A short review: FORMAT Festival 2019

I felt it was quite ambitious aiming to see 10 venues in less than 6 hours, but it is true what the website says – Derby is a compact city and we found it relatively easy to make our way round in that time even with a few hiccups on the way. Annoyingly, we decided quite late to visit Format so travelling by train wasn’t a financially viable option. We parked in nearby Siddals Road car park and walked to the Quad to find our bearings. I didn’t visit Format 2017 as I had a very teeny tiny baby at the time but remembered from 2015 that the Quad was one of the largest and, in my opinion, the most interesting work, so I was really looking forward to it. Bear was first on our hitlist though as it promised avocado on toast and good coffee. The ‘Forever Elvis’ exhibition was held at Bear. I tried to look at the work and what I did see was good, but social anxiety always sets in a little when having to lean over people eating their eggs to admire the photography. The variation of venues is great at Format but I did leave earlier than if this work were in a traditional gallery space. Back to Quad, I was really pleased to finally see Max Pincker’s work in the flesh after reading so many rave reviews. I immediately ordered Margins of Excess, paying over the odds for delivery as it is pretty much out of stock everywhere. His work reminds of me of Stephen Shore and Alec Soth bundled into one; contemporary narrative documentary photography at its best. The work in the Quad was refreshing and seemed really well curated. It felt like the cornerstone of Forever/Now with the right mix of unusual and safe pieces, a familiarity that was comforting as well as an excitement of the new. We continued our whistle-stop tour onto Derby Market Hall to see Sixteen, a brainchild of Craig Eason but a collaboration of many photographers. Sixteen was definitely my highlight (and also my husband’s). The space complimented the work brilliantly. The rawness of the market hall and the honesty of the work gelled. I am rarely emotionally moved by photography, despite my interest in the subject, but Sixteen made me sad and a little bit nervous. These are children born in 2002/3 and resided all over the country, from all different walks of life. Their stories were melancholy and so many talked of fear and poor mental health. I teach this age group, and it really brought home the differences in their lives to mine as a 16 year old. You see from the work that they were given questions to answer which focussed on their future and current lives. Not a lot of this focussed on happiness and things they enjoyed, although some did touch upon it. Uncertainty was a key theme throughout most of the Sixteen work with teenagers not really knowing what to expect from their futures. It felt close to home being in a market hall, some of the pieces were opposite an alternative clothing and gaming shop. When I was 16, emo was all the rage and I had really bought into it. I thought being an extreme sports photographer was well in my grasp and pink hair would never be out of fashion. But what I don’t remember is sharing this fear of my future, the unknown. It may just be the way the work was put together but the melancholy was clear. We could have spent a lot longer pondering at the work of Sixteen, but we knew we had to get on in order to get round so off we went. Tramshed was a beautiful space with some excellent painted signage from its original usage. Individual exhibitions are easy to view as you know the thread that holds the work together. Seeing so many group exhibitions is quite hard as you are constantly having to change your mindset and be alert for what the work is going to be about. This has its pitfalls, as I find I skip work I haven’t got the brain power to concentrate on for too long. I found this in Tramshed, especially as some interactive work wasn’t available.

St.Werburghs Chapel was being filmed when we arrived so we had to take a detour and leave them to it for 45 minutes – quite disappointing but easily solved. Pickford House in Derby is a real hidden gem, even without any photography exhibitions. When we visited, there was a kids play room, an excellent fashion and textiles exhibition as well as Edwardian bathrooms ready for public use! A highlight for me was the 19th century toy theatres on the top floor. We only planned to ‘nip’ into Pickford House, but ended up staying half an hour. University of Derby felt similar to Quad in its choosing of work and content. Unfortunately for us, we had chosen an applicant day to visit the Uni so was (flatteringly) mistook for undergraduate students. This was fine in itself but meant the work we had gone to see was partly covered by free tea and coffee as well as signposts for the applicants. We persevered however and saw most of the pieces – Jonny Briggs’ photographed collage work stood out to me. The grotesqueness of fingers  coming through torn imagery worked well harmony, and the scale of the pieces suited the overexaggerated nature of the subject matter. On the way back to the chapel we stopped off at Bank Mills Studio and Deda. At Deda, Peng Ke’s Salt Ponds drew me in. Echoing Rinko Kawachi’s luminosity and an air of innocence and naivety, I felt Ke’s work was much stronger than the space it had been allowed. It felt unappreciated, but that might just because I liked it so much! We worked our way to the chapel to thumb the photobook dummies (always a treat!) Being able to do this feels like a privilege, I feel much more connected to the artists by being able to handle the work rather than looking at it behind glass frames. The choice of paper, scale and little additions to pages makes the narratives and stories come alive, the passion of the maker seep through the pages.

With our time almost up, we headed back towards the car – Gregg’s vegan sausage roll in hand and topped up with inspiration. Since I last visited Format in 2015, the festival has grown in maturity and confidence and is doing such great things for the medium. Thank you Format and see you in 2021!  

Thoughts on Martin Parr: Return to Manchester at Manchester Art Gallery 2019

I am always keen to see Martin Parr’s work in the flesh, as I possess the knowledge that it will always be a pleasant experience. It will scratch my documentary photography itch for a little while longer and remind me of why I ever fell in love with photography in the first place. Annoyingly, he is one of my favourite photographers. Having studied the subject for over 12 years I would prefer to say it to be someone cutting edge and underground, but alas it is not. Safe and reliable, relatable and pleasing. It always comes back to Parr. He was the first photographer I was introduced to contextually and stays with me to this day.

Return to Manchester was poignant for a few reasons. The first being that it was being viewed on a rare child-free day. Days of idling round exhibitions without being strung up to nap and snack times are now few and far between. Our daughter does love an exhibition, but at 2 years old she hasn’t got the gist of slowing wandering just yet, preferring to hurtle around galleries at full speed with a pencil in her hand (and rightly so, I don’t blame her). The second being we were on our way to collect our camper van- an exciting day in our calendar anyway. The third being that I haven’t really been back to Manchester since moving away in 2010. Although I love the city, it still has a habit of giving me a negative vibe which I am keen to shake off entirely in the near future.

We were pretty much the first ones into the exhibition, having waited outside just before opening time. A fourth floor exhibition, we took a shortcut straight to the work rather than meandering around the permanent exhibitions. Parr’s newly commissioned work is digitally printed and hung high- no frames. This choice brought familiarity and a sense of grounding to the exhibition. It was about Manchester, it was in Manchester and it was there in front of you with no barriers. It felt like it was for Manchester and presented in such a stripped back way provided a feeling of ownership. Parr’s work follows a successful formula of bright colour, tongue in cheek humour, contradictory pairings between text and image and an essence of relatability. In the 7 or so minute video playing in a side room Parr speaks of his love of things looking out of date. His work manages to capture this just on the turn- things starting to look dated or looking slightly past their best. His work makes you see situations you walk past everyday differently. The ordinary becoming extraordinary and noticeable. I think of Parr’s work as a historical document rather than straight forward photography. He captures people and places ‘on the turn’. Things you would normally forget as time slowly passes and things change without recognition. I notice some photographs that I don’t find as successful in the new work. This makes me wonder why, on paper it fits the formula. After walking round I realise it is because I don’t find the content nostalgic, it isn’t forgotten enough for me to appreciate it. An example of this is the work in Salford’s Media City, where CBeebies is filmed. Parr has been let into the presenter’s studio. This studio features in my house every morning, and probably did so on the morning of the exhibition. It was too close,  too current for me to become fond of the image and appreciate it for the artistic value the others held. Placed within a whole wall of imagery, it was balanced by subject matter that had tipped already into nostalgia or unfamiliarity.

Food is always a key feature of Parr’s work and this exhibition is no exception. The walls feature homemade baking, comical signs and gaudy colours. All the things that work in a Parr image. Drawing your attention and raising up boring, corner shop displays into the lens of an art gallery provides new context for examination and helps appreciate the world around you in a time of intense image consumption. Some of the images are hung annoyingly high for someone who likes to examine print quality, but in an empty space this wasn’t an issue as we were free to move wherever the image required us to be. A wall filled with postcard sized prints felt too much. It felt busy and like it was attempting to hide something, or to compensate for such a large white space not containing more than 4 photographs. The rest of the exhibition didn’t fail to disappoint either, with a carefully curated selection of Parr’s past work from Manchester and the North West of England. Only a section of this followed the same exhibiting rules as the new work but, given the photographic formula, it still worked despite there being over 20 years difference in the images taken. The same systems were upheld, gaudy colours of Kwik Save shopping bags and price tags on supermarket walls that instantly told of the distinction from then to now. Parr’s work is successful and well-loved for a reason. It tells a story and reminds people of a past time. It is the world we know and sometimes love. Safe and reliable, relatable and pleasing – a scratch itched once again.   

Martin Parr: Return to Manchester is on at Manchester Art Gallery until 22nd April 2019.