in Derby for the Format Photo Festival. I have a love/hate affair with photography that has lasted for over forty years now. Like most painters I use photography in a pretty slovenly fashion both as a lazy sketchbook and a matter of record. A few years back I went back to Uni to take a Masters in Photography and found that doing it seriously was a bit harder than I imagined…a bit harder but in all honesty not that hard…certainly not as hard as the lifetime commitment that painting takes. A lot of photography is just stuff…visual stuff but really not privileged in the way that I think something that is to be exhibited ought to be. And besides which a lot of it really is better when examined in book form rather than put onto walls…not least as much of it relies on serial images to make any sense.
And the festival has a lot of stuff…no really an awful lot of stuff…more than its five previous incarnations. In fact one of the venues…the ‘pop up’ old Chocolate factory (who knew Derby had a Chocolate Factory?) is jammy packed with stuff including a large inkjet printer churning out photos constantly – and not just from Derby, or traditional festival participants but anybody…from anywhere…in the world…maybe even you! The intro blurb to the Festival says “Photography is the most important medium of our time” but all the stuff tells us emphatically that its pretty much the least important medium of our time…the least privileged and most abused visual medium, the most democratic and accessible – surely good? but also the disregarded and discarded and ignored by most of us most of the time – surely bad?
Amongst the many many offerings, some things really stood out – Andreas Meichsner riffed beautifully on a testing centre in Germany where goods are put through their paces by individuals that result in absurdist Erwin Wurm type images. This show selected by Paul Hill for his Exposure award was real quality schmutter that contrasted with quite a lot of indifferent displays of reportage, reworking of old tropes and rank bad examples of the “here’s a selection of stuff that I’ve ‘documented’ cos its interesting” type of photographic practice that is rife nowadays. There was a stunning Edward Burtynsky print of a Chinese Chicken processing plant that really showed up a lot of the other stuff…because it was really well observed and crafted…and showed a real artist’s (actually painter’s) sensibility. Some of the old analogue work that had been exhumed (David Moore and Huw Davies) was pretty good too…for much the same reasons. I also didn’t mind (too much) the set ups that were purveying the message of stuff…the Beijing Silvermine project was witty and well conceived and the Eyeem project churning out all those photos that we were then invited to ‘curate’ onto the walls gives one pause for thought about where the photograph as a construct is destined. Amongst the disappointments was the Eric Kessels exhibition – his books are witty, provocative and clever. The arcane over blown exhibition format reduced the impact of the photo album improv to a meaningless melange of more stuff – there seems to be a real problem with the QUAD gallery space that kills off most work that goes into it. Of the other exhibits elsewhere decent mentions go to Ken Grant and Toby Smith for solid performances in terms of straightforward reportage and a particularly strong little photo essay by Sebastian Liste whose pictures of people living in an abandoned chocolate factory in Brazil was thought provokingly exhibited in a chocolate factory.
We didn’t make it up to the Uni so there may have been more things there…