Speaking to the Future

Speaking to the Future was an afternoon of presentations and discussion organised by Amber (the collective that operate the Side gallery and cinema in Newcastle) about working with photography archives and exploring the relationships between documentary and the documented. The speakers were: Graeme Rigby, Amber member who has overseen the development of the new Amber website which aims to open up access and interaction with the AmberSide collection; Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen and Peter Roberts, members of Amber who are currently working on developing film re-engagements with subjects photographed in the 1970/80s; Peter Fryer who has documented the culturally diverse Laygate area of South Shields for over 15 years creating a richly interconnected archive of the community; Mark Sealy, Director of Autograph ABP which has been building the UK’s first permanent collection of culturally diverse photography and curator of the latest Side exhibition – Gordon Parks: A Choice of Weapons.

The event also presented an opportunity to meet fellow students Lynda Wearn and Keith Johnson. Lynda and Keith (along with some other North-East students) have already met up on a number of occasions, unfortunately I have been unable to attend the previous meetings It was extremely beneficial to talk to fellow students about their experience of studying with OCA and I hope that the I am able to meet up again in the future, perhaps even developing the group into a study or critique form.

I left the presentations feeling inspired – much of what the speakers talked about resonated strongly with me as they dealt with concerns and question I have been considering about documentary as a genre and also my own practice. Mark Sealy was particularly articulate, passionate and inspirational. At the end of the afternoon I just managed to have a quick look round the Gordon Parks exhibition on the Side gallery curated by Sealy, something I will have to revisit and spend more time considering before writing my thoughts-it is a deeply affecting collection of images however, Gordon Parks is a photographer I am aware of but not fully familiar and the sense of purpose that underpins his approach is something that sets the work apart. Below are some thought about each of the presentations:

Graeme Rigby: 

Graeme described the recent work that he has been part of developing the Amber website. As someone who has visited Amber online for some time, the new website is a revelation in comparison to the old. Graeme mentioned James Ravilious in his introduction, a photographer who is predominately known for his documentation of rural Devon. The success and importance of Ravilious is that he worked methodically in a relatively small geographical area, eventually building a body of work that became a narrative about a particular way of life. Similarly, the work that Amber has made in the last 50 years, based around themes of working class culture, industry and the coast increases in importance due to following similar subjects/photographing the same areas over an extended period of time. It is this overlap that the website is attempting to allow access to with each page featuring a section at the bottom linking to other work that is connected somehow. The hope is that visitors will be taken down paths they may not have considered and have a more enriched experience. The particularly exciting part of the process is that the project has much development ahead as the vast collection is currently being digitised, as it stands, Rigby stated that literally days could be lost viewing the material. It is fascinating to hear about the ambitious aims for the exhibition but also importantly, to understand that the approach is born from a desire to ensure that the collection continues to grow and remains alive.

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen and Peter Roberts: 

This presentation gave some insight into the production of ‘photo films’ – films made using photographs from the collection, often accompanied by voiceover interviews that act as testimony to what can be seen. This is not a new approach for Amber with Roberts referencing the short 1974 film ‘Launch’ which documented the launch of the oil tanker World Unicorn which was built in the Swan Hunter shipyards at Wallsend. For the recent Side exhibition ‘Bruce Rae: Shipbuilding on the Tyne’, photographs from the archive were presented in a new film, ‘The Art of Shipbuilding’ which was also shown in the exhibition space. The testimony of men who worked in the shipyards anchors the photographs and helps understand what life was like building these enormous vessels – something that is even more poignant given that the shipyards have long since closed. In his presentation, Mark Sealy praised the work, saying if the films had been made by Chris Marker they would be held as classics.

Konttinen is currently working on ‘Spacehopper’, a film about the girl who featured in her 1971 photograph that featured in her Byker project. (Girl on a ‘spacehopper’ at the bottom of Janet Street backlane, 1971) The girl in the image was unknown to Konttinen and has only recently been identified – her family moved from Newcastle to Manchester a few months after the image was taken. A short section of the film was shown with images from the Byker series, many of which are not featured in the book and exhibition, accompanied by the spoken memories of the spacehopper girl. One particular comment struck a chord with me – she said she had no idea where she was going that day, but wearing that dress she knew she was going to have a good time! She talked about the freedom she enjoyed growing up and how this has been lost for children today, certainly, I can identify with this as I would never allow my children to roam the streets the way I did growing up.) The ethos of the production of these films is one of collaboration and involvement with trust being central. The endorsement of people featured is paramount and Konttinen explained that in order to be shown any finished work must be signed off by those featured. Konttinen is a photographer and admire and respect and her presentation went beyond explanation of working practices, being more of a manifesto. She touched upon questions about the importance and validity of documentary photography as a practice using the term ‘prisms of experience’ as an explanation of how this builds to a narrative and understanding. Her aim is to tell stories and her approach is to do this without an agenda but with an open mind and heart – something that is essential in gaining access and trust.

Peter Fryer: 

Peter Fryer has been documenting the culturally diverse Laygate/Frederick Street area of South Shields for 15 years, something he describes not as a project but as a way of life. The work is disseminated in many different forms: as a website – Laygate stories (in collaboration with David Campany) that is a multimedia experience featuring photographs and audio (influenced by the 1 in 8 million project); as public artworks – his photographs have been presented on billboards at Metro stations and one of the participants, Val who operates a tattoo shop, has one of Fryer’s photographs in her shopfront; and, in book form – for example a cookbook. Laygate stories grew out of an earlier project, Arab boarding house, in which Fryer documented the Yemeni community of South Shields. He gained access and acceptance to the group having learned Arabic during time spent in the middle east. Fryer talked of having no agenda in the pursuit of his pictures and the importance of gaining the trust of people photographed. He also referred to being motivated by an interest in the ordinary, a thought I find very appealing as it seems to me that strong work often emerges from exploration of what is on the doorstep and by revisiting the same subjects time and again – in her presentation, Sirkka Liisa-Konttinen mentioned presenting her ‘Byker’ series in China and a member of the audience lamenting that she had such a rich subject to document on her doorstep – something that he clearly felt was lacking in his own area.

Mark Sealy: 

Mark Sealy is director of Autograph ABP, an organisation dedicated to building the UK’s first permanent collection of culturally diverse photography as well as being an academic, educator and curator. I found Sealy mesmerising to listen to, he spoke passionately and from personal experience about the importance of documentary photography which he described as a living archive, not about making ghosts but important because we are nothing without the past. Sealy spoke about growing up in Wallsend and of feeling goose bumps of pride listening to the preceding presentations borne out of identification with the class and heritage of the people shown. Sealy believes the purpose of documentary is to give those represented agency and work against dominant narratives, and he cited an instance where the Daily Mail appropriated Konttinen’s Byker work to satisfy their grim up north ideology – something that Amber vigorously, and successfully, opposed. He made points about the cultural value of documentary that resonated with me, specifically referencing what can be perceived as tensions between heritage and nostalgia – the only problem he sees with these is if they slip into sentimentality. The phrase the past was once the present was used, which on one hand is completely obvious and on the other an important point to be made. Referencing Victor Burgin and specifically ‘Thinking Photography’ he acknowledged the need to critique documentary as a mode but also argued that this was not where the story ends – the importance of documentary is to provide identification on a human level and help rethink lives.

Finishing my notes from these presentations I am sure there is much I have missed. In summary, however, I found the afternoon an invigorating experience with much that the presenters touched upon resonating with me personally. My thoughts about where my work should progress has been edging towards a more conceptual approach and this has challenged me to rethink that – after all, there is so much value in real stories, maybe I need to focus on engaging with this rather than feeling the need to show my academic reading through my work. The work Amber and Side have produced over the past nearly 50 years has fallen in and out of fashion, the success of the collective and the archive they have amassed is their belief and dedication which has meant they have continued to pursue the need to tell stories against odds that have been stacked against them. It is important work, I am not sure a lot of what I see presented elsewhere can be designated the same.

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