Study Visit: Brighton Photo Biennial 2012

On the weekend of 2nd – 4th November I went to Brighton, to see the Brighton Photo Biennial and to take part in the OCA study visit. Titled “Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space“, this was the fifth biennial to be held in Brighton.

The previous blog post discusses the theme of the visit, with some background information, whereas this post covers the study visit itself and the exhibits that I saw.

Day Zero

I arrived a day early for the study visit, to give myself chance to explore Brighton and to meet up with Gill G. Being local to Brighton, Gill was able to give plenty of tips for the weekend and show me around one of the many fringe exhibitions.

The Old Market

We visited Phoot Camp at the Old Market. This showed a selection of photos from an annual summer camp in the US, held for a select group of 20-35 creatives invited from all over the world. It was a novel idea, which resulted in a fun selection of photographs. But at the same time it felt like we were on the outside with a privileged look into a clique of people. There seemed to be lots of in-jokes, which were nonetheless enjoyable to view. There was a huge variety of images and styles, and some very impressive photos, but I felt very much an outsider wanting to join in and understand what was going on (what was with that cardboard tiger?!). The space was something they created themselves, with the help of digital technologies to bring them together and to share the results.

Near the end of the exhibit, Gill handed me a free newspaper. Or at least I thought it was a newspaper until I opened it and discovered it was another exhibit, distributed freely and more visible than if it was in an art gallery, more accessible too. It was called “Finds” by Harry Watts. The images were either on a double page or cleverly paired and were strangely captivating. It left me asking what exactly is art and (more importantly I think) what is beauty?

Day One

My primary aim for the day was to meet fellow students and to have interesting discussions about photography and studying. So, while I talk briefly now about some of the exhibits I saw, the main thing I took away from the day cannot be formed into a blog post.

The University of Brighton Gallery

The day started at the University of Brighton Gallery, with a visit to “Uneven Development” by Jason Larkin and Corinne Silva. This was a mixture of Silva’s ‘Imported Landscapes’ and ‘Badlands’ works and Larkin’s “Cario Divided” series.

Jason Larkin, ‘Untitled #2’, Cairo Divided, 2011, © Jason Larkin

The images examined how spaces can be defined by economics and about how we create our own barriers within society.

The ‘Badlands’ series by Silva showed luxurious homes with tall walls separating them from a barren landscape, these were contrasted with the spaces created by the poor, which had fewer visible barriers. The images from ‘Imported Landscapes’ showed landscapes of Southern Spain with billboards pasted in from Morocco, in doing so, Silva questions the divisions between the two countries.

Larkin showed how the poor workers interact with spaces they will never really be a part of. He showed how the landscape is being transformed by the rich, for the rich, with little change to the spaces that belong to the poor.

I particularly liked Larkin’s images. I enjoyed the composition and how shapes and their positioning was used to pull and direct the eye into the image, very often towards a small, yet important point, that would otherwise be overlooked (see left for an example). It was also interesting to see how the images were organised on the gallery wall and how he’d used a square format and very often placed the horizon near the centre of the image (something which is normally against the ‘rules’, but worked very well in this instance).

As pointed out by Photoworks magazine, by doing such things as Larkin giving away his images freely in specially produced newspapers and Silva putting her work onto billboards, they are both making an effort to make their work more widely available and accessible, and participating in the “reformulation of the culture of the commons”. This was something that seemed to continue throughout the biennial and which links back to my previous comments about Lessig and stopping the tragedy of the commons.

Corinne Silva, Plastic Mountain I, plastic recycling plant, from Badlands, 2008 – 2011. © Corinne Silva

As other students have commented, there is a world of difference between seeing photos online or in magazines and seeing them blown up to cover the walls of a gallery, and this work was really worth seeing. I spent a while listening to and contributing to a variety of discussions about the images by both artists. It was really useful to hear differing opinions and occasionally to hear people say what I had been feeling. I felt that I got a lot more from the images as a result. This is something I also noticed over the rest of the weekend and from the previous study visit.

Next, in the same gallery, there was a 20 minute film called “Five Thousand Feet is the Best” by Omar Fast (a version is available on Vimeo). It featured an interview with a former drone pilot, who would control unmanned planes, used to fire at civilians and militia in Afghanistan and Pakistan, from the Las Vegas desert. The ex-pilot is now suffering from PTSD as a result, and calls it ‘virtual stress’. It was a mixture of fact and fiction, more artwork than documentary. Confusing, but still emotive. The film raised a number of philosophical and moral issues. I disliked the high-pitched beeps and in many ways I found the story behind the film more interesting than the film itself (but then I’m not that much of a film watcher). It’s something that will stay with me though (particularly the final scene, shown below) and something I am now keen to find out more about.

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, digital film, 30 minute loop, still by Yonn Thomas, 2011. Courtesy of the artist, Arratia, Beer, Berlin, and gb agency, Paris, © Omer Fast

Unfortunately, due to arriving slightly late I missed the other exhibit at the University of Brighton Gallery, ‘Control Order House‘ by Edmund Clark, which sounds fascinating and was very highly received. However, I purchased the Photoworks magazine, so I’ll be able to look through the photographs at a later date.

Fabrica

No Olho da Rua, Newspaper distribution, 2007. © No Olho da Rua Collective

After lunch we visited Fabrica, a converted Church, see to the No Olha da Rue project. This is a collaboration between the artists: Julian Germain, Patricia Azevedo and Nurilo Godoy, and young Brazilians on the streets of Belo Horizonte, one of the richest cities in Brazil. It was participatory photography at its best. Together they created something that was more than the sum of its parts, resulting in a rich story, with photographs that mattered to them.

Liz Wells in ‘Photography a Critical Introduction’, talked about what we choose to display in public verses private spaces. The photographs we saw here were often private and personal images made public. These private, otherwise unseen moments, were given an importance and a memory by being made public, even after the people involved had moved on. It was a way to give the silent and ignored inhabitants of the favela a voice and a purpose. Enabling them to communicate their own ideas and opinions. I couldn’t help but think that every photograph was taken for a reason. The subject meant something to the person behind the lens or they wanted to make a point (baby with a gun?!). It also meant that they had a record, something valuable to keep and treasure.

The young photographers were not told about the usual rules of photography and so were not bound by normal conventions. However, they still produced some very good photographs and even the less impressive snapshots were powerful in their own way. Many of them could have been of any family, anywhere.

Archives

I particularly liked the wall archive boxes. It was tactile and gave an opportunity to interact with the images, but it also gave the impression that every photo would be kept and looked after, and that every one mattered.

The project has been going successfully for 17 years and has created a rich history out of some brief and chaotic lives. Out of the original 55 participants, the organisers are now only still in touch with 15 of them. The remainder having died, disappeared or been sent to prison. The organisers never aimed to change the life trajectories of those involved, but they have aimed to create a cultural and social impact. The work has been displayed on flyposters around Belo Horizonte, they’ve also printed newspapers of their work and given them out on the streets, sometimes ignored but not always.

It made me think of the PhotoVoice projects and is a nice reminder that photography can have a positive social impact.

Jubilee Library

Viewing Photobooks

Our final outing of the day was to the Jubilee library, which had a selection of more than 50 photobooks on display. These were all self-published and came in a wide-variety of formats. It was a simple idea and a popular visit. I think the variety of books (and newspapers) on offer gave people plenty of good ideas, even if they did make the tutors worry that they’d see even more photobooks being submitted for assessment!

Outside the library was a selection of photos from an exhibit called “Whose Streets?“. These are images looking at Brighton’s history of protests and demonstrations and are displayed in various parts of the city. I didn’t view the images at the time, but knowing what they were about now, I wish I’d have taken the short walk to see them.

Day Two

Brighton Media Centre Gallery

A student and her work

The morning-after started early, with a portfolio review and general question/answer session at Brighton Media Centre. This was the part of the study visit I was looking forward to the most, but also dreading the most. Having people put nice comments on photos on Flickr is a world away from presenting a body of work, created for an assignment, to a group of tutors.

I presented my work for assignment two: the elements of design. I haven’t really posted about it here yet, so I’ll save it for another blog post. Needless to say it was well received by everyone and I was given plenty of good ideas for improving what I’ve done so far and for taking it further in future.

It was reassuring to see other student’s work as well and to hear them talk about it. We are all in similar places and struggle with similar issues, and it seems there are plenty of people doing part two of the art of photography. We are all doing something different and individual, but it’s all equally valid and impressive work, and very interesting to see.

After the review and discussion, we had a look around the exhibition currently at the Brighton Media Centre: “Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead” by Phil Taylor. A series of images in black and white, and colour, centred around Tuscon, Arizona and inspired by the novel ‘Blood Meridian’ by Cormac McCarthy. I particularly liked that Phil used the equipment he had available and that did the job, whether that was a camera phone or a simple point and shoot camera. He captured a lot of different things about the culture and area in Southern Arizona, each worthy of its own exhibition. I can’t talk about the novel or how the pictures represented any of it, because I haven’t read it. However, I was particularly interested in the Day of the Dead celebrations and would have liked to have seen more about that.

The Bellis Gallery

Viewing Façades

The final exhibition we saw was Memory, Territory, Space, by Kate Butler, Allan Grainger, Paula Knee, Kristina Loescher and Elaine Self. Together they form 8. They each had displayed a set of really interesting and well presented images. I particularly liked Alain Grainger’s look at individuals within the urban environment and the discussions about the images by Elaine Self and the deliberate placement of elements such as the owners’ cars.

The Malborough Theatre

Finally, before catching my train home, we went to a tiny theatre above the Marlborough Arms pub for “Desert Island Pics”. A discussion between Stephen Bull (Photography course leader at the University for the Creative Arts) and Sean O’Hagan (journalist, currently the photography writer for the Guardian), where Sean was challenged to come up with his favourite eight photographs. It was a fascinating talk about the power and meaning of pictures. I was expecting more famous images from the big names, but actually there was a selection of personal images, images that made the news, as well as the more well known faces. It was thought-provoking and well worth seeing. I particularly liked the photograph of his father’s shed, something that had come up in the earlier review session with the tutors, and something that resonates with us all to show the emotional power of an image.

Conclusions

Meeting up with students and tutors for two days was a great experience. I find it’s incredibly useful to be able to discuss the work we see in exhibitions, as it helps me understand much more about the work. I’m also finding it useful to see how work is put together in a coherent set and the choices being made regarding the display. Being able to share ideas and talk about studying with other students is also immensely helpful. When I go online, I can put personalities to words and I feel more like a part of something. The Sunday morning review and discussion was great and something I think should be done more often.

As I said at the start, I thought the theme of the biennial was incredibly interesting and I would have loved to have seen more exhibitions, but there just wasn’t time. Why doesn’t Manchester have something like this?!

Images posted, with the exception of my own, are used with the kind permission of Photoworks and Brighton Photo Biennial 2012
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6 comments

  1. This really captures the flavour of the weekend. Your mention of Photovoice also introduced me to another resource so thanks for that. It was good to meet you.

    1. Thank you Catherine! It turned into a bit of a monster of a blog post, but there was so much to write about, it could easily have been twice as long. It was lovely to meet you too. Hopefully, we’ll see each other again on future visits.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the weekend Lucy. I am looking forward to seeing how you have developed your ‘war on sugar’ series when it comes in for assessment

    1. Thank you Gareth! I really appreciated the opportunity to get feedback from tutors and other students, and I’m really pleased that other people enjoyed the photos. I didn’t intend for it to be such a clear-cut “war on ” series, I was hoping for some ambiguity, but I think the soldiers have taken over a bit.. I’m looking forward to just finishing the photos at the moment though!

  3. […] Also, it was recommended that I take a look at the images used in the UK Sunday supplements, like the Observer, in particular the images used in the food and gardening sections. I’d actually completely forgotten about it until now. I tend to only read news online, but I’ll have to make a trip to the newsagents on Sunday. Sean O’Hagan, a columnist in the Guardian, was recommended too. I  already tend to read his articles online as I visit the Guardian site a lot (they have a new photography blog!). I also saw him talk recently at the Brighton Photo Biennial. […]

  4. […] Liverpool (lots of places thanks to the Biennial), Brighton (again lots of places due to the Biennial), and London’s Barbican Art […]

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