So, I’ve finally done it and got myself to an OCA study visit to The Photographer’s Gallery in London. I’m trying not to use phrases like ‘it was really nice’, but it was really nice to meet some other students and be able to chat about photography without that glazed look that sometimes happens.
We were there to look at the work of Mathieu Asselin, Rafal Milach, Batia Suter and Luke Willis Thompson who are the artists shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018. We also had time to see Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross – Dressers by Sébastien Lifshitz and Grayson Perry’s Photo Album.
I’d done some research on the work that is shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize before I went, and I was really glad I did as I don’t think I’d have been able to put much of it into context without that knowledge. That makes me wonder about how successful the work was, because without prior knowledge maybe the work of Mathieu Asselin about Monsanto is understandable, but I’m not sure the rest of it communicates well enough for me.
It’s difficult to make a judgement on what I saw. Some students had seen more of the work on Monsanto elsewhere and there was less of it presented here which they’d all said didn’t tell the story quite as well, or perhaps gave only one part of the story; the part about the power and influence of corporations, without other parts that they felt were equally if not more important and powerful. I didn’t get a chance to look at the book, maybe it would have been more coherent if I had and I will try to do that. As a subject is meaningful to me. I used to be involved in environmental groups where the name Monsanto comes up over and over again in a negative context. I also did a part of my initial science degree work in genetic engineering and it’s effects, both positive and negative, and I found the science and it’s possibilities exciting.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t get a lot from the work of Rafal Milach, I didn’t quite get what the point of it was. What was presented felt incoherent to me and I just didn’t understand it. Having said that, some students, especially the more experienced, seemed to feel it was the best. One of the images was certainly my favourite, but it was difficult to compare in terms of images because the whole prize didn’t really seem to be about photography somehow.
When I walked into the gallery with Batia Suter’s work I felt the most excitement visually. I’m not sure if that was about the size of the display, the mixture of the natural and technological or something else. Maybe it was the most accessible. I’m not sure. Again, I didn’t get to see the book and my understanding is that the prize is for the book so I’m left with a partial story.
I’d only seen the story Diamond Reynolds the day before I saw the work of Luke Willis Thompson. I was a bit apprehensive about seeing his work because having watched the footage the previous day and been very upset by it, especially by the footage of Diamond and her daughter in the back of a police car, I was worried I might be equally upset by the work. But it didn’t move me at all; I could see points were being made, especially after discussing it with the group, but the actual original story and footage was so powerful that I’m left wondering what this was all about. Maybe having missed the initial reactions to what she did, maybe not understanding how anyone could aim criticism at her when to me her behaviour seems impeccable means that it’s less meaningful to me. The medium the work is presented on is obviously making a point, the idea of this huge projector is too, but again I wonder if you have to know more than I know to really understand it. And then I wonder about the fact that, in the end I am an intelligent and educated person but I’m not really ‘getting it’. Who is supposed to be ‘getting it’? Maybe being at the beginning in terms of art means it just takes longer for me to pick up these nuances or something, I’m not sure. But I wonder about the communication of a message and about how widely that is communicated and by whom to whom? Someone made a point about 35mm film being used, and that therefore sound can’t be used which is a strong idea, because she’s a black woman and if that’s why the medium was chosen then it’s making a point about her voice being silenced. Also not using digital it can’t be shared and spread, it can’t go viral the way her footage did.
I felt Grayson Perry’s Photo Album was the best work I saw in The Photographer’s Gallery yesterday. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve read some of his books and I just really like him, so it felt more personal maybe. More interesting because I feel I already know his voice, he’s already communicated with me in those books and so seeing the images presented made the work I’d just seen – A Secret History Of Cross – Dressers by Sébastien Lifshitz – more personal.
I loved A Secret History Of Cross – Dressers. Partly I think it was some kind of mental tie-in with a photograph I’d seen in the family photo album of ‘Aunt Ive’ who is dressed as a man. The comment was made that, “She was a real lad”. I felt an immediate warmth towards Aunt Ive, despite never having met her and not knowing anything about her, so I suppose that warmth transferred across to these other unknown people who were being a bit subversive and taking a risk, sometimes looking very serious and obviously doing something very meaningful, sometimes looking like they were just having a bit of fun. They were found photographs, so it’s impossible to know the story behind many of them, but there were interesting facts presented and stories being told that made me think. Gender is a hugely important topic at the moment and I find myself struggling to keep up with some of the arguments being made. It was interesting to talk through the ideas with other OCA students as well.
When we’d been round the gallery we went to the pub and talked about the work we’d seen. Some students had taken work in progress for feedback and to discuss ideas / issues they were having. I think that’s the real strength in this kind of visit, that you see that other people are getting stuck, other people are having these same sorts of doubts and problems and you get out of your own head into someone else’s for a while and get a wider perspective. I’d met up with another student in Poole a few weeks ago which involved a cafe and Early Grey tea, but that was similarly helpful especially as we’re at about the same point in the same course.
Plus when we finished I was right next to Carnaby Street so I went for a wander, then I went to a restaurant, drank whisky, ate tagine, went to visit Dave who’s just had his leg amputated – my kids made pirate jokes which I knew he’d enjoy, I took some photos at the station and I still got home and got to bed just before midnight. Not bad for a day spent studying really.