Brighton Photo Biennial 2014 - Communities, Collectives & Collaboration

This weekend I have been on the OCA organised study visit to the Brighton Photo Biennial which is running from 4th October to 2nd November. It is my first study visit and has been a very educational experience for me. For most of the time I just looked, listened and learned, which presumably was the idea, but as it was my first study visit and I wasn't familiar with how they worked, I suppose I was a little more stand-offish than I might have ordinarily been.

Several weeks later, I have actually got around to writing up my experiences ...

As I mentioned above, this was my first study visit so I was slightly apprehensive about what it would entail, whether I would fit in, or be out of my depth and so on - probably the feelings a lot of students have before their first visit. I am pleased to say that I should not have worried on any of these points - the tutors and most of my fellow students were very helpful and friendly. A lot of students seem to have met before and naturally grouped themselves accordingly but this is understandable and in no way did I feel excluded from anything. I am quite an independent person anyway, so I tend to go off and do my own thing when the chance arises. In a situation like this though, I have to restrict my natural behaviour somewhat and join in! 

I'd made my way down from London on the Saturday morning and met tutors Gareth Dent, Jesse Alexander, Russell Squires and Angela Rogers along with around 15-20 other students, at the University of Brighton gallery. After a few introductions we headed into the first exhibition. 

Plane Materials by Cornford & Cross

'Afterimage' was a display of aluminium framed, aluminium substrate of different shapes and sizes but where all the original images had actually been destroyed, so that all we could see was the what the image was originally attached to. This called for some debate as to what the purpose of this display was. I was a little worried at this point that the whole of the visit was going to be filled with esoteric displays of 'photography' in ways I had never imagined it! Initially I didn't really understand why anyone would want to  destroy photographs to display blank frames and backplates, but once I thought of it as something aside from photography, and more sculpture, it started to make a little bit more sense. The creators say that their work "alludes to an experience of a community and asks viewers to question their role in the exhibition". For me all I could get from it was the sense that something was once there and that I was now just staring at a hazy reflection of myself in a brushed metal plate; the shape of the frame was somehow some guide as to what was once there. My reflection was actually a reflection of my subjective view of how I saw the frame and how I might have seen he original image. I as a person would likely have seen the original image differently to some of my fellow students and almost definitely differently to someone from a very different culture. This variation would have been dependent on what the original image was. I did get the feeling that the tutors and my fellow students had feelings similar to mine - although I may be wrong of course - in that it wasn't photography but sculpture. 

Real Britain 1974: Co-Optic And Documentary Photography.

This exhibition marked the 40th anniversary of the Co-Optic Group's Real Britain postcard project and was the first public showing of this material from the Co-Optic Archive. In 1974, populist documentary realism had what was described as a 'special prominence' in English TV, film and photography. The group used postcards to as a platform for creative expression and as an accessible medium for the public to open their eyes to 'better photography'. 

I liked this exhibition as it felt more like the photography I'm familiar with; not only that but they were the types of photographs I myself would enjoy taking. The images were of everyday life in Britain in the early 1970s and they range from children playing, couples on holiday, to politicians electioneering. So the images weren't necessarily 'the norm' as they did include events which were far from normal, but they were events of what was happening in Britain in the daily lives of the people that lived here. It was also the plan of the Co-Optic Group to 'fostering an understanding of good photography amongst the public and other photographers', so the images were all of a certain quality, both technically and compositionally.

Amore E Piombe: The Photography of Extremes in 1970s Italy

Love and lead is the translation of this exhibition, as the theme covers the photography of the 'love' of the stars of the big screen amidst the backdrop of the 'lead' of the bullets used in the ongoing battle between the police and the mafia. There were many images from Rome based Team Editorial Services  making up this exhibition, as well as TV footage and audio. The exhibition itself was shown in one of the upper floors of the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery and the way the images were laid out gave me my first glimpse of how the curatorship of a set of images can have a profound effect on how we read them. The room had bookshelves along three sides which were full of images without  captions. The captions were remote, making you constantly jump back and forth to make sense of the image. To me, although this was slightly laborious, it did force you to think about the image and how it related to those nearby, by making you search for the answers, even though you may have come to your own conclusion already. The images were mostly a mixture of glamour and death, but also numerous pictures of politicians looking distraught or determined. There was a large image of a woman's eye in one corner of the room which you couldn't help but think of as anything but a sort of 'big brother' signifying the murky world of Italian politics of the time as well as the work of the photographers themselves, always on the look out for a glamorous or not so glamorous story. There were also images laid out almost on the floor, so you were looking down on them from above. Often these were of dead bodies or crime scenes and this lay out did make the images come to life, so to speak. At the far end of the room a large display of photographs of flowers which had been taken at around the time of the funeral of Aldo Moro - the Italian Prime Minister killed by the Red Brigade in 1978 - are arranged as if to be an actual flower arrangement themselves. 

I enjoyed this exhibition as I learned in particular, how the layout of a display can have a substantial impact on not only how the images are read, but also how it can keep the interest of the viewer. Often it is important to lead the viewer in a certain way so that they get the most from the visit and knowing how this is done may be an important lesson for me in the future. The images themselves were often striking and do encourage you to learn a little more about what was happening in Italy during that time. There was more of an emphasis on the lead, then the love but I think that was definitely intentional and certainly important. 

After this exhibition we broke for lunch and met up again in the afternoon at Vantage Point to see a group of exhibitions there.

The first part of our afternoon was spent looking at work by the 4th Floor Collective. There were 6 exhibitions spread through several large airy and well lit rooms on the 4th floor of the Vantage Point tower. As it's name suggests there were great views to be had from up there. On the whole I enjoyed these varied displays. Each display provided the viewer with some literature to introduce the photographer, assist their reading of the images and also to explain the reasoning behind the collections.

Inhabit by Alison Bettles, Fergus Heron and Alison Stolwood, was a collection of images which between the 3 photographers, explored the intersection of the domestic and natural worlds. Each photographer had their own take on one aspect of landscape, still-life and interior, and it was interesting to see how varied these were. It was interesting for me particularly as it was an introduction to how I might propose an idea and work on a number of images to fit that concept or idea, or even to work with others to see how our understanding of the concept might vary.

36 Views + Sub-Urbia by Adrian Turner

I enjoyed looking at Adrian Turner's work. They are interlinked projects that are (as far as I'm aware) works in progress. 36 views is based on Turner's views of the sea as viewed from in and around Brighton as he walks through it from one side to the other. It was inspired Katsushika Hokusai '36 Views of Mount Fuji' which depict Mount Fuji from different distances, directions and weather conditions. I like the idea of this project and from what I have seen of the images so far the concept is working well. Sub-Urbia is a look at the various homes owned or otherwise by the wealthy and poor of Brighton and how they display their homes to the passer-by. It is possibly a socially inspired project with some disguised humour and intention.

City Gorged with Dreams by Alex Currie, Peter Gates and Heather Tait

This project is intended to highlight - by photography - the differences between how Brighton is generally perceived in the advertising: the glossy, sun-kissed, seaside resort and the grittier underside, less often seen and rarely portrayed. Unfortunately their website doesn't seem to be working so I can't link to any images from the exhibition. Alex Currie describes himself as a contemporary landscape photographer, and you can see from his work that he specialises in the run-down, demolished, ignored, and hidden parts of our urban environment. Peter Gates is quirkier and his work is more difficult to categorise. He describes his work as showing the poetry of the everyday, which actually does describe his work pretty well - everyday things are made interesting by how he highlights the design elements in his images . Heather Tait, I don't know much about but she seems to do a mixture of photography and video work and her website shows images of organised protest and resistance to the establishment. I can't recall which images she contributed to this particular exhibition and it may even be an error in the literature that links her to this particular exhibition.

Common Place by Amelia Shepherd and Helen Cammock.

 

I did briefly view 288 Days but I think I was rushing a little at this point and I got a bit lost with it. My understanding was that Amelia Shepherd was using images of her pregnancy to confront how we might ordinarily look at a pregnant woman. There was some humour to it, but for me it was more about the concept than the images themselves. Unfortunately I didn't get to see Helen Cammock's work.

 

The Shot I Never Forgot

This was an interesting exhibition. A group of 26 photographers submitted images they had taken which they had never displayed or published before, but that had always been in their mind. Sometimes a photograph just doesn't fit into a project or brief and regardless of how good it is, it has to be excluded. This was the opportunity for these photographers to display their chosen image. There was of course a vast array of differing images and various reasons why they hadn't been used before. This is an ongoing project and the exhibition only showed the submissions of the first 26 photographers. There was a comprehensive newspaper to go with it which explained the thinking behind each image and the reasons why it hadn't seen the light of day earlier.

Collectives' Hub

We then headed up to the 7th floor of Vantage Point for a series of exhibitions in the Collectives' Hub. This was a group of 12 collectives from around the country selected by Brighton Photo Fringe  trainee curators.

At the moment at least, I am more appreciative of straight photography, and several of these collections were quite abstract and too conceptually based for me. Up to a point I can understand what the photographer is thinking, and it can certainly be interesting, but many weren't really for me. There were a couple of displays that I did like though. The Moscow Project by the Map6 Collective was one of these. The 5 photographers (one of the 6 is the curator) each chose a theme for their photographs of Moscow.  Between them they explored the city photographing the people and architecture, producing a varied mixture of interesting and rarely seen images of the city and its people.

Another display which interested me, but which did display some abstract images, was the Merge Collective's Sea of Plastic. I think the reason that perhaps this exhibition was of interest to me was its environmental theme. Although it did include some straight photography, it was quite conceptual and I think having an interest in the theme made it more accessible to me than some of the other displays where the topic or concept was more alien.

Chloe Dewe Mathews

After finishing at Vantage Point we walked back into town to the Jubilee Library to see a discussion with established photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews. She was talking about 2 of her recent works, Shot At Dawn and Evolving in Conversation. I won't try and recount everything that was discussed, but I will just say it was really interesting to hear how a photographer conceptualises and plans a commission or project and the work that goes into putting it into practice.

Some of the other students attended the Night Contact display in the evening but I missed this as I tried to find my B&B etc!

DAY TWO

On the second day we met at the Jubilee Library again for a morning of portfolio reviews. This was my first experience of this and I wasn't very well prepared, but nevertheless it was interesting to be part of it. Listening to other students' concerns can often be helpful and certainly seeing how others go about their work and how they overcome problems was very useful. I didn't really have a lot to review from my own studies, being quite early in the course, so most of it was sitting back and listening to others.

In the early afternoon we visited the Photo Publishers Market at Phoenix Brighton, where there were various photobooks on offer for sale. In the same building we viewed A Taste of Something of Mine which was a display featuring work by young people from black and ethnic minority communities. The images showed ways in which these people might represent their identities through photography.

Re:Mapping the Flaneur is an artwork inspired by Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project and includes hundreds of images from several collectives of photographers worldwide. The photographs which showed the complexities of contemporary human life were displayed on sweeping and rolling white card possibly imitating the meandering of the flaneur.   

Before (personally) finishing for the day, we sat down and had a discussion about the displays we'd looked at that morning. Again, for me it was more about listening to the others than saying much myself, as at this stage I still don't feel as though I have an enormous amount to contribute, but that it is more about listening and absorbing.

 

Summary

The weekend was really interesting and eye-opening for me, having never been to a photography exhibition before - let alone several. I enjoyed it a great deal. Needless to say there were many many exhibitions which I didn't see, which I regret. I think next time I will spend a little more time both before and after the study visit, should I be fortunate enough to get on it next time around! 

There were several points which particularly stuck in my mind and which I have taken away:

  • The importance and effect of curatorship.
  • How personal interest in a topic affects one's view of the work.
  • How photographic 'standards' are sometimes compromised in heavily conceptualised work.
  • How working with others can create a linked and yet diverse body of work.
  • How the balance of my personal preference between straight photography and conceptual art which incorporates often abstract photography, is tipped quite heavily in favour of straight photography.