6. Reading : A Start and a Return

Reading : A Start and a Return
Exhibition in Reading – 25th July to 8th August, 2015

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Five photographers who met at Berkshire College of Art and Design decided to meet again on the 30th Anniversary of their leaving and hold a reunion photographic exhibition. “A chance to reflect back at Reading, photography and each other and contemplate where it all ended up three decades later”. The website for the Exhibition is here

The main reason I visited was because one of these students is Tanya Ahmed – a graduate of the OCA Photography Course and now studying for an MA with OCA. I hadn’t had the opportunity to actually meet Tanya before (she now lives and works in New York) but we have corresponded occasionally by email, I follow her blog and also had the opportunity to see her OCA work when it was exhibited in Sheffield in 2014 alongside the work of five other OCA graduates.

On the day of my visit, there was an opportunity to meet beforehand at 8am for a photographic walk in the surrounding area. The idea was to create some 6×4 images to add to Tanya’s archive , “Postcards of Reading 2015” and these postcards will be exhibited in a pop-up Exhibition at the Turbine House on Saturday, 8th August, the final day of the Exhibition. I couldn’t make the 8am start which was fortunate in some respects as it poured with rain for most of the morning!

The Turbine House

This is a small and unique exhibition space which houses preserved turbine machinery. It spans the river Kennet at Blake’s Lock which was quite a raging torrent when I arrived. The permanent Exhibition Boards are around the walls and also between parts of the machinery.

The Photographers

Tanya Ahmed 

Tanya is now a senior photographer with NYPD and also freelances with several museums including the Guggenheim and the Met. Her personal work centres around the built environment. As part of the Exhibition she chose photographs of Reading residents 30 years ago and made new photographs of New York residents. There were also photographs of her friends then and now, with the latter being created using Skype. Additionally there were some postcard sized prints contrasting Reading in the 80s and New York now.

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I’m always fascinated to see photographs of then and now – particularly of people so really enjoyed looking.

Looking at the two above – I thought the first one was taken in New York but it wasn’t – it was Reading 30 years ago. Those two young men look so American to me and I’m reminded somehow of Jack Kerouac and James Dean et al from even earlier times!

Darran Gough

Darran has worked as a fireman for the past 30 years after spending a short time in the photographic field. He still takes photographs, often portraying the quieter side of the emergency services and his theme for the Exhibition was “Life in the Triple 999s”.


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Darran no longer follows photography as a career but I would like to see him create some more documentary photographs on the Emergency Services, maybe stemming from the collage he created from the insides of lockers.

Dave Willis

Dave has worked as an editorial photographer for the last 30 years, taking photographs for magazines, online media, newspapers and record companies. His theme for the Exhibition was “Reloaded” – some of his favourite images from the last 30 years, reflecting the gradual changes in technology that have occurred.


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I can see his style with that sense of energy and movement.

Peter Cole 

Peter now works in the world of cycling, in products, design and branding and still uses his photography for promoting and marketing his products. For the Exhibition he chose the theme of “People, Places & Mountains” selecting photographs from journeys across Europe in the 1980s.


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Richard Pinches 

Richard chose still life and product photography as his career although I see from his website that he also undertakes portraits and videography. He has had his own studio since he was 23. His theme for the Exhibition was “Product Photography: Film VS Digital”

Then and Now:

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It was interesting to see how product photography has evolved over the years and how much more products are both made to ‘pop’ by lighting techniques and also become more portrait-like.

Exhibition Activities

It was good to see how the Exhibition has some added interest in terms of various activities offered. Plenty of variety here, with further photo walks, slideshow illustrated talks, a day with the Caversham Road Fire Crew and opportunity to send your 6×4 photographs of Reading to Tanya for the pop-up Exhibition on 8th August.

See here


I really enjoyed spending time at this small Exhibition and looking how each photographer had met the theme of 30 years of photography. Peter Cole was the only one not showing his current work which is very different as you can see from his website.

There was small group of us to begin with, all with connections with the OCA.

It was great to actually meet Tanya in person, talk with her about her life in New York and share some thoughts about distance learning and the OCA. I’ve now been to three Exhibitions involving OCA students and it’s such a different experience from other Exhibitions. In addition to knowing quite a lot about the photographers and following their work, there’s that sense of a shared understanding of what it’s like to be a distance learning student alongside the rest of our daily lives, plus a shared celebration of what’s been and can be achieved.

30th July 2015




Visit to Farnham UCA Degree Show 2015 on 1st June

I visited with a friend of mine. We’ve both been before, with a gap last year, and afterwards we agreed that the Show this year seemed sparser and more low key with hardly any students around to talk about their work. Even so, I found some interesting work to admire.

There was a project by Charlotte May, (Graphic Communication). Exploring Visual Artists with Neurological Disorders. She produced three books – two research books and the dissertation which were beautifully hand bound and stored in a wooden case, embossed with the title of the Project.


The work was influenced by her grandfather, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and she wanted to find out more about the disease and if there was any relevance between this and art, studying three artists for her dissertation. It seemed to me a wonderful combination of informative research and beautiful presentation, all with graphic communication in mind.

Oliver Juster,  (Arts & Media) created a life-size boneless ‘skeleton’ showing all its internal and external organs, with a chart providing information about them.

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Denise Walsh (Fine Art) specialises in sculpture. Her artist statement emphasizes how much of her practice is energised by nature. For her Degree Show, she produced an installation Mark of Effort that displayed the results of a collaborative venture achieved via the Walking Artist Network (WAN). This Network is for anyone who defines themselves as a walking artist who is interested in walking as a mode of art practice, as well as related fields.   In February this year an open call was advertised on WAN requesting assistance with a proposal and 15 artists responded, 14 from around the UK and one in Newfoundland, Canada. From the Installation information sheet:- Each artist was sent a colour, 27 exposure disposable camera, together with a stamped addressed envelope and a guidance and information sheet.

Their task was to go on a solitary walk, and whilst walking, to take photographs of what ‘Mark of Effort’ meant to them. The cameras were then posted back together with particulars of each walk. In addition each artist was asked to write what ‘Mark of Effort’ meant to them, and why did they go on solitary walks?

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A fascinating collaboration and I was again reminded of our own Nearest Faraway Place project and the outcome of the work that Anna and her colleagues have done in exploring Dartmoor in the footsteps of the artists W. and F.J. Widgery. We asked ourselves questions as we looked at the installation such as How was it all put together – by tone, colour, mood, alphabetically by artist? Will add if I find the answers.

Michelle Margaux (MFA Photography) presented her project Woolton Hall : Listed & Lost some quite haunting work in deep, rich colours that gleamed against the painted brick wall of the corridor in which it was presented.

Lucy Yates   (Photography) The work presented was Men Are Like Venus -an interesting reversal of the male gaze with men posing as Venus “By placing the male subject as Venus, they are seen in a different light, taking away their masculinity and bestowing upon them fragility and femininity”. Have a look on her website. There’s certainly nothing sexual about these images. It’s not a woman looking with sexual longing at the male figure; their masculinity isn’t portrayed with musculature etc but, to me, neither do they look feminine or fragile. I don’t know whether this was also part of her intention but, to my eyes, this is an ironic piece of work. I’m made more aware of the coyness of the posing of female figures and how unnatural they can look. There is some other work Nudes on Lucy’s website that is very much more about form and shape of both male and female bodies and this made me look closer. Her work there was influenced by Lacan’s The Mirror Stage.

Charlotte Willbourne   presented her project Southampton Square Looking at the way people present themselves in different communities with the focus here on square dancing. All dancers posed on the dancer floor itself, standing against a white backdrop – not exactly the same pose or deadpan. Each of them showing individuality through their choice of ‘costume’ as can be seen from her website. I enjoyed looking at them, There’s a quirkiness about the project that brings it to life. Charlotte’s handmade book includes shots of her subjects dancing and also smaller images with quotes from them about their life, in individual handwriting, and what they gain from square dancing.

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I think she achieved her aim of hoping to capture something unique about people in her images and noted that she is influenced by Rineke Dijkstra.

Melissa Michel is influenced by the work of Sophie Calle and artist Candy Change. She exhibits her work Lie With Me which explores the betrayal and the aftermath of infidelity. The explanation says the work is based on a discovery by Melissa of a collection of love letters addressed to her grandmother and found after her death. They tell of an extramarital affair in the 1950s with a painter called Mati Klarwein and the letters reveal that he painted a portrait that hung in her grandmother’s home until her death. “The collection of love letters are echoed by anonymous letters addressed but never sent to unfaithful partners that Melissa collected and the final letter is written by her mother describing how she felt on discovering the letters.

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A complex, layered narrative with image and text put together in a way that invites exploration and imagination. At first I thought it was fiction, but there was a painter called Mati Klarwein so maybe …… .


I’ve moved now from thinking the Graduation Show was sparse to feeling inspired by some of the work shown and I’ve put myself on the newsletter list for the Walking artists Network. I’m also reminded again of my original anxieties regarding ‘being influenced by’, referencing’ ‘in the mode of’ and whether this is imitating or copying; but how, with a firm concept, all this disappears into pieces of individual and unique pieces of work.

4th June 2015



https://annasocablog.wordpress.com/2015/05/31/coming-to-the-end-of-our-f-j-widgery-project/ .
https://www.behance.net/gallery/26399589/Final-Major-Project http://www.cwillbourne.com/southampton-squares/

Joan Fontcuberta : Stranger than Fiction

Exhibition at the Media Space, Science Museum visited 8th November 2014 

Joan Fontcuberta was supposed to be attending the Day Symposium Fiction and Photography : Imagining Reality that I wrote about here. Unfortunately he couldn’t make it, so thank goodness I managed to get to explore his Exhibition during lunchtime.

There’s a review by Lewis Bush here so I don’t intend to go into a lengthy description. In fact, reading about his work just isn’t the same as being amongst it although his website shows the extent and variety of his creativity. I’m fascinated by him – mystic, magician, funster, wise fool, shape-shifter. His work is full of whimsy and yet transfused with a methodical scholarly approach to its creation.

I looked round the Exhibition with Penny and John who later emailed a link to a You Tube video where he talks about his work. It’s a lengthy video so I’m not embedding here. Here’s the link though and, to me, his personality shines through together with his deep immersion and enjoyment in creating his projects. As the Exhibition pamphlet states,

His works inflate truth to its bursting point and, by approaching his imagined subjects with sincerity and humanity, he sets up a tug-of-war between our beliefs and scepticism. Yet while his work tenaciously interrogates the power of the photograph as evidence, it also compels us to suspend our beliefs and join him on his remarkable journeys into his fictional worlds.

It‘s that suspension of disbelief that’s important – think how we might even be drawn into cartoon films that portray universal themes – I’m thinking of those such as Bambi and Toy Story. Also the film Avatar. I would love to think that somewhere in the world there is a goat (or is it a sheep?) with wings – referencing the unicorn I guess.


or a flying elephant (Dumbo maybe?). What also impressed me was the amount of detail and research that must have gone into installations such as Fauna (1987) the fictive archive of Professor Peter Ameisenhaufen where Fontcuberta has created creatures (displayed in cabinets ; aged photographs; old/aged diaries; letters; ink drawings and watercolours. Similarly with Sirens (2000) and their ‘fossilised” remains; the resin cast of the Font Chaude Hydropitheque


and photographs of the ‘remains in situ’. With Herbarium (1984) he created and named new plant species from plant materials and various man-made materials and then photographed them, most convincingly, in the style of Karl Blossfeldt. I had some correspondence with my tutor about the Exhibition and. In the context of Fontcuberta’s work, he posited that it might echo/take inspiration from the Archaeopteryx debate fuelled by Sir Fred Hoyle in BJP in 1987 as here.

In his review (see above) Lewis Bush ends with a comment “Stranger than Fiction is a great exhibition, which does a wonderful job of diagnosing one of photography’s major afflictions but which, in the end, offers us no convincing remedy for it.” The affliction being so many suspect photographs in daily life. However, I did notice the presence of ‘clues’ as I walked around indicating some of the fakery perhaps, such as an obvious join on a wolf-like creature with a tail or the web-footed squirrel like creature with a snake-headed tail – something that I just couldn’t quite believe in!


Implications for my own work

Well I would certainly love to be able to create work like that of Fontcuberta – something multi-dimensional and complex. I had some brief email contact with an artist whose work I admired at Farnham UCA Degree Show a few years ago – Jose Nieves who created an installation Fallax and Jose confirmed considering Fontcuberta in creating the show. I’ve looked for other such work referencing him but haven’t been successful so far, so other links welcome.

Unfortunately I don’t have a variety of artistic skills, only my camera; imagination and an urge to combine images with text. Even so, I can still be inspired by work such as that by Fontcuberta.

28th November 2014



Fiction and Photography : Imagining Reality

This was a one day Symposium on 8th November organised by Media Space, Science Museum in collaboration with the University of Westminster and I attended with Penny and John. The format was traditional in the sense that the speakers presented a topic with a short time afterwards for discussion with Dave Bate and questions. I was somewhat concerned that a whole day sitting and listening might be too much for me but, in fact, it was all very inspiring. Not to mention that at lunchtime I also had the opportunity to spend some time exploring the Joan Fontcuberta Exhibition (post to be written).

Kate Bush, Head of Photography, Science Museum

Welcome speech, including the information that new works are going to be commissioned by the Media Space Gallery.

Dave Bate, Professor of Photography, University of Westminster

He put some context around fiction and photography, summarising its history which really goes back to the beginning, and the debates/disagreements regarding photography and ‘truth’ and criticisms of the use of ‘fiction’ either through manipulation of scene; image; use of light etc – with examples. Professor Bates drew our attention to the writings of Martha Rosler on this (link here ) and her work using photo-montage to contrast opposing realities such as depictions of domestic bliss v the Vietnam War in House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home and, brought up to date with a new series during 2004-2008 .

Reference was made to Walter Benjamin and his writing on storytelling and I’ve found this here  where Benjamin is referring to the decay in the art of oral storytelling:

In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. But if today “having counsel” is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing.   ………The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.

He was writing here after the end of WWI, at a time when the novel was replacing the oral tradition. A story is a story though. I know there is a difference between imagining a story in one’s head and listening to one but I think there is so much variety available now. So far as photography is concerned the continuing challenge is how to negotiate the dynamic between the values of truth; reality and fiction and “..use the photograph as a portal to another world” as mediated by the photographer as opposed to the writer.

Mia Fineman, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Let’s Not and Say We Did: Fictional Journeys through Photography

Some wonderful examples of manipulation pre and post digital followed by a description of the way in which Space Exploration has been a subject of this, e.g. Stanley Kubrick used the technical expertise of two space engineers in his1968 film 2001 :A Space Odyssey to help him construct a convincing illusion. These engineers were also part of the team for the 1969 Apollo Space Mission. Conspiracy theorists used the fact of the film to accuse NASA of faking Neil Armstrong’s descent. This then inspired the film Capricorn I.

In the discussion afterwards Finemann re-stated the need and desire we have to believe in the truth of photography versus the knowledge that images are often faked. One of the questions afterwards was “Are there terms to judge a “successful” fictional project?”, citing ISIS and dissemination of their war machine. This led to Professor Bate’s query as to whether there are bases of judgment, rules of practice and/or conventions similar to advertising. He also pointed to the use of the term “construction” rather than manipulation, and directorial staging in how images are captured.

My thought was regarding my need to have my own ethics in terms of acknowledging whatever manipulation has been used not only in post-processing but in terms of how I have represented reality or fiction as I see it.

Lucy Soutter, Artist, critic and art historian
Fictive Documents, Fictional Lives

Do we collaborate with, or take advantage of, our subjects? How do we behave when “infiltrating” a group; immersing ourselves in it with the intention of using this for photography? Are we ‘overt’ or ‘covert’? This is an area I’ve always felt concerned about. In my working life I had to write reports on other people’s lives and motivations and, throughout, strove to represent them as objectively as possible. This is probably why I’ve felt hesitant about documentary photography which is from a more subjective viewpoint. It was Anna Fox’s view that documentary is telling a story about the truth that relaxed me.

If fiction’s role is to represent reality what problems occur when the lines blur? Soutter gave examples such as Walker Evans rearranging a kitchen and the novel Nadja (1928) by Andre Breton. Breton provides a first person narrative of his relationship with ‘Nadja’ (based on a real life relationship) which is supplemented by forty-four photographs – pictures of places and objects. I’m minded here of the more recent work of Sophie Calle who similarly mixes fact with fiction and photography and have recently written here about Lorna Simpson and Leonard & Dunye who have used ‘found’ photographs to create characters. Soutter also referred to the Sweet Flypaper of Life  by DeCarava & Hughes [1955] giving a different view of Harlem through photographs and dialogue.

Mention again made of Martha Rosler’s views on documentary and its clichés and how photographers now attempt to subvert these in many different ways by undermining the conditions in which images are made. Examples such as Broomberg & Chanarin Afterlife  [2009] and Alfredo Jaar’s The Eyes of Gutete Emerita  [1996]

Lucy Soutter also drew comparisons with novels and how multiple points of view can be used “to build layered picures of a situation” as in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012). Through Soutter I have discovered Geraldine Brooks and her wonderful novel People of the Book (2008) based on the real life story of the Sarajevo Haggadah ( which is complex and fascinating in its own right). Walid Raad created The Atlas Group and the notebook of a fictional historian. There’s an interesting interview with him here . Going back to photography, Soutter stated that “fictive photography projects can extend the realist project to understand ourselves” – and this is an area of interest to me.

There followed a tripartite discussion between Lucy Soutter, Mia Fineman and Dave Bate. Soutter commented how some photojournalists move into “Art”, e.g. Luc Delahaye and, although truth is still the goal in photojournalism itself, there are Courses such as those run by the London College of Communication which explore all the different ways of representation.

There was some discussion on the photographer Sally Mann and the narrative element in her images of her children. I think this hearkened back to earlier in the day and the question as to whether artists collaborate or ‘use’ their subjects – well at least that was the chord for me. I can certainly agree that children do use their imagination and act out stories – sometimes like role-plays for future real-life scenarios – and they are encouraged to do this by their families and teachers. I don’t think that necessarily means that that creative acting-out justifies using it for photography. I don’t agree with Lucy Soutter either that it is the responsibility of the viewer to decide what they make of an image. The viewer certainly brings their own experience and creative imagination towards a work, but surely the artists themselves do have to take some responsibility for the work in the first place or are ethical values to be completely disregarded? I don’t intend to disregard mine.

Another point of view was offered (I forget by whom and don’t have a note of it), which related to the different descriptions heaped upon Sally Mann – bad mother etc. Given all these descriptions, could we read her photographs as if they are narratives by an author/photographer?

There was a different question regarding the role of the museum in representing truth which Mia Fineman related to Joan Fontcuberta’s Exhibition and acknowledged the role of the Curator in implementing a narrative. This wasn’t picked-up particularly but I think that’s an interesting point to pursue as I know I have often queried the role of the Curator in presenting a photographer’s work.

Cristina de Middel
When Fiction is Stranger Than Truth

Cristina moved from an early belief in the power of photography to change the world (that led her to Photojournalism), to no longer believing that you can change things with newspapers and she told us that all her work now is a reaction to this. This led her towards investigating photography’s “ambiguous relationship with truth” as in her series The Afronauts. which put her on the shortlist for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2013.

Looking at her website  I would say that her style is eclectic whilst being underlined with a wry look at life and its absurdities, “We all breathe clichés. How to get inside them?” In terms of collaboration versus ‘taking advantage” of subjects’, Cristina told us about her project Life and Miracles of Paula P  which is a narrative concerning a real-life prostitute who Cristina got to know well. Whilst agreeing to be the subject, ‘Paula’ was very concerned as to her family finding out about her life and so Cristina turned her into an actress of herself. Each image is linked with short text in a matter of fact style which to me comes through as “This is how it is/was” without seeking sympathy for Paula’s predicament.

Her latest project was This is what Hatred did and she talks about this (and The Afronauts) in this video which has just been published

It looks a fascinating project – a fictional story that she made happen for real, and I was interested in her comment that this latest project is a self-portrait maybe of the way her mind works . Cristina also reminded me somehow of Joan Fontcuberta, not only in having also created projects concerning spam and space projects, but in the energy, enthusiasm, and sense of humour that can infuse her work.

Peter Kennard
Photomontage Artist

Kennard’s photomontage work dates back to the Vietnam War and he told us about its historical roots in the work of Hannah Höch and Dadaism, an artists’ protest group trying to show the breakdown of society and what technology does to people. Walter Benjamin is his main political theorist and I think that pessimistic approach towards humans in society comes through in Kennard’s work. This video illustrates his approach very well.


I missed the final session of the day which was a discussion chaired by Federica Chiocchetti on the Virus of Fiction. Federica is an independent curator – she co-curated Amore e Piombo Exhibition at Brighton Photo Biennial 2014 which I wrote about here. She is working on her PhD in photography and fictions at the University of Westminster and is founder of the platform photocaptionist.com  which is, “devoted to exploring the intriguing relationship between photography and fictions, images and words”. I think this will be a good resource for me.

The day was full of information and inspiration for me, giving me many ideas relating to photography, fiction and use of text that I am still processing.

29th November 2014



Brooks, G (2008) People of the Book, HarperCollins, London


2. Deutsche Borse Prize, 24th May, 2014 at the Photographers Gallery, London

After the OCA Study Visit to the Prix Pictet, Vicki and I decided to go to look at the photographs exhibited in the Deutsche Borse Prize (£30,000) which celebrates a contemporary photographer of any nationality who has made the most significant contribution (exhibition or publication) to the medium of photography in Europe in the previous year.

There were four nominees, and information about all of the can be found here , including a video. I was also helped beforehand by posts on WeAreOCA by tutors giving their views on who they thought should win the prize.

Richard Mosse – the Winner

Moshe is a conceptual Documentary photographer and won the prize for his video installation The Enclave commissioned for the Irish Pavilion at Venice Biennial, in 2013. I first wrote about him here when I was experimenting with an infrared converted camera. In his series Infra he had used out dated infrared Kodak Aeorchrome colour film to document the continuing tensions in the democratic Republic of Congo. For Enclave he returned to the Congo with associates to produce the video installation. There is more here from Marco Bohr on Photomonitor and here from Jesse Alexander on WeAreOCA.

Alexander does point out that Mosse isn’t using infrared for the sake of the effect but to subvert what have become clichéd representations of civil and tribal warfare in Africa.These images are so haunting in their surreal colouring and Vicki and I discussed whether we thought this method of documenting a warfare landscape would draw viewers’ attention towards the tragedies of war or whether it would, somehow, neutralise these through ‘beauty’. I’m still not sure. I mentioned the film Avatar in my earlier post and this still comes to mind, yet it had more effect on me in terms of the plundering of natural resources. I’m wondering now if this was because of the fictionalised story and the acting of the characters which allowed one’s imagination to come into play more vividly.

Thoughts on the other three shortlisted artists

Jochen Lempert

Lamprey was nominated for his Exhibition “Jochen Lempert” at Hamburger Kunsthalle in 2013 . He portrays the natural world through black and white photographs and photograms and highlights similarities between humans and animals or “the ephemeral appearance of waves, flocks of birds or volcanic clouds”. I was disappointed at what I saw at the Photographers Gallery though because there was only a small part of the original exhibition and the prints seemed very pale and small. Maybe they were such a contrast after seeing the large and colourful Richard Mosse images. Sharon Boothroyd gave her view here on WeAreOCA  and after reading this again now I realise I must re-visit the images even if only on a monitor. It seems strange but I can only experience their delicacy this way.

Lorna Simpson

Simpson was nominated for her Exhibition “Lorna Simpson (Retrospective)” at Jeu de Paume, Paris in 2013. Her work, “links photography, text, video installations, most recently archival material and found objects” to explore “themes of gender, identity, culture, memory and body”. In his WeAreOCA post Peter Haveland thought that Simpson was well worth the prize because of “her serious contribution to image making, conceptual art, as well as gender, identity and racial discourse over the last thirty years or so”. Again, only a small portion of the work exhibited appeared at The Photographers Gallery and so it would be unfair to judge her on the basis of that alone.

This article on the Jeu de Paume website here  (including a video) provides a more rounded view whilst also offering links to other articles. I think her work is complex and filled with meaning but have to confess that I did find it difficult engage with it at the time. What I remember most is her mixture of self-portraits and older found photographs (obtained via eBay) of a black woman practising poses, where she appears to be making links between them over the years by mimicking both her and a man who appears in those photographs.

Having watched the video now I think I’ve gained a better understanding of the contextual background but still feel puzzled regarding not being able to engage with the work really which is strange because I am currently very interested in combining found photographs with my own. Perhaps this is because I still don’t feel drawn towards self-portraiture and it is this aspect of Simpson’s work that is my difficulty here.

During the writing of this post I also thought back to the book The Fae Richards Photo Archive (Leonard & Dunye, 1996). Leonard (Photographer) and Dunye (Filmaker) created a fictional character Fae Richards, the black actress and singer and used found images as clues to portray her evolving identity, whilst offering her as a ‘homage’ to women whose lives are not recorded. There is no written narrative in the book itself and so, at first sight, it just looks like a collection of photographs of people carrying out various activities. Here  is an installation view of that photographic archive created by Zoe Leonard. I’ve now also found information on a film the Watermelon Woman – a feature film by Cheryl Dunye (and in which she starred) which utilised the archive. This is a great example of the way in which collaboration can produce such a wealth of creativity in different artistic directions. It’s also an example of the way in which my mind can travel off in all directions when sparked off by viewing an Exhibition and then thinking about it afterwards!

Alberto García-Alix

García-Alix has a wider practice of course, but was nominated for his book Autorretrato/Self-Portrait (2013) which features black and white self-portraits made over forty years.

If someone put us in the difficult situation of having to choose only one of the topics dealt with by García-Alix in his work, that which summarizes its totality, that would be the human body. Its flesh, bones, and also the light that hides in its gut. And in the end, inescapably, the fight is bound be a body-to-body between Alberto and the light.” (from his website)

I can’t say more than that really, except I felt sadness to be the observer as he subjects himself to the merciless scrutiny of his camera lens. Is he being so cruel to himself with these continuing self-portraits as we lose the beautiful young man to the elderly one ravaged by time and excess, utilising the impassivity of the camera lens to become a detached observer of his life? Does he care as he continues to regard us with his proud, defiant gaze? Here is one answer

Alberto García-Alix is a survivor of sorts. He appears to have been seduced early on by the glamour and guilt of those who make it through: the ones left to nurse wounds, mourn the fallen and work out what to do with the iconography, and the reality, of living on. Having embraced certain kinds of extremity in his youth, documented his own and his generation’s fervid pursuit of new freedoms in post-Franco Spain and, parlayed his place in that milieu into a status touching on legend, he seems now to look back like a melancholy recording angel, half in love with loss. But the survivor in him wants to insist: we came through.” (Excerpt From: The Photographers’ Gallery. “Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2014.” iBooks.)

6th November 2014


Leonard, Z and Dunye, C. (1996)The Fae Richards Photo Archive, Artspace Books, U.S.




Commissioning Photographic Portraits for the National Portrait Gallery, London – Talk by Anne Braybon, Commissions Manager

This was a one hour lunchtime Talk on 13th May 2014 by Anne Braybon organised by the Lightbox Gallery,Woking. I wanted to go because I am interested in Curation in general and in the commissioning process.

The focus of this talk was Road to 2012  a Project celebrating all those who collectively contributed to the making of the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics.

The Road to 2012 website contains a lot of information about the project and the photographers involved., including an audioblog by Anne Braybon. It’s different though to be there and listen to someone talking with such continuing enthusiasm about the project which was over three years in the making and using the talents of such different photographic styles.


Anne told us a little about the National Portrait Gallery to set the scene. The Gallery was set up in 1856 with portraits selected on ground of authenticity and celebrity as opposed to excellence as a work of art. There’s more to read here. The collection of photographic portraits grew to the extent that a department of film and photography was opened in the 1960s to promote photography as a genre. Anne told us that the curators filter acquisitions, gifts and commissions and portraits, then go to the Board of Trustees for final acceptance. She was appointed as Photography Commissions Manager in 2005 and her first commission was Defying Distance, 18 Portraits by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin of key figures  in the world of telecommunications, including the ‘backroom boys’.

Road to 2012

This constituted a chronological body of work following all the stages across three years. Seven photographers were involved in creating these portraits that provide a representative record of contribution towards the Olympic Games, with 115 portraits capturing a social and political moment, whilst celebrating photography as well. Anne explained that she always began with in-depth research on who was involved in each sport. She had to say who was and who wasn’t included and had to be logical and work to deadlines.. Here’s an audio blog of her talking about this.  An Exhibition was held every Summer during this time and there were also final and Touring Exhibitions.

The collection is here.  Anne said she chose photographers with a combination of different styles and ways of working that interested her and that were representative of contemporary photography. The Commission site no longer shows their work, but the photographers were:-

Brian Griffin – 2009
Bettina Von Zwehl – 2009-2010
Finlay MacKay  – 2010-2011
Emma Hardy- 2011
Jillian Edelstein – 2011-2012
Anderson & Low – 2011-2012
Nadav Kander – 2011-2012

I’ll write a little about each below and link with websites, plus provide links to Youtube videos made by the National Portrait Gallery where the photographers talk about their work and approach to the Commissions.

Brian Griffin 

Video here.  I looked at Brian Griffin’s work during the “People and Place” Module. His work is varied but I was surprised when Anne described him as drawing inspiration from paintings as I missed that. There’s an article here where he talks about his inspiration and  says that he uses fine art as inspiration and makes a monthly pilgrimage to the National Gallery. He has a way of composing subjects that add fluidity to an image as here.

Bettina Von Zwehl

Has a new website ‘under construction’ but there’s a Video here. She refers to how closely Anne Braybon was involved in the project, and how she had never worked out of a studio before so she created a studio outside and enjoys working in that way now. Anne also described how Bettina used a 10×8 film camera, with short range focus and used a postage stamp on the forehead for absolute focus. Anne particularly referred to the portrait of Tom Daly and how it is almost forensic in the quality of stillness and portraying concentration rather than action. Bettina says in the video that she thought it would be interesting to work away from the ‘sporty’ action, and chose specific clothes for some of the athletes without making it into a fashion project.

Finlay Mackay

Video here . Energetic, colourful and vibrant work.  Anne told us he is interested in ‘figures in a landscape’ and did a lot of work in post-production stitching images. In the video he talks about the stitching and the number of lights he used to make the portrait look like a painting and give it edges.

 Emma Hardy

Video here where Emma says she wants to see as much of the person as possible and looked for places where people find ‘space’. E.g. she wanted Paralympic swimmer Chris Holmes, who is blind, to be in a sensory space and was able to borrow someones garden swimming pool. Anne described how Emma used a film camera in natural light; had a wet darkroom and hand printed and retouched the images. She showed us a portrait of Christopher John Allison, a London Met Policeman in uniform (without a jacket) holding his hat and standing by a table tennis table.

Jillian Edelstein  

Video here where Jill says how she wanted to be involved in such an agent and the Commission provided a way of being part of this large arena. She wanted to give power  to people not in the public eye and make images like a film still, as this one of Jan Mathews.

Anderson & Low

Video here . Anne told us that this team have explored physical stamina and endurance for years and they draw on painting and sculpture in their work. They used one assistant on the Project and, unlike Finlay MacKay, didn’t stitch images together but positioned everyone as here . In the video Anderson & Low say how they want to find some aspect/essence of an athlete’s situation and bring it out. They are interested in ‘truth’ – a way for the image to say more and so photographed in places of training rather than abstracting the sitters from their environment.

Nadav Kander

Here  is the NPG video of him talking about his approach to his work and the Commission itself. He talks in such a thoughtful, measured way and I imagine he is very calming as a portrait photographer. His work on the Commission was done in his studio.  He chose to do his four portraits of athletes in black and white as this one of Lawrence Okoye and then colour portraits of each of the 12 torchbearers full length, against a grey backdrop, off the ground and at an angle so that it looks as if they are floating – as here .


I was surprised by how much information Anne crammed into a relatively short talk that sent me off searching to find out even more about the project and photographers. She was so obviously immersed in every aspect and I understand she was present in every shoot. I’m also impressed by the way in which this Project did celebrate all who contributed to the London Olympic Games and the commitment of the individual photographers to this concept.

I was also surprised by the extent of the power held by a Commissions Manager.   They are obviously people near the top of the list to be ‘courted’ if a photographer wishes to become better known, more widely recognised. Some time ago (26/2/14) I read an interview with Clare Grafik, Head of Exhibitions at the Photographers’ Gallery who talked about the way in which well-known and emerging photographers are invited, profiled and included in their Exhibition Programme. There are so many avenues – Graduate Shows, self-published Photo Books, smaller shows, Portfolio Reviews, peer communication networking, emails from artists. Many of these have been recently discussed on a recent WeAreOCA post by Sharon Boothroyd.

Watching the videos gave me a fuller picture of the way in which working on a Commission can challenge photographers’ working styles (pretty much like being a photography student and having to fulfil an assignment ‘brief’!). I learned ways in which they adapt to conditions and fulfil a commission whilst using their own creative vision. Thinking about consistency in a series. I didn’t see much of this in individual photographers’ portraits, e.g. Emma Hardy’s portraits were in both portrait and landscape format and as diverse as the individuals portrayed. I only wish that I could have included examples of some of the portraits here rather than providing links so that I can demonstrate the breadth of styles.

I wondered whether there were arguments and dissension in the background and who made the final selection. If only there had been more time or I had pushed my way to the front of the queue of people wanting to ask Anne Braybon questions at the end of the Talk. I hope I get the opportunity to go to more talks by Curators and Commissioning Managers because it’s seems a fascinating world.