Uncertain States 2013

Posted on November 25, 2013

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I have been to a few exhibitions recently and have decided to capture some thoughts on these on the blog.

The first port of call was the Uncertain States 2013 exhibition at The Bank on Whitechapel Road in the East End of London. (see here). I visited this exhibition with John Umney and Catherine Banks, fellow OCA students. John was kind enough to organise this get together.

According to their website Uncertain States is  ‘a lens based, artist led project. Releasing a quarterly newspaper we attempt to expand a critical dialogue and promote visual imagery. The work reflects some key social and political concerns and challenges how perception is formed in a society like ours, on issues as diverse as politics, religion and personal identity.’ The exhibition was their annual show.

What struck me about this exhibition was the wide range of photography on show extending from unashamedly pictorialist photographs created using traditional techniques to digital photo-montage. The diversity was such that it was pretty hard to get my mind around what was on show. The brief catalogue was helpful to a degree but in some cases the artist’s statements were rather abbreviated.

Tom Hunter had two photographs on show from his ‘Life and Death in Hackney’ series. It was good to see him supporting this exhibition, which included work by around 30 artist/photographers. Too many to take in during a short visit. I will comment on three whose work I found particularly interesting.

David George presented three small photographs from his ‘Albedo’ series (see here). These are photographs of quarries that run from Frosterly to Cow Green Reservoir in Upper Weardale. Whilst a committed supporter of the New Topographics school of documenting the man altered landscape, George also feels that a Romantic representation has legitimacy. The small, dark and moody photographs presented in the exhibition fall into the romantic category. This dichotomy between the objectivity of New Topographics and the subjectivity of Romantic representation is something which I have been mentally wrestling with in my East End work. I have decided on a distinctly expressive aesthetic for the landscapes in this work and have been bothered about whether I might be accused of ‘visual hyperbole’ for using this approach. It is good to see that others are wrestling with this debate and that there might be room for more than one school of thought.

I was struck by the self portraits presented by Pete McGovern. (see here). McGovern’s photographs are transgender self-portraits. He turns his back to the camera. I had a sense that he was hiding from public view, which gave the portraits a great sense of sadness. In a way these reminded me of John Umney’s portraits of artists in which he photographed his subjects from behind, although in John’s work there is no feeling of sadness.  I have come to realise that a portrait does not need to show the face to convey strong messages about the person depicted.

The final photographer whose work interested me was Fiona Yaron-Field, who was exhibiting her ‘Safe Haven’ portraits. (see here). We got to meet Fiona who was at the exhibition and she generously spent some time with us.The portraits are of women who have decided to have their Down’s syndrome children rather than have an abortion, which happens in 92% of cases. The women in her portraits are pictured in classical poses against a red velvet background. Fiona explained that the red is intended to symbolise the womb. She also explained that she prefers the portraits to be shown in a small gallery with the portraits on all four walls which extends the womb metaphor into the gallery space. This reinforces how important it is to align the mode of presentation with the conceptual basis for the photographic work. Fiona explained some of the challenges she had had whilst making the portraits – small spaces, dogs running around, bad light and so on. It is good to know that I am not along in finding location shooting of portraits challenging. John Umney is trying to organise for Fiona to come and talk to a group of OCA students. This will be very interesting.

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