Originally published on Photomonitor.co.uk
This year’s Brighton Photo Biennial is organised around the theme ‘Beyond the Bias – Reshaping Image’. It brings together work which deals with identity and self-presentation, and which uses and reworks the aesthetics of fashion and style photography.
Ewen Spencer has been photographing youth culture and underground music scenes for many years. He has published and exhibited work on the grime and UK Garage scenes as well as working commercially for big-name brands. Commissioned for the Biennial, ‘Kick Over the Statues’ is a documentary series on young people along the route of Notting Hill Carnival and on the streets of contemporary Liverpool. The exhibition’s title comes from a song by The Redskins, an 80s left-wing punk band, which Spencer says is about “the young eating the old”.
Brighton’s Fabrica gallery is in a deconsecrated church and for this show a stack of speakers takes the place of the altar. It is a statement of intent, a statement that subculture has taken over this reified space. Spencer’s photographs are displayed on large scale billboards, positioned free-standing in the gallery; this is street-style imagery as advertising. The space could do with being a little less dark and the loud soundtrack to a looping video of archival footage is maddening in its repetition. Overall though the presentation really works, the size of the prints meaning that the viewer is walking at eye-level among the larger-than-life-size portraits, almost as if on the same streets.
In an interview with Olivia Gideon-Thomson in the Photoworks annual, Spencer explains that developments in lighting equipment meant that for this commission he was able “to move into areas and capture a combination of something that is both found and contrived”. The highlights of the show are just that, compelling portraits which use the visual language of global advertising but are filled with detail that grounds them in the real. There is dirt and clutter in these scenes. In one photograph a man sits on the floor while a Santander bicycle leans on a wall and in another portrait a pink Barbie logo stands out on a black lapel. Elsewhere a woman stands facing us in hotpants and platform boots against the bright red backdrop of a newsagent shopfront and its paraphernalia. Often in the photographs the studio-style lighting lends a stillness that contrasts with the energy of the setting and the colours of people’s clothes.
What elevates Spencer’s work is that he is a photographer embedded in the scenes he documents. This exhibition is accompanied by a UK Garage night in the gallery space hosted by him and a gallery takeover by young people. There is an evident seriousness in the treatment of subculture and youth identity, with accompanying reading material including articles from academic journals. But a seriousness too within the work itself, in the use of shadow and light and in the powerful posturing of the subjects. These are young people who know that they are being photographed; they are participants in that process of creating a ‘personal and projected image’ that the Brighton festival seeks to examine.
Originally published on Photomonitor.co.uk
Among the group shows at this year’s sprawling Brighton Photo Fringe are The Lithuanian Project by the UK-based MAP6 Collective and an exhibition of photography from the Middle East curated by Reconnecting Arts.
The MAP6 Collective choose Lithuania as a subject in order to investigate the post-Soviet experience and the notion of Europe. For their project Babochka, Jonty Tacon and Laurie Griffiths jointly photographed Visaginas, a town built to house the workers of a Soviet nuclear plant. There is some compelling work from inside the plant and in the glimpses of the everyday and domestic. However the photographs, and those by Paul Walsh hung nearby, tend to be rather static and the self-published accompanying book would benefit from being far more tightly edited.
In the same room Heather Shuker has a beautiful portrait from her series Divided Lives, about a region which straddles the border with Belarus. An elderly woman sits in a room the rich, dark colours of an oil painting, a thick photo album and a dated TV remote in front of her and a crucifix on the wall behind. The rest of the series doesn’t quite live up the promise of this opening piece, however. Like much of the show, Shuker’s work at times feels distancing and too heavily symbolic. This is exacerbated by poor curation where the different artists are interspersed with each other throughout three rooms and their projects hard to distinguish. The choice of subject matter is largely that of Soviet and post-Soviet cliché – nuclear facilities, the military and fading architecture. Despite good intentions one doesn’t come away with the feeling of having learnt anything new about the specific Lithuanian experience.
Up the road in Hove is the exhibition by Reconnecting Arts of emerging lens-based artists from the Middle East. The small display jostles for space with other exhibits in the former canteen of King’s House – a half empty council building. In a set of tiny intimate polaroids of urbanizing Doha by Khalid Al Hammadi we see huge buildings on a miniature scale, camels who appear to be sitting on a construction site, and photos of stalls, streets and doorways which have a behind-the-scenes feel. Cheb Moha’s street photography, meanwhile, is displayed in a style reminiscent of a teenage bedroom – the work is not particularly technically sophisticated but it really pops.
There are some very interesting considerations in this show of the connection between form and subject. Mouna Kalla-Sacranie creates layered, multi-exposure pictures of Palestine which she calls a ‘Palimpsest’, meaning ‘something that has been reused, altered or appropriated over time but still bears visible traces of its earlier form’. This lo-fi but energetic show has real depth. It is an imaginative exhibition which shows how local photography can offer a generally fresh perspective.