I came across Uncertain States quite early on my studies with the OCA thanks to another student sending out spare copies of the paper she had. I think an article in that first newspaper I read was one of the initial triggers for me where I started to realise that photography practise was linked to theories of the psyche. And that drew me in further, being interested as I am in how people choose to exist one way or another. I wish I could find the blog post I wrote about it but will need to do some further digging.
I was very pleased to go along to an unofficial study visit organised by John Umney to see Uncertain State’s 6th annual exhibition held at the Mile End Pavillion. There we met Fiona Yaron Field who had kindly waited for me before starting as I had got some details wrong and was very late! Fiona is one of the founding members of the group along with Spencer Rowell and David George, all of whom got together over 6 years ago following, or in one case whilst, studying for their MAs. They produce a quarterly broadsheet that promotes and explores the work of lens based artists. In addition they hold several talks a year which now take place at the V&A. They receive funding from the Art Council which helps to pay for the production and distribution of the broadsheet. As well as the talks and the paper, the group hold an exhibition once a year in which artists whose work has been in the newspaper is shown.
Fiona took us round the exhibition and spoke about several of the artist on display, including her own work which is displayed alongside the other founders of Uncertain States, all of whom used the salt printing method for their exhibited work this year.
Here I will mention the work that appealed to me especially.
Mick Williamson: Williamson uses a small film camera which he carries with him at all times. Fiona said he uses it frequently as is always searching for interesting light, subject, mood. As the exhibition catalogue states, “This is most definitely not the heroic photography of the ‘exotic other’, once so beloved of intrepid documentary photographers and photojournalists: his is a quiet approach, both in its taking and its making.” Williamson presents this particular collection of images in sets of three framed together, still in the sequence it would have been on film. The frames are less than A4 or thereabouts so fairly small images contained within. You have to look closely and the contrast, darkness, and size all serve to draw you in. Most frames contains three images of the same subject but from slightly different perspectives, although not all. This constant repeat helps to set up a rhythm which I think it quite hard to get in still photography, or non moving art of any kind. And the rhythm resonates – it’s like we’re seeing fragments of consciousness and it reminded me of film. Although there is a rhythm it’s constantly broken by the change of perspective. It’s a deeply compelling set of images made so by the size of prints, the black and white contrast, the patterns created by setting three images to a frame and the constant change of perspective. I was really interested to see this original way of showing work and took note how that impacted on how it was seen by us, the viewers.
Karl Ohiri: Ohiri had two prints in the exhibition so far fewer than Williamson. They shared a wall and the juxtaposition between Williamson’s multiple, small black and white images right next to Ohio’s which were large and colourful worked well. After losing his mother Ohiri moved back into the home he had grown up in. The work appears to be a physical exploration of his grief. I recall Barthes searching for a photograph of his own mother, one that held the essence of the person he had lost and finding it in the Winter garden photograph. Here Ohiri instead inhabits his mother’s being , dressing as her, trying to recreate her for himself while he comes to term with his loss. He ”records the moments that were never documented”. He says in the catalogue he “is inviting the viewer and myself to question the authenticity of my recollection, performance and identity”. I am struck by the process of grief and how it has manifested itself here in this work. It seems to me that one of the hardest things for us human beings to make sense of is how someone can be there and then no longer there anymore. It is almost too much for our minds to cope with (and indeed in some cases is too much) and I think we tend to search for ways to fill the emptiness until our minds are in a position to accept the absence of the person we have lost. When he talks about questioning authenticity I think this reflects our very human inability to keep hold of experience in any tangible form, despite our enormous efforts to do so through photography, film, story writing, trinket purchasing or whatever else we choose to do. We’re always looking for ways to reinforce our sense of substance, materiality and reality, lest it should suddenly become clear that none of it is or was real. These photographs were powerful for me – the saturated colours and use of shadow and light as well as performance create an extremely strong sense of story telling. They also reminded me of Larry Sultan’s images of his parents, which I think is where I first started to take note of the use of light in images. Those dark shadows, out of which objects, people and a sense of tangible albeit subjective reality emerge.
Almundena Romero: I was just over-awed by the beauty of these objects. I stopped in my tracks to look at them. Romero works with alternative and early processes and this work is a set of 3 wet collodion glass negatives which are placed at a right angle on the gallery wall so that the light shines through them and creates a shadow image on the wall itself. She makes use of ambient and natural lighting, which of course changes throughout the day – “making the projected images ephemeral and repetitive as the sun raises and sets over the exhibition time period”.
Romero talks about how this work “explores the act of staging the self in a networked world increasingly mediated by visual interaction and virtual profiles”. I really liked this work but to begin with I found it hard to connect the statement to the actual work. For me the act of placing the negative glass plates on the wall in a gallery where one would expect to have photographs was in itself enough of a concept. However, the beauty of these 3 objects starts in the making of them and that contrasts with the ease of creating digital images and the current over proliferation of such images – few of which convey the magic of these objects in actuality, and which we are all part of and party to online. I am always so enamoured by shadows anyway, it was wonderful to see these ones created as part of the work too, not photographed images on display but real shadows created by negatives. They were magical.
Laura Hynd: I saw this work towards the end of our time at the Pavillion and was not able to spend that much time with it but I remembered it because it was presented differently again, like Romero’s work. The images were printed on ceramic tiles which were placed on the floor. I mention this as it was compelling and reminded me of the possibilities of combining photography with conceptual practise. The photograph/tiles were stacked as tiles in Homebase might be, and almost looked as though they were waiting to be hung, which indeed they might have been! I’m not sure if that uncertainty was intentional and if so, I wonder if more should have been made of the placing … not sure. I’d have to ask about it. For me though this whole idea of how things are presented, and the level of performance contained within a work, how it makes the spectator feel, how much involvement the artist expects from the spectator are all questions worth considering.
There were so many artists being exhibited and I really appreciated a lot of what I saw including; work by Tracey Holland whose very beautiful images had been made collaboratively with poet Nell Farrel; Lucy Levine who’s extremely powerful and striking work, The Spaghetti Tree, is borne out of frustration with the perfect image and so her shots are taken at just the wrong moment; Carol Hudson‘s, A Right to Be Forgotten, a very large print of a photograph of a mountain of shredded photographs she’d found following her husband’s death in an old suitcase, and which were from his life before they met; and the very moving Aviv Yaron’s Settle for a Little Less, where he uses film and a chemical treatment to create images of places in Palestine that have been demolished and all that was on the land obliterated – “the chemical treatment I use sculpts physical traces, and layers of depth, into the photographic image – offering a suggestion of past time, whilst invoking acts of remembering”.
Finally, I will talk about Fiona’s work as we were lucky enough to have her there chatting to us. Fiona explained that she had felt like she was losing connection with her work, with the digital process and somehow also felt uninspired – a loss of passion. She wanted very much to go back to making her images and in her artist’s statement talks about how she feels “a desperate need to go back to basics”. So she has made images of all the closest most meaningful people in her life and she has used salt printing to make the images, which she said felt challenging, fulfilling and rewarding. She said she really loved being in the dark room and enjoyed the hard work it took to create the images. Her work seems to stand in direct opposition to the seemingly superficial, shallow, perhaps even empty, and arguably disposable culture of image-making which exists today. Her works are subtle, intimate and soft, and certainly contain a sense of authenticity; they aren’t loud images in any way whatsoever but are powerful nevertheless. I was really taken with the process, which was used by all three founding members. Each one of them worked within their own particular focus, so Fiona’s work looks at Other, Spencer Rowell’s at Self and David George at Place, although all three series’ are united by the process and situated one after the other on a single wall.
I was very pleased to be invited by John and grateful to Fiona for giving us her time. Reading back it seems the things I have taken from this exhibition in particular are the diverse ways of presenting work and how that affects the way the images might be read and understood. I also picked up this sense and desire to create work that is solid or if not that, then tangible in a way that virtual images can never be.
All quotes are taken from the exhibition catalogue (c)Uncertain States