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@NorthernSlant Essays Photography

Open space photography at the Linen Hall Library

Open space photography at the Linen Hall Library
by Allan LEONARD
31 May 2017

Gaining inspiration from viewing the archive postcard collection at the Linen Hall Library, a group of participants in a community photography workshop facilitated by Belfast Exposed set out to document their views of sharing and respecting open space in the city.

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@NorthernSlant Essays Photography

Softening images of Partition

Softening images of Partition
by Allan LEONARD
24 May 2017

Although John Irvine left Northern Ireland over 15 years ago, having grown up about East Antrim, he retains “strong links” and comes home frequently. Irvine explained how one morning drive accidentally led him to his book, Partition.

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@NorthernSlant Essays Photography

Then & Now: Belfast Blitz

Then & Now: Belfast Blitz
by Allan LEONARD
17 May 2017

In an apparent continuation of their Then & Now series, the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) has produced a new set of blended images that show the material destruction caused by the Belfast Blitz attacks (April-May 1941), alongside contemporary and more familiar landmarks.

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@NorthernSlant Essays Photography

Stéphane DUROY: Selecting memories

Stéphane DUROY: Selecting memories
by Allan LEONARD
3 May 2017

A recent exhibition in Le Bal featured a retrospective of the work by Stéphane Duroy. Again and Again contained a selection of hung prints on the ground floor and an installation of his reworked book, Unknown, in the lower level.

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@NorthernSlant Essays Photography

Everywhere is different but nevertheless is not unrecognisable

Everywhere is different but nevertheless is not unrecognisable
by Allan LEONARD
25 April 2017

Of the treasure trove of prints and negatives held by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), a relatively small selection of about 2,500 images are available to view on Flickr. This consists of three collections: the Allison Photographic Collection, the Cooper Photographic Collection, and a PRONI-created collection of merged images, which they called ‘Then & Now’.

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Essays Photography

Reciprocated Gaze @BelfastExposed

I found myself with spare time before the bus commute home, so I popped over to Belfast Exposed, where I knew there was a exhibition of participants in its Stage 3 training photography courses.

Coincidentally, I discovered as I walked in that there was a session of portfolio reviews. About half a dozen tables on the ground floor, with artists showing their works to friendly critics. The gallery assistant welcomed me to carry on and inspect the Interactions exhibition on the surrounding walls. I did so, but felt like an interloper. (I didn’t eavesdrop, I promise.)

Perhaps because of the intense buzzing chatter around me, I wasn’t able to absorb the significance of the work in front of me. I knew about some of the artists, but nothing left an indelible impression.

I walked up the long flight of stairs to the upper floor, where I was greeted kindly by a member of staff (a marked contrast to my previous visit when I was told off for trying to reaffix a fallen magnet pin to an image).

Entitled Reciprocated Gaze, the work of nine artists were on display, described as a response to the Interactions exhibition down below.

It is an elevation.

The standard was very high, across the genres displayed.

There were two artists that stood out for me.

Both were triptyches, a set of three images in a row.

Judith Cole’s Mission Halls of Northern Ireland is a four-year project, to be published in a book of the same name this year. Here on display were three images of details inside a hall (or more) — collection baskets, seats, song books. They made me ponder the people who attend and worship.

Chrysoula Drakaki’s three images of Piraeus Port were taken on the same day, capturing three different social aspects of Greece. There is the expectant image of the aground ship (which evokes the tragedy and loss of life), complemented with tourists sitting at the stern of another one, and a street scene. The trilogy is superb.

And this got me thinking about a recent article that I read about the obsession of the perfect single image in a photographer’s project. I would use the word tyranny. Because if photography is about story telling, then unless you’ve either captured a photojournalistic moment or carefully staged a scene with requisite elements, then a short series of images can be just as powerful, if not more.

Both Interactions and Reciprocated Gaze exhibitions are on display at Belfast Exposed from 12 January – 18 February 2017.

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Essays Photography

Book review – Failed It!

Failed It! by Erik Kessels is an easy read of his encouragement of embracing failure as a means of revealing a better discovery. He intersperses his quips with visual inspirations, from both the intentional (by seasoned artists) and the unintentional (by reconsidering the work of some amateurs).

The strength of this short book is demonstrating how play — and a sense of humour — can create something unique, breaking away from the mundane.

I appreciated his sharing of the work of Heike Bollig, André Thijssen, Kent Rogowski, Ruth van Beek, and Joachim Schmid.

But how far does one live with such an approach?

For example, Kessels writes, “Children learn by trying and failing … But children also live in a dream world of play, where mistakes have no consequences, nor are they burdened by the terror of self-consciousness.”

“So why shouldn’t adults do the same?” he asks.

Perhaps because as adults, some mistakes do have consequences. And I would argue that overcoming the terror of our environmental conditioning (finish school, get that job, marry that person, have a family) requires more than acting like a child.

Being a failed parent or spouse may enrich your own life, but there’s a difference between the discarding of literal scraps of paper versus human relationships.

So I’ll take Failed It! for what it is — don’t seek perfection when exploring your own creativity.

But the learning process for emotional intelligence is a harder read.

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Essays Photography

Book review – Une Visit chez Magritte (Duane MICHALS)

René Magritte was the first artist that I identified with — particularly his sense of humour yet thought provoking presentations of surrealism.

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Audio Essays Photography

Surrendering one’s identity to the internet – Home Instruction Manual

What happens when you ask an online chat room how to make a home?

In an interview-style format with about 50 people attending, Belfast Exposed Curator Ciara Hickey asked artist Jan McCullough to share her journey.

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@SharedFuture Essays Photography

Bringing our own lens: Visualising conflict in Palestine

Bringing our own lens: Visualising conflict in Palestine
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
15 March 2016

The rear room at Common Grounds Cafe was the venue for a display of three types of imagery — participatory, documentary, and expository — for the Imagine! Festival of Ideas & Politics event, Visualising Conflict in Palestine, which was attended by a mixture of the artistically intrigued and politically motivated.

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Essays Photography

A lexicon of conflict – Paul SEAWRIGHT exhibition “Things Left Unsaid”

Paul SEAWRIGHT; source: Belfast Royal Academy
Paul SEAWRIGHT; source: Belfast Royal Academy

A lexicon of conflict: Paul Seawright exhibition “Things Left Unsaid”
by Allan Leonard for Northern Ireland Foundation
1 October 2015

On the surface, the images shown in Paul Seawright’s work, “Things Left Unsaid”, are just a series of American television news stations. And in a tour that the Belfast-based artist provided as part of Community Relations Week, Mr Seawright explained how he approached this subject from a landscape photographer’s technique: “I even treated the people as plain objects, part of the props.”

But what is behind this work? As described in an introductory wall panel, a recurrent theme in Mr Seawright’s work is the suggestion that the real subject or event has taken place elsewhere: “The power of his images often rests on what is not shown or directly described.”

Or as the artist told us, “The things you’re talking about are not in the image. You want to give just enough: too much and it unravels; too little and it becomes too abstract.”

He also explained how a body of work is “80% conceptual/20% production”. One could be a master of the machinery but dumb in connecting what you produce.

Mr Seawright revealed that the idea behind this current work came from his previous serious, “Volunteer”, which explored the physical geography of recruitment to the US Armed Forces. He joked how he has found himself returning to America for more projects.

What fascinated him was the interplay between the technology of the studio and the technology of conflict. The commonality of the stage platform was also mentioned: control rooms, theatres of war, cutting down.

Ms Anne Stewart (Curator of Art, Ulster Museum) has done a superlative job presenting the images in a television stage environment: each image is backlit with a white border, and spotlit in a darkened room.

This sparked a conversation about displaying work in galleries versus books; Mr Seawright prefers the in-person experience, describing photobooks as a compromise.

Reflecting the sometimes contentious issue of whether photographers are artists, Mr Seawright replied:

“This is about me, growing up in Belfast, and expressing what I see as an artist. Whether you call me an ‘artist’ or ‘photographer’ is semantics.”

And one can see the lexicon of conflict as the envelope of Paul Seawright’s artistic career of over 25 years, how his work relates to conflict and social fracture, from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, America and beyond.

For more insight behind “Things Left Unsaid”, Paul Seawright and Donovan Wylie had a video recorded conversation at the opening of the exhibition at the Centre Culturel Irlandais.

“Things Left Unsaid” is on display at the Ulster Museum through 3 April 2016.

Allan Leonard is a board member of the Community Relations Council.

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Audio Essays Photography

Convergence can hold photography back – Belfast Photo Festival panel discussion

The theme of this year’s Belfast Photo Festival is convergence – the act of artists mixing other forms of art, such as performance and sculpture, with photographic image making. A panel discussion, hosted at Belfast Exposed, explored these boundaries and overlaps, and mooted the way forward.

Francis Hodgson, a photography critic for the Financial Times, consultant and professor, chaired the 90-minute session, “Boundaries of Contemporary Photography”. Other panellists were: Karen McQuaid (Curator, The Photographers’ Gallery), Jim Casper (LensCulture), and Greg Hobson (Curator of Photographs, National Media Museum).

Prof. Hodgson placed the discussion in the context that only a relatively small segment of those who take photographs might be interested in the present and future status of contemporary photography.

Ms McQuaid presented examples of convergence, demonstrations of practicing photographers, past and present – the return of the printed photo, the physical manipulation of the print, “photo drawings”, and the hybridisation of the 2-dimensional image with a corresponding 3-dimensional object.

20150606 Boundaries Contemporary Photography - Jason Evans - Monkey Face
Monkey Face by Jason Evans

Prof. Hodgson replied by saying that he has seen these styles before, and isn’t it interesting that photography has to resort to reapplications of what has been done already? That is to say, why is it so difficult to stop and absorb an individual image?

Part of the answer lies in the classic debate between the application of craftsmanship and self-conscious artistry.

For example, visitors to a gallery of fine art (non-photographic) may stand in awe in front of works of obvious great craftsmanship and artistry. But in a room next door full of contemporary photos, viewers may hone in on the familiar – the object or setting that reminds them of a familiar place or time. The craftsmanship and artistic intent is more easily lost.

So what is the better perspective of photography as a means of communication – is it to make the photographer feel better (“a form of therapy”), or to impart a sentiment to the audience?

Mr Hobson replied that in this regard, photography need not be any different than writing or music. Anyone can write words on a sheet of paper, or whistle a melody, but the art lies in the ideas behind all of them. Photography as an expression of ideas is substantively different than photography as image making. (Subsequently, he suggested Ciaran Og Arnold’s book, I went to the worst of bars hoping to get killed but all I could do was get drunk again, which won the First Book Award.)

Prof. Hodgson developed this line of thinking by asking about photos as “mattering”; what makes a photo matter? How do we decide, “That photo is not as good as this one.”?

And who sets the standards – technical achievement, editorial approval, audience distribution?

After all, we don’t feel the need to have PhDs to appreciate and respond to images.

Mr Hobson countered by defending the role of the curator: “We have a job to do, to have people respond to images in a particular way,” for viewers to reflect and not resort to nostalgic resonance.

And could this explain why convergence is en vogue – to ensure that the viewer must reflect?

The question and answer session provided a profound epilogue. When asked about the value of convergence as a useful artistic application, Mr Hobson replied to the contrary: “Convergence holds photography back. If a photograph is embedded with strong and good ideas, and originality, then it is interesting and deserves attention.” An image’s strength validates it.

Another way of “mattering” is to say appreciation. What is to be appreciated about a photograph? Its craftsmanship? The single image, or series, or movie? The narrative?

The craftsmanship of image making is being attacked from many angles. Beginners now need not learn print making processes; their smartphone or computer software will produce a technically sufficient image. Advanced photographers are not required for fashion shoots or stock photography; automated cameras and 3-D scanning will sort that out.

Quality single images still matter, but they have always been difficult to appreciate. At least before the advent of digital photography and easy uploading (now provided automatically through various phone apps), getting any image distributed involved some mediator (newspaper editor, gallery curator, commissioned work). Now the self-published photo book (and Instagram and Tumblr feeds) circumvents editorial gatekeeping.

This leaves the narrative as the unresolved battlefield. What makes a good narrative? How best to demonstrate it? Who decides?

Convergence may be a re-enactment of photographic history, and should not be dismissed as such.

But convergence is just one way of expressing a self-conscious idea.

Mr Casper asked the panellists if they could identify artists who are using photography as a starting point for a new art form: “Who’s going to create the hip-hop of photography?” Mr Hobson cited a Dutch photographer, Jan Hoek, who meets people on the street and invites them to his apartment to perform particular roles, which he uses to create a narrative.

Kim in my House by Jan Hoek
Kim in my House by Jan Hoek; see also Supermodel Kim

Perhaps the future for contemporary photography is for more exploration of telling the narrative.