Exhibitions, Touring. 10.30–12.45
Ruby Rees-Sheridan (Curatorial and Archive Coordinator at Four Corners), On The Move: The Half Moon Photography Workshop’s Exhibitions Comments Book
The influential role of the Half Moon Photography Workshop (later known as Camerawork) in the development of socially engaged photographic practice has been increasingly explored in recent years. Publications, archives and academic research have helped to cement its work as a significant contributor to the British photographic landscape. But how was this work received?
The Half Moon Photography Workshop’s (HMPW) pioneering touring exhibitions were a central element in its aim to democratise the practice and exhibition of photography. Between 1976 and 1984, HMPW produced over 50 such exhibitions on laminated panels. An effective technique for disseminating photography beyond established cultural institutions, these affordable and transportable exhibitions showcased an emerging generation of politicised photographers. Displayed at venues nationwide, their adaptable format enabled thousands of people to view photography for the first time. From Daniel Meadows’ photographs of Lancashire cotton mill workers to Susan Meiselas’ images of the Nicaraguan revolution and the 1983 exhibition on the death of Colin Roach in police custody, these exhibitions provided alternative perspectives on political activism, feminism and working lives.
The history of these always-on-the-move exhibitions is difficult to document; only a few sets of original laminated panels remain. However, the HMPW exhibition Comments Book provides a unique record of visitor encounters with the exhibitions at its gallery in Bethnal Green. Its pages offered audiences a forum for debate, the range of contributions providing a valuable counterpart to the ideas expressed in HMPW’s Camerawork magazine.
This paper takes the HMPW’s exhibitions Comments Book as a starting point to examine audiences’ responses to these exhibitions in the social and cultural context of the era. It will argue that these innovative forms of exhibition, often shown in non-traditional spaces, helped transform the cultural status of photography as a whole.
This paper will provide a close reading of the Comments Book, alongside letters, booking forms and reviews. It will focus on Growing Old by Mike Abrahams (1977), White Hot Light: A Story of a Home Birth (1982) by Karen Michaelsen and the group exhibition Guatemala: A Testimonial (1980). Engaging with new forms of socially engaged photography, reportage and feminist politics, these exhibitions reflect the range of radical photographic projects promoted by HMPW.
Four Corners is investigating this history as part of its Hidden Histories archive project, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Paul Mellon Centre.
Catlin Langford (Curatorial Fellow in Photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum), Occupying Space: Signals, The Festival of Women Photographers, 1994
‘If the idea of a festival devoted to women photographers fills you with dread – all strident feminist ideology and questionable exclusivity – the nationwide event Signals, coming your way soon, promises to be a pleasant surprise’, so said a review of the 1994 Signals: Festival of Women Photographers. In September and October of that year, close to 300 exhibitions and events were held throughout the UK and Ireland. All were united in their focus on women photographers, aiming ‘to highlight the breadth and diversity of current practices’. The festival sought to challenge the male domination of photography and address the exclusion of women in both histories and display. Direct reference was made to the Royal Academy’s 1989 exhibition on the history of photography which included only four women out of the 92 photographers featured. The festival also expanded the canon of photography through the inclusion of photojournalism and vernacular photographs exhibited alongside those works accepted as ‘art’, as well as a consideration of digital photographic forms and interaction. Exhibitions and events were held in Sunderland, Salford, Herne Bay, Newport and Dumfries, among many others, and the festival was upfront in its inclusion of regions and avoidance of London-centrism. As Grace Robertson, the photographer and Chair of the festival stated, the festival was conceived ‘not as one controlled by a London-based group with a curatorial agenda’. In addition, the festival was dedicated to ‘European photography’, centring European practice as the theme of the festival and placing Britain within this scope. In many ways, the 1994 Signals festival was groundbreaking, a move towards a more inclusive and collaborative photographic landscape. Curator Val Williams noted the festival existed to ‘attract the attention of those curators, editors and funders who make the decisions about who, and what, gets seen by a wider public’. Close to thirty years have passed since the festival: did the festival have the impact that was intended? This paper will consider the festival within its context, noting the rising curatorial interest in photography in the 1990s. It will conclude with a discussion of the developments surrounding the collecting and exhibition of women photographers, with reference to recent exhibitions and ongoing initiatives across the UK.
Theo Gordon (Terra Foundation for American Art Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C),
Putting Salford in the Picture: Viewpoint Gallery of Photography and the 1980s
This paper examines the history, programming and politics of Viewpoint Gallery of Photography in Salford, which opened in the Old Fire Station on Salford Crescent in 1987 and closed c.1998. Inspired by the Salford ’80 photo-festival, the Labour-majority council conceived of Viewpoint as the flagship venue for photography in the north west of England, and only the second public gallery, after Bradford, devoted to the medium. The project was part of the council’s attempted regeneration of central Salford, and community engagement was central to its conception, with darkroom facilities and workshops made freely available to Salfordians.
Viewpoint opened at a tense moment in the politics of urban renewal and local authority funding; Salford was one target of Thatcher’s post-‘87 ‘inner cities’ agenda, whilst the poll tax was shortly to redesign how councils raised revenue for such projects. Its exhibition programme oscillated between showing local photographers and pictures of Manchester and Salford’s industrial past, and more experimental and avant-garde shows which, on occasion, led to cultural clashes in the city: most notoriously, the planned 1990 display of Ecstatic Antibodies: Resisting the AIDS Mythology was censored by the council because of fears of contravening Section 28. The gallery appears to have occupied a persistently ambivalent position in Salford’s cultural life until its closure in the late 1990s, at which point its entire archive was skipped, not deemed significant enough to be kept by the council.
In this paper I ask why a gallery of photography was deemed important to social and urban regeneration in 1980s’ Salford and explore how the city was ‘put in the picture’ through Viewpoint’s opening, by examining the gallery’s support of several significant projects and bodies of work. My case studies include Fabled Territories: New Asian Photography in Britain (1989, in collaboration with Leeds City Art Gallery); Faces of Change (1991), photographs of Salford’s ‘new era’ at the turn of the 1990s; and Under the Hood (1994), Chris Harrison’s portraits of local young men. I consider why the gallery closed and faded into obscurity in the late 1990s, and what this reveals about the changing status of photography in the social across the period.
Laura Castagnini (Curator and Writer), Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs Curated by Tessa Boffin and Jean Fraser in 1991
2021 marks the 30-year anniversary of the exhibition Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs curated by Tessa Boffin and Jean Fraser in 1991. In this paper, I will utilise new archival research to delve into the project’s rich but under-researched history. I will ask: What was the impact of this exhibition and what is the continued relevance today for queer self-expression? Why was photography chosen as the ideal ‘dyke media’? What are the political implications surrounding the identity category of ‘lesbian’ and how has this changed over time?
Stolen Glances was the first exhibition and book to explore representation of lesbianism in art and history in Britain. It articulated new definitions of lesbian photography by bringing together ten photographers from Britain and North America – including Ingrid Pollard, Tessa Boffin, Mumtaz Karimjee, Della Grace (now Del LaGrace Volcano) and Deborah Bright – whose work addressed lesbian issues and explored the history and materiality of photography. Notably, the show was intended specifically for LGBT+ audiences, and it explored the intersections of sexuality with race, class, disability and politics.
Funded by Arts Council of Great Britain, the exhibition opened on 10 August 1991 at Stills Gallery in Edinburgh and toured the UK and North America during 1991–3. It was a bold and controversial exhibition that directly responded to the UK’s increasing culture of censorship and attack on LGBT+ communities. As written by the curators: ‘Section 28 legislates against “the promotion of homosexuality”; we felt that promotion was precisely what was needed’. (Boffin and Fraser, 1991, p. 17). Indeed, the show came under threat of closure at Darlington Arts Centre while media reports sensationalised the educational offer at Stills Gallery (e.g. the headline ‘Kids asked to Gay Photo Show’). The impact of Section 28 is of particular interest today when programming in our institutions is once again the subject of media speculation and government intervention during the present so-called ‘culture war’.
Charlene Heath (SSHRC Doctoral Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Joint Program in Communication and Culture at Ryerson /York University in Toronto), Archival Work: The Survival of Jo Spence’s Polemic
What is the nature of responsibility for a photo archivist whose duties include, in part, institutionalising an anti-institutional archive? The practice of British photographer and co-founder of Photography Workshop, Jo Spence, was explicitly polemic and collaborative in ways that elide the individualised structures that shape cultural institutions, the art market and modern museums systems, all of which elevate single authors as artists, in an implicit effort to increase the value of ‘original’ works. In a provocation published in November 2016 in the online journal British Art Studies, British photo historian, John Tagg, proposes that a certain historiographical formula called ‘postmodernist’ had been deployed to package and label the unruly photographic work of the 1970s. According to Tagg ‘The formula enabled a diverse and internally contentious body of work to be both appropriated and decried, while severing it from its political challenge and distancing it as the expression of a now completed and surpassed dialectical cycle’. Politics, he continues, ‘was displaced by memory; over-determination by anecdotes of chance; the activist photographer theorist by the market adept; and the archive as instrument by the curatorial platitude of the so-called archival mode’. After Spence’s death in 1992, Photography Workshop’s archive became the Jo Spence Memorial Archive under the Workshop’s co-founder Terry Dennett’s stewardship. For the next 16 years until his death in 2018, Dennett continued his efforts to fulfil Spence’s final wishes of making the archive available as a nexus for the study and use of photography and photographic documents for social and political change. However, since 2006 parts of it have been scattered amongst the collections of numerous public institutions and private collections in England, Scotland, Spain, the United States and Canada with the largest portion residing at the Ryerson Image Centre, Ryerson University, Toronto. The Jo Spence Estate is now represented by a private London-based gallerist. This paper is a resuscitative gesture: as Spence’s collaborative work is increasingly absorbed by the mechanisms of the global, modern art machine, strategies of engagement from the fields of archival practice and material culture studies function to upend the ‘postmodernist’ packaging of her practice. This paper elucidates on how work done in archives, as opposed to work done in the archival mode, or on ‘the archive’, function to preserve, reinscribe and give access to the future-oriented polemic of Spence’s work.
Fiona Anderson (Senior Lecturer in Art History at Newcastle University), Sunil Gupta and Archival Ambivalence in Queer British Photography
From Here to Eternity, Sunil Gupta’s retrospective exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery (2020–21), took its name from a series of diptychs the artist produced in 1999. The series documents a particularly difficult period in Gupta’s experience of living with HIV, pairing images of him at doctor’s appointments or undergoing medical treatment at home with photographs of the closed exteriors of gay bars and sex clubs in South London.
The series explores themes of exclusion, alienation and belonging, in the context of Gupta’s changing relationship with HIV and his own body, as well as queer diasporic Indian identity formation in Britain. Although Gupta was involved with the AIDS and Photography group in the 1980s and developed the exhibition and book project Ecstatic Antibodies: Resisting the AIDS Mythology with the photographer Tessa Boffin in 1990, he has always felt ‘wary of being an AIDS photographer’, a concern that plays out across this series. While it could certainly be read as an affirmative statement of queer resilience, From Here to Eternity also captures the ambivalent experience of living with HIV long term by the late 1990s, with the weight of grief and the emotional labour of chronic illness, as well as Gupta’s feelings of ambivalence in relation to the role of ‘AIDS photographer’. Viewed in the present, given changes in HIV treatment and the closure of almost all of the venues it depicted, as well as an explosion of interest in queer visibility in mainstream cultural institutions and popular cultural discourse, the series has taken on an archival quality.
Focusing on From Here to Eternity and considering the significance of the reuse of this title for Gupta’s retrospective and the accompanying publication, an intimate and informal collection of snapshots, flyers and letters, in this paper I explore the function of ambivalence in Gupta’s approach to working with archival material and with cultural institutions. As the exhibition and the publication make clear, Gupta’s own archive is both ephemeral and enduring, exhaustive and partial, and, held in his home in South London, has an ambivalent relationship to formal institutionalisation. Engaging critically with discourses of visibility espoused by many museums and galleries and theories of opacity and surveillance from contemporary queer studies, I consider Gupta’s archival ambivalence as a queer strategy for resisting progressivist preservation narratives and rejecting the terms on which LGBTQ+ photographers in Britain are offered visibility by its major cultural institutions.