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.

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.