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Audio Essays Photography

Northern Ireland – 30 Years of Photography. Discuss.

To mark its 30th anniversary, Belfast Exposed has organised an extensive exhibition of photographic work, displayed both at its premises on Donegall Street as well as at The MAC. The exhibition — Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography — “focuses on the growth of new, fine art documentary practices, more often produced for the gallery space and the photo book rather than for a press or media context”.

There is also a large publication of the same title, written by Colin Graham.

Also there are a series of events to examine the exhibition and book in more detail.

I attended a public discussion event, featuring curator Karen Downey, book author Colin Graham, and photographers Donovan Wylie, John Duncan, Mary McIntyre and Sylvia Grace Borda.

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Karen Downey (Senior Curator, Belfast Exposed)

Karen Downey was late from finishing a curator’s tour of the exhibition, as well as from being interviewed for BBC Radio Ulster’s Arts Extra programme (above). She described the background of the anniversary project and introduced the guest speakers.

Colin Graham was previously a Reader in English at Queen’s University Belfast, and he described how his specialism in literature influences his critiques of photography. For example, he made the point that “the shape of something [presented] is as important as its context”. Also, that the act of photography is a self-conscious decision, literally snapshots of a journey made by the photographer.

In reviewing 30 years of photography in Northern Ireland, he listed a broad spectrum that included press photography, archive photographers, landscape photo books, Flickr photostreams and the more recent proliferation of Instagram and general increase in non-professional photography. In compiling the book, he didn’t attempt to survey them all, but to select and explain “why I liked what I liked”.

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Donovan Wylie presentation of his Maze project work.

Donovan Wylie explained how he returned to photography after he “lost faith in the single image”: making films was far more difficult.

Describing the invitation to undertake the Maze project work, he said that he repeatedly said no: “It represented everything I didn’t like about Northern Ireland.” But taking encouragement from others, he ultimately agreed. Yet he struggled to find a satisfactory strategy until, as he put it, he surrendered his resistance to the place, and worked with the logic of its design. Interestingly, here he described feeling less a photographer and more like an operator — a mixture of artist and documentarian.

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Boom Town II series by John Duncan.

John Duncan, co-editor of Source magazine, introduced himself as someone who has been dwelling on Belfast for the past 25 years.

He showed a projected image of the first known photograph of Belfast, the clearing of buildings to make way for the construction of Custom House. This was part of his motivation for his Boom Town II project, photographs of billboard signs advertising “developers’ visions of what they think their patch of Belfast should look like”.

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Aura of Crisis by Mary McIntyre.

Mary McIntyre was educated in fine art and sculpture, and identified herself as “an artist who uses photography”. Indeed, she said that her influences are more cinematic than photographic.

She “photographs atmospheres”, describing her work as a dialogue, where sometimes the subject matter speaks to her. “I take the image and it’s instinctive. I don’t know why I’ve taken it until later, sometimes much later, when it communicates with me.”

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Churches by Sylvia Grace Borda.

Sylvia Grace Borda is a Canadian-born artist who spent five years in Northern Ireland, lecturing at Queen’s University Belfast between 2007-2009. She described how while she was able to guide her students towards successful projects, she found it more difficult to identify one that would satisfy herself. Her interest in documentary topography, by the likes of Charles Marville and Eugene Atget, combined with a fascination in Modernist architecture, led her to produce Churches.

In her travels back and forth to Canada, people there would ask her questions about Northern Ireland. As part of trying to satisfy their curiosity, she realised that Northern Ireland’s Modernist churches offered a visual symbol of its religious divide: “However, since the buildings are Modernist and were originally designed to be undecipherable in terms of faith association — the viewer is left confounded.”

She presented this symbol in the form of photographic images on dinner plates — a set of 16 (“not 12: too religious”). Why plates? Because they are tactile not monumental, and because they are fragile objects, “much like the political arrangements at Stormont”.

The subsequent Q&A session started with a big question, what will the next 30 years of photography in Northern Ireland look like? Colin Graham answered with suggestions of internationalisation (mutual influences from home and abroad), portraiture without identity labelling (e.g. the work of Gareth McConnell), and landscape photography as an existential project.

In a question regarding the interests of the next generation of photographers in Northern Ireland, Donovan Wylie said that his course students at the University of Ulster are talking more about global issues than parochial ones. But a reply from the audience said that this was perhaps because such young people are consciously electing not to deal with the intricacies of communal politics in Northern Ireland. This provoked a quick review of Hannah Starkey’s work: she is from Northern Ireland but is it obvious in her work?

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Post Traumatic Exorcism series by Malcom Craig Gilbert.

Here, Colin Graham suggested the work of Malcolm Craig Gilbert, Post Traumatic Exorcism, which Gilbert describes as images of the dreams inside his head. As a former RUC officer, the Northern Ireland influences are there to be seen. Yet the chosen theme of trauma can be interpreted and understood by a wider audience.

With a sense of wryness, Colin Graham mooted whether “Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography” condemned those exhibited to history. He looks forward to the next 30 years of photography in Northern Ireland, but wants new photographers to react to what has been done so far, not imitate it.

Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography exhibition is held at Belfast Exposed (21 Donegall Street) and The MAC (Saint Anne’s Square), from 10th May to 7th July. The accompanying book is available to purchase (£30) at both venues.

Categories
Photography Projects

POTD 2012/366

 

At the start of 2012, I resolved to take a photo a day, a 365-day project (actually, 366 days with the leap year).

I did it.

Most of the time the daily image presented itself subconsciously, whether walking to or from my office. In fact, when an opportunity presented itself whilst driving, I’d pull the car over and get the shot.

There were days, though, when the requisite shot hadn’t yet been taken by the daily midnight deadline, I’d search around the house for something of interest — not duplicating subject matter was one of my rules, so repeated self-portraits were out of the question.

So it was with a sense of relief when I took a photo of my gift bottle of port on New Year’s Eve (my favoured tipple).

I’m not repeating the exercise for 2013.

I don’t regret the discipline of visually recording my year. Indeed, I now have some beloved images that would have otherwise been stored in the recesses of my mind only.

It’s just that there are new creative endeavours that will demand time and attention this year (more on that later).

I’ve gained respect for those photographers who persist in image making, and been inspired by the work of others.

Although I posted the images daily on this blog, I’ve decided to consolidate them all into a slideshow for this posting (for anyone who would be interested in viewing them). I’m reverting to using Mr Ulster for the written word — thanks for stopping by!

(You can find my regular photography at Flickr.)

Categories
Essays Photography

Mr Ulster learns street photography

Recently I took a one-day course on street photography, held at Belfast Exposed. My motivation was that while I learned how to use a camera 30 years ago (printing from black and white film shot in a Canon AE1 Program), I have been wanting to go beyond taking competent publicity shots and colourful tourist scenes.

I was intrigued by street photography, particularly about approaching strangers.

One of the first things we learnt was that you don’t have to ask for their permission! Okay, but then how do you go about this?

Chris Barr was our tutor and was very friendly and approachable. In a concise yet comprehensive overview of street photography, he gave good practice examples of others’ work. At one end there are the carefully prepared scenes where the photographer has a planned vision to convey. At the other end are the totally candid situations where often the image is grabbed immediately.

We focused on the this latter approach.

Bruce Gilden is a well know street photographer, and he does not hesistate when he’s at work:

Meanwhile, the following video we watched examined the legal dimension of public street photography. In the United Kingdom, essentially if you are on public property, you are entitled to take photos of pretty much anything you want. I would generally cooperate with a police officer’s advice, but I’ve always known that they can’t compel you to delete any image or hand over any equipment (unless they are actually arresting you). It’s the private security sector that isn’t as well informed:

So, armed with all this knowledge and excitement, Chris led us out on a particularly wet day to several venues: St George’s Market, Belfast City Hall, Castlecourt Mall, Smithfield Market, the Tavern Bar (Union Street), and finally a tour through the University of Ulster Belfast campus, where we reviewed some current students’ work.

I very much enjoyed the experience. I was so anxious at the start. Chris gave encouragement, and I was able to keep calm and soon found my stride. This was definitely not something I would have ventured on, on my own. I highly recommend this course and Chris’ tutelage!

I look forward to meeting up with some new street photographers, those from the course and others in Belfast and further afield.

Here are a few of my images from my journey. All taken with an iPhone 4S. The phone’s discreetness provides a noticeable advantage. Shortcoming is autofocus lag.

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My first street photography shot of the day. I noticed this man stopping a young female shopper. Right after this shot she opened her purse and gave him some money. Victoria Square Mall, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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This image a little more daring for me. I noticed this woman with her umbrella on the other side of the street while waiting for the light to change. I didn’t want her to notice me, but she did. The clever aspect of taking these shots at pedestrian crossings is that people are less likely to challenge you on the spot. Victoria and Chichester Streets, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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The Three Dames. I am happy with the composition and timing of this shot. St George’s Market, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Course classmate Thomas in the background!

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I got chatting with this seller. Loved the blue denim hat. Didn’t convert to black and white because the colourful yarns and jumper are part of the story. St George’s Market, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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I saw this woman in outrageously large fur hat and was thankful the iPhone autofocus worked on this quickly grabbed shot; I did not want her to notice me. This is one of my favourites of the day. St George’s Market, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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I was planning an unposed shot but then they noticed me and invited me to take one. I failed to ask them the significance of their sign. But I subsequently learned that they went through an ordeal from security authorities in Turkey during a holiday there. Belfast City Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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“Have you just taken a photo of me?” said this bus inspector. We then had a discussion, when he asked me several times to delete the image. I replied that I may or may not. I was grateful for the tutorial and legal briefing I had just received a few hours earlier. People may not like their photo being taken in public, but the fact is that it already happens all the time. This was my first street photography confrontation, I survived intact and am now a little more confident. But yes, a little scary. Belfast City Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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This is the elderly mother of the owner of a bric-a-brac shop. She sits in front of this electric heater and small tv most of the day. Another one of my favourite images of the day. Smithfield Market, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Categories
Essays Photography

Foto Foyle 2012 Exhibitions

As coincidence would have it, I was in Derry-Londonderry for a set of meetings and decided to stay on for an early evening launch event of the 2012 Foto Foyle programme of photo exhibitions. Inside The Playhouse was a display of a new body of work by Christof Pluemacher, “one of Germany’s foremost photographic artists”. His exhibition, “Europe”, is a set of images that purposefully portray national stereotypes, e.g. “…So Spanish”, “…So British”, “…So Dutch”, “…So French”, and “…So German”:

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Foyle Foto Director, Michael Weir, described the different exhibitions on display, including an Open Submission at the Tower Museum, and Tribes (by Lucia Herrero) at the Big Screen, Waterloo Place. He was followed by welcoming remarks by the Mayor, Councillor Maurice Devenney:

As I am at the opposite end of being a fine art photographer such as Pluemacher, I demonstrated the capacities of my iPhone 4S, with magnetic snap on lenses by Photojojo. There was particular fascination with the fish eye and macro lenses.

I went over for the immediately following launch of the Open Submission group exhibition at the Tower Museum. I was expecting more images — there were about a dozen, based around four themes. I guess I’m saying that I would like to see more photography exhibitions featuring local artists!

The Foto Foyle programme runs until 11th February, and there’s a talk on Thursday, 2nd February: “Image and Reality: Photography and the Construction of an Ideal of Irish ‘Irishness'”, 1pm at the Tower Museum. I hope I have more work meetings in Derry that day.

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Categories
Essays Photography

Contraband at Belfast Exposed

Belfast Exposed has on display an exhibition by Taryn Simon. Entitled Contraband, to view is a sampling of 1,075 photographs of items detained or seized from passengers (and express mail) entering the United States.

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The Belfast Exposed exhibition is in the main gallery, with a weekly lunchtime talk every Wednesday. I caught the last talk; the exhibition runs until 30th December.

Today’s talk (see above) was given by Belfast Exposed staff member, Alissa Kleist, who explained that the main theme of the exhibition is desire. Every kind of object shown represents some element of what is valued and desired by the recipient society.

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Some of these illicit items are universal: alcohol, drug paraphernalia, fake gold, pirated movies, sexual stimulants.

Others are specific to the cultural identities of the population, e.g. duck tongue, fried guinea pigs, vegetables (used for voodoo).

And there are some items that are forbidden only because of the state’s politics: witness the confiscation of Cuban cigars.

I suggested to Alissa that it would be interesting to see a similar project done in another country, especially one less conspicuously consumerist.

For example, Madame Oui and my experience travelling into the Maldives was that they are very strict about prohibiting any importing of alcohol of any description, including miniatures. (Not that we were attempting any smuggling!)

How about a cataloguing of what would be confiscated in a less open society? What would customs official in Iran seize? Are foreign newspapers actually detained in China (or anywhere else)?

Meanwhile, on the theme of airports and customs, Alissa advised me of the work of Christien Meindertsma, whose project, Checked Baggage, reveals over 3,000 items confiscated in the course of a week at Schipol Airport baggage control. The outcome is more specific to our new world of airline travel post 9/11, with the display of expected items — scissors, corkscrews, razor blades, pen knives, etc.

But what I particularly like is how she attached one of these items to each of the books published in the same name, thus disabling it from being transported in person over the air. Touché!

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@SharedFuture Photography Work

What does ‘unite’ mean to you?

What does ‘unite’ mean to you? Culture Night Belfast
by Allan LEONARD
15 October 2010

As part of Culture Night Belfast, which was supported by the Unite against Hate campaign, Moochin Photoman took some distinctive portrait photographs using a ‘Through the Viewfinder’ technique.

Categories
Essays Photography

Book review – Eyewitness (Brendan MURPHY)

 

I always wanted this book, Eyewitness: Four Decades of Northern Life, by Brendan Murphy, but the original cover price of £30 was a little steep for me. Thankfully, the Bookshop at Queen’s has it discounted to £8. I only had to wait 6 years.

It is a brilliant book. Murphy’s photographs may not be the polished style of trained photo-journalists — the shots you see in AP and AFP — but they are blessed with sincerity and honesty.

As Murphy admits himself, when he started photography he missed many shots, taking time to learn what he had to do. It is worth reading Seamus Kelters’ text, as it is a truly interesting discovery of Murphy’s thinking behind the camera lens.

Murphy’s accounts reveal truths that make sense for those who live in Northern Ireland, but perhaps others find peculiar.

For example, he explains how the boxing arena is “one of the few truly politically correct places”:

“Nationalist and Unionists, loyalists and republicans, police even, all crush in side by side. Any animosity is left at the door. The atmosphere is no less charged for that … Religion doesn’t matter. All that’s important is a man’s ability.”

And there’s the cross-community protection among fellow photographers:

“Strangers would expect Catholic and Protestant photographers to be at each other’s throats. That was never the case. Nothing was further from reality. Protestant photographers have told me to stick close to them when we’ve been in fiercely loyalist areas. I’ve returned the favour. If they have faults and frailties, local press photographers also have great strength and integrity.”

The book’s title is apt: this is a journey of one man’s firsthand account of what he saw and recorded on film. So much has changed over 40 years — technically with cameras and historically with Northern Ireland politics — but Murphy has remained true to his community-oriented background.

This is demonstrated in Murphy’s coverage of sectarian attacks:

“Few bombing or shootings ever happened in middle-class areas … they usually wouldn’t want the attack highlighted. They would want to get on with their lives. Working class areas are different. Friends and family mostly live in the same area. The entire community was in the same boat. They would insist what had happened could not be swept away with the broken glass.”

Indeed, the last photograph in the book is an otherwise unremarkable photo of a Belfast corner shop, taken in 1974. But then comes the accompanying description: “The corner shop and bar were the hub of a community … More social work went on in these places than a host of government agencies. They were lost to redevelopment and supermarkets. With them went a way of life.”

Thankfully, Brendan Murphy remains a freelance photographer, and his new photographs regularly appear in the Irish News.

Categories
@MrUlster Essays Photography

John CARSON – Friend Map revisited

During 1975 and 1976, artist John Carson visited friends and family in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and photographed them in their homes. The photographs were placed on a map of the area to create an artwork depicting a social network of connections and relationships that crossed geographical, religious and political divisions.

Some 30 years later, Carson decided to revisit this network of friends, speaking with as many of them as possible about their life experiences over the past three decades. Carson wanted to give a voice to the faces from his original Friend Map and reflect on how their life experiences compared to youthful aspirations. The resulting artwork is a compilation of extracts from video interviews with 42 people still living in the greater Belfast area.

Western Michigan University released a press statement about the forthcoming exhibition at the Gwen Frostic School of Art at WMU.