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 In the 7 or so minute video playing in a side room Parr speaks of his love of things looking out of date.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.


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Printhouse Gallery Collage Exhibition 1-24 July

I have been lucky enough to be selected to take part in a group collage exhibition in London’s Printhouse Gallery next month through creative website, Zealous. I will be showing 4 pieces from collaborative project, Garden Book Club.

 

Heres the event link on Facebook, hope to see you there!

No Longer Enough

Feeling like I am spinning many a plate at the moment (new house, wedding to plan, birthday, work, imminent arrival of dog from overseas etc etc) has meant I have somewhat been delayed in writing a blog post about my visit to Format Festival in Derby last month. This week however, I have been spurred on to put fingers to keys after visiting the Deutsche Borse Prize at the ‘mecca’ that is the Photographer’s Gallery and spotting a few things that has made my mind tick over.

Firstly, I absolutely loved Format Festival. I thought it contained some brilliantly printed, curated and displayed work and brought together some really unique pieces with people who showed a real interest and passion for what was going on around them there. Everyone I met had a positive comment to say; a smile on their face and in most cases a story to share. Beginning in the Quad, I was met with some big names- Cristina de Middel, Larry Sultan to name only two. The theme of ‘Evidence’ was subtle and obvious in equal amounts. Some work couldn’t have been shown under any other theme whereas some fitted it subtly enough for you to have to search a little deeper for the connections. Andrea Botto is a good example of the former, with his project KA-BOOM. Displayed in large frames and surrounded by documents and smaller photographs, the work is a snapshot of time, contemporary demolition of places around the world and in turn, evidence of these places ever existing and their exits from many a skyline. The work was beautifully printed, even when viewed up close- a rarity now as a lot of photography shows seem to be getting seemingly lazy or complacent with their print quality. The work was intriguing and I was in awe of the colours gained from using medium/large format equipment.

Miti Ruangkritya’s Thai Politics had an air of both humour and darkness surrounding it. The work that was displayed at Format was Where’s Wally-esque making use of the huge available image bank that is the Internet and social media before pulling the imagery together using Photoshop, addressing the Thai protests happening in Bangkok since 2006. My personal favourite work in this very first room belongs to Sara-Lena Maierhafer, contained in a pristine and precise book that I was hugely disappointed to find was only printed in an edition of 20 but understood why when I looked at the detail that went into each copy. Maierhafer addresses fact and fiction in photography which is not only an interest of mine, but it was thoughtfully displayed with collage, image and text making the work a multi dimensional piece. This isn’t unusual I know, but as the work was book first and exhibition after, I felt the multimedia aspect of the curating was essential to the experience of the viewer. Providing these different platforms ensured that I didn’t glance over the framed imagery and instantly forget, I was forced to consider what was in front of me, take in all aspects of the piece, just as you would open a front cover of a book and look inside. It was this particular pattern that I have spotted throughout these exhibitions and then at Deutsche Borse. Photographs are no longer alone in galleries. Yes, there are your simple framed print exhibitions (Nikolai Bakharev is a perfect example) and this will carry on for as long as the photograph lives, but as a regular visitor to many exhibitions I can’t help but notice this surge in trend.

Whether it be further images displayed at different heights with different hanging methods such as pins or shelves, or additions of handwritten notes and found imagery, it seems that the photograph’s (and photographer’s) intentions are now safer when accompanied. Without bringing up the aging discourse of ‘is photography art?’ (which I seemed to have just done regardless) it appears that now photography is well and truly embedded in artistic fields as well as its own, it is time to bend the rules a little. The British Journal of Photography dedicated a whole issue recently to photographers using the medium in a much freer, abstract way than say, the documentary heavy 1980s and 90s concentrating less on subject and more on process, output and materials. This, coupled with the growing love (one I share on a huge scale) for photo books as a vehicle of distribution and dissemination it seems the print alone is no longer a valid way of getting your point across. Photo books are beautiful crafted items that often warrant exhibition themselves. Recently whilst in New York I visited the Chinese Photobook exhibition and then again whilst in London. A whole exhibition (and by no means the first) dedicated to photo books of a nation. Some of which you couldn’t touch, and some you couldn’t even see in person. Videos of other people leafing through these books displayed as proudly as artworks themselves, small crowds gathering to catch a glimpse. Once upon a photography time, these images would be forced out of these books and hung blown-up on the walls, alone. Now more than ever it seems, it is important to cherish the way the photographs are displayed, the original curating within the book and keep this as intended to support the photograph’s journey as a process.

Many exhibitions I visit (including both the aforementioned) accompany their exhibits with plinths and a few copies of the supporting work in book form as well as carefully selected objects and documents. For me as both photographer and viewer, these additions come as a welcome element. I understand more about the photographer as a person but also more about the project. I admire the project in full, sometimes with the inspirations displayed right next to the ‘finished’ item itself just as I did with Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s Ponte City at The Photographer’s Gallery two weeks back. Their work was a visual delight in comparison to some of the sparse rooms (sorry Bakharev) contained in the prize. Not only were there huge light boxes displaying hundreds of images, but also around them were archival materials, maps, found imagery and architectural plans. The materials together told a story, placed more narrative on some already very powerful photographs. It may just be me as a collector that gets truly excited at these additions to exhibitions but I do not believe I am the only one who has walked away from some exhibits feeling underwhelmed at the lack of information that seeps from a collection of documents that are meant, at the simplest level, to be replicating reality.

The additional materials add to a particular photographer’s style and subject too. When viewing Sputnik’s work back at Format, their ‘adult’ images were contained behind velour curtains. A necessity perhaps with a young audience, but the sleazy choice of cheap materials gave a further nod to what was underneath the curtain, making the audience take a leap and look behind it rather than catching a sneaky glance. Photography is becoming a performance, rather than a 2D hobby. Photographers have never had more scope with a medium that has suffered its battles throughout history, a medium that has forced its users to break rules, follow rules, make rules, and then now it seems- to break them again. To me (again, probably biased as a photographer and photo book enthusiast) the growth of photography at the moment is defying prediction, with self-publishing and online distribution providing more amateurs than ever a platform and a voice to show off their work that deserves to be seen. Coupled with a new age of a mash up of art/photography mixed media/multi platform exhibitions it is hard to envisage what is next for the field, but I can’t help but be excited for what lies ahead. For me, as someone who has fallen in and out of love with photography at various points in its turbulent timeline (Fujifilm discontinuing Provia 400x was a particularly low point) noticing trends such as this one fills me with confidence about the medium’s future and its ability to constantly twist and astonish with new and exciting exhibitions, photo books and projects.Andrea Botto

Documentation and Reflection

Extract from my Independent Project Proposal:

Throughout the last module I feel the ‘Garden Book Club’ work was some of my strongest, helped by my growing knowledge of practice as research. During the module I struggled to pinpoint the practice and now I have done this I feel it would be an important time to concentrate on honing it further through my independent project. I am going to concentrate on exploring it further by strengthening the research aspects and integrating this with a developing practice that holds more purpose when relating it back to theoretical work. The outcomes at this stage will be documented and reflected within a physical sketchbook as well as continuing with my online journal. At present, I predict the work will be presented in book form, most likely accompanied by a group/individual exhibition.

 ‘The are actions, recognitions, and judgments which we know how to carry out spontaneously; we do not have to think about them prior to or during their performance, We are often aware of having learned to do things; we simply find ourselves doing them. In some cases, we were once aware of the understandings which were subsequently internalized in our feeling for the stuff of action. In other cases, we may have never been aware of them. In both cases, however, we are usually unable to describe the knowing which our action reveals’ (Schön, 1983, pp 49-69)

Reflecting-in-action requires a certain level of existing tacit knowledge upon which spontaneous judgments can be trusted and made. Prior to starting the independent project, I had begun to build confidence in my practice by shifting the worry of the ‘end product’ to attempting to work through my practice questions by making. By doing this, I was able to take risks and essentially ‘take myself by surprise’ with my own practice. Knowing for a long time that I wanted to start to explore research areas such as nostalgia, the photo book as a distribution vehicle and use of the found image but feeling like I had no solid way of confidently researching, I have been making decisions based on my last decision made, and reflecting-in-action as I go, using only past work and a rough research plan as my guide. This has worked well for my progress as a practitioner and the project as a whole, as the creative risks (using a newspaper instead of an exhibition, eliminating other media for the project concentrating on collage) have assisted the ‘overallness’ of GBC as it stands and demonstrates a clear journey from a complex unresolved idea. Reflecting back to this time, it is easy for me to see how it has matured and changed in both content and strength, shaping to fit the areas where my theoretical interests lie.

As a photographer, documentation has generally been a well-debated part of my arts practice and one I have commented on throughout my MA. Documenting photographs in situ didn’t hold much value to me, and as Nelson (2013) comments, I was held with a constant fear my practice will eventually be subjugated to the writing elements leaving visual documentation in a firm second place. As the photographs in the last post show, I have distributed the Garden Book Club newspaper in York and Leeds. Documenting this event was not only essential to the process to prove it had taken place, it also holds value of the newspaper. Rye commented on DVD recordings not being able to capture the essence or magic of an original performance, lessening the event by reproduction. This is the same way I feel about photographing photographs, there isn’t really much value held by doing so. Photographing the newspaper in situ however, does not lessen its value but rather strengthens the outreach it has to further audiences. Furthermore, it did not interfere with the process, distribution or affect any future exchanges of the newspaper between possible readers or viewers. To photograph it taking place was simply to document the overall performativity of the project, a cataloguing exercise for a personal archive.

Nelson, R. (2013). ‘Supervision, Documentation and other Aspects of Praxis’. In. Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances. Palgrave: London pp 71-92

Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Basic Books: New York.

Overall-ness

Photo 20-09-2014 10 06 45 Photo 20-09-2014 10 22 02 Photo 20-09-2014 11 47 06 Photo 20-09-2014 11 49 08 Photo 20-09-2014 13 47 28 Photo 20-09-2014 13 55 45 Photo 20-09-2014 13 59 59 Photo 20-09-2014 15 58 02 Photo 20-09-2014 15 58 09 Photo 20-09-2014 16 21 06

 

Yesterday was distribution day. You can currently find copies of Garden Book Club newspaper issue 1 in the following places in York and Leeds (and maybe a sneaky hidden copy amongst bicycles and flowers):

Perky Peacock

Snowhome

Inkwell

Coffee Culture

Fossgate Social

Spring Espresso

Bison Coffee

Poppleton Garden Centre

Dog and Bone Vintage

The Village Bookstore

Colours May Vary

Layne’s Espresso

Postal copies to be sent out this week nationwide to other coffee, art and botanical outlets.

 

The Beginning of the End

Studio Crit

I have included some photos of the latest studio critique that took place. I curated my space to display some of my latest work and reference points.

Exhibition Preparation

 

So, the last week has been a new experience for me. Setting up an exhibition that isn’t simply painting a wall white and hanging a photograph in a frame. Luckily I have 5 other experienced MA pals to help me out with certain things (mostly tech and lifting things, I’m weak as a kitten and as girly as they come) and ensure that we have a brilliant show to open with. Few decisions I had to make were fairly monumental to me, the first being the amount of work I put into the show. In the past, I have thrown everything into shows as I lacked confidence in the work itself so often thought quantity over quality would help. I have now realised this is a poor tactic really, and it doesn’t say a lot about you or your practice whatsoever. Being able to select work in a mature and confident fashion has meant that I was prepared with printing, materials etc but also meant I could really give some thought to how my practice has evolved over the last two years. Casting my mind back to the atrocity that was my Viva Voce and comparing it to this assessment is almost unrecognisable. This type of reflection makes me happy I chose the 2 year MA program, giving me chance to fully explore my practice through experiment and study as well as make some huge mistakes along the way. Incorporating new media such as screen printing, risograph, collage, video and book work has meant I have taken risks with moving my practice forward, but risks that I feel were necessary and suitable for this particular time. I have included some photographs of the preparation that went into the exhibition (which has turned out brilliantly on everyone’s parts!) to demonstrate the different processes I undertook in order to produce what I think is my most considered work to date. Modest, non? Proud? Oui!

 

The MA exhibition is part of York St John University Create ’14 show, and more information can be found here.