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Source Photographic Review - Back Issue Archive - Issue 51 Summer 2007 - Review Page - The Wider Comment - Ian Berry: In the North - The Lowry, Salford 2007 - Review by Siobhan Davis.

The Wider Comment
Ian Berry: In the North - The Lowry, Salford 2007
Review by Siobhan Davis

Source - Issue 51 - Summer - 2007 - Click for Contents

Issue 51 Summer 2007
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Some people stop and studiously read, while others scan and walk on quickly. Another group may return at the end of their visit and compare their personal experience and interpretation with that of the curatorial voice. However highly you rate the importance of the introductory text panel as part of the exhibition experience, it is fair to have certain expectations about the content and accuracy of the information made available to the visitor.

'This exhibition, selected exclusively for The Lowry, explores the work made in the North of England by the Magnum photojournalist Ian Berry.' So begin both the printed introduction to Ian Berry: In the North, and the large introductory panel to the exhibition. Rather ironically, one of the opening photographs - a misty view of a stone building with a man caught in the left of the frame self consciously meeting the viewer's gaze - is captioned 'Vanishing Wales. Festiniog, Blaenau, 1966.' While a definition of Northern England has a degree of plasticity, surely it does not include North Wales.England. Darlington. Politicians canvas an old lady on her doorstep whilst her dog keeps a beady eye on the photographer. 1983.
 - Courtesy Ian Berry / Magnum PhotosEngland. Darlington. Politicians canvas an old lady on her doorstep whilst her dog keeps a beady eye on the photographer. 1983. - Courtesy Ian Berry / Magnum Photos

Reading on, the visitor is provided with some biographical details about the photographer: his move from the North West to South Africa at a young age and his documentation of the Sharpville Massacre; his return to Europe and an invitation from Henri Cartier-Bresson to join Magnum; a contract position with the Observer Magazine; and The English, a project undertaken with an Arts Council Photography Bursary. 'For two and a half years he photographed old and young of all classes; at home, at work, in the street, at leisure, together and alone.'

Ian Berry was one of a number of British photographers, who from the late 60s through the 80s used photography to explore the changing faces of rural and industrial Britain. As expected with a collection of photographs examining the 'North', the exhibition is full of familiar visual motifs: pigeons, football, flat caps, mines, mills, factory chimneys, rows of back-to-back terraces with limp washing hanging across small bricked-in backyards, grubby children playing in the streets, and windy seaside resorts. The superficiality of such clichés is emphasised by the jumbled way in which the exhibition has been hung. The show consists of some 100 photographs with only the initial text panel as explanation - which, from its opening statement, proves somewhat inept. There are no discernable sections except for those created by the physical space of the gallery. The photographs are mixed in terms of subject, location and date, and, while each image does have a label, these vary in detail - some lacking dates, others without locations. Perhaps I am missing the structural point, but the exhibition's arrangement and interpretation simply appears careless, it does little to enlighten the viewer about the context of the work, the photographer's practice, or to highlight Berry's visual organisation and instinct.

A certain insight into the photographer's rationale can be found in the introduction to a second exhibition - Ian Berry: The Water Project - displayed in another part of the gallery. Berry states: 'Making a picture should be like firing a rifle, simply hitting the subject at the decisive moment. This is what photography is about. Photography to me is photojournalism.' The idea of the 'decisive moment' as referred to by Berry can be read as that of Cartier-Bresson; the capturing of a single picture whose content and composition unite so completely as to project the full significance of an event. Berry's photograph of people overlooking Whitby Harbour (1974) is reminiscent of Cartier-Bresson's 'On the Banks of the Marne, France' (1938) and marks this shared ethos.

Walking around In the North, there are a number of powerful single photographs which arrest the attention and demand closer inspection. An elderly woman stands on her doorstep engaged in conversation with two men canvassing for an unidentified political party. The woman's felt hat and floral housecoat or dressing gown, along with the sparse hallway lit by a bare light bulb behind her, contrast with the conservative pinstripe suite, white shirt and tie of the young delegate sharing the right of the frame. His expression, while smiling, portrays a faintly uncomfortable air - one wonders what the woman is saying. Barely noticeable, protruding from the bottom right of the frame is what appears to be the furry head of a boom mike. Is there a film crew present to record this impromptu doorstep interview? Perhaps the woman's comments are not quite the desired sound bite needed, explaining the slightly pained expression on the canvasser's face. What appears on the surface as a happy exchange between a member of the public and a political party representative, on closer inspection presents a far wider comment on the political environment of the early 80s.

The caption accompanying the photograph gives the location and date along with a small description: 'Politicians canvas an old lady on her doorstep while her dog keeps a beady eye on the photographer.' Such fatuous commentary lends nothing to the interpretation or understanding of the image, and serves instead, with many of the other captions, to foreground superficial and stereotypical concepts of the North.

Surely, to do justice to Berry's belief that photography 'is photojournalism', the importance of context and purpose is fundamental. The introductory text only refers to the two and a half years during the 70s spent on The English, while the temporal range of the exhibition far exceeds this period, marking over thirty years of social and economic change. Choosing what may be termed an aesthetic hang, over a chronological or thematic interpretation, disguises such important narratives and makes one wonder: what is the point of this type of exhibition?

Other articles by Siobhan Davis:

Other articles on photography from the 'Photojournalism' category ▸