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OCA study visit to FORMAT Festival
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FORMAT – OCA study visit

This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.

© Amano Samarpan

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.
© Ian Teh/Courtesy of FORMAT Festival

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.
© Caroline McNally/Courtesy of FORMAT Festival

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.

Posted by author: Jose
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18 thoughts on “FORMAT – OCA study visit

  • I can fit in half a day to visit (en route to Barnsley in two weeks) so what would you say is the most challenging exhibit to visit?

  • I’ve not had a chance to write anything about going to the Format study visit because of work, but the pieces of work that stand out for me are those by Ian Teh, Moira Lovell and Chris Coekin. Certainly worth seeing, and if I get a chance I’ll be heading back, as there are other pieces of work I saw when going round with the OCA that I was to revisit.

  • Sorry I couldn’t make the trip with you, though managed a quick visit on Monday, loved the Meichsner work, and Fabjanski was very interesting. Anyone visiting the Chocolate factory keep an eye out for the film I made on the Duckrabbit course in Belper. Hopefully not the last time I get to exhibit at Format!

  • An enjoyable and informative day and well worth the effort of getting up at 6.00 a.m. although by midday I had had enough and decided to head home. There comes a point, for me, where further viewing is counter-productive. Perhaps it is something to do with age but more likely that I felt that there was too little time for personal reflection after viewing and discussion by the group of any individual photographer’s work.
    There is also the tendency to talk a photograph to death. I recognise that the purpose of a study visit is to discuss both the subject matter and how the photographer has achieved the stated aim but is it not possible to just enjoy the image for itself. Speculation is all very well and good but it is just that – speculation. There is a tendency for us all to try and explain everything – to fit the object into our world view – but if there are 16 people in the group there are going to be 16 (and possibly more!) world views. I have very strong views about Moira Lovell’s work (bit unfortunate really because she is my tutor) because of personal experience of the Miners Strike through relatives who worked in the industry and of those who were charged with the difficult task of controlling the more violent elements.The point is not that I think Moira’s view is ‘wrong’ (there is no such thing as a wrong view) but my world view gets in the way of me seeing it through her work.
    My personal view is that exhibitions and such events as ‘Format’ are invaluable in providing a platform for understanding. Whether study days in there present format are the best way to maximise benefit is open to question particularly at the level of the individual.

    • Thanks for commenting Cedric. I must admit I was concerned when you left at lunchtime, so I am pleased that your evaluation is that attending was worth it.
      A couple of thoughts. I personally think that Moira’s work is interesting because she is seeking to show something quite intangible – the impact on a population of events which are now a considerable time in the past. We deliberately placed Moira’s work immediately before the lunch break to create a bit more time to discuss it.
      Your question about the format (no pun intended) of study visits is something we keep constantly under review. We know students get benefits from sharing their experiences with others at different stages in their degree study, but we also know that the OCA input that might be optimal for a student just starting on Art of Photography is unlikely to be same as that for a student at level 3. It’s a challenging balancing act, but suggestions for change are always welcome.

    • Cedric
      I find your comments valid and have copied them to my blog; assume you are happy with that!
      It was quite an exhausting day and I certainly felt imaged out by the end though the Blurb book presentation was worth seeing.
      As for the structure of study days, they can and do vary. I think the discussions are of prime importance and often this means sitting down and chatting over a beverage perhaps with a tutor feeding the discussion.

      • Happy for stuff to be copied.I agree about the differing structure of the study days and would expect that to be the case given the variety of venues. I have been giving this some thought since receiving Gareth’s message. My personal preference would be for an organised meet in a venue that is not shared with other groups at the end of the visit. I realise that this takes someone to make the arrangements and would be a burden for OCA central staff but assume there would be someone l local to take on this task.
        The cafe area at the University would have been ideal had it not been for the .music. As Gareth said you cannot predict what is going to be happening but someone local could find out prior to an event.

  • Thank you very much for a very interesting and stimulating visit. It was my first study visit and will be the first, I hope, of many more for me.
    I have written about my experience of the day here.

    • This was my first OCA study visit and I learnt so much and enjoyed the contact with other students so much that I’ve already booked a place on the next study visit.
      Fabulous Alet, that’s what we like to hear.

  • Hi
    Gained a lot from Format and may be different from others as I noticed in the album section at the Quad that people had been cut from the photos leaving a hole whereas today we’d just erase them as it they didn’t exist. Relates to my Critical Review Altered Reality. Also what will happen to albums now and what will we leave in the future now we are digital? There was also a very nice quilt in the Chocolate Factory with images printed on material as part of the design, linking with my interest in embroidery. Following on from Format I went to the Fashion Embroidery and Stitch where I photograph for the ICHF. During my visit I came across Ruth Brown who is printing photographic images on different fabrics. I have a copy of her book so will start experimenting one day.
    It was funny or coincidence that we spent some time at Camera Club talking about images from mobile phones and these were on the walls in the Chocolate Factory. Will cameras be out of date soon?
    Another idea which I may or may not take up for our exhibition in October is where people were asked to email images in of Sheffield and they were put on labels and attached to a map. I have also been using labels as part of my learning log having seen these in the Usher Art Gallery Exhibition a couple of years ago.
    Will be starting my own blog as soon as my work has gone for assessment.

  • Sorry for the belated reply but just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the day and in fact I have been back for a second look.
    Being a relativeley new student to the OCA I have to admit that some of the sets we looked at I simply didnt understand but I think it has planted seeds for the future.
    Anyway great to meet everyone and thanks for a well organised enjoyable day.
    My blog thoughts are here http://jetmad.co.uk/wp/?page_id=2203

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