"Strange & Familiar" and "Unseen City" - Study Visits - Barbican and Guildhall Art Galleries - May 7th 2016

The sub-heading for "Strange and Familiar" the first exhibition of this study visit, was 'Britain as Revealed by International Photographers', and is a collection of images from the 1930s to more recent times by several well-known non-British photographers. The exhibition aimed to show how these photographers understood - or perhaps misunderstood - the social, cultural and political identity of Britain. Not all the work was perhaps entirely down to the choice of the photographer as indeed some work was commissioned to portray Britain as imagined by others, in a stereotypical sense. Sometimes it was difficult to differentiate the two - indeed the photographers themselves may have found it difficult to be objective, and not simply be drawn towards telephone boxes and bowler hats. That said, there may well be a reason to incorporate irony into the image.

Our tutor was Rob Bloomfield whose views I always enjoy hearing. Rob quite rightly takes a very critical stance when reviewing exhibitions and often sees things which I haven't picked up on. Although I don't always agree with his views, his knowledge and intense scrutiny, particularly of the curatorial side of exhibitions, is always enlightening.

Strange and Familiar is a large show comprising the work of 23 photographers. The quantity of work from each photographer varied but each had several images on show. What is important to consider - as I am becoming increasingly aware, and often repeat in my reviews -  is to what extent the curation affects the exhibition. This exhibition was curated by Magnum photographer and author Martin Parr, and included some of his own (owned by him not taken by him) personal images and books. We must remember that although the exhibition is meant to show how a foreigner views the UK, the images chosen by Parr actually become how Parr has chosen to show the UK by using photographs taken by others; the photographs weren't necessarily taken by the foreign photographer in an attempt to show the UK how they saw it, although some of course were. Additionally we need to consider which images might have been excluded from the photographers' work.

In previous reviews I realise I have been too descriptive, and have simply re-written (or close to it) what the exhibition is and what's on show, rather than critically reviewing it. As I progress through the course I am aware that this isn't sufficient and I need to start thinking (and writing) more deeply about what is going on. That said, I will continue to say what I like and don't like and why, as I believe this too will help me perhaps reconsider my own personal view on photography in general.

I must admit at this point that completing writing up this review took me several months and it is now October - so some of the comments I am making from here on in are based on my old notes and memory! I'm afraid I was held up by life getting in the way!

The list of photographers whose work Parr has selected for this exhibition included the likes of Garry Winogrand, Bruce Davidson, Paul Strand, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Gilden and Raymond Depardon. There were works by several other notable photographers too but this list of names is enough to demonstrate the artistic weight, if you like, of the work exhibited. For me the exhibition was certainly 'likeable' as it the photographs were easy to grasp, predominantly straight photography containing a fair degree of nostalgia and humour. It would be difficult to not enjoy it purely as a spectacle but as an example of how foreigners see us I doubt it really answered this question.

The second part of the study visit took us to the Guildhall Art Gallery and Parr's 'Unseen City' exhibition. This was, in a sense, a strange collection of photographs and certainly had us thinking about what Parr was actually trying to show, if anything. On the face of it, he was meant to be showing what goes on behind the scenes in the City of London and during its various, rather pompous, events. Parr has been 'Photographer in Residence' to the City of London since 2013 and this collection of images was made over a period of time as he photographed various events from Lord Mayor's shows to inaugurations and the like. Most of the images were taken in a snapshot manner which did become slightly repetitive after a while. One thing that seems to linger in my memory was that there was a lot of red, not only because the walls of the gallery were red,  but also because of the many costumed people in the images were wearing red, or walking on red carpets.

Knowing Martin Parr's style, myself and my fellow students were looking to question his motives in a few of the images, as it is likely that he is not necessarily being fair to his subjects! Although my memory of this visit is not the clearest, I do recall feeling a little disappointed overall in what was on display. It was quite repetitive and didn't perhaps live up to what I have come to expect from Martin Parr. Perhaps in his role as Photographer-in-Residence he was on more of a tight rein than he might have been, and therefore less critical of his subjects; or maybe he was just too clever for me on this occasion!

I am going to post this now even though I haven't been particularly thorough with my review as trying to review the exhibition solely from memory and a few notes isn't really appropriate.