Bradford's inaugural Ways of Looking photography festival is small but well designed, and it's open until 30 October.
Author: Diane Smyth
14 Oct 2011
“Denise Fahmy [media officer from Arts Council England, Yorkshire] called in January and said ‘I’ve got bad news for you’, and I said, ‘Well, it’s what I expected with the cuts’. She said ‘No, I’ve got other bad news – you have to deliver a festival in nine months!’” So says Anne McNeill of the moment she heard that the Ways of Looking photography festival she’d helped found had won a £100,000 National Lottery Arts Council England grant. McNeill was “bowled over” by the news and she had every right to be – against a backdrop of arts funding cuts that have affected some of the UK’s best-known photography institutions, she had won backing for a brand new photography festival in Bradford.
She puts the success down to two essential factors, though – the number of partners she and her co-founder, Nicola Stephenson, director of The Culture Company commissioning agency, got on board, and the amount of private funding and in-kind sponsorship they had attracted. McNeill is director of the Impressions Gallery, for example, but she paired up with Greg Hobson, curator of photographs at the National Media Museum, to oversee the festival programme; and Impressions, NMeM and The Culture Company organised the festival, along with Bradford Council Department of Regeneration and Culture, Bradford Museums & Galleries, Bradford Grid, Fabric, Gallery II at the University of Bradford and Leeds Met University Gallery & Studio Theatre.
Exhibitions were shown at eight different venues, including along bill boards in Bradford’s ‘urban garden’ park and the Bradford Interchange railway station, and were curated by several different people (usually the curator at the venue). “We had discussions about inviting a guest curator [to arrange the whole festival] but realised quite a few people sitting around the table were very good and very experienced curators,” says McNeill. “The strength of the consortium was that we weren’t welded to the history of photography – Impressions comes from a photography background, but Bradford Museums got artists like [Turner-prize winner] Jeremy Deller involved. That was very interesting. But there is a coherence in the programme not, it wasn’t just every body do whatever.”
“We realised that photography and Bradford have an affinity [because Bradford is home to Impressions and the NMeM] and that it’s an affinity a festival can really strengthen,” adds Stephenson. “We made a deliberate decision that we wouldn’t have a single director or curator, we would work with different ways of looking at and presenting photography, right through from a photographers collective to internationally-recognised artists using photography.”
The partner galleries were able to add their normal exhibition funding and staff time to the pot, and while Bradford Metropolitan District Council couldn’t help with funding, the festival attracted another 10% through private funding plus about another 30% in-kind sponsorship, with Imageco stepping in to print some of the images and signage and the Midland Hotel providing accommodation for the artists and financial support for events over the opening weekend. “ACE was really interested in the partnership approach, the fact that we were a living example of institutions working together,” says Stephenson.
“Also we had no choice,” adds McNeill. “We just said we’d do it, that if we got £100,000 we’d get an extra 10% from private funding, and we did. It’s partly doing it in Bradford – so many people we approached were happy to help. If you did it in London it would be a hard slog I think.”
As McNeill admits, £110,000 plus staff time and in-kind sponsorship is a lot of support, and it meant Ways of Looking was able to go the extra mile - it produced an app listing its exhibitions and events, for example, the first festival in Europe to do so. But McNeill points out that many of the exhibitions were commissions, which took up a good chunk of the money, including a new image by Douglas Gordon, self portrait of you and me (blue skies) which was mounted onto one of Impressions’ windows; an exhibition by Jeremy Deller called Poking About which used images from Bradford Museums’ archive; and three new images in Red Saunders’ ongoing series, Hidden, at Impressions Gallery until 30 December, which envisages overlooked, pre-photographic moments in Britain’s democratic history. “The commissions were important – otherwise you can get festival fatigue, seeing the same work and photographs,” says McNeill.
Magnum photographer Donovan Wylie was also showing new work, Outposts, but it was the result of the Bradford Fellowship rather than a commission by the festival (and he was the 15th photographer to receive it). That Wylie’s work fits comfortably into the festival is testimony to the theme the consortium came up with to bind it all together – Evidence. It is, as Deller pointed out to BJP, elastic enough to be all encompassing but still interesting enough to keep in mind throughout the exhibitions. Deller’s exhibition, on show in Bradford 1 Gallery until 27 November, picks out traces of local history via local newspapers, the archive of the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit and portraits from Bradford’s now defunct Belle Vue Studio, for example; Donovan’s solo show, Outposts, which is on show at NMeM 19 February 2012, actually gathers together images from three projects – The Maze, Watchtowers and Outposts – to quietly document the archeology of warfare in the infamous Belfast prison, the army watchtowers in Northern Ireland and operating bases in Afghanistan.
Daniel Meadows: Early Photographic Works, curated by Val Williams and also on show at the NMeM until 19 February, provides evidence of a different kind, gathering together images from The Shop on Graeme Street; June Street, 1973; Butlin’s by the Sea, 1972; Free Photographic Omnibus; National Portraits: Now and Then, 1995-2000; Decline in the Cotton Industry, 1975-78; Welfare State International, 1976-1983; and Nattering in Paradise, 1984-87. Largely, though not exclusively, concentrating on people, these gentle images provide a portrait of a nation, as well as speaking up for Meadows’ huge talent as a photographer. He’s now a lecturer in photography and participatory photography at Cardiff University but hasn’t taken photographs for years, preferring to help others document their own lives through digital storytelling. The exhibition by the Bradford Grid collective, meanwhile, showed everyday scenes in the city – from a variety of points of view. Liza Dracup’s Lister’s – A Topographical View stood out for me, with a survey of many different areas of the city united by the fact you could see the same old factory chimney in them all.
Elsewhere the Evidence theme takes a trickier turn, speaking up for photography’s ability to fake it. Red Saunders’ images re-enact moments that were never photographed, for example, while Diane Bielik’s Makeshift Monuments, A study in Psychological Sculptures gave an oblique, half-staged picture of Bradford’s Hungarian Cultural and Social Centre, in the Centre itself. Bielik grew up in Bradford but her father was a Hungarian freedom fighter who fled his homeland after the revolution in 1956; he settled in Bradford in 1957 along with 2000 countrymen, and helped establish the social club on the outskirts of the city. It closed in 2010, no longer needed by people who had long since integrated with the local community, and when Bielik started to document it she took an oblique, crafty approach, building “monuments” with the everyday items she found and staging interventions. She exhibits some of the images upside down or on-end, and in Bradford opted to paste them directly to the walls, where they blended in with their environment as posters or trompe-l’oeil tricks.
“I did a lot of thinking about why I was photographing something that was closing, and realised that there is the urge to photograph things, but it doesn’t stop them from going away,” she told BJP. “So I started wondering how you could photograph to commemorate, and liked this idea of building little monuments. So I started playing with moving objects and got every excited by interacting with the place, instead of tiptoeing around like I wasn’t meant to be there. When I was making the work the idea crossed my mind, ‘Should I show the work in the club?’ but I was never that into it until I thought about making it part of the club by putting them directly on the walls. If you look at an image of a flag and sort of believe it is a flag [because it’s stuck to the wall], it’s a simple photographic trick; but it’s also very complicated, because it shows how photography tricks us into believing.”
Simon Ford and Colin Lloyd’s The Tracker Chronicles surveillance technology and the photographic evidence we might prefer to be left unshot; while the Pop-Up gallery, run by Fabric and housed in an empty shop, showed selected work from an open call for submissions. Here I liked two pieces about UFOs – Julian Claxton’s selection of images from the Psychic Research Foundation, which purport to show UFOs, and Joe King and Rosie Pedlow’s Strange Lights video, which re-enacts an alleged UFO incident in Rendlesham Forest, Suffolk, in 1980.
These aren’t all the exhibitions collected together under the Ways of Looking umbrella, and the festival also included talks, workshops, a portfolio review and a book, edited by McNeill and well designed by Dean Pavitt at Loup Design (who regularly works with both Impressions and Photoworks). McNeill, Stephenson and their other partners hoped to make it a ‘boutique’ event – “small but perfectly designed”, as McNeill puts it – and I’d say they more than pulled it off. But more important than convincing me is winning over ACE, and Bradford Metropolitan City Council, because the organisers hope to make Ways of Looking a regular biennial, and will have to raise funds again. “Hopefully we’ll be able to demonstrate visitor numbers – it’s early days [when I interviewed her] but it’s got off to a good start,” says Stephenson. “We’ve tried to be very audience-focused, creating lots of different ways to look and play and be involved.”
“Doing the first one is proof of what you can do,” adds McNeill. “For me one of the big successes so far was Red’s opening, because lots of the people he photographed came down to it, and it was the first time in a gallery for many of them. It’s opening the gallery up, and showing that you don’t have to dumb down to do it.”
The Ways of Looking festival is open until 30 October, with events taking place throughout October. Red Saunders and Jeremy Deller are giving talks on 16 and 30 October respectively, and the National Media Museum is hosting a conference on The Architecture of Conflict on 27 October. Impressions Gallery is holding portfolio reviews on 15 October. Some exhibitions are open beyond 30 October; check the festival site for details.
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