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Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Liverpool Look/15: Don't Take Boring Pictures

There is some really great work on show in Liverpool at Look/15 Festival. Most important historically is Alice Seeley Harris's pictures from the Congo. These are a benchmark of early campaigning photography that show the brutalities of  a region that was effectively turned into a private slave labour camp for the King of Belgium.

This is what is says on the website of the  International Slavery Museum , the place where the show is being held.

Alice Seeley Harris' photographs revealed to the world the shocking truth of exploitation, murder and slavery in the Congo. The campaign gained public and political attention through the Harris Lantern Slide Show that toured Europe and the US. These shows were accompanied with powerful narrations which attempted to stir the audiences' sense of duty and responsibility, and can be seen as a significant milestone in shifting public perceptions on the impact of colonial rule in the Congo.  

Seeley Harris used one of the world’s first portable cameras, a Kodak Brownie, to take images of both Congolese life as well as 'atrocity photographs' used in one if the first human rights campaigns. In 1905, Mark Twain published King Leopold's Soliloquy, an imagined set of musings in which Leopold cited the "incorruptible Kodak" camera as the only witness he had encountered in his long career that he could not bribe. 

From the International Slavery Museum, it was a short walk to Open Eye where Richard Ross's Juvenile In Justice project showed pictures of  the imprisonment of children in the USA was a breath-taking reminder of the power of documentary that tells a story in the most direct manner possible. Sometimes you wonder if the most noticeable effect of the conceptualisation of photography is to remind us of the essential pointlessness and impotence of that conceptualisation. Rather than circling around an issue introspectivelywondering at the process, the promulgation and the involvement of self in the story, Russell gets to the heart of the matter with very simple pictures that combine with short captions that are heartbreaking in their peeling back the heartbreak, sorrow and fear that children, parents (and prison guards) experience in the American Justice system.

There were so many sad stories in there, but the one I remember most was that of a child who was sitting in a holding cell waiting for his mother to get him out, but she couldn't leave her job for fear of losing it. So he had to sit and wait

picture by Richard Ross

I’m waiting for my mom to come get me. Is she in there? She’s at work today. I want to go home. I got in trouble at school today. —R.T., age 10 Jan Evans Juvenile Justice Center, Reno, Nevada. R.T. was brought in from school by a policeman. He stabbed a schoolmate, but it is unclear what the tool was, a pencil, knife, fork . . . He was waiting to be picked up by his mom, who couldn’t come get him until she got off work for fear of losing her job. He was checked on every five minutes. The director of the facility recalled an eight-year-old being brought in for taking a bagel and stated, “This is not the place for these offenses.”

Look 15 does have a theme. Actually it has 3 themes and they are big ones; Women, Migration and Memory. That's two themes too many, but even with the three themes it's difficult to see where the Ross fits. Maybe it would be better just to have Look as an unthemed 'Month of Photography' kind of event, or make a choice and have a real focus and curate it that way. Because otherwise you're left guessing how things fit together, when actually they don't fit together at all. 

The big show in town is Martin Parr and Tony Ray Jones in Only in England at the Walker Art Gallery. It's familiar work but great to see the beautiful, beautiful prints and the link between the history of the British holiday and American street photography. 

And of course you get the great Tony Ray-Jones Photography Checklist and its top tip, Don't Take Boring Pictures. 

Indeed! Which brings us to the last and best of Liverpool Look/15, Max Pinckers' Will They Sing like Raindrops or Leave me Thirsty at St George's Hall. Now I'm biased with this because I love the book and Tadhg Devlin, who curated the show on a really small budget is a good friend. 

But really! Max Pinckers doesn't take boring pictures. Well, he probably does take loads of them, but they're not the ones we get to see. We get to see exciting pictures of horses, lovers, the city and the sea.

If you're not familiar with Max Pinckers' work, here's my review of the book from which the show came. But even though I love the book, it was fantastic to see the prints blown up close to the size they deserve and wonderfully printed by McCoy Wynne. The show was a mix of the simple and the complex - simple because it told the story of the book in a pared down, economical manner with an emphasis on the visual grandeur of Pinckers' staged documentary, but complex because of the range of print sizes, papers and pairings. 

The only shame was the show was barely signposted so only the most dedicated viewer is going to find it. The lack of signposting was a bit of an issue this year (and a real contrast to Format where there were signs and lovely people always available to point the way). And though it was great for Liverpool to host Pinckers' first UK show, he really deserves a couple of floors somewhere with fabulous light and brilliant signposting and food, music and dance to complete the Bollywood fantasy/reality theming. It will happen but I'm surprised it hasn't happened yet. 

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