diluted what could have been a more interesting show.

Richard Learoyd

Richard Learoyd

“Object Lesson” was exactly that, using the genre of the still life Aletti had brought together a series of artists working with various objects often to do with decay. It is always lovely to see Richard Learoyd’s sublimely delicate pictures of curious parts of dead things, in this case a fish heart suspended in black thread. So while a very traditional show and perhaps a little unambitious, a lot of the photography was exceptionally good.

There is much to say that was good about my trip to New York; the walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to Dumbo; a visit to the High Line in homage to Joel Sternfeld; the Picasso exhibition and of course the Cartier Bresson retrospective at MOMA. The city is fabulous and full of some of the most exciting sights in the world, but the claim that the New York Photo Festival is the ”American counterpart and thematic successor to the prestigious European photo festival” is a great ambition that has yet to be properly realised.

I do though wish them luck in reaching their stated goal and if my friend is still in New York and still has her spare room on offer I will try to go to next year’s festival.

I recently contributed an article about the photographer Anna Linderstam to 1000 Words Magazine. Anna is a young Swedish photographer fascinated by the moments of transformation that people pass through when under stress.

1000 Words

To read the article go to 1000 Words autumn/fall 2009 #06 issue (current at time of writing) and follow the links to Anna Linderstam.

In their latest major new exhibition The National Portrait Gallery asked ten prominent gay men and women to reveal the people who have inspired them?

And so I ask the question, with a degree, it must be said, of trepidation, whether or not one’s sexual orientation is relevant or indeed interesting to be used as a theme for an exhibition and what is it that the National Portrait Gallery is trying to say to us?

The ten people invited to contribute to the show include, a poet, two authors, a tennis player, a journalist, a rock star, an actor, a radio presenter, and two politicians. Their chosen icons span the worlds of entertainment, art music, literature, sports, politics and royalty. The photography is by a similarly disparate group. While Mary McCartney shot some [but not all] of the portraits of the selectors, the portraits of the icons are by a wide range of people, from family snap shots to Cecil Beaton. Something of a motley collection of people and portraits that seemingly have nothing bringing them together until the motif of Gay is superimposed.

Joe Orton

Joe Orton

The NPG has chosen themes before; leading people in the fields of science and medicine with a series of portraits shot by Julia Fullerton-Batten, people of faith with portraits by Don McCullin and most recently an exhibition of the private space of artists by Eamonn McCabe. In each of these shows there was a cohesiveness that underpinned the reason for making an exhibition. Discussions could be had as to the merits of the portraits, critical analysis of the photographers commissioned to make the work and interest in the people chosen to represent their professional, political, cultural or religious outlook.

Ray Shannon from the Yorkshire Ambulance Service

Ray Shannon from the Yorkshire Ambulance Service

But in Gay Icons there is no such rigour. The prominent citizens are not directly political or campaigning people who have made their name fighting for gay rights. Neither are the people selected all renowned for their contribution to the struggle to legalise homosexuality. So all we are left with is the fact that the ten people invited to make their selection are Gay. And this is simply not interesting in and of itself. The NPG have missed an opportunity with a lazy nod towards political correctness.

Virginia Wolf

Virginia Wolf

They could have had a fascinating show basing it on Gay Rights campaigners, or presented cutting edge work that is being produced in countries where homosexuality is still illegal.

So just what is the point of Gay Icons? Is it enough of a triumph for Gay Rights that the NPG have used GAY in the title of their exhibition?

Just about to open, The Hereford Photography Festival has a long overdue retrospective of John Bulmer. I spent three very delightful days with John, going through his archive selecting the work for the show. If you get a chance to visit it is well worth the trip as this is a rare opportunity to see the 1960s in colour. If you can’t get there then we have posted the show up on the festival site where you can also read a transcript of an interview Carey Gough made and there will shortly be a video of John talking about his work on YouTube.

The mill town of Elland, Yorkshire

The mill town of Elland, Yorkshire

A pioneer of colour photography in the 1960s, photographer John Bulmer began his photographic career in Cambridge, where along with Peter Laurie Brendan Lehane and Adrian Bridgewater they founded Image. The magazine’s aim was to provide its photographers with experience to work as professional photographers in London and Bulmer duly joined the Daily Express in 1960.

Bulmer was a devotee of the new photographic technology and quickly embraced the 35mm format. This enabled him to work with greater flexibility and faster than his other Fleet Street colleagues who were still shooting on Rollei cameras.

From the Express, Bulmer started freelancing for Man about Town, later renamed Town, working alongside Terence Donovan, David Bailey and Don McCullin and it was here that he shot one of his most celebrated works on the North of England and in particular his documentary of the town, Nelson.

A pub in the northern town of Nelson

A pub in the northern town of Nelson

When in 1962 the Sunday Times became the first British Newspaper to produce a colour supplement, Bulmer was an obvious choice as a contributor to its first issue. Having experimented with colour early in his career, he was recognised for understanding and thinking in colour. This was in direct contrast to his peers who, dismissing colour as garish and cheap, argued that black and white produced images that had more truth and integrity.

Bulmer worked for the Sunday Times for the next 10 years and during his time at the magazine was one its most prolific contributors covering stories both in the UK and abroad.

Spread from the feature White Tribes, Sunday Times Magazine

Spread from the feature White Tribes, Sunday Times Magazine

With an end to post war austerity and the beginning of the swinging 60s Britain was a place of extremes. While Carnaby Street fashions, The Beatles and the Mini quickly became symbols of modern Britain, a divide was opening up between the north and south of the country. Novels such as a Room at the Top, and the film Saturday Night Sunday Morning highlighted a romanticism of the north, where life was hard but real. For Bulmer this industrial landscape, with its gritty cobbled streets and back to back terraces was exotic and although he found the voyeuristic nature of photojournalism increasingly problematic it is his extended project on The North, shot for both the Sunday Times and Town magazine that he has earned his reputation as a photojournalist.

Pit ponies and miners from the series The North

Pit ponies and miners from the series The North

In 1971 Bulmer was given a visa to travel to Burma, one of the first issued to a foreign journalist since the end of the Second World War. With The Sunday Times more interested in crime at home, than military juntas abroad, he went to the BBC where he was handed some money and told to go off and make a film and so his career shifted from photojournalism to film making.

Seen but Not Heard

24 April, 2009

Earlier this year I was asked to curate this year’s Hereford Photo Festival, and after much consideration I decided to tackle an issue which has concerned me for sometime; namely the increasing restrictions, both legal and moral, that society is placing upon photographers. Here is my introduction to the work I have selected.

“Few questions are more contentious in modern day Britain than those involving children” wrote Simon Bainbridge, editor of the BJP, in June 2005.

As new technologies make taking photographs easier, so too the social constraints that limit what we can take pictures of are expanding. The freedom photographers such as Roger Mayne, Henri Cartier Bresson or Dorothea Lange had to document children, playing on the streets, at home or school has gone.

Boys on a Lorry, Cowcaddens, Glasgow 1958 by Roger Mayne

Boys on a Lorry, Cowcaddens, Glasgow 1958 by Roger Mayne

Now photographers, both amateur and professional, have to negotiate the minefield of obtaining permissions, run the risk of being branded a pervert and counter our increasing prudishness of what is thought to be an appropriate image of a child.

Pledging allegience to the United States flag by Dorothea Lange

Pledging allegience to the United States flag in 1942 by Dorothea Lange

Rue Mouffetard, 1954 by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Rue Mouffetard, 1954 by Henri Cartier-Bresson

For this year’s Hereford Photo Festival, I have selected the work of nine photographers, all of whom engage with this charged subject matter, each finding their own way to overcome an increasingly fearful sensibility that operates in our society.

Examples of the work of the photographers featuring in the Hereford festival 2009:

The Birthday Party by Vee Speers

Vee Speers - The Birthday Party

Don’t call me Urban by Simon Wheatley

Simon Wheatley - Don’t call me Urban

Harlemville by Clare Richardson

Clare Richardson - Harlemville

Hals über Kopf by Wiebke Leister

Wiebke Leister - Hals über Kopf

Interface by Michelle Sank

Michelle Sank - Interface

Playground by Ali Richards

Ali Richards - Playground

Julia Fullerton Batten – Teenage Stories

Julia Fullerton Batten – Teenage Stories

Jan Von Holleben – Dreams of Flying

Jan Von Holleben – Dreams of Flying

Edmund Clark – Baby Fathers

Edmund Clark – Baby Fathers

In making my decision about what to show I deliberately decided not to include anything that might cause controversy or be under threat of removal. My reason for this is simple. There have been many blank walls and empty galleries where work commissioned for exhibition has been taken down as a result of a complaint by a member of the public or an over anxious council worker. These removals are often covered in the media and we are made aware of the issues, but not the images.

For this show I want the work to be seen and for the discussion to broaden out into an understanding what our culture will allow to be seen. If we can permit ourselves to look at images of children, hanging on the walls of an art gallery, then perhaps we will also begin to discuss whether or not the act of taking a picture of a child is as dangerous as society seems to think it is.

Open all hours

9 April, 2009

So today I launched Troika Editions. Not quite single handedly it must be said.

Conceived of nine months ago, it has certainly felt at times like giving birth. A few hiccups in the last throws of labour have been overcome and today we made our first sale.

One of the most thrilling experiences I have had in the last few months has been meeting and talking to the photographers who have been brave and generous in agreeing to join in our adventure. Without any of them there would be no Troika Editions, so my very sincere thanks to them all.

The first week’s images come from Carolyn Lefley, Issa Randall and Hin Chua, all young photographers, who are quickly becoming established artists. Hin is due to have an exhibition this summer in Rochester New York State with his series After the Fall; Carolyn was awarded one of the coveted National Media Museum Photography bursaries in 2008 and Issa has just returned from showing his work at this year’s Quad Photo Festival.

Within #1 by Carolyn Lefley

Within #1 by Carolyn Lefley

Wild West by Issa Randall

Wild West by Issa Randall

A Mile from Zhang Jiang High Technology Park, Shanghai by Hin Chua

A Mile from Zhang Jiang High Technology Park, Shanghai by Hin Chua

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