Galleries, Exhibitions and Study Visits

Misbehaving Bodies at the Wellcome Collection

On 25 October I attended a study visit at the Wellcome Collection, consisting of work by Jo Spence and Oreet Ashery.

Jo Spence

The work on display could be divided up into the phases of her life.  She had been working for a photographer, and then moved on to become a photographer in her own right, and had been working for some time before she produced the images on display at the exhibition.  She was a feminist, and a member of the Hackney Flash.  An extract from the Hackney Flash website outlines the purpose of the group:

The Hackney Flashers, a women’s photography collective, was formed in 1974 and remained active until 1980. It was started by a small group of photographers and an illustrator with the purpose of making a photography exhibition about women at work – part of a trade union event celebrating 75 years of union activity in Hackney, East London. The group eventually also included a designer, a writer and a book editor. Over time members described their individual political positions as feminist or socialist feminist. [accessed 26/10/19]

Beyond the Family Album

In this series of photographs Jo Spence aimed to address family issues, not normally shown explicitly in family photographs, such as divorce, strained relationships, absences, illness.  She wanted to take control of how others see her, not as a result of a family photograph taken by someone else.

The Diagnosis

Jo Spence was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982.  She recalls the day she was told of this: a doctor walked into the ward, followed by a group of student doctors, and told her in what she felt was a very matter-of-fact way that she had cancer and her breast must be removed.  Spence was very angry at this treatment both because of the way she was told, without giving her any options, and as it was her body, she should have been able to make the final decision.  She took a photograph of herself with the words: “Property of Jo Spence” written across her breast, and this photograph entitled “A Picture of Health: Property of Jo Spence?” accompanied her into hospital when having a lumpectomy.

jo spence
A picture of health: Property of Jo Spence?    © Jo Spence


Coming to Terms with the Diagnosis

Jo Spence spent the following years investigating alternative medicines and therapies.  She shunned the convention treatment available at the time.  During this period she took a number of self-portraits, documenting her feelings and state of mind. Some said she was brave and courageous to do this, but she didn’t feel that way.  She just felt that she was expressing her feeling, and this help her come to terms with the outcome.

Final Project

Jo Spence was diagnosed with leukemia in 1991 and during her final two years she worked with her long time collaborator Terry Dennett to create a series of photographs documenting her decline and finally her death.  Terry Dennett created one last image of her appearing to float in a field, returning to nature.

js returning to nature
Double exposure image taken by Terry Dennett symbolising Jo Spence returning to nature

Oreet Ashery

In her 12 part mini series: Revisiting Genesis, Oreet Ashery explores the way in which people can become marginalised when seeking treatment for illnesses.  She felt that this could be due to the type of illness, the person’s sexual orientation, or culture.  She also explores how companies may try to exploit families even after a loved ones death.  In the mini series she acts out a play in which actors are invited (by Genesis) to create a video of themselves or a representation of themselves to be shown to their families after death.

Ashery also created a documentary video of her father’s last few years up to and including he death.  This prompted much discussion within our group following the viewing, as some felt that it was intrusive.  I felt that her father was happy to appear in the video at the beginning when he was fully coherent, and that he knew the filming would continue until he death, so did not believe it to be intrusive although I was not certain of its artistic value, rather more a personal record of a loved one’s last years.



Galleries, Exhibitions and Study Visits

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2019

I recently attended an informal study visit with a friend to view Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize 2019 exhibition at the Photographers Gallery.

The four nominees were: Mark Ruwedel, Susan Meiselas, Arwed Messmer, Laia Abril.

Mark Ruwedel – Artist and Society

Mark Ruwedel had submitted a series of photographs of abandoned desert homes, nuclear testing sites and railways.  His aim was to illustrate the way in which landscapes and buildings can be affected by the political and social culture in an area. His series of desert homes was photographed in the evening because he felt there was a greater sharpness to the images at the time of day. The images were well presented, but I felt I needed to research his work further to gain a better understanding of the underlying purpose of these images.

One of a series of images of abandoned desert houses, taken by Mark Ruwedel, on display at the Photographers Gallery.

Susan Meiselas – Mediations

Susan Meiselas is a documentary photographer who, in order to get as true a story as possible, immerses herself into the community which she is working with.  She gains their trust and confidence so is able to take photographs showing the real events.  I was very moved by some of her images, particularly the one shown below.  Meiselas had captured the plight of the women looking down at the bones, probably now knowing whether they were belonging to a relative, or a member of her community.  The desperation of a mother and wife is portrayed in this image.

Widow at mass grave found in Koreme, Northern Iraq, © Susan Meiselas 1992


Arwed Messmer – RAF no evidence

Arwed Messmer had drawn together a series of images and documents taken from various sources, such as state archives.  The result was a collection of images used as police evidence against the RAF (Red Army Faction).  His aim was to show that by bringing these images together, a greater understanding of the events of history may emerge.  I have limited knowledge of the history of the RAF and their activities, but these images intrigued me, and I wished I had done more research before going to see the exhibition.

Laia Abril – On Abortion

To me this was the most moving collection of work in the exhibition.  Abril comes from a predominately catholic culture where abortion is absolutely unacceptable, and illegal.  She set out to highlight the issues and also the inherent dangers of restricting women’s rights.  For centuries women have sought to terminate pregnancies for many different reasons, and what Abril was showing is that nothing has changed for many women in the world.  The reasons for wanting an abortion are varied: serious ill health endangering the mother’s life, poverty, pregnancy as a result of rape.  Abril interviewed many women in the course of her research, but sadly she was unable to speak to some as they had already passed away as a result of an illegal abortion. 

Abril’s ethos is that women should have the right to make decisions about their own bodies, and by prohibiting this, women are being driven to “back street” illegal abortionists.   I was shocked at the number of women throughout the word who were unable make decisions about their bodies, and were either putting themselves at risk because of it, or having to make decisions about their lives after the baby was born.  One image of a hatch in a wall was disturbing when I read about the purpose of this hatch.  It turned out to be in the wall of an orphanage, and anyone giving birth and unable to care for their baby, could put the it through the hatch (anonymously) and the nuns who ran the orphanage would take of it.  A terrible decision for a mother to have to make, and she would also have had no medical care herself, putting her at risk of afterbirth complications.

Instrument used for illegal abortions.  Laia Abril – On Abortion


I found this whole exhibition very emotional, and I hoped Laia Abril would win the Deutsch Borse Photographic Foundation Prize.  In fact it went to Susan Meiselas. 

Galleries, Exhibitions and Study Visits

Don McCullin at Tate Britain

Before going to this exhibition at Tate Britain, I had the good fortune to watch a documentary on Channel 4 in which Don McCullin revisits his childhood haunts, and also the areas in northern England where he photographed various people and events early on in his career. He also talked about his time as a war photographer, and his feelings now on how he looks back on that time.  When I visited the exhibition I felt I had a greater understanding of his work having first seen this programme.

The exhibition showed the different phases in McCullin’s  career: growing up in London and how he became a photo journalist, his time working for a newspaper, recording events during his time as a war photographer and his work since retiring from working in war zones.

One thing which struck me was his aim of trying to photograph the real victims of war. In his view the real victims were often the civilians caught up in violence or poverty and famine as a result of the violence.

One very poignant image was that of an albino orphan in Biafra.  This young lad was not just the victim of famine, but also because he was albino, he was ostracized by his own community.  McCullin noticed the boy as he walked towards him holding out an empty corned beef tin, and he took this photograph.

Albino boy
Albino Biafran orphan © Don McCullin


Don McCullin came across as a very humble man,  kind and mild mannered,  in the documentary.  This despite seeing these events during his time as a war photographer.  I have tremendous admiration for anyone who is prepared to risk their own lives and their sanity to photograph such events.  His own life was saved on one occasion by a camera in his top pocket.  It took a bullet which undoubtedly would have fatally injured him had it not embedded itself into the camera.  He still has that camera to this day as a reminder.  And without such photographers, we in the more peaceful parts of the world, would have no real idea as to what level of suffering exists in other parts of the world.  He also said he made the decision on more than one occasion to put his camera down, when he felt it was not appropriate to record an event.

He now lives in Somerset, photographing landscapes and nature, and spending time in his beloved darkroom.  He feels by doing this he is continuing with his documentary genre, recording landscapes as they change over the seasons and years.

Galleries, Exhibitions and Study Visits

Cindy Sherman at the National Portrait Gallery

I first encountered Cindy Sherman’s work in 2017 and became fascinated by her ability to transform herself so well that it was difficult to believe she was the model.  That and the fact that she never allowed anyone into her studio while taking the photographs (apart from her parrot).  Some of the positions she adopted were so complicated that it is hard to believe she took the photograph herself.  She did explain her reasons, as follows:

“I did once try using family members or friends, and once paid an assistant.  But even when I was paying somebody, I still wanted to rush through and get them out of the studio.  I felt like I was imposing on them.  Also I got the feeling that they were having fun, to a certain extent, thinking this was like Halloween, or playing dress-up. The levels I try to get to are not about the having-fun part.”

[Susan Bright, 2005, Art Photography Now, p25]

Cindy Sherman attended Buffalo College,   which is where she discovered the art of “selfie”.  One of her early works is this collage on the effects of makeup.  Starting with a picture of a plain teenager, to the final picture which shows what could be the face of a glamourous filmstar.  She developed her own style and her ability to transform herself into someone else.

© Cindy Sherman

Some have likened her to an actress as much as a photographer, although she doesn’t see herself in that way. She says she tries to immerse herself into her art, and she uses the camera as an artist uses a brush to produce their work. The key aspect for me is that each image has a story attached to it, and it is not always easy to identify the story. Many of her images are untitled as she felt she could not assign a title to each one, in particular her Untitled Film Stills, created between 1977 and 1980.

I went to see her work at an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and was not disappointed. The exhibition was laid out in chronological order, with each collection/genre displayed together. In the first area there were a number of her images while she was still a student, including the image shown above, and many of them had not been displayed before.

I was particularly drawn to the series of Untitled Film Stills. Sherman said in an interview that she had grown up watching television and films, and wanted to recreate a series of images emulating the characters she had been watching. She created her own characters based on these films and each image told a story. For me the fascination is that each image has ambiguity embedded into it, there is no indication from Sherman what that story might be. For example the photograph below shows a girl reading a letter. Is it good news, bad news? Who is she looking at? Maybe she is looking around to make sure no one is watching.

Film Still 5 1977
Untitled: © Cindy Sherman

I was also drawn to her series portraying “rich American women”. This series, taken in 2008, shows the type of portraits which would have been commissioned by the rich. However, Sherman’s take on this is to create caricatures of those portraits. In the portrait shown below is of a women in an elegant and glitzy gown, lots of makeup and jewellery, and taken against a rather grand background. Is it her property, or has she been located there for the portrait? The irony in this picture is that she is wearing cheap plastic sandals and thick tights. Not the sort of elegant footwear expected of such a person.

Society portrait
Untitled: © Cindy Sherman

The exhibition as a whole gave a great insight into Cindy Sherman’s work and life.  The section on prosthetic limbs and genitalia were a move a way from some of her work, but I felt it was there to shock.

Finally, the mock up of her studio with all the storage drawers full of prosthetics showed how much she very skillfully uses prosthetics in her photography.

Galleries, Exhibitions and Study Visits · Uncategorized

Dorothea Lange and Vanessa Winship at the Barbican

The work of Dorothea Lang and Vanessa Winship were on display at a joint exhibition at the Barbican Centre earlier this year, and I went along to the study day.

Vanessa Winship. The first part of the exhibition showed photographs she had taken in when she and her husband spent a number of years in the Balkans, Albania, Athens and Turkey.  I felt that she had created a record of how life existed, and the landscape of those areas, but had failed to engage with the people she was photographing.  The only photograph in which she actually seemed to engage with the subject was that of an endearing little girl sitting in a cafe looking out of the window.

© Vanessa Winship

In most of the other photographs there is little rapport between her and her subjects.  This is especially true of the series of schoolgirls, where I would have thought she could have engaged with the young girls.  They were mostly very stiff and lacked humour or personality.

© Vanessa Winship

Then we moved onto her series of the Humber estuary.  Whilst these photographs were of good quality, I didn’t feel they were exceptional and was surprised that she was able to exhibit at such a prestigious venue.

The final part of her exhibition was a series of photographs of her grandson taken on an iphone.  Again I didn’t think these were outstanding, simply family pictures which mean nothing to the onlooker.

Overall I was disappointed with the work of Vanessa Winship.

Dorothea Lange started out her career as  portrait photographer, but then joined the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1935 and documented migrant workers and their families in rural areas of the US.  This was a period of depression caused by the overworking of the land resulting in an infertile dust bowl.  The migrant families had to move around looking for work.  Dorothea Lange travelled around the area affected and photographed the migrant workers, one of her most well known photograph being the Migrant Mother.  The mother was Florence Thompson, age thirty-two, mother of seven children, from Nipomo, California.


Migrant Mother © Dorothea Lange


I felt she was able to capture the essence of how life was during the depression.  These children seem unaware of the seriousness of their situation and are enjoying life.

Children during the depression © Dorothea Lange

Overall I felt Dorothea Lange was an excellent photographer capturing the feelings, worries, and anxieties of the migrant workers during the depression.


Galleries, Exhibitions and Study Visits

Kiss My Gender, Heyward Gallery

On 13th July I met up with a newly formed London group for an informal study visit to the Heyward Gallery.

This exhibition left me confused.  I wasn’t sure whether the fundamental aim was to shock or educate.  Furthermore, the title was misleading because I expected works on both male and female fluidity.  In fact all the subjects were males who were addressing their gender fluidity.

Nonetheless, when I entered the exhibition I was met with a stunning installation consisting of white satin material draped from floor to ceiling onto which was projected an image of a person dressed beautifully as a woman.  A voice projected over the image to imply she/he was on stage.  Whichever angle I viewed the installation from, the beauty shone through the material.

20190713_121553 resized.jpg

The other images in the same area of this installation were mixed, and I found it difficult to follow a theme.  But maybe the curator intended to create this feeling of uncertainty.

20190713_112147 (2)

The final sentence in the description above certainly bore out my views: “…remains in a permanent and productive state of irresolution”.

The second half of the exhibition had more disturbing images, such as the image of a brutally murdered body in South Africa, indicating the way members of the LGBTQ community are treated in some cultures.  But was this image staged?

In the centre of this area was a manikin wearing an elaborate black silk ball gown created by Hunter Reynolds on which was printed in gold the names of some 25000 people who had died from AIDS related illnesses.  On the wall behind the installation were a series of newspaper cuttings giving more information on the dress, and highlighting the prejudice at that time against AIDS. I found the whole installation very moving and poignant.

Finally I wandered into what appeared to be a nightclub.  The entrance tunnel was draped in red velvet, and inside a video was being shown to create the sense of being in a club.  Some of the footage was fascinating and extremely well presented, but I found the pornographic footage unnecessary.  (There was a warning notice at the entrance!).  Rightly or wrongly pornography exists in all areas of life, and I was at a loss to understand why it should be included in an exibition which was celebrating gender fluidity.

Overall I thought the exhibition was a bit muddled in its layout and I didn’t feel there was any cohesion between the images.  They appeared to be displayed at random with no “flow”.  However, the Heyward Gallery coffee shop was excellent.  The group met afterwards in the coffee shop,  and offered feedback on work presented by some members of the group.


Galleries, Exhibitions and Study Visits

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018

Saturday 31 March I went to the Photographers Gallery to see the Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize exhibition.  I gained more than just the experience of viewing an exhibition, this was the first study day I have been to.  All the others in the group, apart from one person, were ahead of me and had been to a number of study days, so they knew what to expect.

I was very moved by the study of the effects and influence of the chemical giant Monsanto.  Mathieu Asselin had spent 5 years researching this, and I expected him to win the competition.  However the winner was Luke Willis Thompson who had made a video based on the original footage of the murder of a black American by a white American policeman.  The victim’s partner had filmed the incident, and posted on social media.  Thompson took this forward and the result was a silent film highlighting the effects the event had on those close to the victim.

I didn’t know until 2 days before that the study days are also opportunities to get feedback on our work.  I took along some work, although it was difficult to see because my printer wasn’t working very well and we were sitting in a dark corner of a local pub.  Nevertheless, everyone looked at my work and I had some very useful feedback and comments.  Thank you Jayne for holding a torch above us!