Picture (c) Billy Monk, courtesy Michael Stevenson Gallery Cape Town/BPB.
An emerging village photographer, at the age of 68. A taxi driver and a bouncer. Two identifiable directions – night and staged documentary photography – with powerful examples of these reinvigorated trends. This is the spirit of discovery I am delighted to present at Brighton Photo Biennial.”
Six years after taking on Les Rencontres d’Arles, and two years on from his stint at the New York Photo Festival, Martin Parr is back at the curating game, and this time he’s on home turf. Bringing his usual energy and vim to a festival that hasn’t quite caught the public imagination in previous years, Parr hopes to put Brighton’s Photo Biennial on the international agenda, showcasing previously unseen photography and bringing in a few star names to make work about the city itself.
So, Alec Soth, Stephen Gill and Rinko Kawauchi have all been commissioned to shoot new projects there, and two Americans, Molly Landreth and Zoe Strauss, focus on Brighton the gay capital. And, of course, this being a Martin Parr event, there’s a show dedicated to vernacular photography, including some eye-popping images of luxury jets used by African dictators in the 1960s and 70s taken by Nick Gleis, and an archive of pictures of litter bins from the Design Council Picture Library.
But, as ever, there’s his commitment to “discoveries” – the work he finds on his extensive travels while shooting and searching out new books – the heart of the Biennial, and to his mind, the point and pleasure of attending any photo festival. He features 11 photographers in New Documents (the title a playful nod to MoMA’s 1967 show of the same name, introducing Diane Arbus alongside Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand) who have been little seen before in the UK, exhibited in two different venues, each with their own title: New Ways of Looking at a disused department store, and A Night In Argentina at the University of Brighton Gallery.
It’s a typically eclectic selection. The 68-year-old turns out to be Oumar Ly, whose charming portraits of Senegalese villagers in the 1960s and 70s are shown here for the first time. The taxi driver is Oscar Fernandez Gomez Rodriguez, who captures Mexican street life, framed by his cab window, and the bouncer is the late Billy Monk, who was killed in a fight before he got to see the only previous exhibition, capturing the revelry at the notorious nightclub he worked at. And elsewhere there are more conventional choices, by photographers who have chosen the art world as their profession, including two from the country he’s been telling anyone who’ll listen is really hot right now – Argentina.
“I just find people, because I’m always looking,” he tells me on a visit to his home in Bristol (the full interview can be read at www.bjp-online.com/1732951). “I’m hungry to find interesting new work and, because I have this quite busy travel schedule, I take full advantage of that.”
He’s just back from China, where he has been shooting beach resorts, and there’s a stack of books he bought there waiting for him on his return. “I’m able to multitask and go to a country, attend an opening, find books, find new photographers, do some shooting, and they all fit into one agenda, if you like. You build up contacts, and you find people you know can help locate the things you’re interested in, both in terms of the books and new work. They’re the people you rely on. They have ears and eyes that you trust, and it’s through them that you make most of your discoveries.”
Unlike the last Biennial, which focused on conflict with shows spread out along the South Coast, Parr didn’t go looking for an overarching theme, but he did know that he wanted his festival to be more accessible, keeping the main shows within the city limits. Themes emerged anyhow and, not surprisingly for a Magnum photographer who remains committed to documentary, the focus is on social engagement.
“That’s my own personal bias,” says Parr, “and whenever I curate, I usually end up following that. Apart from Ju Duoqi – who is not so much documentary, because she creates these images out of vegetables that replicate either portraits or fine art pieces – everybody else is dealing with photographing the world in interesting ways. I didn’t think I’d make a theme out of people who photograph at night, but it’s turned out to be one of the main strands.
“So what I like about this is that you try and pick the most accessible, the most exciting new work, and then you work out what sort of things you can learn from it. Now shooting at night is nothing new, it’s been going on for years, but there’s been a new impetus that I think is very interesting and revealing, and of course it’s one of the things that photography does very well, because when you take pictures at night, you can’t actually see [what you’ve captured] with the human eye. It’s one of the magical things about photography, the way it – by its very nature – transforms the world that we live in into a photograph. It has more going for it like that than anything else.
“Everything comes and goes, and night photography is one of those things, as indeed is staged photography. It becomes more and more difficult to actually go out and shoot on the street, so people go out and reconstruct it. Mohamed Bourouissa is a perfect example; he’s reconstructing night scenes with Algerian youth in the streets of Paris, and he’s got them to act out scenes, and it looks very convincing.”
One of the biggest challenges for the festival is working to a meagre budget, and Parr has come up with one solution by abandoning frames, and getting Hewlett-Packard – which, along with Blurb is the major commercial sponsor – to print all the work as inkjets. “I love the idea of the immediacy and the spontaneity that this notion of a frame-free exhibition generates. And that very much fits into the spirit of discovery which is at the very core of what Brighton should be about.”
From the series, Moshi © Viviane Sassen, courtesy of Motive Gallery, Amsterdam.
Amsterdam-based photographer Viviane Sassen studied fashion design, but after an early collaboration with artist/photographer Martine Stig, began shooting her own work, quickly gaining the attention of cutting-edge stylists and art directors, such as David James, who commissioned her as a newcomer for a campaign for Miu Miu.
She’s now recognised as one of the most original new talents in fashion photography, and is regularly commissioned by the likes of Stella McCartney, Louis Vuitton and Pop magazine.
But it’s the more overtly idiosyncratic approach to her personal work that’s bringing her to wider attention and, in particular, the word-of-mouth created by last year’s book, Flamboya, published by Contrasto.
“Sassen spent her early days in Kenya as her father was a doctor there, and for the body of work, Flamboya, she has returned to Africa to shoot these photographs,” explains Parr. “Mainly portraits, both set up and natural, they are also interspersed with small observations of plants and roads. Her portraits are quite unique, as well as having strong graphics (interestingly, Sassen worked as a fashion photographer before). They are also quite unsettling in their accumulative effect, the direct shooting cutting through the normal way we read portraits of African subjects.”
From the series, Like Birds © Wout Berger, courtesy of Van Kranendonk Gallery, The Hague.
Born in the Netherlands in 1941, Wout Berger is one of the more established names in Parr’s exhibition, with more than a dozen books to his name, and more than 50 exhibitions (although only three of these were in the UK).
“Berger has been shooting for many years, but his new project is a most refreshing take on landscape,” says Parr. “Entitled Like Birds, various images are arranged together to create a weird tapestry of shape and form. The combination of rather flat images, almost scientific in their approach, exerts a strange and surreal tableau, when seen together.”
He has been working in this manner since the mid-1980s, following a commission from the city of Amsterdam, during which he came across a stretch of land contaminated by chemical waste, flowered by blooms of wild orchids. Finding unexpected beauty in such hostile terrain, he embarked on a major series for which he visited 1200 chemical waste dumps to produce Poisoned Landcape.
Since then he has continued to explore the theme of nature through “real” and “artificial” landscapes on the periphery of town and country, such as his series on greenhouse horticulture, or the seed plantations that form the first wave of housing development besides some of Holland’s most picturesque villages, all shot in beautiful, close-in detail on his view camera.
From the series, The High Tide © Alejandro Chaskielberg, courtesy BPB.
Argentina is where it’s at right now, according to Parr, who presents two Buenos Aires-based photographers at the Biennial, including Alejandro Chaskielberg, who BJP first noticed in Critical Mass 2008.
Born in 1977, Chaskielberg began shooting for local newspapers at the age of 18, and after studying for a degree at the National Film Institute in Argentina, then started to make television documentaries. He began showing his new stills work four years ago, immediately collecting one of the most prestigious prizes for young Argentinian artists, and two years later gaining more worldwide attention after winning recognition from the National Geographic Society. He has since won numerous awards, including the $15,000 Emerging Photographer Grant from Burn magazine, run by Parr’s Magnum colleague, David Alan Harvey, and for which the Englishman was a judge.
Shooting at nighttime close to water, Chaskielberg says he intends to work “on the border of reality, creating fictional scenarios with real people and situations, trying to push the limits of documentary photography, using technical processes to transform the natural perception of light, colours and spaces”.
“Chaskielberg documents the communities that live around the Paraná River Delta near Buenos Aires,” explains Parr. “They inhabit rather delicate wooden structures and travel around in small boats. Setting up his photographs, to be taken at full moon on a 5×4 camera (with a small lick of flash to complement the ambient moon light), he invests substantial time rehearsing the shot with his selected subjects.”
From the series, Sleepers © Dhruv Malhotra, courtesy of Photo Ink, India.
“The perennial interest in shooting during darkness is a feature of much of the work presented in BPB 2010,” says Parr. “The possibilities of combining natural darkness with added flash, gives the opportunity to create vignettes, charged with an atmosphere and effect that would be difficult to achieve in daylight hours. For these new photographers often shooting at night opens up new ways of seeing, and offers a very effective way of refreshing our photographic vocabulary. As always the gap between how something looks and how the photograph depicts it is exacerbated by shooting at night. We travel into new territories of how to represent the world.”
Dhruv Malhotra, from India, born in 1985 and the youngest of the emerging photographers featured in the show, is a prime example. A self-confessed insomniac, he shoots in Delhi at night while others are sleeping, engaging “with issues of progress and modernity”, he says.
“In his series, Sleepers, he takes photos in the suburbs and wasteland of this vast sprawling city, and always features people sleeping,” comments Parr. “A large number of people sleep outside every night, and sometimes the sleepers are prominent within the image, and sometimes hidden away in the background – but they are omnipresent.”
From the series, Périphéries (c) Mohamed Bourouissa, courtesy of Gallerie Les Filles du Calvaire, Paris.
BJP first met up with Algerian-born Mohamed Bourouissa in China, where he was part of a group representing photography students from the Paris-based Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs at the Lianzhou International Photography Festival. Since then, he has done remarkably well, showing his tensely staged images of life in the Périphérique in galleries across Europe and America, including the group exhibition, Younger Than Jesus, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in 2009, and at Yossi Milo (also in New York) earlier this year, who now represents him, along with the Filles du Calvaire in Paris.
He’s one of a number of photographers in New Documents who tends to shoot at night, a trend Parr hadn’t particularly intended following when he began making his selections, but which quickly became apparent. “Although they have a factual basis, from encounters observed, the photographers [often] need to create these scenarios, as it would be impossible to catch them in real time,” says Parr, “especially the more subtle qualities, such as tension and ambiguity. But they do so with the artistry of a film director.
“Bourouissa sets up groups of Algerian youths from Paris [the suburbs where he grew up], and orchestrates them to play out encounters, usually a bit edgy and nearly always at night.”
ESTEBAN PASTORINO DIAZ
From the series, Salamone © Esteban Pastorino Diaz.
“The final night shooter is Esteban Pastorino Diaz, who is another of Argentina’s energetic new photographers,” says Parr. “I have selected from his body of work, Salamone (1998-2001), featuring the buildings of the Italian architect Francisco Salamone. Taking these large-format images at night is the perfect method to demonstrate the Fascist nature of these buildings, their dynamic form almost luminescent and eerie, consolidated by the surrounding darkness.
“It is quite significant that two of the selected contemporary practitioners are from Argentina. The quality of the work from this country is consistently high, taking on the language of contemporary photography fully but adding a unique twist of their own.”
OSCAR FERNANDEZ GOMEZ RODRIGUEZ
From the series, Windows © Oscar Fernando Gomez Rodriguez.
“Another Latin American photographer is Oscar Fernandez Gomez Rodriguez, from Monterey in Mexico,” says Parr. “He works as a taxi driver and takes images from his cab framed by the window. He also shoots other more candid images on his travels, but it is window typology that we will feature in Brighton.
“Originally working as a wedding photographer, he decided to rent a taxi for some additional income. By framing the scenes he encounters on his travels, he produces a remarkable typology. From old spare tyres and a discarded sofa to a kids’ football match, these small vignettes of ordinary life become extraordinary when isolated by the additional frame of the taxi window.”
From Podor 1963-1978 © Oumar Ly, courtesy of Marie-Louise & Fils/Filigranes Editions.
“As well as Bourouissa from Algeria, I have selected two other photographers from the African continent,” says Parr. “The first, Oumar Ly, was a local photographer operating in the villages surrounding Puna in Senegal in the 1960s and 70s. He visited the villages, arranged portraits and returned in the following weeks delivering the commissioned photos. The resulting portraits are laced with innocence and charm.”
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