FORMAT – OCA study visit
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Long gone are the days when Gareth and I would outnumber the students coming on study visits. And so are the days when students would only look at exhibition work on a purely formal aesthetic level. Something is shifting, something in the way OCA students think photography. And that became evident during our visit to FORMAT in Derby.
Revolving around the theme of FACTORY, the festival invites visitors “to explore the global effects and to discover the complex relationships between workers, products and machines.” The variety of photographic approaches to exploring the main theme is mind blowing. From the traditional B&W reportage of Ken Grant to performative photography – enacted, theatrical quasi-documentary situations – such as that of OCA tutor Chris Coekin, FORMAT demonstrates, more clearly than any other show I’ve seen recently, the visual and conceptual health of current documentary photography. Because for photography to be worthy of the label ‘documentary’ there is something that has to be present: social commentary. And there is plenty of that at FORMAT.
Social commentary such as that in Moving Mountains by RJ Fernandez, our first exhibition of the day. A cunningly placed photograph of a diorama amongst photographs of real quarried landscapes triggered interesting discussions. However, as OCA students pointed out, the aim of the photographer, as explained in the artist’s statement, seemed to be somewhat disconnected from the actual images on display. Intentionality, a mark of authorship, is what drives documentary practice, and the work we saw at FORMAT is not exception: the photographers on the show have something to say, something to communicate. This inevitably entails taking a stance on the issues subject of the documentation and on the tone of the message that is conveyed.
Take Ian Teh’s Dark Clouds. The photographer’s own perspective on China’s ‘economic miracle’, and the effect that is has on some sectors on the population, is perfectly obvious in his work. Teh presents a distopic present; oblique, blurred, gritty and grey images convey a sense of despair and lack of hope. Very much the opposite to what one feels when looking at David Chancellor’s South African forestry workers in Pelepele.
Intention, motivation, point of view, tone…a photographer cannot elude these aspects of their work. Sitting on the fence is particularly uncomfortable in documentary. What was the intention of Sebastian Liste when he took photographs of a deprived community in Salvador de Bahia, I wonder? More specifically, what was Liste’s intention when he photographed a couple having intercourse? And his motivation, what was his motivation for taking that photograph? Motivation and intention, while closely related, are not necessarily the same thing.
OCA tutor Moira Lovell’s photographs of coal miners involved in the 1984-5 miner’s strike sparkled an animated discussion on the symbolism of the images and the unusual visual solution of photographing the miners against pitch dark backgrounds. Opinions were divided around the emulation of cross-processing in Caroline McNally’s Earth is Room Enough. The pink cast in the images was deemed gratuitous by many, while others, included myself, thought that it was a successful choice of look for the subject matter. The cross-processing arguably enhances the symbolic associations with the landscapes of Mars that roving vehicles such as Curiosity beam up to us: desolate and unable to support life.
If you haven’t been to FORMAT yet then please go and have a look; it’s running until 7 April. Spend a day, or even better, spend a weekend visiting exhibitons. No matter what level at the OCA you are studying, I guarantee you will come back inspired and ready to grab your camera and comment on the world the way the artists on the show have done.