Format 'Right Here, Right Now'
Despite temperatures dipping close to freezing plenty showed up outside The Quad (Derby's Barbican Centre in microcosm) to hear the opening pitches from organisers Louise Clements and Huw Davies. Then Brian Griffin, one of the patrons, chose the moment to remind everyone of the pitiful failure of photography in Britain and made an unexpected appeal for people to 'do things themselves, to organise, make things happen'. Format, formed in 2004, was deservedly acknowledged as doing its bit in that respect.
Over the next few days just how extraordinarily good they have become at doing their bit became more apparent. 'Right Here, Right Now' is their fifth event, and this year is a stunningly well organised month long showcase of street photography, the surprise resurgent genre of recent years. To a photo-literate public this is potent stuff for all manner of reasons, some whimsical, some complex. Of late even the UK arts mainstream's scepticism has softened, particularly as it became clear that people will pay to see photography shows
Soon glowing from the effects of the free wine in the Quad the hardcore amongst the crowd eventually melted away to The Revolution bar across town to catch photographer-DJ sets backed by slide shows from numerous collectives. By midnight it was heaving with hip students, lecturers, 30-something nerds (men) in black with Leicas and hats and chic administrators (women) who didn't have hats, or Leicas. Most memorable moment: Joel Meyerowitz getting on down to The Jackson Five's 'ABC'.
In the Revolution Bar.
Now that's surrealism in photography for you.
The consequence of locating the event in this city was that despite the 300 diverse exhibitors' work being scattered across a dozen venues everything is within a half mile inclusion zone. You repeatedly bump into the same core group of people until sooner or later you get around to saying hello. Everywhere you looked conversations were starting up, breaking off, continuing from gallery to gallery, in cafes, on street corners, in some cases conceivably going on between the same people for days. It was as if a street-photography sect had arrived en masse, slightly unsettling the locals who although up to speed on what was going on - Format promo banners were everywhere - remained bemused and yet respectful. No doubt this would almost certainly have been a far less involving experience if it had been staged in seen-it-all-before-a-hundred-times-already-London. The London Street Photography Festival in July may disprove that. (What is this with all the street photography lately?)
In a tête-à-tête American Orville Robertson was happy to give the low-down on his approach: limiting himself to around four shots per shoot and disregarding the risk of violence as he worked with a quietly positive, 'they might kill me but they know they're gonna lose an eye doing it' risk assessment. He comes from a non-arty background (like so many achievers in this field), prefers 400 ASA black and white film since trashing all his earlier colour slide work. For me personally, from admittedly overlooking his work on the slightly drunken preliminary lap of the ground floor at The Quad I found myself won over after a more sober careful assessment second time round, discovering thoughtful works embedded with powerful layers of meaning.
With most guest photographers showcasing their work in Cinema 1 for just three quid it was suddenly quite affordable to be a student again. American Richard Kalvar with an audience of a hundred or so outlined an accidental career full of bad decisions leading to fortuitous outcomes. As a young, aimless guy he stumbled across books by Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank - a time now remembered as the 'Big Bang' moment in his life. He was then gifted an old Pentax by his boss, as he was leaving for a trip slumming around Europe. It was just small enough to fit in the tiny space spare in his rucksack - and only after one final 'it's not coming if it doesn't fit this time' attempt to stuff it in. In such moments one's destiny is decided. He spent ten months travelling, compulsively shooting and perfectly happy not to see the results, regularly posting the undeveloped film home to save having to carry prints around. By the time he got back to America, and still not having seen the results, he already knew he had become a photographer.
From the start he adopted the discipline of valuing full-frame, observational images - with the imperative of getting in close. Admitting he was not good at talking about his photographs he ran several minutes of projections without a word before stopping to explain he had only recently edited and published this lifetime's work - only to find he was too late, it was out of date. What was impressive then was to see his most recent shoot, world-leaders meeting at Davos, where he made use of distortions in digital capture. As a regular invitee he was impelled in his brief NOT to take critical images but these images were clearly a bit more ambivalent than that - and interesting. When asked afterwards for advice by a guy about to embark on a photography course he reflexively replied 'Don't do it - just take pictures'.
Chris-Steele Perkins opened his talk with the opinion that 'street photographers are outsiders, connected but not quite fitting in'. He also pointed out that the best work had been done by those who never trained in a formal way. Having moved to Britain when he was a child he had come to use photography as 'a way to understand' this country, it was a medium for 'finding out about the world I live in'. Despite being a busy pro working at Magnum it was evident that taking photographs for himself had occupied a key role throughout his life. Drawn to areas of conflict early on he moved to Northern Ireland squatting in a derelict flat to enable him to stay for a long period and keep working. Decades later he is now re-photographing some of the people in his pictures from then, continuing the narrative. Covering conflict means often the work is problematic. He mentioned he has been asked to remove various images when presenting his work elsewhere but here decided to show a picture of a dead boy of six or seven in short trousers and t-shirt cut entirely in half at the waist by a car bomb, being carried away by two powerful silhouetted men. It was distressing but also a critical reminder how much self-censorship is at work in the mainstream media today, perhaps from fear of offending standards of decency and good taste, while also shielding us from the reality of wars in which we are routinely culpable - in an era where most photojournalists are shepherded by the military in order to gain some level of access. He regarded the book form as the most complete way to present work, to make 'a very complete statement which exists over time'. His aim is nothing less than to spend a life finding out about the world and leaving behind a legacy of what it looked like for him and trusting to the belief that 'you have to feel it inside, the emotional charge'.
The Rwandan refugee crisis finally revealed the personal damage inflicted on those who bear witness to horror. After returning home barely capable of getting out of bed he was diagnosed by the Institute of Tropical Medicine back in London - not as suffering from an exotic infection but from depression. When challenged about the ethics of photographing in places like Africa he quietly berated those 'third rate academics' who ignored the positive value of photojournalism.
Years later, after surviving being caught up in a gun battle outside Kabul, he knew he had 'tested' himself enough and the work at last became entirely centred on exploring what every day life looks like in extraordinary circumstances - the aspect that had appealed strongly before now took over entirely. A second marriage led him to Japan and an oblique series of images of Mount Fuji. The sacred mountain becomes a recurring motif behind scenes of the most secular mundanity, such as when masked by the structures of a refinery.
Sunday, not only saw some overdue sunshine and warmth at last but hundreds of new faces showed up for Joel Meyerowitz's presentation of his work - and for his 73rd birthday as it turned out : D
With a youthful purposefulness of a man a third his age, he described the thrill of waking up each day in a hurry to get his clothes on to get to work taking pictures. He remembered the beginning. Being sent to direct Robert Frank on a shoot (who he'd never heard of and which proved impossible) and being amazed . He quit his job as an art director the same day for what turned out to be a lifetime 'making' photographs. Even though he had no camera he had decided he was a photographer. He shot in colour straight away as it was straightforward to get processed and tried to 'get close without bruising the situation'. Soon friendly with a young Brit photographer, Tony Ray-Jones, they'd critique each other's work every evening, mercilessly but constructively. That openness to negative feedback was still part of his make up as Meyerowitz invited not only comments and questions from the audience but even criticism - still seeing it as the way to grow.
He spoke of tipping point pictures that unexpectedly changed his direction, and admitted sometimes a lesson had to be learned again and again over years - such as there being more to it than simply putting the subject in the middle of the frame. Again the discipline of the full-frame was expressed, this time explained as like 'a painter's respect for the canvas'. With a camera he sets about collecting fragments as they disappear, dissolve, 'in search of America, and myself' and the ambiguities in both.
With only two photo galleries in New York in the 1970s, Light and the Witkin, Meyerowitz spoke of the battle to get work shown and, alarmingly, it still appears to be an issue for him to this day. Personally, for me the mid 70s work peaked with the 'field photographs' such as the fantastic melee that is W46th Street.
A 7 inch vinyl single by Brit indie duo Everything But The Girl in 1993 , 'The Only Living Boy In New York', used this image on the cover (slightly cropped) and even though I'd seen it in books before at college (unimpressed) throughout that summer it actually bugged me quite a lot that they would think to use this picture - it was such a messy, nothingy shot, the sort of photo that just about anyone could have taken. It was so... 'nothingy'. I'd lie around on my bed on warm evenings and sooner or later get round to squinting at it one more time, till annoyed by it and flicking it across the room. But aware it had hooked me in some way. There was something going on in there and I knew I didn't 'get' it. Till after weeks of having it nag at me it clicked - there was something pretty surreal going on. The wild, descriptive intensity of fleeting information was impressive, almost overpowering even - but somehow various repetitive details, 'coincidences', coalesced. It must have been like Stephen Hawking figuring out wormholes in space - here was a hyper decisive-moment and it made perfect sense. Within the visual noise was a precious coherence, a precision of organisation - and, importantly, I knew Meyerowitz had noticed all of it, too, every detail - either at the moment of taking or else when editing. He'd recognised it, knew its value. It was a kind of funny electric shock moment. Followed by a realisation that this was probably the most incredible image ever made. By anyone. In any medium. Ever. (Well, maybe apart from Arbus's 1967 crisis moment, flash-in-the-face b&w photograph crying child, which is something quite different but extraordinary in its own way). I am still 'nourished' by it nearly 20 years later - his choice of word to describe the need to do street photography. Incidentally, I should add that the song is OK but not all that great (sorry Ben Watt & Tracey Thorn) - should you be thinking of tracking down this single as some Meyerowitz/EBTG completist.
And yet at this point he upgraded his firepower to using a ten by eight inch view camera with the capability to capture both fine detail and 'suck the light in through that big lens' when visibility to the human eye would be falling away such as at twilight.This was the equivalent of replacing a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder for driving around in a 40 ton tank.
9/11 happened just as he was preparing to show a series of Twin Tower skyline prints shot from his studio window. He visited the site but when when taking out his small camera a policewoman punched him on the shoulder and insisted 'No Photography Allowed!' He reacted to this ban by determining to get full access. The need to document it became all consuming and ultimately his perseverence paid off, leading to nine emotionally intense months photographing 12-15 hours a day while the site was sifted for human remains and cleared of debris. The photographs of severed tree trunks and ghostly palls of dust still have the purity of intent that avoids posturing. He crucially remains drawn to fact, information, attempting to remain an unimpeachable witness, an image-maker, not for sale, where the picture counts and the message is discerned in the traces, intact, credible. Yet the exposure to tragedy proved to be a personal epiphany and has, he admitted, led to a change in values - 'I never thought I'd think the way I do now. That it's time for me to give something back.'
Belonging to that re-awakening in 70s America photography it was inevitable he would be asked and speak about Winogrand, Arbus, Szarkowksi and others - and it was a real buzz feeling a visceral connection to those key figures now gone. As he closed by thanking people for coming a tremendous gutsy cheer, rock-gig whistles and extended applause rose up and rattled the room (much to Meyerowitz's embarrassment) - followed by Paul Lowe from LCC conducting everyone in singing 'Happy Birthday'. In the middle of all that celebratory noise I had the feeling we were paying tribute not only to Meyerowitz but honouring that whole white-hot New York generation who proved beyond doubt the validity of bearing personal witness to the 'right here, right now'.
Format International Photography Festival ends April 3rd 2011.