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Last updated: March 16, 2013 1:53 am
On the right of a blank wall in a recently abandoned factory, a choreographer in a film adopts a simple pose. On the left, a computer-generated scan – that’s you! – creakily moves its limbs into the same position. Get it better than 93 per cent right, and the choreographer leaps into the next pose. Eight poses, and you have entered the People’s Zoetrope, a huge dance spinning online. It’s an update of a Victorian moving-image viewer, and it’s compulsive.
This is just one of several pieces at the Format International Photography Festival in Derby that stretch the boundaries of what we might consider photography. “Hind Land” is a multi-artist survey of the foot passages under the M25 orbital motorway, complete with sound recordings of the “acoustic footprint” of the thundering traffic above. Photographer Simon Roberts has collected placards abandoned after political demonstrations to make a collage of the one-liners of protest. Graham Elstone has had made three 1,000-piece jigsaws of windows smashed in riots in Nottingham. You can sit at a table and help reassemble the shattered panes.
Elstone’s little installation is a good example of one of Format’s core values: this is accessible stuff, but it goes a long way.
A project that also fits that description, and which will in time produce excellent fruit, is “Beijing Silvermine”. Led by Thomas Sauvin, Silvermine is another activity of the Archive of Modern Conflict, the London-based publisher that yields its rationales to no one, but still consistently produces photographic publications of high interest. The AMC produced the stand-out show of the last Paris Photo, and in Derby the Silvermine show is only let down by casual presentation. The idea is rich indeed.
Silvermine is a huge haul of negative film, of the order of half a million pictures, bought by weight from Beijing recyclers who recover the silver from silver-nitrate film products. It covers the period from about 1985, when film started being used on a major scale in China, to about 2005, when digital materials replaced it. It covers, therefore, precisely the period of China’s opening.
People photographed themselves a lot with their TVs in China, when they were first able to get them. They had posters of James Dean at home, yet they also posed with barely modulated formality in front of the monuments they visited. Reusing these pictures brings up questions, about a period in China, first, but also of rights and of mores. It is noticeable at Format that western audiences laugh with mild contempt at the naivety of Chinese photographers. Shown roughly and without much care at Derby, this deep and intriguing archive is not easy to meet in full but already it is raising important issues. No doubt the AMC will publish it better in time.
Other shows exemplify this demotic tendency. A brilliant one is Erik Kessels’ “Album Beauty”, first shown at the Foam museum in Amsterdam and based on his own collection of private photo albums. In this world of modest self-boosting or private propaganda – revealing not so much the way families were but the way they wanted to see themselves – Kessels likes to find patterns that aren’t quite what we expect. He has noticed, for example, that people photograph their wives from farther away as they get older. So older women are often photographed half-smothered by giant foliage, as the rhododendron has become the picture and the wife is demoted.
Kessels has blown some of these pictures up to giant scale; when you visit the show – at the Quad arts centre, the headquarters of Format – you feel like a bug on the page. A vitrine of a number of actual albums reminds us that these were small, portable, personal books. The pictures were made by numerous techniques, at various sizes, and with all sorts of apparatus. They were never just images, let alone art works. Kessels likes sadder stories, where a person has been roughly cut out of an album (divorce? betrayal?). Not everybody has quite consciously realised that albums are obsolete, now we use Instagram or Pinterest, and this layered and clever show underlines that fact and starts to examine what we have lost.
One could certainly justify a trip to Derby to see “Album Beauty” and nothing else at all. A very formal presentation in the local museum of the latest portraits by Brian Griffin, loyal patron of the Format festival, is another stand-out (of a different tendency, more concerned with technical advance and perfect making) and much else of high quality – by David Moore, Ken Grant, Hajime Kimura – removes any fear of a wasted journey. James Newton’s patterns of hands on the back doors of white Transit vans deserve a mention, too: abstract, yet wholly concrete; simple, yet leading as far as the viewer cares to go. Lovely things, and wholly photographic.
The binding theme of the whole festival is the factory. That brings it close in some manifestations to the concerns of the Prix Pictet, devoted to environmental photography: here are good, powerful pictures of exploited workforces and of the changing habits of work. It is also highly appropriate: Derby is the site of the world’s first mass-production plant, a silk factory operational from the early 1720s.
This year’s is the sixth edition of Format. It is plain to see, in unframed prints pinned naked to walls and in other evidence of shoestrings, that money has been tight. But the energetic director Louise Clements has pulled off an achievement all the same, because this year’s Format is an inventive British photographic festival both stimulating and scholarly, and well up to the standards of its international peers.
Format 13 International Photography Festival, Derby, runs to April 7
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