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Monday, 18 March 2019

Format: Soul is the Goal

Carolilne Furneaux

 “I want the story to exist somewhere so that in a way it’s still happening … I don’t want it to be shut up in the book and put away – oh well, that’s what happened.”

I love that quote from Alice Munro. I love that idea of the sanctity of the story and the ways in which its inherent storiness can be destroyed by the vehicle in which it appears - be that a novel, a photograph, a magazine, a film.

    Kensuke Koike

Read Alice Munro and you enter a world that goes beyond the page of the book, you feel characters who almost seem to exist as entities in themselves. The story opens them, they flow beyond the narrative, they carry their stories into that world where Munro's story "is still happening."

Maurice Broomfield's Cameras

You get the same in photography. I went to Format at the weekend and my favourites were those where you got the idea that something was happening beyond the simplicity of the frame or the slide-viewer or the magazine or the portfolio.

You also get the opposite in photography so sometimes there was a feeling that any story that was there was blurred and obscured, that things disappeared in a haze of ambiguity and possible meanings. You had to work hard (even when you had seen the work before) to eke out any possible meaning, and when you did, it really wasn't worth it.

Caroline Furneaux

But enough of that. There were also those where there was a visual distancing which came with some reward. I loved the slides (I love transparency - it is a superior film) of Caroline Furneaux. You viewed them through a slide viewer so had to work for your reward and the reward were these wonderful images of women her father had photographed in the days before he became her father. They were possible mothers. I'm not sure I entirely bought that but the pictures did the work for me. The girl with the cactus was just beautiful, and all seen through the four inch screen of an old-school slide viewer.

And Maurice Broomfield was wonderful, a series of industrial image where something else always seen to be going on. They're part industrial sublime, part socialist realism, and part sci-fi something or other. They have the speculative reflexion of Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel's Evidence, but 20 years before its time. The great thing is you see them and you get them, and then you keep on watching and perhaps you see some more. It's a gift that keeps on giving.

The one exhibition I really wanted to see taken to a grand scale and expanded upon both conceptually and visually was the Cameraworks exhibition. I'd love to see how those key areas of community, political engagement, and activism have developed (and not developed). The political voice and directness of the writing and images was something to behold, above and beyond the repetition of black and white images albeit of a politically vibrant and destructive time - it's a similar time now but that kind of clarity and voice is notable by its absent. Instead we're hiding stories rather than telling them.

The direct and literal continued in the exhibition of the old Kassel Book Dummiy show with Rebecca Samson's wonderful Apples For Sale. This is a book on the lives of Indonesian maids in Hong Kong, an antidote to some of the really weird and delusional captions I've seen accompanying images of Southeast Asian Maids working overseas, captions which can be described as naive at best, or as an exercise of soft power at worst. There is a lot of visible soft power at play in photography.

Anyway, Apples for Sale is telling a story that is very apparent if you read the news, see the world or talk to anyone where the export of labour is a major industry, and it tells it through images, Facebook Posts (what do you do if your maid has Body Odour. Or wants a day off. Or runs out of jobs to do. Or has a boyfriend), agency rules and all the rest of the dehumanising hoops you have to go through. It's not on scale of the horror stories of murder, sexual harrassment and cheating that you get from Gulf Maids, but it's bad enough and actually it can be a horror story of lying, deceit and abuse. Samson tells that story but with some intriguing touches on the physical, emotional and creative escapism that people find even in the most claustrophobic of circumstances.

Format was a pleasure as always, it's attraction lying in the diversity of the venues and the sheer range of work you can see. I didn't see everything but I came away filled with thoughts and ideas and notions and cliches like keep it real and soul is the goal and the story is the thing.

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