Category: Exhibition review

Coming of age.

By , July 4, 2017 3:50 pm

There are three types of photographer: hobbyists, professionals, and artists. While their motivations are different, and the distinctions between each group are frequently blurred, they are united by a common approach. While others “take” photographs, serious practitioners “make” them. And their success is determined by two things: knowing what they want to say, and knowing to whom they are saying it. Photography is a means of communication, and becoming proficient at it has always been about finding one’s voice. But to really excel you have to be moved enough not only to have something that you wish to say, but also to know how best to say it.

Perhaps commercial photography is made easier by having the message and the audience clearly defined by the client’s brief, while for the hobbyist the critic and the author are frequently one and the same. This is not to say that producing good work is easy for either, because it is not. A commercial client can have exceptionally exacting standards, as can the hobbyist. But for the true artist photographer, coming of age is measured by that moment when they manage to bring alignment to their work, their audience, and the message they feel so compelled to tell, without the luxury of someone else setting the brief or the comfort of being one’s own audience.

Miah H Rachel Molina Seen But Not Heard

From Seen But Not Heard, this image was selected for inclusion in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2015. Photo © Rachel Molina.

To use a schooling analogy, most photographers with artistic aspirations never progress beyond primary level. Their work lacks maturity, finesse, and a cohesive narrative. Those who make it further often find it comes after many, many years of experimentation and soul-searching to find their métier. It is that which makes Rachel Molina’s first exhibited body of work so unusual.

Seen But Not Heard is a series of portraits of children in a transitional phase of their lives. Moving from the closeted safety of primary school to the greater independence of secondary school they are, much like Molina, forced to come to terms with a future where they must give more of themselves to their education. As Molina points out it marks the start of the transition from child to adult, a period she felt compelled to explore because her eldest son was making that transition himself, although he does not figure in the work.

Thirty-one portraits, a class in size, of children from various schools and very different backgrounds in South East London look out across the horizons of their own futures. Some hold the gaze of the viewer, others look instead to middle-distance of their own hopes and aspirations.

Tom Seen But Not Heard Rachel Molina

From Seen But Not Heard. The subjects come from very diverse backgrounds, and while all are broadly the same age at the time of the sitting (year 6 at primary school) each has very different levels of self-assuredness. Photo: © Rachel Molina

Each subject is unique. Caught in their own environs, surrounded by the paraphernalia of individual circumstances. Some sit comfortably in their skins, their demeanour resolute and sure, displaying a confidence which belies their tender age. Others are more circumspect; wary of the viewer, and nervous of what the future might hold. A testimony accompanies each: the sitter’s ambitions and trepidations about the future in their own words.

The quality of the work was first spotted by the judges of the 2015 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize when they selected one of the portraits, Miah H, to be included in the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Subsequently the work was picked up by the Guardian Online before she was offered the chance to exhibit the project in its entirety.

There is a tendency with portraits of children for them to be either critical or saccharine depending on the proclivities of the photographer, but Molina has achieved the considerable feat of making portraits which are neither judgemental nor sensationalised, and in doing so she has allowed genuine intimacy to flourish between her and the subjects, and kept that door open briefly for us as viewers to enter the worlds of these children. Given the diversity of characters in the project it is that singular accomplishment which marks Seen But Not Heard out as an eloquent and mature body of work. That it is Molina’s first major body of work is nothing short of phenomenal, and if you think I am overdoing this praise I would urge you to take it up with the V&A Museum of Childhood – they are the ones who have chosen to exhibit it for five months.

Jessica Seen But Not Heard Rachel Molina

From Seen But Not Heard. The transition from primary to secondary education marks the start of a child’s progression to adulthood as they are increasingly asked to make decisions for themselves and hold themselves accountable for their actions. Photo: © Rachel Molina

The children in Seen But Not Heard are now all well settled in secondary school, and none will be under any illusion about the fact that to succeed in this new world they must reach deep within themselves to get the most from their education. So too for Molina. Having set the bar so high with her first body of work the test is now to produce something new which draws on her clearly considerable talents, but does so without being derivative of what she has already achieved. Having found her voice I look forward to hearing what she has to say next.

 

Seen But Not Heard is on show at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green until November 19.

The Election Project – Simon Roberts

By , September 16, 2010 11:20 pm

EXHIBITION REVIEW: The Election Project – Simon Roberts

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Ian Paisley Jnr, Democratic Unionist Party. Portglenone, 3 May 2010 (North Antrim constituency).

EXHIBITION REVIEW:

We have a tendency to look back on events from an elevated perspective – hindsight does, somehow, give our memories a lofty vantage point; a mental image that may not be physically accurate, but affords a detached, unobstructed panorama of what has unfolded. In real-time the truth is obfuscated by events, and it is only when the dust of events has settled that we are given a more objective summary of what has passed.

Given this premise, and considering his recent acclaimed body of work, We English, it is no surprise that Simon Roberts was approached by The Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, and invited to submit a proposal to win the commission of Official Election Artist for the 2010 General Election. Roberts followed the two previous incumbents, Jonathan Yeo who painted portraits of the three party leaders in 2001, and David Godbold who made a series of illustrations in 2005.

We English, was an examination of the English at rest within their landscape, and drew on the principle of detached elevation to achieve its ends. But while the place of people within the landscape was central to the work, personality was not. It was the fact of people, rather than the people themselves, that created the context and told the story so effectively. But a commission to document the general election presented a problem: how to continue to work in the same vein, but make room for personality, something so central to modern elections?

Emma Gormley, the Assistant Curator at the Houses of Parliament said that Roberts was an obvious choice for the post, not simply because he is a good photographer, but rather because his enthusiasm and interest in the subject were so clear. They were struck from the first meeting by the sheer breadth of Simon’s understanding of British politics and its landscape. And there was no doubt that he could manage the logistics of such an undertaking.

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Captain Beany, New Millennium Bean Party. Port Talbot, 23 April 2010 (Aberavon constituency).

More importantly though, Roberts is an assiduous researcher who knows better than most that the secret to telling a story is understanding the detail intuitively. Roberts “gets” democracy, and in particular he gets the peculiarities of British parliamentary democracy. This is not the grand set piece theatre of US presidential elections, but it is theatre nonetheless: the theatre of amateurs. That is not to denigrate it, or to disparage those who hold or seek to hold the office of MP. Rather it is a statement of fact, and it is one of those truths that make the British system so endearing, so utterly democratic and to many so utterly chaotic and frustrating. While other systems require patronage or money, our system of representation is egalitarian: whether you are the sitting Prime Minister in Downing Street, or an over-tangoed Captain Beanie in Port Talbot, the hurdles to stand for election are the same. Roberts’ innate understanding of this was in no small part responsible for his gaining the commission, as was his desire to build on the experience of public participation from We English by encouraging people to send in their own photographs depicting the election.

Roberts’ approach was to use the technique that had served him so well for We English, but to come in just a little closer, just enough to allow the personality to form a part of the image without overpowering it. To work, the balance had to be perfect, as the images need to play to two audiences: the contemporary audience, and the audience of tomorrow: those for whom the names Brown, Cameron and Clegg will be vague historical footnotes. That audience will be concerned more with what Britain was, and what it became as a result of the election, than with the characters themselves. Indeed, although the three party leaders made the final edit, most of the rest of the candidates depicted are unfamiliar to the average voter even today. If the pictures had allowed personality to become overbearing their resonance as historical documents would have been diluted. Would that have mattered? In short, yes. This commission was about creating art not for its own sake, but for its capacity to inform, educate and entertain future generations of Britains. It is now, and was always meant to be part of the historical record. As it turns out, if Mr Clegg gets his way, Roberts’ work may come to define the last election to use the only system we have ever known until now. If for no other reason it will inevitably be of great interest to commentators and public alike in a future we cannot even imagine.

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Nadhim Zahawi, Conservative. Salford Priors, 26 April 2010 (Stratford on Avon constituency).

Roberts said at the outset that he wanted to demonstrate just how mundane and lonely canvassing for votes could be, and it was equally important for him that the finished work reflect the full range of political views that exist in Britain today, so he paid as much attention to the independents and smaller parties as he did to the three heavyweights.

But the beauty of the work is in how much it tells us about the Britain of 2010. On the one hand there are the tower blocks, the boarded up terraces in the shadow of a football stadium, the caravans and post war housing, the modern executive homes trying to blend into rural England. On the other we have Woolworths – a metaphor for an election fought on the back of the deepest recession in living memory – and the market stalls of Whitechapel, the everyman trying to maintain his livelihood.

And the everyman is what British elections are all about. Each candidate has to appeal to the everyman. It is the grind of pressing the flesh, pounding the streets, knocking on doors, handing out leaflets, listening to the concerns of everyman that make the election such a hard and frequently thankless slog for the candidates, a fact captured with eloquence and irony in each image. The electioneering process is the same irrespective of the set in which it is played, and makes clear that while between the polls we the public must do the bidding of our political masters, the theatre of election is that moment when the tables are turned, and the politicians must come to us cap in hand, and beg for a chance, or another chance as the case may be. With the scandal of expenses so fresh, many of the candidates cut a lonely dash.

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Pete Wishart, Scottish National Party. Perth, 21 April 2010 (Perth and Perthshire North constituency).

As with We English, The Election Project was shot on film on a 5”x4” sheet film camera, with every detail precise and ready for the viewer’s inspection. All the images can be seen on the website, or indeed in the wonderfully ephemeral limited edition newspaper-as-catalogue designed by FUEL (the same people who have designed both Motherland and We English – and the essence of brand continuity is clear to see). But the only way to truely appreciate these photographs is as they are intended to be seen: glorious 120x90cm prints, full of detail and subtlety that draw you in with the many, many layers that exist within them.

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Gordon Brown, Labour. Rochdale, 28 April 2010 (Rochdale constituency).

There are elements that are poignant and serious, but there are just as many that are funny, and ironic. Gordon Brown facing the press with the now famous Gillian Duffy watching on – behind the Prime Minister (displaying what must be the last genuine smile he gave on the election trail) a man oversees prisoners working in the community, his fluorescent tabard says “Probation Supervisor”, while a signboard announces “offenders working for the community”. Or there is the juxtaposition of Ian Paisley Sr and two megaphones, and all the redolence of the voice of Unionism from a time gone by.

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Coalition talks, Liberal Democrat HQ, Westminster, 7 May 2010.

Perhaps my favourite, though, is from the extra image – the one that Simon made to reflect the no man’s land of the coalition talks. Outside the Liberal Democrat HQ the massed ranks of the press wait for news. By the door a cameraman stands by his equipment. On the back of his T-shirt it reads: “It could happen at any time”. Never a truer word said, and that is what The Election Project is all about. Don’t miss it.

All images © Simon Roberts 2010

The first opportunity to view the exhibition will be this Saturday and Sunday (18th-19th Sept) during the Open House Weekend when Portcullis House will be open from 10am-5pm (last entry: 4.30pm). Enter via the building’s main entrance on Victoria Embankment. As well as the 25 prints created by Simon, there is a fifteen metre installation showing all of the 1696 images submitted online by the general public, many of which offer a wry, surreal or acerbic commentary on the election, and are well worth closer inspection. 3000 copies of the FUEL designed newspaper are available free to those quick enough to get them.

For those unable to make the exhibition then, public access to the exhibition is by free guided tours offered on a first come first serve basis. You can find out more details here.

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