Photo Romania Festival 2016


There is a buzz and a joviality in the air at the 6th edition of Photo Romania Festival. I arrive at Sapientia University half way through the five day programme, warmly welcomed by festival organiser Sebastian Vaida and ready for a day of talks and discussions. I watch as friends and colleagues fill the building, their welcoming embraces and friendly chatter reminiscent of a family reunion, and one by one I am introduced to this amiable bunch. For many this is a fixed event on their social calendar. The desire to support each other and extend the reach of photography is uniformly shared, with many attendees part of PHEN (The Photo European Network) and hailing from all over the EU. The infectious passion and comradery is one of the defining characteristics of the festival, helping bring everything together with a sense of purpose.

Despite a pleasingly casual vibe (we’re on “Romanian Time” I’m told – meaning everything starts 15 minutes later than advertised) the festival comprises a packed schedule of events that take place across the beautiful, laid-back city of Cluj-Napoca. Among a number of guests Colin Ford is in attendance to give a talk on Hungarian Photography, as well as Keith Moss who is here to deliver a street photography workshop. Numerous in-depth presentations are lined up, detailing a compelling array of artistic projects, and practical sessions have been organised covering specialist topics such as wedding, fashion, landscape, and concert photography.

Sebastian calmly shepherds his guests and speakers into the auditorium as a day of talks begins. The variety of work presented is aesthetically experimental and intellectually incisive, often approaching difficult subjects in considered, thoughtful ways. Particularly fascinating is Gema Polanco Asensi’s discussion of her work Como Dios Manda (“As is Proper”) and her photographic investigation into how women are controlled for the benefit of male hegemony, through what Michel Foucault termed bio-power (the subjugation of bodies by modern nation states through a range of diverse practices).  While bio-power is evident in a number of contexts, Asensi’s focus is “upper middle-class Spanish women”, using her own family as a case study and combining archive photos with her own work.

Como Dios Manda (As is Proper) 2016 © Gema Asensi

While she iterates that this method of female subjugation is seen the world over, it is noteworthy that her mother and grandparents grew up in the shadow of Franco’s Spain, where women were expected to submit to the traditional values of motherhood and family or risk being ostracised by their communities. Subsequently, internalising the values of this ruling power they pass on these ideals of femininity and subservience to their female offspring, confirming the effectiveness of a ‘silent’ kind of government where woman’s role as nurturer is just “common sense”.

Her pictures have a critical, sociological objectivity; many of them are cropped or blurred to obscure individual faces, drawing attention to their behaviours instead. These are often subtle gestures such as holding, touching or petting, acts codified as care but implying a form of physical and psychological control. The archive photos of her mother and grandmother are juxtaposed with Asensi’s recent work in which she becomes part of this recycling of hegemonic values. Through the comparison of old and new we see the same gestures recur, with the often de-personalised bodies playing the same roles: wife, carer and mother. One particular image, a mother’s hand on a young woman’s head as she brushes her hair, hints at the veiled nature of control. The subject of the picture is subdued, groomed; being moulded perhaps into an object of attraction for a future suitor.

Johan Österholm’s series Peculiar Notions at Dusk conflated the cosmic and the ordinary with an Isaac Newton inspired investigation into the fall of that fateful apple. Covering the cross sections of fruit in a photo-sensitive emulsion he then exposes it to starlight to create “a cosmos within the apple”, resulting in some stunning images. Taking a more socio-political turn, Juraj Starovecký’s The Curtain explores our ongoing enforcement of arbitrary and unnatural barriers. Reanimating the “Iron Curtain” era for a generation born after the Cold War, he illustrates the extreme obstacles encountered by those either wanting to enter or leave Soviet-Russia between 1945 and 1991. In a more personal, nostalgic vein he also investigates childhood and memory; in Familiar Story cutting out the faces of his family photos to disrupt one of the central purposes of photography – to document and record our lives – while allowing other people to project themselves into similar situations from their past.

Jonas Forchini Mangrovines

Mangrovines, 2016 © Jonas Forchini

I’m taken by the suggestive nature of Jonas Forchini’s Mangrovines (currently exhibiting at PhotoEspaña along with Asensi’s Como Dios Manda). Illuminating the difficult situation of many Senegalese, who in the past have made a living from artisanal fishing in their home country, he describes how their livelihood has been threatened by the over-exploitation of their waters by European fishing boats. The stark minimalism of a number of his images (ropes transcending black space or a blanket looped through a single rope as though through a noose) evokes the tenuous existence of these men. “The sea becomes asphalt” when they are forced to emigrate, here to the urban milieu of Madrid, where they make a living through the illegal activity of street-selling.

Forchini is sympathetic to their dilemma and interested in how they adapt to their new environment. He draws out the parallels between their old native trade and their new prohibited one. The fishing net which contained their catch before becomes the blanket with their cache of illegally sold goods. The rope conflates the fear of being caught by the police with that of the fishing line. As well as this, the symbolism of the stretched rope, continuing beyond the frame and often knotted, suggests to me the interconnected global web we are all a part of; our actions always having consequences, on communities or the environment, whether we are aware of them or not.

Breaking for lunch, we coalesce in the courtyard just outside the university, amiably chatting as we spoon plates of food into our mouths. Sitting with the very personable Henriette, a representative from Nordic Light Festival and a member of PHEN, we express an impatience to explore this beguiling city. As soon as we are told there are numerous exhibits in the Casino building in Central Park, not more than fifteen minutes away, Henriette’s blue eyes disappear behind dark shades and we are off into the sunny streets, heading towards the warm heart of the city.

The park is awash with activity. Medieval street theatre greats us, though my Romanian doesn’t stretch much further than “Excuse me” and “Can you speak English?”, so to me it is just men with plastic shields mouthing off on horseback. There is also a stunning lake in the park on which kids peddle huge car-shaped boats (best idea ever!). We are stoic though and, refusing to be distracted for long, enter the Casino building.

Casino building, Central Park

The majority of the spare, rather empty hall is given over to the works of the renowned Romanian photographer and journalist Iosif Berman, whose black and white pictures adorn the orange walls. Living from 1892 to 1941, he was a socially committed photographer fascinated by rural Romanian life and its customs. His expressive images attest to this. He shows the material lack of these areas, as well as the simple joys of the inhabitants and their warm and generous spirit. On icy landscapes men are pictured labouring, axes caught mid-swing. Children sit covered head to toe in the snow, their mouths open in joyful cries, while in a cemetery a large group kneels by the graveside as though performing a ritual. Given the absence of captions, one infers that this work was produced as part of his partnership with the sociologist Dimitrie Gusti, part of their contribution to the then emerging genre of ethnological photography.

In the same building Cătălin Munteanu’s After 25 Years: The Closed Gates of the Industry in Ploiești (2014) explores the steady decline of the aforementioned city, just north of Bucharest. Once a place of great civic pride for its industrial might – it was home to the world’s first oil refinery – the fall of communism in 1989 arguably led to its collapse, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, along with the closing of vocational facilities that provided training for employees. As capitalism took over, a once self-sustaining economy began to rely on imported goods, and its landscape became littered with abandoned buildings and shopping malls.

The images displayed present a lost world through the bleached bodies of disused factory buildings.  A power station sits idle behind rusting green gates and crumbling walls. Only a station attendant stands in front of Ploiești West’s neglected and peeling facade. Nature is seen reasserting her supremacy where time has been called on human endeavour, creeping over walls and burying railway track. Apart from a few resigned individuals, the photos are desolate and uninhabited, full only of broken glass and corroded metal. “This”, Munteanu says, “is the progress of 25 years of wrongly understanding capitalism and democracy.”

Cătălin Munteanu After 25 Years (2014)

After 25 Years, 2014 © Cătălin Munteanu

On the way back to the university I indulge in a delicious sweet-cheese pastry from a local bakery, and when I return, tanned and full of sugar, I’m somewhat sleepier than before. A talk on the use of fairy-tale elements in fashion photography presents some imaginatively designed shots, and surreal scenes of fair-maidens parade before my drooping eyelids.  I can’t be sure I’m not dozing when the phrase “You used the unicorn…I didn’t do that” reaches my ears. As evening slowly descends and the day’s events draw to a close I head back out into the warm air, passing by Avram Iancu Square with its cathedral and towering statue before leisurely walking to Samsara, where the Photo Romania crew in celebratory mood eat and drink late into the evening.

The next day I head for Casa Romania: the headquarters of the festival’s operations and informal chill out zone. Ascending the hill in the 24 degree heat I pass some fantastically dilapidated houses, held back behind tall iron gates like something from a horror movie (we are in Transylvania after all!), before finally spotting the exultant words “PHOTO ROMANIA” along a fence. Here a large number of the photographers’ works are displayed, as well as being the place where PHEN are holding their day-long discussion. Irina, providing support and coordination for the festivals day-to-day activities, sits cheerful and diligent behind a laptop at a table strewn with flyers, and I potter about taking in the weird and wonderful décor and a lot of fine photography.

Arresting monochrome pictures from Javier Corso’s Fish Shot are stretched out across two rooms, part of a documentary project investigating the interwoven issues of loneliness, isolation and alcoholism in Finnish society. There is a stark beauty in the sprawling shots of barren landscapes, the emptiness evoking a sense of unease. Geographical isolation is shown to be part of the problem, while social atomisation is evident in the fact the majority of these photos show men journeying alone.  This is potentially the flip-side of Finland’s successful welfare state and its plentiful housing, reducing the necessity for co-habitation and additional networks of support.

Javier Corso Fish Shot

Fishshot, 2015 © Javier Corso

The spectre of oppressive emotion is implicit in a number of images, and the motif of the axe recurs, symbolic in Finnish culture for “the violence”. In one shot it is expressionistically lit, like a still from The Shining. In another a man sits in a sauna, one hand with a beer and the other to his downcast face, the feint reflection of a woman behind him, suggesting a narrative of gender-based violence and male shame (heavy drinking is present in more than 50% of suicides and homicides in Finland). Powerfully expressing the cyclical nature of the problem is a photo of a man submerged in water, only his hand visible as it breaks the surface; showing both the suffocating emotion and subsequent immersion in alcohol to cope with it. “The pictures try to evoke a daily situation for many people in Finland”, Corso explains. “The social pressure to drink, trying to forget the loneliness.”

Well-known for his iconic images of festival revellers and swaggering rock bands such as AC/DC and Guns ‘N Roses, Miluță Flueraș presented a slightly more subdued collection of images with Taking my Time to Pay an Homage. A tribute to “the living moments before the disaster” that occurred at Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest on October 30th 2015, the series memorialises those killed in the deadly blaze. A big supporter of the band Goodbye to Gravity, Flueraș was there to cover their free concert when the venues’ polyurethane ceiling caught fire, a result of the bands pyrotechnics. 64 people were killed, including band members Mihai Alexandru, Bogdan Enache, Vlad Țelea and Alex Pascu.

Taking My Time To Pay An Homage, 2015 © Miluță Flueraș

Given the knowledge we have of the subsequent events, it is difficult not to read these pictures in a foreboding and melancholy way (especially one of the lead singer flanked by lit sparklers and a flame-illustrated band banner). Flueraș’s intention though is not to present a sombre view of what occurred but the opposite: to commemorate “a great band [who were] very underrated” and to convey the joy and excitement at the venue, with shots of the crowd “bursting with happiness.”

He has a keen eye for drawing out the empathic connection between an audience and performing artists. A monochrome shot of the crowd taken from across the stage captures the band’s guitarist looking out into the sea of people, mostly obscured in shadow except one boy’s face, metaphorically and literally lit up, smiling beatifically. Other shots, streaming with bright lights and colour, show the bands immersion in the music as they jump up and down, storming the stage with eyes full of passion. Watching them perform their rousing song “The Day we Die” on YouTube, I’m reminded that rock music is all about defiance and rebellion, and a rallying cry against the most pedantic jobsworth of them all, death.

Taking a break, a few of us sit in the sun eating lunch and sipping coffee, including the laid-back and engaging Simone from Newcastle Photography Festival, something of Photo Romania groupie and Cluj fanatic. A few people bid adieu, Gema and Jonas among them as they return to Spain for the next instalment of their photographic saga at PhotoEspaña. I return indoors, intending to peruse halls lined with the work of native Romanian photographers, but it is hard to be industrious when everyone is so outgoing. This is just one of the things that makes the festival such a joy: a genuine sociability that extends beyond mere networking.

I head off downtown, determined to visit at least one more exhibition before my time here comes to an end. It requires all my navigational and Romanian language skills to locate the café where the group show Layers is being held. Naturally, lacking said skills, I yo-yo up and down Strada Universităţii numerous times. I am also distracted by the huge crowd that has amassed in Unirii Square, and briefly join them in being captivated by an operatic onstage performance. Finally, and with lots of help, I find the elusive Insomnia Café. All that is now required for me to do is convince the manager that she does indeed have an exhibition there to show me.

Eventually I’m taken to a very sparse, functional room (i.e. it has walls). But though the space is underwhelming, the photography is thoughtful and eye-catching. Most of the images are not much bigger than postcards, the majority shot in black and white and presenting what I assume to be the anonymous, underdeveloped side of Cluj. From my brief time here, the city certainly seems to have a dilapidated charm equivalent to Berlin; impressive architectural and grand historic monuments vying with a plethora of stoic but cracked facades.

Layers show, group exhibition

Layers show, group exhibition

As the show’s slightly cryptic mission statement attests, it is an exercise in “beautifying a city in which oldness, poverty and poor environmental taste is pretentiously displayed, like inadequate makeup.” The images are visually compelling and abstract, the majority aestheticizing architectural ugliness, shifting our perspective away from the social to the purely visual (the shots also suggests a clandestine gaze occupying these neglected urban ruins). The empty shells of buildings are shot with a pleasing symmetry and depth; stairwells crisscross and shadows contribute their own geometry, creating multi-layered images. Unusual vantage points are presented, with photographs opening up into Escher-like dimensions. We are encouraged to see differently by focusing on the combination of shapes, patterns and complimentary angles, rather than the neglected and decaying structures that form the ostensible subject of the frame.

It is with a touch of reluctance and a smile on my face that I leave Photo Romania Festival and the easy-going vibes of Cluj-Napoca. The people and my experiences there have been a real pleasure, and while also promoting Romanian photography the festival showed itself to be a truly cooperative, international affair. Before I head back to the UK though the remainder of us dine together at Casa Tiff. Radu, aware that I am a stranger to the enticements of Palincă (a highly alcoholic Hungarian fruit brandy), kindly places a shot of the spirit in front of me. I knock it back without question and it’s like a small atomic bomb going off in my oesophagus. I’m somewhat disconcerted by the anxious faces looking back at me, but against expectations I stand up and walk in a straight line out of the restaurant, retaining consciousness all the way back to the hotel.

– Daniel Pateman

Special thanks to Sebastian Vaida for his hospitality and for making my attendance possible.

65913_926032882744_691854252_n (1)Daniel studied Humanities and Media at Birkbeck University and continues to indulge his abiding interest in the arts. He has enjoyed writing since a young age and currently produces articles for a number of online publications.  He keeps a blog called The End of Fiction, consisting of his poetry, prose and other creative work, and is currently looking to forge a new career in the creative industries.


REVIEW: Diana Matar @ Purdy Hicks Gallery


In a quest for historic truth, Diana Matar has been documenting Libya and Egypt’s urban landscape. Her recent solo show at Purdy Hicks Gallery, Evidence, Disappearance, Witness and Still Far Away, follows the invisible figure of a disappeared man, whose mysterious fate is emblematic of Libya’s dark past.

In 1990, the artist’s father-in-law Jaballah, a Libyan political dissident, was kidnapped by the Egyptian secret service while in exile in Cairo. Matar journeyed to Libya and Egypt looking for traces. In the resulting work, his shadow appears throughout; we may never see his face, but his presence is palpable and bears the heavy burden of secrecy.

How can we photograph that which cannot be seen? The one who cannot be found? As the disappeared man’s life is brought to life in these images, so too is the country’s political and social story. Images of ghostly streets, Brassaï-like inscriptions on the city walls, leave us thirsty for clues. Here, the camera is both an instrument of investigation and a therapeutic aid; and the photographic medium’s presupposed veracity and capacity to render the truth, its most challenging quality. If it was instinct that guided the making of this work–so dependent on the artist’s family’s situation at the time–it includes an important reflection on the medium’s very nature: within a factual document, reality can only resonate. 

Tracing the ephemeral footsteps of anonymous victims, Matar records deserted buildings and streets where opponents of the Libyan regime were sequestrated. Sites that are now the silent and singular witnesses of voiceless events. The disturbing beauty of such documentation carries the very anxiety that it sprung from: the fear of seeing our forebodings confirmed. While the images are a constant reminder of what has presumably–or certainly–happened, we are not shown anything morbid; the accompanying texts provide these details. Through her sombre, quiet imagery, the artist collates evidence of the past and tells the moving tale of disappearance and political manipulation–the painful and constant wait, the inconsolable minds that know nothing.

The surreal night shots and quiet tableaux of the city allow for a variation of interpretation, a possible rebirth for the country and its damaged inhabitants. It is simply, perhaps, the embodiment of the impenetrable quality of passing of time and its eternal elements, unaffected by the horrors of history.

In her book Evidence Matar tells us about the fear that she and ‘H’ (Matar’s husband, Libyan writer Hisham Matar) lived in. Placed under surveillance by the regime, they received threats for their open criticism of the dictatorship. Today, they cannot return to Libya. The significance of her photographs has exposed dangerous views.

Jaballa is still missing. We know nothing.

-Céline Bodin


Diana Matar @ Purdy Hicks Gallery. Showing until 6 June 2016.

Image captions:

Diana Matar, Disappearance series, 2008.

Diana Matar, Evidence series, 2012

Diana Matar, Still Far Away series, 2012

Diana Matar, Witness series, 2012

BODIN_CV Céline Bodin is a French photographer. She graduated from a photography BA at Gobelins, L’école de l’image in Paris, and in 2013 she moved to London to complete a Photography MA at the London College of Communication. As well as regularly writing about photography, Céline works closely with London universities and galleries. Her photography practice revolves around the themes of identity and gender in the frame of Western culture, as well as landscape photography and the philosophy of the Sublime.

REVIEW: Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers @ the Barbican Centre

Curated by Magnum photographer Martin Parr and the Barbican’s Alona Pardo, Strange and Familiar is an impressive exhibition comprising 23 acclaimed international photographers, each documenting our nation’s changing social and psychic landscape. The iconography of our isles is omnipresent and familiar: bowler hats and London slums, aristocrats and bleary eyed hippies, rolling green hills and grim northern vistas. However, the majority of photographers manage to impose their own subjectivity onto these sometimes clichéd images, articulating something that goes beyond the stereotype.

The first floor is dedicated to humanistic works and photojournalism by greats such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Evelyn Hofer, focusing on the ordinary lives of working class people. One of the earliest photographers included, Edith Tudor-Hart saw the camera as “a political weapon” that would draw attention to the marginalised with an aim to instigate change. Her black and white photos of London focus on families in slum housing, socialist demonstrations and the unemployed, with one particularly evocative picture of deprivation showing a dirt besmirched young girl peering desirously through a bakery window. Similarly, Paul Strand documented the hard lives of the working classes, focusing on the communities of the Outer Hebrides in the 1950s. His photos show them worn and rugged like the stone houses they inhabit, hands gnarled by labour but exuding an unshakeable stoicism nonetheless. These early photographers, working between the 1930s and 1960s, all channel the touching dignity, empathy and solidarity of their subjects.

The austerity and hardship of these images give way to ‘flower power’ in Gian Butturini and Frank Habicht’s captivating images of London in the Swinging Sixties, the latter’s work conveying the optimism and relaxing moral attitudes of the time. The sense of liberation is palpable. We see it in a youth’s rapture at a Rolling Stones concert and the casual smiles of friends perched on a roof. The contradictions of the era are nicely exposed too. A shot of flamboyantly dressed youths in Chelsea is juxtaposed with that of a drably attired woman with a cart of old goods. Men and women pose coolly on Carnaby Street beside shots of anti-war protesters as the Vietnam War looms in the background.

As singular as many of the images are, their black and white profusion begets a sort of photographic ennui and their impact becomes muted. A much needed visceral kick comes however in the cold intensity of Akihiko Okamura’s work during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Focusing on the Battle of the Bogside, the “deathly static, quiet expression” characteristic of the Japanese Kompora group invests these blue hued images with latent violence; solemn faced women distribute cups of tea amid the conflict and milk bottles sit innocently on doorsteps, later to be used as petrol bombs.

Moving downstairs there is a perceptible shift from humanistic, documentary photography to more abstract, fragmented and self-reflexive work: photography as fine art. A gradual atomisation of society can be read into these later images as communal spheres start to disappear. Axel Hütte’s shots of London’s housing estates avoid “signs of civilization or narrative indication, so in [the] best case you are lost in time and space.” Built to house working class communities, he reduces these estates to a combination of shapes, textures and surfaces, abstracting them from their social purpose to intriguing aesthetic ends. Shinro Ohtake’s photographs are a surprise joy, finding tranquillity in the ordinary. Narrowly defined spaces take precedence over people; mood reigns over events. Documenting the textures and sights of everyday life (a row of garages, a parked car in a driveway, the light of the sun through the leaves), they arguably transcend nationhood to unveil the universal beauty of daily life.

We end with Hans Eijkleboom’s slideshow of shoppers at the Birmingham Bull Ring, where surreptitiously snapped individuals have been categorised in grids according to formal similarities in behaviour and dress. People of all races and creeds are shown similarly clothed, suggesting not only the homogenising effect of globalisation but prompting the question of how personal identity reconciles itself with a wider communal identity.

The exhibition is ambitious and the photographers’ work impressive, though a narrower scope and a less pre-defined idea of Britishness might have allowed greater space for contemplation. Like Martin Parr’s own output, social class is a central and structuring principle throughout Strange and Familiar. Even when the works become increasingly contemporary, they still obey the binary of either very rich or desperately poor. Despite this, it is possible to perceive in the temporal sweep of the exhibition the ever-evolving nature of British identity, and at its best our shared humanity.

– Daniel Pateman

Strange and Familiar @ Barbican Art Gallery. Showing until 19 June 2016

Image captions:

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers Curated by Martin Parr

Installation View, Barbican Art Gallery, London 16 February – 19 June 2016 © Tristan Fewings/ Getty Images

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers Curated by Martin Parr

Installation View, Barbican Art Gallery, London 16 February – 19 June 2016 © Tristan Fewings/ Getty Images

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers Curated by Martin Parr

Installation View, Barbican Art Gallery, London 16 February – 19 June 2016 © Tristan Fewings/ Getty Images

65913_926032882744_691854252_n (1)Daniel Pateman
studied Humanities and Media at Birkbeck University and continues to indulge his abiding interest in the arts. He has enjoyed writing since a young age and currently produces articles for a number of online publications.  He keeps a blog called The End of Fiction, consisting of his poetry, prose and other creative work, and is currently looking to forge a new career in the creative industries.

REVIEW: Martin Parr: Unseen City at the Guildhall Art Gallery

There is perhaps something ingenuous in Martin Parr’s words that “all I do is photograph ordinary things”.  While his work is based in ‘the everyday’, he is drawn to the singular and the bizarre, the colourful and the kitsch. Unseen City is no exception. Housed at Guildhall Art Gallery, two large rooms display his output as the City of London’s resident photographer, a post he has held since 2013. In documenting the centuries old traditions of The City of London Corporation he has been granted unprecedented access to a world of private ceremony and public parades. Such is the somewhat alien nature of these practices that a handy Glossary is available to explain the meaning behind practices like “Beating the Bounds”, “Swan Upping” and “The Trial of the Pyx” – phrases that would otherwise leave you scratching your head in confusion.

While his subject-matter tends to be idiosyncratic, his approach elucidates the real and the common. As exhibition curator Katty Pearce states, he is just as interested in “the unguarded […] banal and boring bits” as he is the extraordinary. He is the photographic equivalent of Andy Warhol. Both have a penchant for the trashy and mundane and both are fascinated by people. Showcasing this latter preoccupation, Parr captures his subjects’ unusual behaviour and expressions in incredible detail – employing a ring flash to remove obscuring shadows and a macro lens to highlight every follicle and pore – exposing them for our curious gaze.

In contrast with his earlier work (the rather lurid depiction of British holidaymakers in The Last Resort for example) Unseen City appears positively genteel. You will find no vomit-inducing banquets or Henry the VIII-style debauchery here. And while there is a lot of pomp on display, there is very little pomposity. Instead we have shots of well-presented, smiling school children lunching at Guildhall or an elderly man dozing off during Knollys Rose Ceremony. One endearing image depicts a member of The Company of Watermen focusing hard as he tries to do up the gold buttons on his uniform. There is a vulnerability and humanity in these shots – of real and ruddy faces caught unawares – that shines out above the fancy dress and ornate ephemera.

It is difficult to come to a definitive conclusion as to whether Parr intends to critique or merely document the peculiar rituals of the City. Is he playing the satirist or producing fodder for the historical archive? Unseen City does evidence his signature eye for the absurd; an unoccupied pair of Cavalry Boots in Guildhall Yard or musketeers marching past a Pret a Manger for example. The series also makes it clear that the social makeup of these organisations is, as Parr himself explicitly states, “very white [and] very middle class”. Not only are people of colour under-represented, but women appear somewhat side-lined too. This is directly addressed under the photo of Fiona Wolf when one reads that she is only the second female Lord Mayor of the last 800 years!  The curator of Unseen City understands Parr’s approach to be one without “malicious intent or critique” and his work of a “documentary, even anthropological sensibility.” To what extent such neutrality is feasible it is difficult to say.  It is clear however that the potency of his work comes from its openness to interpretation and the absence of a definitive reading.

One unifying thread throughout Parr’s work is his examination of a particularly British mentality. Unseen City depicts crowds of modern Britons lining the streets, looking on in amusement through their iPhones as elaborately adorned men execute some historical imperative. In gay apparel they march past grey-faced observers waiting with weary patience in the rain. There is something absurd, very British and incredibly Martin Parr about all of that.

– Daniel Pateman

Martin Parr: Unseen City @ Guildhall Art Gallery. Showing until 31 July 2016

Image captions:

St Matthew’s Day Parade, Mayoral Car, City of London, 2014. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
The Drapers’ Livery 650th Anniversary, TheQueen visiting the Drapers’ LiveryHall 2014. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

65913_926032882744_691854252_n (1)Daniel Pateman
studied Humanities and Media at Birkbeck University and continues to indulge his abiding interest in the arts. He has enjoyed writing since a young age and currently produces articles for a number of online publications.  He keeps a blog called The End of Fiction, consisting of his poetry, prose and other creative work, and is currently looking to forge a new career in the creative industries.


REVIEW: Secret Agent: Between Invisibility and Hypervisibility at Guest Projects Space

Secret Agent: Between Invisibility and Hypervisibility

The ‘Secret Agent’ referred to in the title of Hemera’s show relates to the agency and activism in enabling feminist and post-feminist representational visibility under the patriarchal order. If “invisible” is the under or mis-represented subject in cultural production and “hyper-visible” is the sharp positioning of victimhood in relation to notions of ‘othering’ then Hemera’s show, to my mind, operates somewhere in between, where visibility is created through challenging the status quo self-reflexively, through its own visual paradigms and institutional frameworks.

The exhibition, held at Yinka Shonibare’s Guest Projects in January 2016, was shown last year in Helsinki at the Finnish Museum of Photography. It seems apt that Maud Sulter be included in this group show at Guest. Sulter, who recently passed away, offers an important departure point for thinking in art historical terms about where certain visual codes originate from, not unlike aspects of Shonibare’s own enquiry. Her photo-collages from the series Jeanne: A Melodrama (1994) draw together disparate visual forms from an image economy spanning an anonymous field of subjects, personalising them into imaginary incarnations of Jeanne Duval – Charles Baudelaire’s muse and Nadar’s anonymous sitter the Unknown Woman.

The continuation of anonymity and invisibility is played through Mathilde ter Heijne’s Women to Go (2005 – ongoing), an installation of a large retail-like display of postcards inviting viewers to browse, choose and keep. The face of each postcard depicts an anonymous woman photographed between the invention of the daguerreotype and the 1920s and inscribed on the reverse is a short biography of a woman of significant achievement, yet still not widely recognised. This disrupted photo-text concept incorporates both the negation and non-identification of the women as legitimate subjects and plays on the concealment of positive roles by those who canonise history.

A number of works in the exhibition re-address and re-configure history through the lens of the present. Aura Satz’s lightbox installation employs stills from Cecil B DeMille’s silent film Joan the Woman (1916), and through the embedded sound, creates an act of un-silencing Joan of Arc at the point of her execution. Satz’s layers of abstraction are further implicated through the predominant female labour involved in the hand-colouring of film in the movie industry of the early 20th century. Niina Vatanen’s re-working of Helvi Ahonen’s amateur photographic archive in Archival Studies/ A Portrait of an Invisible Woman, projects the potential of new narratives in photographic production with transposing and overlaying strategies onto print composition and form. Sarah Beddington’s plastic tube binoculars offer a distinct and intimate view of Palestinian processions from the early part of the 20th Century. These pieces also form an important entry point in which to consider her film, The Logic of Birds. It depicts a performative procession staged in Palestine based on an ancient Sufi poem where birds follow a migratory journey in order to seek a leader. The film acts as a strong metaphor for the exhibition, through its agency and through the possibility of the collective being empowered by looking within.

Around the peripheries of the exhibition’s more prominent themes sits the work of Ye Funa and Beth Collar. Funa’s satirical take on formal ethnic identities and projected ideologies of perfection, forms a vibrant entrance to the exhibition. A large grid of portraits in national costume encloses a centrally embedded plasma screen, statically showing an idealised landscape into which figures gently appear and disappear against the sound of a cascading waterfall. Beth Collar’s conceptual illustrations/sculptures on the other hand offer a mythical and symbolic play in perceiving an alternative visibility. Her drawings could be seen as an allegory of the ‘other side’ where mysterious cloaked figures are seen hidden from us. Collar’s presentation is framed by root vegetables signifying a past time, perhaps in pointing towards a pre-modern ritual or in emphasising the ambiguity of her ungendered representation.

Possibly throughout history, what fluctuates between invisibility and hyper-visibility is the way in which gendered discourse moves to and fro, into and out of cultural and political consciousness. This is perhaps most evident in the work of Aleksandra Domanovic. In The Future Was At Her Fingertips, she sets a chronology of technological and political change where women act as central agents or figures of influence, most notably in the development of computer technologies and media. Placed alongside this timeframe, her sculptures signify the importance of the symbolic order through cultural hand gestures, as monuments resisting male-dominated artifice in technology and embodying the power to transform.

– Sunil Shah

Secret Agent Group Show curated by Hemera Collective @ Guest Projects Space London 9 – 30 Jan, 2016

All installation shots by Ben Westoby

photo-8 Sunil Shah is an artist and curator based in Oxford, UK. He is interested in the politics of photographic representation and conceptual post-documentary practices with relation to history, memory and identity. He has undertaken several curatorial projects including Making Home at the Royal Geographic Society, London for the HLF funded Exiles Project and acted as co-curator for Brighton Photo Fringe Open ’13. He holds degrees from Coventry University and the University of Westminster.



REVIEW: Masahisa Fukase: The Solitude of Ravens at Michael Hoppen Gallery

Masahisa Fukase: The Solitude of Ravens

Nestled in the warm, study-like space upstairs at the Michael Hoppen gallery, Masahisa Fukase’s forlorn, melancholic images of ravens encircle the room. Like Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock before him, the photographer did little to improve the reputation of these tar-black birds. In folklore and popular culture they are a sign of ill omen; the flag bearers of loss and death. In Japanese mythology particularly they are supernatural beings, disruptive and dangerous. Fukase’s own tragic narrative does little to dissuade these associations.

Born in 1934 in Hokkaido, Japan, he grew up part of a nation recovering from the psychological scars of defeat after World War II. His second marriage to his wife Yōko Wanibe was intense. While she became the subject of one of his first major successes, Yōko (1978), she was unable to cope with his controlling personality and eventually divorced him in 1976. Alone and broken-hearted, he suffered heavily from depression and found solace in drink. In 1992 he fell down the stairs of his favourite bar and into a coma, a state he remained in for 20 years until he passed away.

While Kill the Pigs (1961) reflected the photographer’s grim sensibilities, his separation from Yoko resulted in the bleak, icy output that became The Solitude of Ravens (1975-82). While the exhibition title is something of a misnomer – ravens being thought to mate for life and live in groups – it shows just how much Fukase came to identify himself with these gloomy-looking birds. The raven itself is not the subject of the series but a symbol; a site of myriad references and allusions. Most telling then are not the images of monochrome flocks of birds perched in trees, but those mysterious anomalies in which the bird is absent but its imagery is evident.

One such picture, suffusing both nostalgia and foreboding, consists of three young girls on a boat overlooking the ocean. Backs to the camera, their slick black hair is whipped into fluttering tufts by the wind, conjuring the raven’s figurative presence. Darkness dominates the foreground. The picture underexposed and their faces obscured, feelings of loss and remembrance predominate. Like Poe’s infamous poem The Raven, in which the narrator is visited by the titular bird while lamenting the death of his cherished Lenore, the photo is an ode to lost love, evoking the same mournful, somewhat animistic associations. Arguably, the raven of the series is a symbolic stand-in for Yōko; conjuring the memory of her and being the focus of Fukase’s photography until he remarried in 1982.

It has been suggested that Fukase’s work is social as well as personal, embodying the turbulences of post-war Japan. The final shot of the exhibition – a flock of the birds with their wings outstretched against a dark sky like a squadron of warplanes – certainly fits this reading of invasion and the final defeat of the nation. That Fukase might also be interested in drawing attention to environmental issues is evident in a shot of a bare branch lying across a backdrop of smoke-belching chimneys. But, as Michael Hoppen argues, the series is first and foremost “a personal lament reflecting the darkened vision of the photographer.” His worldview had become increasingly pessimistic and doom-laden and the stark imagery of Ravens is testament to that. As you view his images you can perceive his sense of self disintegrating. On finishing the series, he even stated that he had now “become a raven.”
– Daniel Pateman

Masahisa Fukase: The Solitude of Ravens @ Michael Hoppen Gallery until 23 April

Image captions:

Seikan Ferryboat, 1976 © Masahisa Fukase Archives
Nayoro, 1976 © Masahisa Fukase Archives
Dream Island, Tokyo, 1980 © Masahisa Fukase Archives
Erimo Cape, 1976 © Masahisa Fukase Archives

65913_926032882744_691854252_n (1)
Daniel Pateman
studied Humanities and Media at Birkbeck University and continues to indulge his abiding interest in the arts. He has enjoyed writing since a young age and currently produces articles for a number of online publications.  He keeps a blog called The End of Fiction, consisting of his poetry, prose and other creative work, and is currently looking to forge a new career in the creative industries.

REVIEW: Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at the Imperial War Museum

The photographer who had her images of Buchenwald published in Vogue is the subject of a new retrospective.

A woman sits in the bath and washes her back with a flannel, looking up and over the camera at an unseen observer. On the edge of the bath sits a black and white photo of the man who owns the flat: a middle-aged German man in military uniform, with a now unmistakable toothbrush moustache.

Lee Miller began her artistic career as a surrealist, and her abiding interest in surrealism is a strong theme running through this exhibition staged at the Imperial War Museum, London.

From the painting she posed for at the start of her career, to the dark eyes of rafters in snow that are pictured in her post-war photos of the Balkans, her images marry the bizarre and the banal.

Miller was one of four photographers to be accredited as an official photographer for the US Army and had unrivaled access to record the lives of troops and civilians in the Second World War.

A Woman’s War opens with a traumatic event from Miller’s early childhood that will, for some visitors, frame the rest of the exhibition. It also opens with Miller’s career as a model and subject which had a huge influence on her work. For example, the exhibition opens with a shot Miller took of a model wearing a sabre guard over her shoulder like a couture sleeve. According to notes, it was a re-imagining of a Man Ray image that pictured Miller wearing the guard as a mask, posing nude.

During the war, Miller photographed fashion models, posing them in front of blitzed buildings and on the threshold of bomb shelters. Even in these images, there are still touches of surrealism: photos of blast marks shaped like the British Gas mascot Mr Therm, and models’ pretty faces hidden behind gas masks.

Miller’s post-war women dominate this exhibition. One photograph shows a Parisian woman, also a resistance fighter, who wears an impressive pompadour hairdo. The caption informs us that British Vogue readers reacted strongly upon seeing it – mistaking the style statement against occupying Nazis as a slur on the way fashion had been rationed in Britain.

In Paris Miller also shot Salon Gervais. It was the first salon in the city to regain power. (Its hairdryers ran on electricity generated by men riding a static tandem in the basement). But defiance was not limited to the Allies. One image Miller took after the war shows a German woman on a compulsory visit to the camps wearing national dress.

Miller’s images like this feel like faint echoes of the story about lipsticks handed out after Bergen-Belsen was liberated: of the surreal, uncomfortable nature of survival.

At the end of the exhibition hangs a lightbox with a picture of Miller in later life. After the war, she suffered from depression and alcoholism, and appearances in Vogue featured her as a chef and homemaker. (Miller was apparently the first woman in Britain to own a microwave). In the image, the only lightbox in the exhibition, the kitchen glows with the terracotta tiles and butter-yellow curtains. But the warmth of the setting stands in stark contrast to the cold emptiness of the picture, and of Miller’s own styling and pose

After last year’s brilliant Conflict, Time, Photography at the Tate, it feels imperative that London’s museums and galleries continue to exhibit the work of artists like Miller who whose work speaks across decades. The Imperial War Museum has very much achieved this with ‘A Woman’s War’.

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at IWM London until 24 April 2016

ellie broughtonEllie Broughton is an arts writer from London. She has previously been published by 3AM, Litro, and Elsewhere Journal as well as The Debrief, Metro and Independent Voices.


Some shows to see.. and some to avoid.

January Photography Roundup

It’s nearing the end of January when 2016 really begins.  All those half-hearted resolutions left on simmer through the gloomiest month of the year (apparently it still counts as chocolate if it’s been melted!) start to come to a bubbling crescendo.  The seasonal sugar coma has passed and I emerge from my frost-covered cocoon certain that this time next year I’ll be lighter, brighter, and better than ever.  Well, at least until BBQ season comes and spoils everything.  Embarking on one of my lesser delusions, I spring out into London’s lively streets to educate myself with some of the many cultural offerings available (becoming a GQ cover model will just have to wait).

IMG_4889The first of my photographic forays is Alec Soth’s Gathered Leaves at the Science Museum.  The exhibition, consisting of four large rooms, leads me in chronological order through 10 years of his work, from 2004-14.  Each image is striking, given room to speak and breathe against the plain white walls.  We start with images from Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004) series.  His shots, suffused with a subtle yearning, suggest the potency of dreams and an admiration for visionaries.  The homes and birthplaces of American men who would come to leave their mark on the world, like Johnny Cash and Charles Lindbergh, are photographed along with less renowned men and women.  The presentation of such humble beginnings, especially when considering the accomplishments of some of these men, is a testament to the transformative power of dreams.

Niagara (2006) retains the same sense of longing, suggesting the beauty and compassion nestled among sometimes torn and tawdry lives.  One of Soth’s talents is his effortless ability to sidestep our modern penchant for fatalism.  He subtly depicts the intertwining of our desires and hopes with less than perfect realities, discovering love and tenderness in spite of sometimes tumultuous circumstances.  Shots of motels recur frequently in his work, in this context suggesting cheap, discreet, anonymous places where passion or love might bloom.  Continuing into the next, dimly-lit room is Broken Manual (2010), a series documenting survivalists and hermits who decide to escape into barren wilderness.  The title, a play on words, suggests a discontented masculinity in modern society; a desire to live away from enforced roles and expectations, as well as presenting an opportunity for self-discovery.  A glass cabin in the centre of the room displays the profusion of survivalist literature available and reiterates what appears a singularly male need to escape societal bonds.


After slipping away myself to scoff an overpriced croissant I head across the road to the V&A’s current presentation of work by the 19th Century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.  Like Soth, Cameron’s purpose and method was a poetic one, aiming to combine “the real and the ideal [while] sacrificing nothing of truth.”  Though her work may lack the jarring imagery and drama our modern eye is accustomed to, comprising of straight-forward portrait shots or recreations of works from antiquity, its strength lies in an intangible, subtle beauty that arrests the eye.  It reminds you with its plain vitality why some civilisations view photography suspiciously, capable of stealing the subject’s soul.  Photography makes a person appear more alive than they would in either the classical paintings or sculptures Cameron references.  It captures not just an incredible likeness but expresses a subjective inner world as well, something beyond the material.

Passing through the exhibition the works are grouped by Cameron’s favourite topics of photography (‘Portraiture’, ‘Madonna Groups’, ‘Fancy Subjects for Pictorial Effects’) but laid out in a somewhat awkward way which makes it hard to navigate without jumping between themes.  One particular section that stood out however, entitled “Defected Unmounted Impressions” and highlighting Cameron’s status as an innovator, was a selection of ‘imperfect’ shots displaying signs of aging, interference or manipulation.  Photography, which in its infancy was prized for its ability to provide a factual report on reality, was popularly expected to consist of “clear, hard outlines”, detailing people as a whole and in context (rather than reduced into pieces in close up), with all visual details sharply defined.  Cameron subverted these standards with her fondness for soft focus and a penchant for manipulating certain frames; building additional layers of meaning (scratching out an image to suggest a halo, for example) to provide a viewing experience more ‘divine’ – something closer to art than photography was thought capable of.


I get my own portrait taken ‘Cameron style’ with the aid of the iPhone, and promptly catapult myself out of the 19th Century up towards Angel, landing firmly back in the modern day.  Before I put my eyes on ice I venture to the London Art Fair, with the intention of procuring booze (free drinks served Thursday Lates!) and more seriously of looking at the contemporaneous work of Photo50.  This years’ offering is the exhibition Feminine Masculine, guest-curated by Federica Chiocchetti, whose intention is to “explore the challenge of representing the mysterious, at times ineffable and immaterial, dynamics that occur or do not occur between a woman and a man.”  By the sound of this diffuse logic it’s a win-win; the show a success even by attempting to articulate the purportedly inexpressible.

As some of the photography indicates, the relations between the sexes can be captured by the camera in tangible, tender ways.  For example, the large prints from the series Closer by Elinor Carucci express a deep, almost mundane intimacy, in which a couple’s bodies can lie exposed side by side without the need to be sexualised, indicating a closeness of being.  Across from these shots and taking a less subtle approach are six separate photos from the series At First Sight (2014-15).  On the left are three individuals, flailing backwards wide-eyed and illuminated by a flash of light, literally ‘falling in love’, while on the right are three pictures of couples embracing.  While a clichéd depiction already, a picture of a bolt of lightning is included in the centre to spell out the meaning.

Although the title of the project is inspired by Godard’s 1966 film Masculin Féminin, very little else seems to be.  While this is acknowledged, it almost seems detrimental to the whole to make the tenuous comparison between the exhibition and the intentions of the aforementioned film.  The reference serves only to highlight what is lacking – any sort of engagement with socio-political themes.  While the collection proudly illustrates its diverse and contemporary methods – utilising a mix of media such as film, including postcards with responses from strangers, mocked up magazines ironically commenting on bourgeois relationships, as well as moving away from traditional modes of photographic display into the realm of art installation – it seems an oversight not to have responded to now out-dated gender stereotypes, especially those in Godard’s movie, of the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” variety.

The individual intentions of the artists can be compelling in their own right.  Jo Broughton’s series Empty Porn Sets (2010) captures the aftermath of a number of adult film shoots, the now unpopulated sexual arenas appearing weirdly child-like and fantastical in the absence of performers.  Remnants of underwear and the odd vibrator sit still and incongruous on stages arranged like a classroom or an icy wonderland.  Sans actors, the sets now look cold and empty, their artifice obvious, serving to bring home the oddly dispassionate nature of the enterprise.

As a whole, however, the exhibition doesn’t appear to communicate any overall message.  It says little new about human relationships and declines to articulate anything progressive about gender, which is odd given the shows title.  In the end it’s rather too conceptual (but without a strong unifying concept) and rather superficial, suggesting a lack of deep intellectual thought on behalf of the curator.  Unless of course it was intended as a modern elegy to the state of human relationships today –somewhat hollow, glib, and desperate for attention.

– Daniel Pateman

65913_926032882744_691854252_n (1)Daniel Pateman  studied Humanities and Media at Birkbeck University and continues to indulge his abiding interest in the arts. He has enjoyed writing since a young age and currently produces articles for a number of online publications.  He keeps a blog called The End of Fiction, consisting of his poetry, prose and other creative work, and is currently looking to forge a new career in the creative industries.

REVIEW: Magnus Arrevad’s Boy Story, by Daniel Pateman

Needling through the disparate throng of tourists and sight-seers on Great Russell Street, splashing in grey puddles and sopping wet at the edges, I go round in dizzying circles trying to find my destination.  I peer in the rain at my iPhone, instructed that I have arrived, and look up to see a cordoned off, peeling façade where A Beautiful World should be situated, an exhibition I’ve come to visit.  Damp and starting to chafe in innumerable ways, I wheel around a few more times to see if I can find alternative entry, but pass only stony faced doors refusing to yield.  I’m about to leave when I spot a pink neon sign jutting out into a rather drab street, and I approach intrigued.  A doorway looms, leading into a bright cavernous room.  I step inside, and enter a different world to that I had anticipated.

This I discover is the home of Boy Story, an exhibition of photographs the culmination of 5 years work by Magnus Arrevad.  They vividly document the international, subterranean scene of male performance, taken in cities ranging from New York to London, Copenhagen, Berlin and Paris, with cabaret performers, drag queens, strippers and go-go dancers all forming part of his eclectic tapestry.  His shots strike a perceptive balance between realism, fetishism and subjectivity; refreshing given his approach could have so easily been sensationalist.  Shot in black and white, rich with detail and displaying a striking, expressionistic use of light and shadow, Arrevad’s style bestows a solemn dignity on the performers.  His work underlines the seriousness of their personal transformations, depicting not only the creation of a new external self, but documenting an internal journey.  In Arrevad’s words, he captures them bringing “the dream of oneself into being.”

Making the conscious decision not to photograph his subjects as their final incarnation but instead during quiet moments off stage (in contemplation, preparing for a routine) Arrevad is able to explore something more psychologically incisive; the delicate journey of ‘becoming’.  This is deftly expressed in a number of shots.  Through the motif of mirrors to reflect back the idealised self, the camera captures a tension between the objective and the subjective.  The picture of Felicity Carmichaels for example, his back to the camera, juxtaposes his short hair in the right hand side of the frame with the image of his arched eyebrows, focused gaze and mascara-clad lashes in a small round mirror, channelling the look of the drag queens pictured in front of him.  In another shot blurring ‘being’ and ‘becoming’, a man in a mask, out of focus in close up, stands on the left hand side of the frame.  On the right is a reflection of an identically dressed man.  Set further back, he is in clear focus, a chiselled torso on display with leather straps snaking around it.  It could almost be the same person, picturing an imagined, phantasy version of himself in the mirror.  Through a blurring of subject and object, reality and phantasy, Arrevad articulates this process of ‘becoming’ an idealised self.

For many performers their transformations are a process of liberating themselves “from the roles they observe through the daylight hours.”  This resultant sense of freedom is visible in one of Arrevad’s shots of a Marie Antoinette styled drag-queen, with large wig and elaborate gown, kicking his heel up on a rooftop overlooking New York.  His subjects are shown bringing their idealised selves to life through their physicality, make-up or costume, allowing them to live the fantasy of themselves.  Rather than understanding their self-created identities as personas, Arrevad describes how “the application of make up each night was [a process] in which a mask was taken off, not put on.”  Similarly, his own personal journey, chronicled in more depth in his book Boy Story: A Picture Book For Boys, was equally transformative; taking him from being a “sheltered Danish photographer” to a fully immersed participant in the world of ‘Boylesque’, which he says “became my idea of being myself.  I was learning, and I felt free.”

– Daniel Pateman

Boy Story is open at weekends and runs until the 31st January 2016.

5 Willoughby Street,



Image Captions

1 – Felicity Carmichaels at Darcelle XV Showplace, Portland, Oregon © Michael Arrevad

2 – Copenhagen # 1 © Michael Arrevad

3 – Faux Pas on a rooftop in New York © Michael Arrevad

65913_926032882744_691854252_n (1) Daniel Pateman  studied Humanities and Media at Birkbeck University and continues to indulge his abiding interest in the arts. He has enjoyed writing since a young age and currently produces articles for a number of online publications.  He keeps a blog called The End of Fiction, consisting of his poetry, prose and other creative work, and is currently looking to forge a new career in the creative industries.

Urban Photo Festival


Looking back on this year’s Urban Photo Festival (UPF), it appears that the genre known as Street Photography has been given something of a shakeup.  The festival’s packed out and wide-ranging events came to a close at the end of October (including but not limited to numerous London based exhibitions, a two day Tate Britain conference, guided walks, seminars, discussions and photography master classes), with debates about the purpose and potential of the genre resonating with many who attended.  While an expansive, forward looking conception of Street Photography caused a few people some consternation, others found their perceptions positively challenged, leaving them inspired to further reflect on the topic of Urbanism and their own output.  As Paul Halliday (the creative director of UPF) stated, the intention of the festival was to “push the boundaries beyond traditional notions of what counts as ‘street photography’” and “explore how artists, photographers and urbanists might rethink how they approach the street.”

For many the term ‘Street Photography’ conjures up pictures of strangers caught in chance altercations; the spectacle of the busy street with its fleeting joys, frustrations and absurdities.  Nick Turpin is one such photographer adopting this more conventional approach to his work.  His shooting method is instinctive, unplanned and revelatory: “there is no specific subject matter and only the issue of ‘life’ in general” he says.  “[The photographer] does not leave the house in the morning with an agenda and he doesn’t visualise his photographs in advance of taking them.”  However, despite the fascination of the public spectacle and the insights it can provide, it seems that this singular concept of Street Photography now runs the risk of becoming irrelevant.  As Michael Sweet despairs, the practice is now inundated by “hundreds of thousands of dull, hackneyed images of random strangers”.  The genre, he argues, tends to lack a critical eye, with social media encouraging the notion that each picture taken is a potential piece of art worthy of attention.


The Bunker © Carlo Navato 2015

Responding to the current challenges facing the practice of Street Photography today, UPF15 was inspired to rigorously investigate and expand its significance beyond a single methodology or philosophy.  The Drift exhibition was one example of such an attempt, located at the Truman Brewery just off busy Brick Lane.  Here a stunning variety of works were on display, all in their different ways responding to the notion of the urban environment; how we shape it, how it shapes us, how it is experienced and represented.  Carlo Navato’s series Spaces of Otherness was mysterious, sparse and beguiling; images at the crossroads of past, present and future.  Engaging with Michel Foucault’s idea of ‘heterotopia’, these places can be described as being ‘neither here nor there’, and of having a psychological as well as a spatial dimension.  Navato describes the series as shot in “a classic ‘edgeland’ – a space outside the confines of town or city, but urban in that man has had a significant hand in its development.”  His photos, rural land with remains of human influence, illustrated in their referents (a road sign, a wind sock, an entrance to an ex-military site) the way spaces change over time; how the rural slowly succeeds to the urban and how sometimes nature gets its sovereignty back.

Beatrice Tura’s series Terra Firma also challenged the conception of the city as a fixed, un-yielding concrete colossus.  Like Navato, she sees the urban environment as transitional, in dialogue with its inhabitants; pavements as altered by the thousands of tramping feet as we are shepherded by its streets.  Tura demonstrates an abstract, unconventional approach to the urban by taking extreme close up shots of anonymous streets; gum and paint marked pavements; the edges of new tarmacked paths rising up against old concrete ones; change, erosion, “the constant movement of the urban soil.”


© Kevin Fitzgerald 2015

A lot of the work of the festival challenged me to consider that, while it is difficult to think of photography as providing more than a visual experience, urban life itself is not dominated by one single sense.  Remove the plethora of smells from the streetfood stalls and curry houses along Brick Lane, the bustle of the crowds and sounds of street musicians, and you become blind to at least half the experience.  It is this fact that Kevin Fitzgerald seeks to elucidate in his series Audiographies.  As well as questioning our visiocentric society, he encourages the viewer “to not only reconsider the relationship between the aural and visual but the relationship between all the senses.”  Sound, it is easy to forget, helps shape our understanding of what we perceive; informing us further about a thing’s quality or nature.  Photography as a representational tool can imply sound but it cannot embody it.  Fitzgerald highlights the aural by drawing our attention to its absence; abstracting his images from a wider context and de-engaging our visual sense.  His photos ask the viewer to fill in the blanks, “to see with their ears.”  You wonder, looking at his images, where you are, what you are seeing.  He challenges us for example with a close up of the corner of a room; a shot of a window indoors with no view and few discerning features.  Sound, you realise, is the sense missing which would allow you to ‘see’ your environment; filing in the gaps of your awareness vision cannot grasp alone (the sound of cars on the busy street below your window, for example).  It is our metaphorical blindness to the images which forces us to acknowledge this.

Another compelling exhibition over in south London which investigated the effect of the aural sense in urban life was Retention, by artists Anne Zeitz and David Boureau.  This immersive piece was installed at the Old Police Station in Deptford and was a contemporaneous work replicating the soundscape of the Mesnil Amelot 2 detention centre.  Based in Paris just north of the Charles de Gaulle airport, it currently holds hundreds of illegal immigrants.  Using a quadriphonic speaker setup, the soundscape of the detention centre filled the room, consisting of the all-consuming roar of the airplanes that pass daily over the detainees’ heads, interspersed with radio communications between pilots and the control tower.  In a visceral way, it reflected the oppressed state of the immigrants inside the centre.  Not only are they aurally subjugated by the noise of the passing planes, but they are reminded of their lack of physical autonomy as other people pass freely overhead.  Reinforcing their plight was the visual exploration Cartographies of Fear #1, which portrayed the different ways in which migrants interpret and experience their new (often hostile) urban surroundings.


Graffiti, Harlem, 2015 © Rebecca Locke

Moving on to the 71a Gallery in Shoreditch, the exhibition Streetopolis consisted of a range of work from across the globe, providing examples of the urban from Russia to New York, Copenhagen to Jakarta, and Atlanta to Paris.  The artists’ responses to the idea of “streets of the world” were varied, creative and incisive.  Rather than simply documenting the urban environment, they sought in their different ways to draw out its contradictions and complexities.  Rebecca Locke’s series We Are Paper, We Are Celluloid, We Are Digital, showed her wandering New York City in the guise of Princess Leia, her fantastical appearance contrasting with the banal realities of the city.  With New York being synonymous with film, these images raised questions about how the urban environment helps to shape identity, as well as asking how our media-induced fantasies might isolate us from the real world in front of us.

A number of other artists’ work explored the clash between the natural world and the urban milieu.  Michael Frank’s photographs from his series Tiger Schmiger responded to the rise in sightings of strange beasts and big cats in our increasingly urbanised world.  These sightings, often imaginings, are what Frank believes to be the result of “ecological boredom”; our secret yearning for the wild in our over-developed, insulated modern landscape.  These still night-time shots evoke an apprehension, as if waiting for something to crawl into our city streets at any moment.  Peter Coles riffs on similar themes in Urban Forrest, Paris, with his moody monochrome photos of enclosed lone trees, fenced off and isolated amidst the concrete jungle.  They appear forced into submission by the city, dominated over by the surrounding buildings as if the urban had gained ascendency over the natural world.


© Michael Frank 2015

The festival rounded off its 6 day photographic odyssey at The Greenwich Gallery, with a private view of Framing Urban Narratives, the last exhibition of the festival.  Showcasing the work of 10 recent graduates from Goldsmiths University, it expounded on contemporary urban topics such as homelessness, regeneration, the environment and community.  The gallery also hosted the closing reception, and everyone was left to toast their collective hard work with drinks and a (stoically optimistic) BBQ.   Having covered an extraordinary breadth of work and engaging with a host of critical approaches, the festival resulted in some challenging and fascinating debate, as well as producing a slew of striking photography.  Deconstructing assumptions about what Street Photography is ‘supposed’ to be, it re-evaluated the practices importance in our changing modern world, as well as suggesting the genre’s potentialities.  Reiterating what was clearly demonstrated in the numerous exhibitions was Paul Halliday’s comment that “people can interpret what the street means to them.  They can come at it from a range of perspectives and approaches.”  Which they indeed did, intelligently and with aplomb.

– Daniel Pateman