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Right here, right now…first impressions

After a week that included several days at Focus on Imagining, a photography assessment exercise, a day of videoing and an evening with a rather pleasant bottle of Rioja, Jose and I made a rather tired spectacle as we picked our way through the barricades awaiting the Lib Dem spring conference to make our way to Sheffield station to travel to the Format study day. We wondered if we would be able to enthuse and be sociable. However the quality of the work on display and the obvious enthusiasm of the students we met was easily sufficient stimulation.
At the Quad I was particularly taken by the work of Zhang Xiao – his image of the man in his pants doing tai chi at the side of a rather untempting waterside was already familiar from the Format poster, but I was struck by the use of images in combination and the contrasts they provoked, the most obvious pairing was the well groomed dogs on the obviously cared for ancient bicycle and the guard dog kenneled in a scrapped car, but there were also subtler pairings – use of the beach the use of the water’s edge as playground and dumping ground. There was a pervasive sense of melancholy in the work, reinforced by the unsaturated colours and the frequency of lone figures, even in crowded scenes. The work comes from a coastal road trip and can be seen here in an interesting video by Festival Director/Curator Louise Clements. There is a resonance of an earlier road trip by Joel Sternfeld in the work (in particular the ‘Wet and Wild’ image from American Prospects) and I was struck by Penny’s observation that she thought the best work was now coming from outside Europe and the US as photographers. There is certainly a sense that the American road trip may now be a mined out seam.
Not that there was any sense that Joel Meyerowitz has run out of material, his six image career survey (40 years in six images!) ended with what can best described as ‘Pastoral with Toilet Roll’ which provoked some interesting debate – despite extensive Googling with a variety of search terms, I am afraid I have been unable to find a copy.
And then there was Peter Dench. Keith pointed out that my take on his work was pretty evident from the body language when talking about it and I have to say the slideshow didn’t change my view. In fact the use of a slideshow was perhaps the thing that struck me most forcefully, as Eileen pointed out it not only determined the sequence in which the images were viewed but also the durations, and typically this was too long for my taste. There is a distance and a coldness in the observation which I can’t get past; it speaks of the subjects as other, not fellow human beings who happen to be drunk, but drunks who might also be human.
One of the things I love about street photography is the potential for humour and over at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery Andy Morley-Hall’s Spitfire photo had me laughing out loud, I just love the three poses and the way they capture differing responses to the disaster which has clearly just taken place.

Elsewhere Clive was getting serious with Jose, Rob and Jeff as they discussed work by Melanie Einzig . I heard the phase ‘life is banal but also strange at the same time’ and left them to it.
Jose will be posting his thoughts tomorrow and I am looking forward to seeing student reactions.

Posted by author: Genevieve Sioka
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25 thoughts on “Right here, right now…first impressions

  • … and Clive was about to tell us something along the lines of ‘… if you can’t see beyond the banal it is probably because of your own banality …’ – well, that was the gist of it, anyway. And we knew what he meant and took it on the chin!!
    ‘Agreed’ on the subject of Peter Dench – an obvious comparison with Martin Parr, I guess, but he goes even further – then, for an outsider’s view of the same subject see Maciej Dakowicz – http://www.maciejdakowicz.com/

    • Thanks for finding the Meyerowitz image Rob – it reminds me of the Bob Dylan lyric
      ‘But even the president of the United States
      Sometimes must have to stand naked’
      I don’t know about you Stan but I find the Maciej Dakowicz images more sympathetic – as well as showing the abject reality – drunken people picking chips off the floor for example – there are also shots which show tenderness and friendship. Interestingly they are on flickr which means not only can you look at the entire body of work, but you an also look at how they were taken – nearly entirely with a 35mm lens – which suggests Maciej is right in the thick of the action

      • I agree with you there Gareth, without doing any analysis as to why Dakowicz’s images seem to respect his subjects’ humanity; you feel empathetic.

      • Truthfully, I’m struggling to put together my response to you, Gareth (and Clive). I do see some differences between the two, of course, and one can summise differences of motivation and intent from their respective backgrounds/websites, but I also have to say that I see some very powerful negative images amongst the the Dakowicz work, which may not dehumanise the subjects to quite the same degree but they certainly don’t pull any punches. Likewise, not all the Dench work is without humanity and empathy – in some of the other categories listed on his website.
        I certainly don’t wish to defend Dench’s ‘Drink’ images in any way, but I don’t feel that this comparison is a simple one, which is why I say I am struggling to structure my reply. If anyone can help throw more light, that would perhaps be helpful.

      • OK, having looked at both of them a little more it seems to me that Dench’s are more mannered, they display more artifice and therefore appear to me as slightly disingenuous in comparison to Dakowicz.
        I’ll leave it at that so I don’t have to write a lot more. ‘ }

  • I also like Dakowicz’s work and agree that there is more obvious empathy in the drinking scenes. I did like Peter Dench’s other work, when it eventually came round on the slideshow – the exploration of multiculturalism seemed to me to be more complex and thoughtful.
    Overall it was a very interesting day, with way too much work to absorb in one go. I found it stimulating and thought-provoking. Thanks for organising it.

  • Great day. Enjoyed the Festival and the opportunity to talk photography. Good to see so many students and tutors in one place at the same time.
    For me there were many highlights some of which involved revisiting work which I had seen before. I was particularly taken by Frederic Lezmi’s Beyond Borders – a photographic record of a road trip from Vienna to Beirut. I liked the way the images were presented in a film like sequence with the narrative flowing from one location to the next. It had a great sense of energy and flow.
    I am not a fan of Peter Dench’s work. For me his work doesn’t present a balanced view of Britain in the 21st century and I found it pretty cynical and lacking in consideration for his subjects.
    It would be sad to think Gareth that the American Road Trip is finished …..we would be stuck for ever with the impressions of Frank, Shore, Sternfeld et al….I hope there is something new to document out there….
    Thanks to Gareth and the rest of the OCA team for organising a great day out.

    • Don’t rely on me as a guide to health or otherwise of photography traditions Keith – no sooner do I suggest that the American Road trip is finished than I become aware of someone seeking to reinvent it – see this Lise Sarfati interview on ASX

  • Thanks for sharing all the links everyone… some are blocked, but others immensely interesting… wish I could have been there.
    But then again, sounds like you guys used a lot of big words, so I’d be lost…
    Some mixed opinions on some of the work coming from this side of the world, but then, I obviously still have a lot to learn, so may not be ‘seeing’ everything.

    • We all have a lot to learn Dewald; what would be the point of looking at and taking photographs otherwise? Beware of photographers who give you guidance as to what you are supposed ‘to see’ in their images. Photographers such as Zhang Xiao and Hin Chua don’t seem to feel the need to abide by the same visual conventions we do here in the West. Their visual language is complex and refreshing.

  • I know I was there but perhaps I was in a parallel universe. I hadn’t realised that people could get so emotional and involved about coloured dots on paper. They cannot speak, they cannot move and they cannot of themselves instigate an emotional reaction. I can only assume that in some way we feel the need to react but are we reacting to what we are looking at or are we feeling upset/angry because someone has made us examine our own view of the world and response, for example, to the drunk in the street lying in his own vomit.
    I thought the vast majority of the work I saw was poor and this was not helped by some poor presentation (the lighting in the Quad was a disaster particularly on the stairs). Happily I had not heard of most of the photographers so just reacted to the image in front of me without having to think that ‘that must be good because it is by Fred Bloggs’ (sorry Fred some of your work really is worthy of praise but like the rest of humanity you can produce some awful crap which like the lack of clothes on the Emperor is only noticed by those who for some reason have not been brainwashed)
    Did I enjoy the day – Yes!! Would I go again – Yes

    • ‘Would I go again – Yes’
      That’s the main thing Cedric – there’s still time for Jose, Clive and me to persuade you of the intrinsic quality of Bloggs’ oeuvre!

      • Hahaha I missed this earlier… Cedric’s still waiting on his Pauline conversion… ‘there’s more joy in Heaven etcetera etcetera’ Hahaha

  • I was at Format, but not part of the study group. I met my brother for the very first time at the festival (long story), he’s a London street photographer. I would have liked to say hello to everybody but getting lost and being completely overwhelmed with the meeting left time only for a quick chat with Clive.
    There was some brilliant work on display, though what really made an impression on me was the Slideslam presentation in the evening. For anyone who’s interested, this piece by David Willems will give an idea of the work presented.
    A beautiful piece of work that was deeply moving considering the earthquake and tsunami.

  • Good to hear of your day and had I not been elsewhere, I would have attended.
    Can someone please let me know of the exhibitions you saw as I would like to visit them when I attend the end of the Format Festival for the “On the Concrete” seminar!
    There is a lot going on at present in the UK about Street Photography which happily coincides with the module I am presently undertaking … People and Place! I have mixed feelings about this genre .. certainly when I see the kind of work that Bruce Gilden is doing when approaching people on the NYC street with camera and flash I feel repulsed (not sure he could manage this approach in the UK) … am more interested in showing the dignity of humans (not so easy) than cornering them to reveal another barely human side.
    Anyway, for me The Format Festival beckons and I shall re-read your comments afterwards perhaps !!

      • There is a very similar Bruce Gilden video at Format Amano, filmed in the city centre in Derby.
        I think his ‘friends’ might well agree he ‘has no ethics’!

    • Amano, not only could Gilden get away with this approach in the UK but he was actually commissioned to by Format.
      Personally while i’m not particularly put off by his methods i’m not always taken with the results. However some of his documentary work, like his essay ‘Foreclosures’ is really strong and much more sympathetic to those featured. Incidentally its also one of the strongest examples of multimedia i’ve seen.
      Edit – Gareth beat me to an answer!

      • Mark and Gareth
        Thanks for your replies!
        I was aware that Bruce Gilden was doing something for the festival and watched the video with interest. It did strike me that although he started off as the brash New Yorker, the people of Derby stood up to him and were themselves confrontational which in a way proves the point I was trying to make that he had to change his ways a bit to work in the UK. In NYC, it appears that he is just the interloper not conversing with his subjects at all.
        I like Gilden’s work and the man himself obviously has charm, but do not wish to be made to feel that this is the way to do street photography.
        The videographer seemed to catch some of the dignity of those who stood up to Gilden; I wonder if I shall see that dignity in Gilden’s exhibition at the festival!?

      • Mark
        I have just been looking at the video link you posted and seen some other work by Bruce Gilden. Now I understand why Gilden is such a well known and established photographer. Amazing work .. the way he gets at the heart of his subject is remarkable.

  • I haven’t seen much of Peter Dench’s work, but I read his monthly column in Professional Photographer (and listen to the podcast) and it occurs to me that he may be more participant in the drunken-ness than just a by-stander. That changes the perception of his images since this may be his actual life-style, unlike others such as Martin Parr who are middle-class visitors to working class shame (a tradition since photograpy was invented).

    • Brian,
      Interestingly enough this follows up on a comment I must have mangled some way as it hasn’t appeared about Jose’s take on Format11
      I think that a lot of Dench’s Drunk UK series were too snapshot like to really capture my attention, but this kind of reverses my thought of the fact they were deliberately made that way and this is someone giving validity to “Facebook” style images.
      In otherwords if a “photographer” creates an image of drunks while drunk it carries more validity than a “non-photographer” creating a similar image.
      The subject matter Dench chooses appears deliberately designed to shock where as Martin Parr, who came from a purely a suburban background in Epsom, creates images that portray in a hyper realistic style the life he sees around him. I feel Dench uses shock details to cover a lack of credible style, he often goes for the shock factor of the subject to carry the message rather than deliberately composing an image to voice it. Like it or loathe it , Street Photography does conform to classic compositional theories.
      However in Dench’s Love UK series there are some images of older people in “amorous” poses that would no doubt shock a younger audience , but for those of us approaching middle years read a different message.
      But in a nutshell I don’t like his archly faux ingenuous snapshots.

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