Portrait of Martin Parr, part of the Photo Paintings from North East Brazil series
The fourth Brighton Photo Biennial, curated by Martin Parr, opens across venues in Brighton and Hove this weekend, offering an eclectic and entertaining mix of photography shows that include a plethora of new talent.
Parr’s stamp is firmly on the five main exhibitions in the Biennial, all of which are in walking distance of each other in Brighton. As might be expected, documentary photography dominates, though Parr’s choices amply demonstrate how diverse and exciting the medium is today. Staged tableaux and highly styled portraiture hangs alongside hastily grabbed snapshots to present wildly varying views of the world.
From Outside In, by Stephen Gill, 2010
Untitled from the series Murmuration, by Rinko Kawauchi, 2010
To root the Biennial in Brighton, Parr has commissioned three ‘mid-career’ photographers to create a body of work in response to the city. This is a risky strategy: is it possible on short visits to an unfamiliar city to create work that will reflect it in any real depth? The results, on show at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, are mixed, though all interesting. Both Rinko Kawauchi and Alec Soth (with significant help from his seven-year-old daughter, Carmen, who took over the camera after Alec got into trouble at UK customs for not having a work visa) show scenes that are recognisably Brightonian – Kawauchi has captured the oft-documented but always compelling ‘mumuration’ movements of the starlings over the West Pier, while the Soths offer a ‘Brighton Picture Hunt’, documenting a photographic journey around the city. The most successful though, both aesthetically and conceptually, is Stephen Gill’s series, Outside In. Gill has used a specially adapted medium format camera in which he has placed various objects he found on the beach before taking photographs around the town. The resulting photograms appear like lost photos from an earlier era, curiously marked and scarred. Gill also exhibits all the objects he used as part of the show.
Johanna and Anna, Brighton, England, 2010, by Molly Landreth
From the series Brighton 08/05/10-09/11/10, by Zoe Strauss
Other work made in response to the city is shown in Queer Brighton, an exhibition that is, according to Parr, the first significant body of work made about the city’s gay community. Parr, alongside Jamie Wyld of the Lighthouse gallery, which is showing the works, commissioned two US photographers, Molly Landreth and Zoe Strauss, to take photographs during Gay Pride Week in August. In her series of portraits, Landreth deliberately shies away from any overt Pride imagery to instead create a set of contemplative, individual works. Strauss’s photographs, by contrast, document the energetic whirl of the event, which brought 160,000 people to the city, increasing its population by half.
Untitled, from the series Aeroplane Interiors by Nick Gleis
Fabrica is hosting The House of Vernacular, a show devised by Fabrica co-director Matthew Miller that represents this increasingly popular photography genre in an unusual and highly entertaining way. The ‘house’ consists of seven rooms, each styled to reflect the work within, which includes a series of photo paintings from North East Brazil, a collection of photographs of litter bins from the University of Brighton Design Archive, and a slideshow of Kodachrome slides collected by the Archive of Modern Conflict. Another contains a set of fascinating photographs of the interiors of aeroplanes owned by African dictators by Nick Gleis, mostly taken in the 1960s and 70s.
Untitled, from the series Sleepers, by Dhruv Malhotra
From the series High Tide, by Alejandro Chaskielberg
While the Biennial largely avoids any overt theme, patterns emerge. One is a preoccupation by Parr for photographs taken at night. Again, these vary hugely from photographer to photographer, with Dhruv Malhotra presenting a series of images of people sleeping outside at night in various cities across India, and Billy Monk portraying life in Cape Town’s swinging nightclubs in the 1960s. An exhibition at the University of Brighton Gallery, A Night In Argentina, showcases work by two emerging Argentinean photographers, all shot after dark. Esteban Pastorino Diaz presents a series of dramatic black-and-white portraits of buildings by architect Francisco Salamone, which stand in striking contrast to the series by Alejandro Chaskielberg, who displays a set of images that document the community around the Paraná River Delta. Unusually, Chaskielberg photographs by the light of the full moon (with just a ‘kiss’ of flash), asking his subjects to recreate their daytime activities in darkness, resulting in images that appear hyper-real, with almost psychedelic colouring.
Soldier: Claxton, from 120 Days in Afghanistan by Suzanne Opton
From the series The Fantasies of Chinese Cabbage, 2010, by Ju Duoqi
Portraiture abounds elsewhere too, with Parr including works by Suzanne Opton in New Ways of Looking, a group show held at the former Co-Op department store (Malhotra and Monk’s work is shown here too). Opton photographed portraits of US soldiers, provocatively presenting them just as head-shots, lain on their side. She originally displayed these works on billboards in America, where they proved hugely controversial at a time when very little negative, or even mildly questioning, imagery about the Iraq War appeared in the media. Opton also shows another series, Many Wars, which depicts veterans from various conflicts, including Vietnam and Iraq, who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The ex-soldiers have been offered a piece of cloth to use as a prop – some use it as a comforting blanket, while others have it draped across their shoulders, in the appearance of a boxer warming up for a fight. The series is fascinating, with the shots given additional depth by Opton providing text for each one, explaining aspects of the subjects’ history. New Ways of Looking also includes excellent portraiture by Viviene Sassen and Oumar Ly, as well as a series of works by Chinese artist Ju Duoqi, in which she recreates famous paintings using vegetables. Described by Parr as his “wild card”, it is the only overt example of art photography in the Biennial.
By Billy Monk
The Biennial proclaims to be the first ever ‘frame free’ photography event to be staged, with all the works attached to the wall with magnets. A method provoked by financial restraints, Parr predicts that this will be the future of such events, aside from well-funded festivals such as Arles (which Parr curated in 2004) or PhotoEspaña that can afford more formal presentation. The photographers all provided their images as digital files, which were then printed on top quality printers, donated by HP, under the watchful eye of technician Conor Kilroe. This does lend the shows a certain uniformity of presentation style, yet also offers an immediacy well suited to Parr’s curatorial approach, which shies away from monumental retrospectives and heavy theory to instead offer new talent and fresh approaches that demonstrate the vitality and richness of photography today.
The Brighton Photo Biennial will run until November 14. There are a number of events, talks and workshops taking place at the Biennial this weekend, for more info, visit bpb.org.uk. In addition, the Brighton Fringe Festival will run concurrently with BPB, offering over 130 photography exhibitions across the city. More info is at photofringe.org.