Bristol Festival of Photography: OCA Study Visit

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The Bristol Festival of Photography has gone from strength to strength over the several years since it was established. “Will it be worth dragging students from all over the country for a study visit?” we asked ourselves this year, and judging by the response from lat week’s trip, the answer is hopefully a resounding “yes”.

For a variety of reasons, the visit came quite late in the festival (actually on the last day), and the organisers, keen to cram-in as much as possible during May, had venues host shows consecutively. This was the case with the first venue we visited, a relatively temporary private gallery in a shop that is in a current state of limbo, slap bang in the middle of Bristol’s newest retail quarter. The Philadelphia Street Gallery hosted probably the festival’s two biggest names; Zed Nelson a couple of weeks earlier, and the show that we saw was by documentary/reportage practitioner, Paolo Woods. His series Radio Days looks at the humble FM radio which is an integral part of how relatively disparate communities stay in touch across Haiti. Woods’s series comprises of about a dozen shots of broadcasters, working out of “studios” of varying sophistication. The fixed distance between camera and broadcasters was a strategy that Woods obviously found communicated the diversity of the people who fill the radio waves. Adjacent to these were several portraits of some of the people on the other end. These provided a certain point of discussion, not least as the heads of all of these listeners were excluded from the frame. For some, this absence of the real individual within the photograph was problematic, but as somebody pointed out, without the distraction of the face of the person in the frame, you are forced to scrutinise the photograph for other signs that might provide information about that individual. A scrap of string used to hold one radio together remains with me, which communicates something about the value of this obviously crucial medium.

Discussing Paolo Wood’s show. Photo: Amano Samarpan

Next we strolled over to Bedminster to the Grant Bradley gallery to view the work of the finalists of the festival’s RGB Awards. Despite there being several distinct categories for which images and series were rewarded, there seemed to be a consensus that the competition would benefit from something of a  theme to create a show with some more conceptual cohesion. Nevertheless, there was plenty of work to provoke discussion, not least the decision to award the landscape prize to Paola Leonardi’s wonky, dilapidated hut from her series Undrawn Hours. Some saw beauty in the banality of the subject, and others, just the banal! Either way, the diversity of responses to the photograph was great to hear, and underscores how important it is to be able to listen to the impressions of peers. (See Leonardi’s landscapes in context on her website, which is very much a typology of this austere landscape [wherever it is – I can’t seem to find the location!].)

Nige Ollis’s Anatomy of a Stroke, a piece of work recording with quite abstract imagery and text, his father’s stroke, was a difficult to piece of work to consume, but which certainly proposed an ethical dilemma; in this case, whether it is acceptable to make such a piece of work so immediately after the traumatic experience of someone so close to the photographer. See Ollis’s blog here.

In a different way, the relationship between image and text was a point of discussion around Colin Powell’s 12×12: Genius Loci: An intelligent title, but one attributed to landscapes that were nice to look at, but ultimately unchallenging, and with tacky titles for each image that in no way complemented the sensuous monochrome Somerset landscapes: At best these titles simply anchored the message (even at a couple of times, mundanely describing the composition) of the image, and at worst, patronised the viewer by directing a particular (unchallenging) reading.

A brief diversion was made to the Arnolfini to see Superpower: Africa in Science-Fiction – which was not part of the festival but which seemed worth a visit. Whilst I quite liked some of the works there (notably Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Icarus 13, a mockumentary about an Angolan space mission to the Sun) the rest of the group didn’t seem to get much out of it. Without risking legal action against myself of the college, all I will say is that this was not the first time I have felt personally embarrassed taking people to see work there. Sorry for that!

Discussing Alex Rota’s work. Photo: Amano Samarpan

We went to Photographique (the shop and studio that is mostly to thank for putting on the festival) to see Philip Searle’ Island but this was polarised by the discussion we had about Alex Rotas’s work on older people who are competing in veteran athletic championships. Although we all seemed to believe in the value of this work, which foremost questioned our stereotypes of aging, we discussed important issues such as context (surely the place for this is in an editorial, not gallery exhibition?), presentation (the traditional framing, with all prints, mounts and framed the same size, more befitting a decorative collection of images) and importantly, basic technique – notably framing and composition. Rotas certainly has some strong images but a tighter conceptual approach needs to be considered.

Finally we went to see Rachel Sokal’s installation Living Echo, which has lived up to its title and created resonance with all of us, I’m sure. Sokal has developed her own cameraless, entirely organic printing process, which exploits the chlorophyll pigments in leaves to create a visible – if relatively temporary – image. In order to make the leaf prints last the duration of the festival, they were protected from daylight with material that had to be lifted up to reveal the object, which created a tactile and intimate experience for the viewer. The bright, airy Victorian space was also furnished with plants, adding further depth to the installation. Although this work is a pertinent reminder that Photography doesn’t only exist within the economic confines of German and Japanese optics, mass-produced digital cameras, and heaven-forbid, photographic film, Sokal’s process is far from a novelty, and she has used it to communicate pertinent messages about environmental concerns, and as an educational tool.

Rachel Sokal’s work. Photo: Jose Navarro

Rachel Sokal’s work. Photo: Jose Navarro

Sokal was at hand to explain a little about the process and her motivations and was very pleased to see we’d made the effort to visit her installation and the festival. Thanks to everyone who made it over to Bristol. I’m sure we’ll be back…

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